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A settled nomad living on the edge of Appalachia. I love to listen to music, spend time with my family, and play sports. I'm lucky enough to write code for a living. I'm often accused of having no "filter" as I tend to overshare. I make beer on occasion and try to sample new beers whenever I can.

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This Weekend We Were Not "Les Miserables"

17 min read

Memories

Sometime in 1989 or 1990 I asked a girl out on a date to see Les Miserables at the Proctors Theatre in Schenectady NY.  I worked part-time making ice cream sundaes at the local Friendly’s and the two tickets cost me a full month's wages.  However, I had heard great things about the show and I really wanted to go so I figured it was worth it.

On the day of the performance I got dressed up and awaited my date (who was also my ride).  However, instead of seeing her pull up at the front door I listened to her on the phone backing out.  I had about 20 minutes until the show was about to start, I was a couple miles from the theater, and I had no ride.  I dashed out of the house and began running - there was no way I was letting that investment go to waste.  It’s a good thing I ran distance for my high school track team.  I made it with some time to spare.

While I cooled off outside the theater and elderly man asked me if I had  spare ticket I could sell him.  He and his wife were in town visiting someone and they had just bought a ticket from some other guy who appeared dateless.  I was twice the face value of the ticket so I sold it.  At that point I figured my day wouldn’t be able to get any better - I was about to see the show for free!

I was wrong - the show blew me away.  The stage and set were incredible, the story was engrossing, and the singers were amazing.  It affected me.  My tastes in music were altered, my perception in how a person could sing were destroyed.  I had no idea an orchestra could sound so good.  I had no idea people could hold a note so long.  I had no idea.  I was seventeen and clueless.  I don’t remember the entire show but I know it moved me.  I may have cried.

I walked home afterwards in a daze.  I spoke about the show for days afterwards.  I imagine my mom got tired of me talking about it.  I still talk about it whenever someone gives me the chance.  It has, since that moment, been my favorite show of any kind.

Memories are dangerous though.  Nothing lives up to your memories.  In fact, in contrast most things suck when re-experienced after having been built up in your memories over the years.  My memories, certainly, have made Les Mis better than it could possibly be.  I have seen many musical since then and while they were all, for the most part good, they sucked in comparison to my memory of Les Mis.  “Rent”?  meh.  “Avenue Q”?  boring.  Sure, when viewed independently each of the other shows I’ve seen have been enjoyable - I just don’t compare them.

I have not seen Les Mis again since that day all those years ago.  My memory has just continued to pile on the greatness.  Thus, it was with great trepidation that I opened my Christmas present this past December and saw that Lisa was giving me two tickets to Les Miserables on tour in Greenville SC.

I was excited but I knew nothing could live up to my memory so I tried to tell myself to be happy if it was a third of the experience. I tried to cut back on listening to the soundtrack.  I tried not to think about the show at all.  I had enough distractions with taking a new job that, for the most part, it worked.  Well, except the cutting a back on the soundtrack; that just wasn’t going to happen.

As the date approached I did slow down my soundtrack replays.  I also managed to avoid thinking about the show entirely.  Instead I just focused on the trip that surrounded it.  We took a long four and a half day weekend that involved visiting some friends in Johnson City, TN; two days in Asheville, NC; and a little over a day in Greenville, SC.

Asheville

Asheville is an interesting two full of quirky shops, interesting people, and a personality split between incredible opulence and a artistic freedom.  In general, both Lisa and I really enjoyed our entire visit to Asheville and I would recommend it as a weekend getaway for almost anyone.  We enjoyed the shops, the brewpubs, the street art, musicians, and the Biltmore.

The Biltmore Estate is the largest privately owned residence in the US.  It’s about 125,000 sq feet and was built for a four person family of George Vanderbilt (grandson of the shipping/railroad tycoon of the same last name).  The house is situated on 8,000 acres.  The land is all beautiful.  In fact, the three mile long “driveway” carved through my favorite portion of the estate; a lush and peaceful forest.  Everything about the residence and the grounds speaks incredible wealth.

It’s really hard to imagine a family of four (plus the untold number of servants) living in the house.  The dining room contains two tables - one for 37 people (used whenever more than four people were going to dine) and a table for four.  That room alone was apx 3,500 sq feet.   That’s two normal sized houses laid out in one room.  It is truly something you have to see to appreciate.

However, at least for me, it is hard to separate the majesty of the house with the fact that it is obscene that four people lived that well while, just off the property, the surrounding countryside was populated with poor farmers and sharecroppers.  The house was completed about 30 years after slavery ended and was built, in large part, by black laborers - many of whom were probably born as slaves.  When viewed in that light it just made the house seem wrong.  The Vanderbilts were truly the 1%.

Just about two miles away from the Biltmore lies downtown Asheville and the difference between the two is stark.  That isn’t to say that downtown is dilapidated - it isn’t (far from it in fact) - just that while the Biltmore is overstated elegance downtown Asheville is a comfortable conclave of artists, musicians, students, shops, and brewpubs.

Lisa and I stayed at one of the few hotels in the downtown area so we could just walk around, drink, and safely get back to our room.  The city was full of neat little surprises.  There was a little inverted corner hidden behind a gate that descended into a cozy courtyard, there were some cool cat sculptures including one hanging out on a lamp, and there was a spectacularly restored old arcade (not the video game kind).  We wound our way through all of the downtown streets and on each one we found new cool shops that we couldn’t help but go into.  It was all very cool.

It is my understanding that Asheville has risen like a phoenix in the past twenty years.  They’ve done an amazing job of making it into a city that you would want to live in.  The entire downtown area sees fully of unity and camaraderie.  There is a real sense of community.  Nothing makes this more evident than the Friday night “Drum Circle” that takes place each week in Pritchard Park.  A wide cross section of the city show up.  I’d guess about fifty different people were playing a variety of percussion instruments while at least twice that many stood off to the side and watched while still another fifty danced and hula-hooped.  

From the tone and sound of it I expected it to be a purely “hippy” kind of experience and, for the most part, it was.  However, the crowd was anything but a simple gathering of stoners.  There were people playing drums while still wearing their neckties, there was an older black lady rocking the tambourine, and there were little kids shaking their maracas.  Amongst the drummers the mix was pretty even between men and women but the ages spread from around eleven (a girl) to a woman who was at least seventy.  It was very cool and it filled the night air with a great rhythm as Lisa and I dined just across the street a local (but spreading) joint called the Tupelo Honey Cafe.

Greenville

I had heard some good things about the revitalization of Greenville before this week so I was a little dismayed by the rundown condition of the north-western outskirts we passed through on our way in.  However, once were reached our hotel, on Main Street, I was impressed with what they have done to bring back the “downtown” feel of Greenville.

It is easy for me to compare and contrast Greenville from Asheville but it isn’t fair for either of them.  Greenville made me think of a casual stroll through the park in a seer sucker suit.  It was casually formal.  We didn’t have as much time in Greenville so I can only really speak about the Main Street (yes, it’s actually called Main Street).

Main Street is beautiful.  It is a wide but peaceful boulevard surrounded by expansive sidewalks and draped by tall shady trees.  If, for some odd reason, you were driving down Main you’d feel compelled to park and start walking.  It’s incredibly inviting.  The streets are lined with small, slightly high end, shops, restaurants and cafes.  Most of the restaurants had abundant sidewalk seating.  Plus, and this was cool in Asheville too, their street facing walls were entirely open to the fresh air and the public walking by.   Some of the restaurants accomplished the open wall via french doors and others via a “garage door” type system.  Either way they did it the effect was a welcoming one that was also very comfortable while we were dining.

Greenville made me want to be, at least temporarily, “southern.”  Well, not entirely, but I did want to try and make my visit as authentic as I could so I tried to eat food I just can get anywhere in the north so, for lunch, I had shrimp and grits.  I was pretty sure when I ordered it that I wouldn’t like it and that I was just paying for an experience.  I was wrong.  It was pretty tasty.  The grits were blended with some kind of creamy sauce that had a hint of the shrimp flavor and they went wonderfully with the seafood.  

I’ve had grits a lot in the past and I like them - sort of.  I started eating them when I was in the Army but I didn’t like them with butter.  Instead I prepared them with sugar and milk - sort of like oatmeal - and I really liked it.  It was the only way I’d had grits that I liked.  Granted, these were probably all instant grits, but it was what I knew about grits.  Thus I really didn’t think I’d like savory grits.  I’m glad I ventured out of my comfort zone because I would definitely eat shrimp and grits again.

While I’m not sure it counts as southern, the next morning for breakfast I also went way outside my comfort zone and had corned beef hash with poached eggs.  The hash had a creamy horseradish sauce on it and it was also pretty good.  I’m not sure I’d order it again elsewhere but it was a good and filling breakfast and I’m glad I had it.

One of the highlights of Main Street is Falls Park which is a fantastic multi-layered park right on the western portion of Main.  There is a cool suspension bridge that gives you a great view of the waterfall.  We were lucky to be there on the same night as one of the Greenville high school’s had their prom.  Lisa loves admiring the girls dresses on prom night in Huntington so she was thrilled to get to “prom stalk” the girls of Greenville.  I’d say, for the most part, she loved their dresses.  Plus, it was cool to see so many young people hanging out downtown even if it was just for a special occasion.

The Experience

Starting five years ago Lisa and I decided to stop giving each other traditional “object” gifts from Christmas. Instead, we alternate giving the other an Experience.  So far we’ve been to an NHL all-star game, the Grand Canyon, Niagra Falls/Toronto, and Chicago for Cubs game.  This year we went to Asheville and Greenville but the experience was Les Miserables.  I enjoyed seeing our friends and I loved exploring the new towns but, for me, they were all secondary to Les Mis.

We had our tickets for Saturday night, at 8pm so we headed back to the hotel and got into some nice clothes and then headed to the Peace Center about a block away.  We arrived at 7pm.  We were not going to be late.  It’s a good thing too because the Peace Center doesn’t mess around.  Once it is time for the show to start - it starts.  There is no warning dimming of the lights; it’s just lights out, a quick reminder to turn off your cell phone, and then the music starts.

The Peace Center has an unusual layout - but the acoustics were great (to my untrained ears).  However, before the show Lisa and I had to stand and wait for our aisle to fill.  We were in row V, seats 1 and 2.  That put us three rows from the back of the first floor  - right on the edge of the row. There is no center aisle so everyone has to go in via the end.  That was cool though because we got to meet the nice couple sitting behind us.

While we talked someone mentioned that the set had changed and that the turntable was no longer part of the show.  The turntable was one of the key features of my initial experience that really struck me.  I am pretty sure I made an audible sound of appreciation way back in 1989.  The turntable added a lot of cool depth to the stage and animated the scenery.  It was very cool.  Lisa told me that she knew some people who had seen the old version and this new set version and that this new set was even better.  I was skeptical.  I mean, no turntable and better?  Please!

When the first notes hit I had serious chills.  I’m talking full body goosebumps.  I stopped thinking about how the show was 23 years ago and just instantly lost myself in the music and story of this production.  To be honest, initially I was lost.  I recognized the song but my mind was still a little caught on the turntable so I forgot what the initial scene was supposed to be.  I had to clear my mind and just listen.

Fortunately, the singers were great so it was easy to “just listen”.  At times it felt like they were singing a little faster than I remember the songs going but their voices were still incredible.  It was also interesting that some of the voices sound so similar to the voices I was familiar with from listening to the soundtrack.  

True to what I was told the set was vastly different.  It was far more complex this time around.  There seemed to be a lot more pieces to it and the set was constantly moving and changing as the singers performed.  In fact, the set was so alive it was practically another character in the show.  One of the more notable shifts of the set were after Jean Valjean stole some silver from the bishop.  When he was captured and brought before the judge the set was shifting as he ran so that as the police turned him around he was suddenly facing a very highly seated judge who seemed to magically appear there out of thin air.  The stage hands and manager deserve some serious accolades for their work at keeping the set changing so smoothly.

Just before the end of the first half of the show the screen on the back of the stage begins to show its’ potential but, it is later, when after Valjean flees into the sewer carrying Marius that the backdrop came into its’ own.  In the scene Valjean exists stage right dragging Marius and then the lights shift and the backdrop is altered to look like a stone tunnel.  Somehow, as if by magic, Thénardier seems to walk out of the screen and the tunnel image shifts to make it appear as if the tunnel is even longer.  After Thénardier loots a corpse the scene changes a little more so that suddenly the stage appears to be a full crisscross of catacombs while Valjean enters from stage left still dragging Marius.  It was very cool - and thanks to the lighting - and the shifting tunnel scene on the backdrop - I said, out loud (and not in a whisper), “That is cool”  I felt a little guilty for bursting out like that but it was really cool.

I did miss the turntable and I don’t think this set was better than the old one.  But, it wasn’t any worse either.  It was cool and great in its own way.  They were able to do some amazing things with the set.  I’m still not sure how they managed to change it around so frequently and so quickly.  It was extraordinary.

There were a few other changes compared to my memory, most notably how the climax at the barricade was handled.  However, it was still gut crushing.  In my memory Gavroche’s final scene takes places on the top of the barricade and was shocking in its delivery.  However, in this rendition you can’t see Gavroche but Grantaire’s scream of anguish is painful and may have caused a tear or two to be shed.

The entirety of the performance was really good.  The only real knock I have is that the singers weren’t always as clear as I would have liked so that I couldn’t understand them.  However, considering my expectations going in where that it would, maybe, be about a third as good as the show of my memory, it was exceptional.  This was one of those rare memories that, when revisited, wasn’t a let down.  I can’t remember any other time in my life where that happened.

The only downside is now the pressure is really on me to come up with an experience for Lisa this Christmas.

Surprise - We're Going to Disney World

11 min read

Last week was Spring Break for the girls and Lisa and I had a wickedly fun plan to surprise them with a trip to Disney World. On Monday morning Lisa took the girls to Patti's house as she normally would if we were going to work and then she came back home where she and I worked on finishing the packing before we headed back over to get the girls.

When we got there Shannon was pretty confused. She wanted to know why we were there and we told her that since it was the first day of Spring Break that we had taken the afternoon off to have some fun with her and Emily. Emily suggested we go to Ritter park - so I asked if maybe she'd like to go to a larger park. Shannon said sure. I asked them if maybe they'd like to go to Disney World and Emily said "YES!" and Shannon said "Sure." I told Emily "OK, Let's go" and Emily started to hop around in excitement. Shannon very skeptically said again, "Sure, let's go to Disney World." I agreed with the idea again and old her I was serious, that we could go to Disney World that day. Shannon didn't believe me at all but Emily did and she was stoked. I ended up pulling our suitcases out and showing Shannon all of the stuff we packed before she seemed convinced.

From Patti's we went to Arby's for a light lunch and then the local, small, airport for a direct flight to Orlando Stanford Airport. It is a smaller airport about 45 minutes from Disney - but we had a car waiting on us and we went straight to our hotel, The Port Orleans. In the past we've always stayed at the All Star hotels - but we decided to upgrade our accommodations this time so that our bus rides to each park would be a bit shorter. Overall we were glad we did. The hotel was nice, the food was better than that at the All Star, and the bus ride was a lot shorter. Plus, the swimming pool looked really cool and had a neat water slide.

After we settled in we decided to head to the Magic Kingdom part of the park (the traditional Disney World) in order to get in some rides and enjoy one of the many parades. We stayed at the park until around midnight before we headed back to the hotel for some sleep. Everyone had a nice time and, I think, by this time Shannon was fully convinced. Our first full day, Tuesday, also took place at the Magic Kingdom.

We started Tuesday off by waiting to meet with Rapunzel - Emily's current favorite princess. The wait was pretty lengthy so while Lisa and Emily waited Shannon and I went to Tomorrowland and took in the Stich Experience which we knew Emily wouldn't like. Once that was done we headed back to Emily and Lisa for the Rapunzel experience. Rapunzel's bit lasted for about an hour because the girls were given a craft to do, then they danced with Rapunzel and her beau Flint Ryder. Finally they each got to have their picture taken with the pair. Rapunzel did a great job of playing the part but I have to say Flint did an even better job - he had the Flint Ryder smirk down pat. Their helpers also did a great job of keeping all of the kids engaged while they waited on their turn to have their photo taken. It was the most interactive experience they've had with a Disney character so far.

After the Rapunzel experience we walked around Fantasy Land and took in some rides like the teacups which Emily and Shanon both loved; especially since I was tasked with making the cup spin as fast as possible. We also made sure to go on the rest of Emily's favorite rides like "A Small World" and "Dumbo" it was great watching her have so much fun.

Four years ago, on our first trip to Disney World, I tricked Shannon into going on Space Mountain with my brother and his two kids. I was pretty worried about her and was not a good companion for the ride and I undoubtedly made the experience more stressful for her than it had to be. Earlier this school year, for English class, Shannon wrote a paper about how terrified she was on the ride but how she also had a lot of fun. With that in mind she decided she wanted to try out Space Mountain again so we got in line. However, just before we could get on the ride she backed out and decided against it.

A bit later that evening the four of us went on Thunder Mountain which is an outside roller coaster themed like an old train. Emily had been on it before but wasn't thrilled with going on it again on this trip but both she and Shannon enjoyed themselves. When we had finished I mentioned to Shannon that Space Mountain wasn't much different but that it was indoors and dark. She decided again to go on the ride and this time she didn't back out. Instead she had a blast and asked to go right back on it.

It was around 11:30pm and the park was mostly empty so we were able to go through the line without waiting. She was addicted to the ride and wanted to go on it again and again but, sadly, the park was closing so we couldn't do it more than twice. I was super proud of her for overcoming her fear and trying it again.

On Wednesday we went to Epcot Center. There we went on Mission: Earth which is a cool NASA simulation that sort of feels like you're taking off in a rocket and sling-shotting around the moon to Mars. It's pretty fun and Shannon, who had done it on our last trip, still really enjoyed it. A bit later we went to one of Emily's favorite rides "Finding Nemo" which has some pretty cool technology in it that makes the animated fish seem to be existing in the real world artifacts of the ride. I'm not sure how it works but it is cool and all four of us enjoyed it.

Before dinner we headed back to the hotel to spend some time in the pool. We had actually spent a little bit of time in it the day before but without Lisa. On Wednesday Lisa came to the pool too and the girls were able to show her how they could use the water slide. Shannon just learned how to basically swim last summer and Emily still can't. Thus, at the slide Shannon got the hang of it and was willing to slide off and submerse herself - a particularly cool trick considering her prior reluctance to put her head under water. Emily wasn't really ready to do the slide by herself so she would get to the top of the slide and call out my name and then give me a thumbs up. She wouldn't slide down until I returned the thumbs up signal. It was pretty cute.

That night we had dinner at a restaurant with Chip 'n Dale (Pluto and Mickey were there as well). It was a neat restaurant that rotates above one of the rides we had gone on earlier in the day. The girls really enjoyed the meal, the changing scenery, and the characters. After that we headed to Downtown Disney for some shopping and we finally made it back to the hotel by midnight. It was a great day but also exhausting so when we finally got back to the hotel we all fell into a deep sleep for a later wake up the next morning for a day at Disney's Hollywood Studios.

Hollywood Studios is a more "adult" themed park with bigger rides and more "extreme" shows. Overally I think it was Emily's least favorite day with the exception of a neat magical experience that evening that had Mickey replaying his role as the Sorcerer's Apprentice. Honestly, I thought the show was bit disjointed but some of the effects in it were pretty cool. However, it was not the highlight of my day - instead Shannon turned the trip from a good one into a great one by opening my eyes.

Earlier in the day she had asked me about the Aerosmith Rockin Roller Coaster. I told her, based on part of my memory, that it was like a much faster Space Mountain. I didn't mention the loop-the-loop or the corkscrew. She decided she wanted to go on it so we headed over. There was a 70 minute line! In hopes that we could shortcut the line we went in the single-rider line where they separate groups and fill in empty seats. Our wait was still about 60 minutes but eventually we were put on the ride. We were actually in the same car but she was about 10 rows behind me. I was pretty worried about her but because we were so far apart I couldn't talk to her or really think about how she was doing - I just had to hold on and enjoy the ride.

I'm glad we were apart. I think, had I been with her, that I would have ruined the ride for her with my stress. Instead she thought it was the best ride ever. She loved it and wanted to go right back on it. She loved the loop-the-loop and thought going upside down was amazing. She couldn't have been happier and I was super proud of her. As we left the ride I asked her if she wanted to go on the Tower of Terror and she declined. It was at this point that we had to go to the big Mickey show so she had about an hour to contemplate the Tower. When the show ended she told me she did want to give the tower a try. I was a little surprised but I wasn't worried considering how well she handled the Rocking Roller Coaster so we hurried over and got in the empty line.

As we were getting in she said she was a little worried and I said, "don't be, the roller coaster is scarier than this" and I meant it. We rode up and then the drops began. We fell about five stories, bounced back up, fell again, zoomed up and down and up and down. After about five bounces she said she felt like she was going to get sick and I told her to hold on, we only had one bounce left. She smirked in disbelief but I was lucky and we only had one left - it was a big one though. She didn't get sick but she was glad it was over. I gave her five and we walked away from the ride where she decided she was swearing it off and wouldn't ride it again.

As we walked down the path, away from the ride, a mother was talking to her son telling him he could handle the Tower that the Rocking Roller Coaster was scarier. Shannon turned around and yelled, "NOT IT ISN'T! DON'T BELIEVE HER THIS IS MUCH WORSE!!" It was hilarious. Needless to say the boy did not get up to go on the ride.

From there we reconnected with Lisa and Emily, had our photo taken by the huge Mickey Sorcerers Hat, and then headed back to the hotel for some sleep before our flight home.

It was our best, and shortest, Disney trip yet. The lines were, generally, non-existent and the weather was perfect (mid 80s, sunny, and no-humidity). The girls both did things they had never done before, neither one of them was sick at all, and they will both remember this trip for years to come. It was awesome to see them both have so much fun. All in all it was a great surprise for their Spring Break and Shannon's 10th birthday. I'll post photo's as soon as I have a chance.

My Mice

1 min read

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The girls took a small break at Disney World at the Hall of Presidents

International Kids

24 min read

Over the past 11 days we went on a grand adventure to Niagara Falls and Toronto for the kids first trip out of the USA. We headed out to Niagara from Huntington with a stop-over in Cleveland to visit with Lisa's parents. They too were about to embark on an adventure to the west (Yellowstone, Mount Rushmore, and Seattle) so it was nice to see them just before we all began our treks. From Cleveland we headed to Niagara Falls NY where Lisa had arranged for us to stay at a Bed and Breakfast right near the Niagara river (just before the falls) called the Red Coach Inn. The BnB is a sprawling building with a bunch of suites to choose from. It is also pretty expensive and not in the greatest state of repair; however it was still nice. Once we checked in we met up with my Mom and her wife Susan to begin exploring the area for a couple days. My Mom and Susan were on their own trip to celebrate their 3rd anniversary so they had arrived a couple days before us and stayed with us for about 2 full days worth of time.

That afternoon we just walked around on the American side of the falls and spent a bit of time on Goat Island before heading back to the Hotel Restaurant where we had a gift certificate we had purchased at Restaurants.com (great deal). I had Ostrich for dinner (my first time) and it was pretty good. It didn't have a bird like texture at all instead it was more like beef. After dinner we all hung out in our suite for a bit and chatted before my Mom and Susan headed back to Canada and their BnB. The next morning, around noon, we all met back up to take a trip on the Maid of the Mist and then to do a "Journey Behind the Falls" and to watch a movie about the falls. We had bought a single ticket package that would get us into four different things for a much lower cost and I would advise anyone to do the same deal. The Maid of the Mist was, to put it simply, Awesome. The wait wasn't too bad and once on board the mist really hit the spot since the temperature was over 90F (32C). The first part of the voyage takes you close to the American falls where you are lightly misted. At that point I was a little disappointed in how little mist there was. I shouldn't have been because as soon as we headed toward the Horseshoe Falls (Canadian falls) the blanket of mist grew substantially and, before I knew it, I was soaked from head to toe. I chose not to wear the provided poncho (it was too hot out) so I was really drenched and I couldn't have been happier. Eventually the ship broke through the curtain of moisture and arrived at a calm pool near the center of the horseshoe. From there the view up at the falls was extraordinary. In fact, however much the whole four event ticket cost - that view was worth it and everything else was just a bonus. As a kid we visited the falls but we couldn't afford the Maid of the Mist. I'm very glad we were able to this time around.

After disembarking from the ship we had a short bus ride (Susan's knees and ankle were in a bit of pain after all our walking) down to the "Walk Behind The Falls" attraction. We did the Canadian side events instead of the US ones so the Walk Behind the Falls is a bit different than the US version "The Cavern Of The Winds". I think the US version looked a bit more exciting because you spent more time out on the ground near the falls - but the Canadian one was pretty cool too. Before we headed outside there were two long tunnels that ended about 15 feet from the actual downfall so that we were looking at the falls from directly behind. It was cool to hear and feel the rumble from so close but it seemed disconnected from the actual falls because you had nothing to provide a frame of reference. It was just a hole in the cliffside wall about 20' in diameter so all you could see was the sheet of water. After checking out the two tunnels we headed down a third tunnel which deposited us on a two-story viewing platform. The upper deck remained surprisingly dry considering the proximity to the falls but, on the lower deck, you were hit with the full mist experience again and, before long, we were all soaked to the bone again. My Mom and Lisa both seemed to really like spending time on the lower deck and it was nice seeing them so obviously enjoying their time together.

After leaving the falls we went and watched a short movie about the formation of the falls which was, ultimately, a little dull even though it did further drench us thanks to a built in sprinkler system designed to simulate rain. After the movie we headed to a nice restaurant, Elements on the Falls Restaurant, in the same building for dinner. I had the mushroom ravioli with seafood medley which was OK but not that great. The highlights of the restaurant, however, were the view and the head chef. The view from our table was great (though a little low) and we could easily see the Canadian falls. After dinner Shannon and I were waiting for the other four to use the restroom so we were checking out the desert display. Inside were some fruit filled crepes and some kind of blueberry looking cake. I mentioned, in passing, to the chef that it was too bad the crepes weren't on the menu (they were made for a tour group) and I asked if the other thing was for a tour group too. He said it was. Shannon then asked him what the blueberry thing was and, as we expected, it was a blueberry cake. It looked very good. Shannon thanked him for the info and then he surprised her by asking if she would like to taste it. She nodded enthusiastically so he asked her to wait a moment and he headed back to the kitchen. I told her that she had to make sure to thank him for the bite he was bringing her back. About 20 seconds passed and he returned with a styrafoam to-go container and he looked a little annoyed. Then he opened the dessert display and said, "I guess I just have to give you this one there is no more left in the back" then he opened the container, placed the whole piece of cake in it and then grabbed a piping bag and squeezed some whipped creme into the container. He handed it to me and said "I put a couple crepes in there for you to, enjoy!" Shannon and I were both stunned and we thanked him for his kindness. Shannon could barely contain herself she was so happy.

Eventually the others came out of the restroom and Shannon almost exploded trying to tell everyone what had just happened. She was talking faster than she ever has before and my Mom had to ask her to slow down just so she could understand her. It was great and definitely made Shannon's day. We were all stuffed from dinner and the desert we had just had so we couldn't eat any of what he gave us until the next morning - fortunately our room had a full fridge (and kitchen) to store it in.

The next morning, our last with my Mom and Susan, took us to the "White Water Walk" which is a cool little boardwalk type trail along some class six rapids. At the beginning they didn't seem too crazy and I had thought it would be cool to have a raft or a kayak to explore them with. However, before too long we started to see why they were classified as unsafe for humans. They became amazingly turbulent and some of the dips and rises changed elevation by well over 20 feet from top to bottom I would imagine. It was pretty cool to see. After our brief tour of the rapids it was time to say farewell to my Mom and Susan and then we headed to a small city called Niagara on the Lake to walk around and have lunch before heading to Toronto for the next three days.

I had booked us a room at the Grand Hotel on Jarvis Road in Toronto. We haven't stayed overnight in Toronto before so we were just hoping for the best at a reasonable price. We ended up being very happy with the hotel. The room was pretty large and the bedroom and "living room" were pretty well divided by a short hallway and the only bathroom. The couch opened into a bed for the girls and we had a king sized bed. The room had a pretty modern "European" feel to it because it felt a little spartan and had hardwood floors. The room also had a refrigerator which was a real bonus because while we were in Toronto it was really hot. Fortunately I had brought my camel-back bladder in the backpack so we could fill it and three water bottles each night to carry around town.

On our first full day in Toronto we walked down Jarvis to Queens St East and headed west which is filled with interesting shops and specialty boutiques. We were a bit unprepared for the overall length of Queens St. but we persevered and made it all the way before stopping at a cool little hamburger joint called "Oh Boy Burger Market" where I had a tasty Buffalo burger. The waitress there was really cool and brought over some spinning barstools for the girls to sit on and play. She also gave us some scratch off instant win tickets for a Budweiser World Cup promotion. Emily's second ticket won so the lady let both girls pick out a prize from the three options; a heavy floppy hat, a Budweiser baseball cap, and a couple sticks you hit together to make noise. The girls both took the ball caps as they wanted to put their hair up due to all the heat outside. For the rest of the day they kept their beer hats on and we felt like the parents of the year.

After our walk down Queens St we headed up Spadina Ave to College St (through a bit of Chinatown) where we headed west again in order to see the Kensington Market. By this point the girls (all three of them) were pretty miserable from the heat. We walked down Augusta Ave and discovered a pleasant surprise for the girls - Bellevue Square which is a cool little neighborhood park. In the park is a big fountian/wading pool so Shannon and Emily ran right in and played for a bit to cool off. Lisa and I sat off to the side with a bunch of guys who seem to be regular's that use the park as a hangout. After about 30-40 minutes an older white guy with an aggressive demeanor showed up (the rest of the crew in the park was predominately young black men). The white guy made a not-too subtle reminder to one of the young guys (a Jamaican I'd guess) that he was indebted to the older white guy. The mood seemed to tense up a bit so we gathered the girls up and headed out of the park going to Dundas St and heading east back toward our hotel. About half way back we stopped off at a little coffee shop that sold ice-cream and had a little treat. We also swung by the large Eaton Center shopping mall. It is 3 storys tall and pretty long. We wandered around in there for a bit to help cool off before exiting via Dundas Square (sort of the Toronto Times Square) and then heading further east to reach the hotel.

After getting back to the hotel we had to find a place to eat so we headed off to the Distillery District via a long driving tour around Toronto that took us through Chinatown, Little Italy, Portugal Village, and along the waterfront via Queens Quay. Most of the Distillery District was closed by the time we reached the area (around 7 or 8 I think) but it was still a pretty cool little area. There were a bunch of neat looking shops, a collection of cool restaurants, and a neat theater that was just about to start a show when we found it. We ended up eating at the Mill Street Brewery which is a micro that brews the beer right in the restaurant. I had a really tasty, and large, chicken pot pie and I tried two of their beers; their Tankhouse Amber which was a little bitter and not really very good and their Helles Bock which I liked quite a bit. The restaurant is really big and spacious and you definitely don't have any privacy at your table. However, even with the very open seating the room didn't feel overly large thanks to the darker colors and the mostly full dining room. I liked the pot pie enough where I would definitely go back.

While I enjoyed walking around the town it was apparent that it wasn't really the girls cup of tea. Lisa's heel spur was killing her and both Shannon and Emily were a little bored if they weren't checking out a shop (they picked far more shops to check out than Lisa did). Thus, on the next day we decided to head to the Toronto Zoo. The zoo is a bit expensive so before heading out we tried to find a discount ticket but we couldn't. Instead I found a citypass which lets you save 50% on the cost of doing five different things; the zoo, the CN tower, Casa Loma, the Science Museum, and the Royal Ontario Museum. We actually only managed to do three things and we still saved money.

The Toronto Zoo was better than I expected though, perhaps, not as good as Lisa had thought it would be. More than anything I had anticipated that most of the animals would be hiding from the heat but we were really fortunate and the vast majority of the animals were out and active when we came to see them. I think our favorite animal there was a young monkey that kept showing off near the window and that was just as curious about us as we were about him. He was super fun looking and more than once an adult monkey came over and tried to restrain him and get him to come away from the window. He would escape though and come right back to us. He was awesome.

After leaving the zoo (did I mention it was really hot there?) we decided to go downtown to visit the CN Tower before dinner. The CN Tower is a really tall freestanding tower right in the middle of downtown Toronto. The basic purpose of the tower seems to be to provide a great view of both the city and the harbor on Lake Ontario. Along with our ticket to go up in the tower we also got to watch a cool 3D movie about Kelly Slater surfing in Tahiti. The movie was particularly cool because it used 3D to help illustrate and educate the audience about how the island was formed, how the waves are generated, and a bunch of other things. It was a really cool view in how 3D movies could actually be used to help educate kids in schools (if they could afford the cameras needed to show the movies).

The CN Tower also has a cool, but slightly disturbing, feature. After you go up 1000 feet or so to the observation level there is a section of the floor that is made of glass so you can stand there and look straight down. It's a little disconcerting to see the world from so high up without anything visible to support you. It's also a pretty cool way to look down at the world. Lisa wasn't willing to step onto the glass but Shannon, Emily, and I all goofed off on it for a while.

The next morning we went to Casa Loma which is a castle right in Toronto. It was built by a wealthy businessman back in the early 1900's but, because of changes in tax laws and the great depression, he lost his fortune and his Estate. The castle is pretty cool and is undergoing some much needed restoration. The parts that have been restored (or perhaps never damaged) are pretty nice. For example, for the main office on the first floor there are two secret passageways one that leads up to the sleeping quarters and another that heads down to the basement and wine cellar. His secret doorway's were so well done I'm reminded that I need to get my dad to come down and help me finish mine up. That's right, I have a secret passage in my house; eat your heart out.

After finishing up at the castle we checked out of the hotel a day early and headed south back towards Niagara Falls. On the way there we stopped at an Ikea where Lisa was able to pick up a couple cool bottles and to force me to buy a new pillow and she finds my old one disgusting. The bad part of heading out of Toronto in the middle of the afternoon became immediately apparent as we got on the QEW and instantly got stuck in traffic. However, even with the stop and go driving the trip down to Niagara didn't seem to take too long. We had booked a room on priceline at the Marriott Fallsview hotel. From the outside the hotel looks a little dated but, like any good book, you can't judge it by it's cover. The interior was very nice and our room offered an amazing view of the falls (both the American and Canadian falls). The view from that room was, without a doubt, the best view of the falls we had the entire trip. Priceline really came through on that room as it was less than we had paid for any night previously on the trip and the view was incredible.

The next day we headed to Marineland which was supposed to be like Seaworld except that it wasn't. Before departing for the park, because it was raining, Lisa called and asked if they were open. The assured her they were and that only 2 of their rides would be closed due to the rain. When we arrived, after paying $170 for the four of us to enter, we found out only about 5 rides were open and that Marineland never quite reached it's full potential. There is only one stadium for shows there (a dolphin show) and there are huge areas of nothing that you have to walk through to get from one attraction to the next. It really felt like the original idea was for a huge Disney World scale park in Canada but that the owners never had enough money to really pull it off. That didn't stop them from charging an arm and a leg for everything. Food was outrageous (2 chicken finger baskets with fries and a hamburger with fries was $45) and most of the "extra" things you might want to do at the park cost extra as well. Overall, while I was disappointed with the park I still had a great time simply because the girls enjoyed themselves so much. Emily wanted to go back the next day - it was cool (but we didn't).

Our hotel reservation at the falls view Marriott was just for the prior night so we logged into priceline again and tried to get another room. This time we ended up at the Sheraton At The Falls. It is close to the rainbow bridge, again on the Canadian side, and has rooms with both a view of the falls and a view of the city. We received a complimentary upgrade on check in from an internal room to a city-view room. Our room was on the 15th floor and overlooked the Clifton Hill part of the town. Clifton Hill is sort of like Myrtle Beach entertainment condensed into a 1/3 mile long hill. There are all sorts of touristy places to visit like the Guiness Book of World Records museum, was museums, about 10 haunted houses, various putt-putt courses, restaurants, a big funky bowling alley, a giant ferris wheel, and a bunch of other stuff like a Professional Wrestling themed place with it's own "tower of terror" type ride. If you are unfamiliar with the tower-of-terror it is basically a big compartment of strapped in people. The cart sits still for a bit and then, suddenly, at some random interval, it drops back down the tower. It drops variable distances and then goes back up and drops again. These drops happen between 5-10 times before the cart is brough back to the bottom for everyone to unload.

Lucky for us the tower for the wrestling place was even with, and just next door, to our window. Thus, throughout the night, until the ride shut down, we would hear random screams from terrified and excited riders. Needless to say it didn't make for the best night of sleep ever. At one point Emily came around our bed to talk to Lisa (about 3 in the morning). Emily was pretty upset and when Lisa encouraged her to go back to bed she just said "I can't." Naturally, we just figured she was saying she couldn't go back to sleep because of all the noise. Next Lisa told her to just get in bed and close her eyes and eventually she would fall back asleep. Emily replied again that she couldn't. I knew she had to be frustrated, I certainly was - heck it was 3 in t he morning - so I asked her to come around to me and I would try to calm her down so she could get in bed. Then i had an epiphany. I asked her why she couldn't go to bed, was Shannon in her way? She said yes. I got up and looked in their bed and sure enough Shannon was sprawled across the head of the bed. She had, in her sleep, managed to shove Emily out of the bed and use the entire pillow line as her own mattress. After a few moments of repositioning Emily was back in bed and asleep in no time. It seemed only Lisa and I were bothered by the outside noise and we had just projected that on Emily when she woke up. I'm still not sure she ever heard it.

The next morning we got up and hit all of the touristy stuff on Clifton Hill. We played glow-in-the-dark min-golf, we went to a lego city, we watched some 3-D interactive movies (where your seat moves around), and then we packed up and headed for home. Or at least Cleveland. Well, I thought that was our immediate destination. First we had to go to the duty free store where I was able to replace the bottle of Sheridan's I had bought Lisa in London but had been unable to deliver. Then we drove across the bridge to the US where we did a little bit of Geocaching before heading to the highway. Once on the highway we stopped at a few more places to geocache (we didn't have phone data in Canada so we did very little caching there). Eventually we got off the freeway near Erie to eat at a great little bar and grill that served an insane version of Shepherds Pie (and to do a bit more geocaching). Then we felt inspired to drive off the beaten path a bit to visit a well remembered spot from Lisa's childhood - Pymatuning Lake.

Lisa and her family used to camp there every summer while she was growing up. Lisa always speaks fondly of it and, after having seen a carp pond at Marineland, Lisa had the itch to visit the area and its spillway. Just off the spillway is a huge collection of carp. In fact there are so many and they are so big the area has the motto "Where the ducks walk on the fish." While that might seem like hyperbole it isn't. The ducks really do walk around on the carp. We stopped off and bought three loaves of bread (no sales tax on groceries in PA, nice!) and then went to feed the fish. At marineland the seagulls kept snatching up all the food but on Pymatuning Lake's spillway the birds had little chance. At times huge carp would literally be laying on the top of the water being held up by their brethren as the feeding frenzy played out. The surfaced fish would be trapped for up to ten seconds before the mass beneath it would break up and let it submerge again. It was actually a bit grotesque to watch. It was also pretty cool and the girls really got a kick out of feeding the fish and, occasionally, a duck or two.

Eventually it started to get dark so we hopped in he car again, did another geocache where we dropped off one of the geo-coins Lisa gave me for Christmas, and then we worked our way toward Cleveland. To get from Pymatuning to Cleveland you have to take a couple small state routes before getting on interstate 90N. As we tried to merge on to I90 we were flagged down by two people with cell phones standing behind a motorcycle. Lisa stopped and I suggested we offer them a flare if we had one because they were stopped in a pretty dangerous place to only have flashlights for warning off cars. I got out and searched for a flare but couldn't find one so I grabbed my flashlight with the intention of giving them it. I walked over and asked if they had any better lights and I noticed there were two people up near the front of the motorcycle as well - one of whom had a flashlight and I could hear some talking from them also. The ladies with the cellphones said they had nothing else to wave with so I said I'd see if my flashlight could help (or if there was anything I could do to help fix the bike). As I walked around the bike I looked down to see what they were working on and I suddenly saw that one of two people was lying on their back, blood all over her neck, and she was barely conscious. I asked what happened and one of the ladies with the cell phones said that the lady on the ground had been run off the road by a passing car and she had wrecked her bike. The guy who I had heard near the front of the bike before was her husband and he was just bent over her, not the bike, talking to her and trying to keep her conscious. I headed back to the car to let Lisa know what was going on and as I did so a volunteer fireman showed up so I gave him the rundown as well. He got on his CB radio and called in for some additional help. Between his CB call and the other ladies 911 calls the ambulance (from Lake Pymatuning) arrived within a minute or so and at that point we decided to get out of the way and get back on the road. I felt bad afterward that I didn't think to offer any advice to help prevent shock or about keeping her head stationary, while we waited on the ambulance.

Once we got back on the highway the rest of the trip to Cleveland and then back to Huntington the next morning was uneventful. All-in-all it was a nice relaxing trip. It was however very expensive. Food everywhere on the trip (except in Erie) was insanely expensive and we definitely exceeded our budget. However, I have no regrets and I'm really glad everyone seemed to have a good time.

Here are some photos from the trip:

Who Dat Gonna Beat This Trip?

26 min read

A few months ago I found out I'd be going to New Orleans for work to train some people with the US Corps of Engineers on some software we've been using. I was pretty excited about the prospect because I'd never been to New Orleans before.

Well, I've been here now and let me tell you - this trip has sucked hard.

Initially I was going to be heading down here by myself but we expanded the entourage to include Ryan (another developer at SBCS) and our boss Mark. Last week Ryan and I embarked on a major bug squashing mission. We worked hard and late on Thursday and Friday to make sure everything was "rock solid" and we honestly thought it was. We touched every new and old feature of the sections of the application we were working on.

On Saturday Ryan worked on a user manual and found a couple small changes that needed to be made; so late Saturday night I went into the office and worked for a couple hours to address those things and a couple other small bits I discovered. By Sunday morning the site really was working great and everything felt wonderful.

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Monday morning I woke up early, finalized my packing, and waited for Ryan to arrive from Kentucky before we headed off to the Charleston airport. Ryan had never flown before this trip and was really nervous about the prospect. You have to really know Ryan to understand how much the idea of flying affected him. He has a variety of anxieties and flying was a truly daunting prospect for him. His wife brought him to my house at 8am and we loaded up my car for the trip to Charleston. It was obvious that his wife was nervous for him because he was so stressed about flying.

We headed out immediately thinking we would hit a bunch of morning rush hour traffic on the way to Charleston but the highway was almost empty so we made the trip in about an hour which meant we had a couple hours before our flight would leave. The Charleston airport is pretty small and you don't have to arrive that early even in this day and age so I took a detour to the mall so we could kill time without Ryan having to watch planes take off and land. We spent about 40 minutes there walking around before heading to the airport to meet up with Mark.

As we walked into the airport I noticed a news crew was working at one end of the terminal and I mentioned it to Ryan but he thought I was just screwing with him. I wasn't. The news crew was the first omen of what was to come with this trip.

We checked in nice and quickly using the kiosk, had our bags checked, and started to walk toward security. Ryan saw the news crew and we ignored it while he went to use the restroom. While he was gone the news lady came over to Mark and I and asked us if we were grounded. We didn't know what she was talking about and said, "No, we're heading out to Atlanta." She said, "OH, Atlanta, were you pushed back to the next flight?" We said, "No." And she said, "You weren't on the earlier flight?" We looked confused and she asked again, "You don't know what happened?"

As that question ended Ryan reappeared. I told her we didn't really need to know. She decided to tell us anyway. It turns out the flight before us had to abort its' takeoff due to having 2 of it's tires pop during the speedup to takeoff. The plane was broken down in the middle of the runway.

We went through security and headed to our gate. Once there we could see the fire trucks, ambulances, and emergency vehicles all over the runway alongside the broken down plane. Fortunately, I had convinced Ryan to take his first half of a Xanex while we were at the mall.

Eventually our flight was cancelled. However, we really needed to reach New Orleans that day so we could be at the Corps office in time for the first day of training since they had arranged their schedule to accommodate us. I jumped on my cell phone to try and book a different flight and, at the same time, Mark did the same. I had a really helpful lady on the phone but she put me on hold and, eventually, my hold status changed to a disconnected status and I wasn't sure if my flight had been changed.

While we were on the phone we were also in line for the Delta counter and, eventually, we made it to the front of the line where the ticket agent worked with us to get us to Atlanta that day but we couldn't get to New Orleans until the next morning. C'est la vie. Because of the delay in getting to New Orleans we also had her shift our return flight to Friday and Mark called our New Orleans hotel to extend our reservations through Thursday night.

Eventually, we found ourselves on an airplane. Ryan and I were sitting together with me in the window seat and Ryan in the aisle. Ryan had said he didn't want to look out the window but, as soon as the flight started, he was gazing out the window in wonder and amazement. The flight to Atlanta is about an hour long and the entire flight he was leaning over looking out the window with child-like wonder at the miracle of flight. It was pretty awesome to behold. When we finally landed in Atlanta he was equally amazed to experience the amazing time savings of flight over driving. He swore right then that he would never drive that far again (if he could afford it).

At this point we were in Atlanta but we had nowhere to stay and no plans for dinner. However, the Charleston ticket agent told us to talk to a Delta rep in Atlanta to get a hookup for a room and a dinner voucher. She also said she would put some information on our confirmation to help the Atlanta agent.

The Atlanta agent wasn't nearly as helpful as we had hoped. She was fairly difficult to communicate with due to her extremely thick accent and she wasn't particularly interested in making sure we were happy. Eventually she gave us a voucher for the airport Ramada. However, the voucher just entitled us to the airlines negotiated price of $50 a night. She provided nothing for dinner however she did give us an incredibly worthless "overnight" bag which was filled with complete trash.

We laughed it off and headed out to the Ramada shuttle only to be told by the shuttle driver that, even though the bus said "Ramada" on it she wasn't really a Ramada shuttle and that we'd have to wait. So we waited, and waited, and waited, in the cold for a shuttle. In the meantime a guy with the super-8 offered to let us come to his motel and that they would honor the voucher price. We weren't really interested in his offer. Instead I got on my phone and tried out priceline to see if we could get a 4-star hotel near the airport for $60/night. We did and we booked rooms at the Westin (home of the Heavenly Bed)!

During checkin at the Westin the clerk gave me three vouchers for 50% off our dinner at their restaurant after I told her about our crazy day. At this point it was about 8 or 9pm. After checkin we went straight to our rooms, dropped our bags, and then headed back down for dinner. After we ate a pretty good meal we headed back upstairs to sleep. However, our morning flight was really early and we had to be awake by 5am so I slept horribly for fear that I'd oversleep.

Back at the airport we checked in, got our seats assigned, and then headed to security. Mark was on the "stand-by" list because he wasn't scheduled to fly until a couple hours later. In the line for security we picked, by far, the slowest lane but, eventually, we made it to the xray section. However, once we got there the bins were all used and Ryan had to scramble through other lines to get bins so he could pass through. Considering this was his second effort ever at flying he was obviously a little flustered by the experience and in dealing with people who were rushing for other bins so they could get ahead of him in line.

Eventually he got some bins and passed through the x-ray machine. However, on the other side he had a moment of panic because he couldn't find his boarding pass. At this point I told him to take his half of a Xanex again and we hopped on the train to our terminal. We waited for an hour and half until we were finally able to board but Mark wasn't called for standby.

The plan at this point was to fly and then wait a the New Orleans airport for Mark to arrive so we could get our rental car. Ryan and I boarded the plane and found our seats - row 20; the last possible row on the plane, right beside the lavatory. To make matters worse we had no window on our side of the plane, we had no over-head storage as our space was being used for emergency equipment. However, the two seats on the other side of the aisle were empty after it appeared everyone was on so we switched. Sadly, both of those passengers eventually boarded. The first was happy to take my window-less window seat on the other side but the other wanted his window seat so I took one aisle and Ryan took the aisle seat nearer the window.

As we got settled in we were happy to see Mark had gotten a seat on our flight so we wouldn't have to wait around in New Orleans.

The guy who took my window-less window seat had two small carry-ons so one had to go under the seat in front of me and I ended up with no leg room. Fortunately the flight was only 1hr 45 minutes so it wasn't too bad. However, every time I stretched my legs into the aisle someone got up to use the lavatory.

Eventually we were in New Orleans, we had our rental car, and we were at our hotel; the Residence Inn Convention Center in downtown (warehouse district) New Orleans. Our suite had two bedrooms, two baths, and a sofa bed for me to sleep on. Oddly the trip started with just me going to New Orleans and here I was sleeping on a sofa bed.

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After we checked in we wandered around until we found ourselves at Cafe Du Monde so we could try some Beignets which had been highly recommended. To be honest, I wasn't that thrilled with them. They were basically just small crispy doughnuts that seemed a little overcooked. However, the hot-cocoa was pretty good!

After leaving Cafe Du Monde we headed back toward the hotel and then Mark and I stopped off at a place called Denie's for po-boys. They were HUGE and pretty tasty. After lunch we headed back to the hotel to rest up a bit and think about what we'd do later that day.

It didn't take us long to figure out what we'd like to do because that night the New Orleans Saints were going to be having their Superbowl Championship parade. Our hotel was about 1 block from the parade route so after a brief rest we headed back out to the streets to watch the Saints fans enjoy their moment. We reached the parade route at about 3pm and we hung out for a while before the parade started. The parade itself was only about 12 floats but there were a ton of high school bands and, becuase the fans were so happy, the parade often stopped to let the players celebrate on the street with the fans. Thus, we didn't see the final float carrying the coach and the Vince Lombardi trophy until around 8pm. I'm not much of a parade person but it was great seeing so many people so happy all at one time.

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If there is one thing that New Orleans knows how to do it is to host a parade. They host tons of them every year for Mardi Gras and yet this parade, the Super Bowl parade, exceeded them all in sheer crowd size. According to the news the next morning this parade brought more people into town than New Orleans had ever had downtown at one time. Think about that. They get hundreds of thousands of people in town for Mardi Gras and the associated parades and this 12 float parade superceded all that had gone before and it sounds like it was by quite a margin.

Before we went to New Orleans I was skeptical of the relationship between the city and the team. I felt like the NFL and ESPN had to be overplaying it. I assumed that the NFL was milking the tragedy of Katrina to garner sympathetic viewers and to create drama where none existed. I was wrong. New Orleans really does love their Saints. The joy in the faces of all those fans and the excitement of the entire crowd was overwhelming. It was amazing and, while it may sound trite to say so, you had to be there; the mood was magical.

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The next day we had our first day of training at the Corps. Unsurprisingly, a variety of the features that I had made sure worked solidly the prior week didn't work. They didn't work at all. Crazy, strange, and unusual errors just popped up all over the place. Fortunately I was able to talk to Jason back home and have him fix a couple critical problems and we worked around the others to finish the first day - though by the end of the day at the office I was starving because I worked with Jason through lunch to get some critical issues resolved.

That night we decided to go out and have a good dinner so we called up Dickie Brennan's Steak House which is close to Burboun St and made reservations. We walked the mile or so from our hotel to the restaurant and were seated immediately upon entering. The interior of the restauant was very masculine with low lighting and dark wood paneling. We were seated at a booth-like table on the lower level. If you watch the homepage for a bit the images will change and you'll get a good feel for the ambiance of the dining area.

I had the 12 oz Ribeye and a cup of soup for dinner and both were very good. I believe the Ribeye was quite a bit larger than 12 ozs and it was perfectly cooked. It was probably one of the better Ribeyes I've had. The soup was also very good. Mark also got a cup of soup and my favorite part was how it was served. Both cups were brought out in small crocks within a bowl. Two separate waiters approached our table and, in sycnhronization, they placed the bowls down, lifted the crocks, and poured the soup. It had a very classy feel to it.

After dinner I we had some dessert. Ryan and I each had the chocolate cake and Mark had the pecan pie. I had been told to try their coconut cake but ignored the advice when I read the chocolate cake description. I should have listened. The chocolate cake was ok but it was definitely the low point of the meal and the photo of the coconut cake looked great. It was nice to finish the day off on a high note (dinner) after all the difficulties in the training room.

By, as Lee Corso would say, "Not So Fast!" Later that night I received a phone call and an email from Delta reminding us about our flight the next morning. The flight that we had asked to get off of so we could fly on Friday instead of Thursday due to our late arrival in New Orleans. So, Delta screwed up and Ryan and I were still on the Thursday flight. Ryan got on the phone and about 2 hours later the problem was finally fixed and we were back on the Friday flight. Almost as soon as Ryan hung up the phone the Hotel called us and let us know that our reservation ended the next morning and that we had to get out. It turned out that the hotel didn't really extend our reservation either so Mark had to get online and book us a hotel via priceline and we ended up with rooms at the Radisson near the airport.

The next morning we woke up and headed to the Corps for the second day of training which, of course, went no better than the first day. All sorts of shit broke and we once again had to call Jason to have him address a few problems while we worked around the rest of them. It was really annoying and embarrassing to have everything breaking in front of all the potential end users. Amazingly, the whole training was not a bust. In the afternoon as I demo'd a new and fancy way to edit data in the application the lady in charge of the entire department, Susan, happened to step in. She watched the demo (which went off without a hitch) and saw how the users responded (very positively). It was the last part of the training so, afterwards, Susan came over and had some very nice things to say. It was refreshing to have at least that part of the two day training go so well.

One of our customers who was there for the training, but who is also from Huntington, really wanted us to go to the Red Fish Grill for dinner so she could indulge in the Double Chocolate Bread Pudding so I tried to make reservations but the entire restaurant was closed for a private party that night. Honestly, it kid of fit in with the rest of our plans that week so I wasn't surprised though I did have the difficult task of breaking the bad news to the customer.

Fortunately she took it well so after training we headed downtown to the Harrah's casino to eat dinner at their buffet (not nearly as good as our dinner the prior night at a local steakhouse) but the customer enjoyed it. After the Buffet we walked around and Mark and Ryan tried their hand at gambling. Ryan likes to play Roulette and Mark likes Black Jack. Right off the bat I had a bad feeling about the place so I decided not to play. It didn't help that the cheapest tables were $15 which is outside my budget. Ryan finally found an automatic roulette table that had a $3 minimum so he sat down to play while Mark watched. Ryan watched the wheel for a while and saw a pretty good random pattern of reds and blacks so he decided to bet. He really likes to bet on red so that's what he did and, of course, it came up black. Not once, or even twice or three times - but five or six times in a row. His money was dwindling fast so he bet what was left on Red and, amazingly, he hit and managed to come out only $17 down. While Ryan was checking out Mark found a blackjack table he felt good about, sat down with $60 (enough for four hands if all went poorly). It all went poorly so he got up four hands later with nothing left. We fled the casino and headed to our new hotel, the Radisson.

As we waited to check-in a large man with a baseball bat walked into the lobby with a disheveled looking older man. The baseball bat guy told the desk clerk to get someone now because it was an emergency. The dishelved guy just looked forlorn. It turns out the disheveled guy was a homeless man who had snuck into the hotel and was trying to sleep in one of the meeting rooms (either room 215 or 217). The manager showed the homeless guy the door and the baseball bat wielding man disappeared.

A few moments later two large men were told they couldn't stay in the hotel as long as they wanted to because the hotel was completely sold out over the next few nights. Luckily we were still able to check in, making sure that we weren't getting room 215 or 217, and we headed upstairs to work on some documentation from our last two days with the customers. As we finished up the document we saw the weather man say that with the weather coming over the next couple of days and that we should expect more flight cancellations than at any time since 9/11. Laughing, we logged on the Delta website to check our flight and sure enough ours was cancelled and we were rebooked on a Saturday flight that would pass through Detroit. Of course, at this point we didn't have a hotel room for Friday night and we knew our current rooms wouldn't be available since the hotel was totally full.

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Mark spent the next couple hours trying to find a place we could stay that was within some sort of budgetary limits but nothing seemed to be available. Eventually he found a room back at the Residence Inn we had spent the prior two nights at about 3x the price we had paid previously (after taxes and fees). I slept fairly well in the warmth of my own room and under a thick comforter and then we packed up and headed back downtown. The weather was gloomy and wet so we just kind of hung out around the hotel until we haded to head out for our reservations at the Red Fish Grill (which was open and hopefully was a sign of good things to come). I had been told by everyone who had eaten there that the Double Chocolate Bread Pudding was amazing so I made sure I didnd't stuff myself with dinner so I could try this delectable delight. I wasn't impressed. Sure, it was OK but I doubt any dessert could live up to the hype that bread pudding had received over the past four years. Sadly, I also didn't think that much of their jumbalaya either so, for me, the dinner was a bit of a bust. The only good thing about it was we were on Burboun St on the Friday night before Mardi Gras. The bad part - it was cold.

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Amazingly, the chilly temps didn't deter some of the revelers on the street from doing what they had to do to get some beads and boa's thrown their way. I didn't get to see the same kind of debauchery I had imagined but it was the most exposed breasts I've seen in one night since I left the Army so it wasn't a total bust. While the three of us walked around and laughed at the craziness there were others there with a far more serious mission - to save our souls. Burboun Street was loaded with people carrying signs telling us we were going to hell but that we could be saved. There were people hadning out leaflets and tracts; there were big crowds of young adults just blocking the road, there were men yelling and reciting biblical verses. There were nearly as zealots there as their were partiers. It was a surprising mix.

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If you've ever been to Las Vegas you are undoubtedly familiar with the many men who stand along the sidewalk flipping little cards and trying to get people to take them. They flick-flick-flick the card with one hand against the other to catch your eye and then try to hand you the card. On the card you'll find little explicit advertisements for escorts and, I assume, prostitutes. It's funny but I imagine it must also be effective because they've been out there handing out those cards for as long as I can remember. Well, on Burboun St. there was a guy doing the same exact think. He was flick-flick-flicking his card and then handing it out. Except, unstead of pimping an escort he was pimping his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It was laughable so I walked up to him and asked if he had ever been to Vegas. He said he had been, 2 or 3 times on the same kind of mission. I asked him if he had ever seen the guys with the escort cards and he answered in the affirmative. I pointed out the irony that they both were doing the exact same thing to get my attention and then wished him luck. So far, for me, the Vegas card flickers and the Burboun St. card flickers have the same rate of success : 0.

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One thing about Burboun St that I've long been curious about is, "How much can people expose themselves there?" Is it limited to the chest or can people show off all their goods and, further, is it limited to just the women? Well, while waiting for a small crowed of young women expose their breasts I happened to look to the right where a man was attempting to expose himself, but not his breasts. Before he could extract anything a police officer took him down and removed him from the street. So, let that be a warning to you guys: keep your privates private. Oh, and ladies, keep doing that thing you do; like the girl in the white striped shirt is about to do in this photo (camo jacket girl did too).

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Eventually we extracted ourselves from the mass of drunkards and preachers wearing an abundance of beads and we began the mile long trek back to our hotel. However, as soon as we got back to Canal St. the Morpheus parade was finishing up so we hung out to watch it pass by. While standing there the Morpheus Krewe was throwing out even more beads (bag-fulls) and some cool doubloons. Another parade, the Muses - an all woman Krewe, was going to start up after the Morpheus parade but by then it was getting to late so we headed back to the Hotel to get some sleep before our flight the next morning. Ryan and I were able to check in electronically via the 'net but Mark's ticket wouldn't let him so we knew we'd have to be at the airport at least 2 hours early.

The next morning we arrived at the airport without any difficulties but, when we went in, we saw one HUGE line at the delta counter. Mark tried to bypass the line by using the computer terminals but, just like the night before, his ticket wouldn't let him. Ryan and I were in a short line for baggage check but the line for checking in was so long Mark would have to be in it for at least 2 hours. There was no way he was going to make the flight so I told him to ignroe the line and just walk up to the counter at the other end. For once during the week fortune shined down upon him and the lady at the counter helped him and he was checked in within 3 minutes and we were on our way to security and then our gate.

Initially we were supposed to fly back through Atlanta but after our Friday flight had been cancelled Delta changed our route to send us through Detroit so we were all joking about how we'd be spending our Saturday night in Windsor, Ontario trying to win back some of their gambling losses from Thursday night. The flights to Atlanta were all being cancelled again but ours took off without a hitch and we were in the Exit row so we had plenty of leg room. By this time Ryan was loving flying but still marvelling at how amazingly fast you actually got from point A to point B. I have to admit it really is an amazing thing that I've just become numb to because I've flown so much. We eventually arrived in Detroit and the weather was cold but clear and, amazingly, our flight to Charleston wasn't cancelled so we headed down to our gate to wait.

Of course, nothing could go perfectly smootly and, at our planes scheduled take off time we were still sitting in the terminal waiting for the boarding call. However, instead of a boarding call we were informed that we were being moved to a different gate so we all had to grab our bags and hussle to another part of the terminal to get to our plane. We made it there with plenty of time to spare but at this point we were a little skeptical that we'd actuall be taking off. However, we boarded without a hitch and we were airborne within half an hour. The flight from Detroit took about 1.5 hours and then we were safely down in Charleston.

Ryan and I loaded up my car and drove the hour back to my house where his wife and children were waiting for him. Once they left I gave Lisa and the girls a bunch of beads and then we headed out for dinner at a local Mexican joint. It was good to be done with the trip.

I'd actually like to go back to New Orleans at some point when the weather is a little nicer. I think there would be some cool places to go visit and there were some beautiful neighborhoods I'd like to walk around and see. Plus, it would be nice to go without all the stress of travel plans being spoiled and software demonstrations going bad!

Summer Fun - 2009 Edition

6 min read

The past few weeks have been fun-laden. So much so, in fact, it has been hard to find the time to even talk about all the stuff we have been doing. I think my last update had us returning from our Grand Canyon adventure and since then we've taken two more short trips and we've done a bunch of stuff right around the house.

Our first trip was to Johnson City Tennessee to visit some friends who used to live here in Huntington. Johnson City is about 4 hours drive to the south of us so we drove down there for the fourth of July weekend. We left here on Friday and then drove home on Sunday afternoon (the day Federer managed to pull of the huge Wimbledon win against Roddick). While we were down in Johnson City we visited a couple neighboring towns and, all-in-all, we really had a nice time. Lisa and Sarah went to a healthy food store and Lisa picked up a nice Rain Barrel at a pretty good price even after the exorbitant 9% sales tax.

We also managed to see two separate fireworks shows which the girls really enjoyed (plus a third on Sunday night after we got home). The first fireworks show was in a small neighboring town called Jonesborough Tenn. Jonesborough was really pretty cool for such a small little place. It was setup to be very friendly for people to walk around while at the same time they had really embraced their old architecture and have even become a bit of a tourist destination thanks to their Storytelling Festival each October. Main street Jonesborough was exactly what Disney is trying to capture with their "Main Street USA" but far more authentic. The whole town just had a really cool laid back vibe to it.

The second show was from the back yard of Sarah and Dean. They live pretty close to a school and the city puts on a big show from the schools football field so we could sit on the back deck and watch the fireworks go off. It was nice that the two shows we saw down there were scheduled for different nights so it was easy to see both of them. The kids had a great time not only watching fireworks but also playing with Sarah and Dean's two kids who are very similar in age to Shannon and Emily. Overall it was a really nice visit and, considering how close they are, I can't imagine it will be too long before we coordinate for another visit.

Our next trip was to Kings Island and we did that about 10 days ago. We drove up Friday night after work (to Cincinnati) and stayed in Blue Ash (near the park) and then spent all day Saturday at Kings Island. Shannon wasn't too willing to venture into any new rides but she had a blast on the rides she did go on. The one new ride we managed to get both girls to go on was the Scrambler which has always been one of my favorite rides. We were going to drive home Saturday night but we ended up staying at the park until 10+pm to watch fireworks again so we eneded up getting a room at the last minute at a Country Inns and Suites. Lisa and Shannon had a late nite dinner at the waffle house (which Shannon loved) while Emily and I hit the hay. The next morning before heading out Shannon and I used the hotels pool and whirlpool for a bit (which Shannon loved) and then we hit the road and made it back in time for our Kickball game.

Speaking of Kickball - my team is kicking ass right now. We finished the first half of the season at 2-2. We were beaten in one game and in the second loss we had to forfeit because not enough of our female players made it to the game that day (we have to have four present out of our 9). So far in the second half of the season we are 2-0 and we are in sole possession of first place. In that first game (after the Kings Island trip) we played pretty well and scored enough runs in the first inning to seal the victory (there are five innings in a game). This past weekend we had to play the other team that won in week 5; The Cabell Comprehensive Kickballers. They were considered by most to be the favorite going in even though we beat them in the first half of the season becuase they had been scoring so many runs. Well, we won again - this time 9-3. It was our best offensive performance of the season and we played fantastically. Joe kicked 2 homeruns, Ed booted in another, Mike had a triple, we had a few doubles - all in all it was great. I had a single and what should have been a triple but I was waved in on the triple and so I headed home. I had to dive to try and beat the throw but the guys throw was true and he got me in the stomach as I dove so I was thrown out at home. Fortunately, I at least drove in a run but had I scored we would have hit double digits which would have been cool. Only the Kickballers have scored double digits this season.

Along with kickball I've been mountain biking a bit and I've been doing pretty well; I think landing on my head has made me a better rider. While three weeks ago our entire ride kind of sucked (I was all out of sorts, Mike had 3 flats, and Sean had a flat) the past two weeks have been my best efforts yet. Two weeks ago Ed set a really stiff pace for us but I managed to keep up (sortof) and I didn't have to take any extra breaks to do so. Plus, my climbing and obstacle handling was much better than it had been in the past. Then, last week, while I started off a little shaky I picked it up a lot as the ride went by and I managed to navigate through some tricky parts I've not been able to ride before. Usually I end up hitting a root or a rock or something that causes me to stop and then i have to walk. Instead, this time, I managed to ride through it all. I was pretty stoked about it. Sadly, our friend Jason, who was on his first ride in quite a while, ended the ride off by crashing and hurting his ribs. Hopefully he heals up fairly quickly so he can get back out with us again.

I think, at this point, our busy summer is just about to finish and we can settle down and get some stuff done around the house. School starts pretty soon and Emily begins Kindergarten while Shannon enters third grade - it should be an exciting enough time without us going out any more. I know I have a ton of chores to take care of

What Happened in Vegas

8 min read

Lisa and I headed to Las Vegas a couple of weeks ago for a sunny vacation with my brother and his wife. We drove up to Cleveland a couple days before we had to fly out and dropped the kids off with Lisa's parents before jetting away on Monday of the week. Our flight, with American Airlines, generally sucked (and unfortunate condition I'm coming to expect from most domestic carriers) and we arrived in Vegas late. We then hired a shuttle service and got a ride to the Westin. I had booked the Westin room via priceline.com back in December when I first told Lisa about the trip as part of our Christmas present and we had a pretty good deal of $70/night.

As the trip approached Lisa was getting pretty nervous about the Westin being off the strip but it wasn't very far off the strip at all and you could walk right across the street to Bally's to catch the monorail which worked out wonderfully for us as Ted and Cyndy were staying one monorail stop up at the MGM Grand. The Westin was OK. I can't really give it a great review but it wasn't that bad either. The hallways were a bit dingy but our room was clean and the staff was generally friendly. However, our initial check-in was full of problems. Our first room (on the fifth floor) didn't have an in-room safe. Of course we didn't know that till we got to the room so we locked our bags in the room and went back to the front desk where we had to wait in line again. We were moved to a new room on the fifth floor but it had two problems. The first was a dead battery in the smoke detector (they fixed that) but the second was the presence of a very large dog in the room beside us. I was unaware that the Westin was a dog friendly hotel. The neighbor dog didn't like the smell of me or something because we could hear him growling through the wall so I went back downstairs and got in line again. We were then given a room on the 12th floor. Finally, we had a solid room with a safe, no neighboring dogs, and a working smoke detector. We were settled in about an hour after we first arrived at the hotel. I don't want to dog the Westin entirely becuase, quite frankly their seemingly hyperbolicly named "Heavenly Bed" is one damn comfortable bed. In fact I'd say it was vastly more comfortable than any bed I've slept on including our tempurpedic (Lisa has always liked the tempurpedic but she even preferred the Heavenly Bed). If I had $3500 to blow on a bed I'd order one today.

That night Ted and Cyndy came down to our hotel and we enjoyed some very light snacks at the hotels mixer for guests and then we headed out and did a little light gambling. Ted, Cyndy, and Lisa all like doing slot machines so that was all we did that night. I don't really care much for the machines but I tried to enjoy them and managed to lose my days gambling money in record time. It was not a good sign for things to come in regards to me gambling during the week.



We had pre-purchased some tickets to go to the Price is Right show at Balleys on Tuesday and so, once we had breakfast, we headed over there and made sure we were signed in and that we had our name badges on. Bally's and Paris are connected so while we waited for the show to start we walked around Paris a bit and did some minor sight-seeing. Then we headed back to the show and had a great time. It was a lot like the version on TV but there were some noticeable differences. First if you were called to "Come on Down" you only got one chance to get up on stage. If your bid wasn't the closest without going over you were sent back to your seat with a tee-shirt as a consolation prize. By rotating contestants through this way they were able to give a lot more people a chance to play which was pretty cool. The second noticable difference was that between each prize round they gave away 1000 gaming credits at Bally's to four people in the audience. Via these two gimmicks they could claim to have more than 50 winners in the show. Finally, in the show case showdown there was only one show-case and both contestants (people who hadn't played in any game at all yet) bid on the same prize package. The person closest without going over would win a cruise to Mexico and if they were within $100 they would win the entire showcase (including a new Nissan). Both players overbid by about $7000. It wasn't that their bids seemed that outlandish but that the value of the showcase was so incredibly low; $13,000! It had the cruise, a 61" DLP, the Nissan, a fridge/freezer, and some other stuff. It was pretty shocking.

We had a great time cheering on the contestants and shouting out "HIGHER", "LOWER", and "ONE DOLLAR!!" and we felt the show was well worth the money even though we didn't get called up to play. It was neat being a part of something we all remembered from our childhood.

Wednesday was a day with nothing planned so we just wandered around a lot and had a good time. To be honest I don't even remember Wednesday.

For Thursday we had a special treat planned as we had pre-ordered tickets to see the Cirque Du Soleil show, "O". All four of us saw "Ka" the last time we were in Vegas and Lisa and I had seen "La Nouba" when we were in Orlando back in 2001 so we knew we were in for a nice treat. Even though Lisa and I were a little let down by Ka after La Nouba our faith in Cirque was fully restored by "O". "O" was much more enjoyable to us than "Ka" and Lisa thought it was even better than "La Nouba" - I'm not sure about that assessment but I really enjoyed "O". My favorite part of the show wasn't one of the acts or athletes but rather the technological marvel that is the stage they performed on and in. "O" is a water based show and the stage can disappear in part or entirely and leave a pool in its wake. It was awesome. At times the entire stage would sink beneath the water while at other times just a small pie wedge would be submerged. The flow of the show was so well timed that it would seem like the stage couldn't have time to disappear before a suicidal high diver would descend head first into the water. It never seemed like the water could be deep enough yet it was. It was fantastic.

On Friday we two couples split up and did our own things. Ted and Cyndy were flying home while Lisa and I were flying, via helicopter, to the Grand Canyon. Our shuttle bus picked us up at the hotel and then took us to a small nearby airport where we met our pilot and, before we knew it, we ascended to about 3,000 feet for a great trip around the Hoover Dam and then onward to the Canyon. We only got to see a small part of the canyon but it was still really cool. We flew past the Grand Canyon Skywalk and then landed at the base of the canyon for a picnic lunch and about 30 minutes of photographic opportunities. After that the pilot loaded us all back up and we flew on a different route back to the airport. Lisa had never flown in a helicopter before so she was a bit nervous before the flight started but by the time we landed in the canyon she was loving it. It was a great excursion and I highly recommend it. However, don't limit your Grand Canyon encounter to just that - you need to make sure you visit the South Rim at some point as well becuase it is a much grander vision than the portions of the canyon we visited. Someday I'll be taking Lisa back to see that part (and, who knows, maybe another Helicopter flight from the Canyon rim).



Finally, Saturday arrived and we had to check out and prepare to leave. By this point I had not won at all during the trip but instead had lost my daily allowance each day. It was very strange. However, even ignoring my losses the trip itself was great. It was nice to see Ted and Cyndy and I was really glad to get Lisa to the Grand Canyon and in a helicopter. Overall it was a great trip and I look forward to our next vacation (wherever that may be).

December Catch-up

9 min read

So much was going on in December I wasn't able to blog at all. Now that the new year is here, Happy New Year by the way, I figure I should catch everyone up on what kept us so busy. Technically this story is going to start in late November but hopefully you won't hold that addendum against me.

Emily turned 5 on Nov 26 amidst great fanfare and even greater parties. I'm not sure how many she had but trust me, there were a bunch. Lisa's parents drove down when all the hoopla had pretty much died down and we had one last gasp (well not really the last but I'll get to that later). While they were here we decorated the yule time tree and stood in a circle singing carols. Ok, so we didn't actually stand in a circle or sing carols but it was a nice rockwellian image wasn't it? (unless you have heard me sing then perhaps it was a scary image).

I had to work for the first couple of days of December (making sure to call my mother on the 2nd for her hundredth birthday or some huge number like that; it was also my friend Mike's birthday). On around the 5th we loaded up the family cruiser for a trip to Disney World. Fortunately we only had to drive the cruiser about 1 hour to the airport where we then flew to Orlando by way of Atlanta. We stay at the cheapest hotel at Disney, the All-Star Sports/Music/Movies. Our room was at the All Star Music. If you paid attention 2 years ago you might remember that we stay in a family suite which is really just two hotel rooms merged into one with a small kitchenette. It's perfect for the four of us because it basically has two bedrooms but we don't have to pay for two full hotel rooms.

The last time we were at Disney Emily was sick with some kind of flu. This time she was healthy the whole time and, I think, old enough to really get into everything. Earlier I mentioned the last bash for Emily well it came at Disney this year. We had pre-ordered a cake with dumbo on it saying Happy Birthday Emily and some balloons (free with the cake, sweet!). I had to pick the cake up from the hotel restaurant our first night there. However, I had to wait a while so I sent the girls ahead to the park to get some early rides in. Finally I got the cake and brought it back to the room with five balloons. Then I hustled back to the hotels bus stop so I could get to the magic kingdom and find the rest of mi familia.

Sadly, the cake wasn't really seen that night because, by the time we got back to the hotel, Emily had fallen asleep. It was understandable considering the drive, the flight, the bus ride to the hotel, the ride to the magic kingdom, the rides, the fireworks, and then the bus ride back to the hotel; she is only five afterall.

I'm reluctant to describe our entire week at Disney so I'll spare you most of the details and I'll just stick with the highlights for the girls; the biggest of which was their trip to the Bibby Bobbidi Boutique which is kind of like a beauty parlor for kids. The girls both had their hair done in a Cinderella hairstyle, they had makeup applied, and "pixie dust" liberally coating them. They both seemed to really dig the whole experience and they both looked cool when it was all done. It was weird seeing Emily with makeup on. Shannon has had to have heavy makeup applied before for dance recitals but Emily hasn't; it was really really strange to see her all dolled up. You can see a bunch of photos from Disney if you'd like

Overall, the weather while were there was cold but dry except for the Thursday of our week when it rained hard. We had gone to the Animal Kingdom and we were soaked and cold by the time we got back to the hotel so we spent Thursday afternoon at downtown Disney checking out the shops. We did that all backwards because Thursday afternoon turned out to be really nice. The best thing about the rain in the morning was that the Animals were all out on the safari ride and all of the characters were in one building (which was mostly devoid of guests) so the girls were able to meet 7 or 8 characters without having to wait in line at all. We also got to see a monkey going through dental surgery which was kind of cool. They had just brought in a local dental surgeon come in to do it since the procedure was pretty much the same for the monkey as for a human.

After we got back from Disney I had to work for one week before starting my 2 weeks of holiday vacation. It was the first time since 2009 (our honeymoon) that I had taken 2 weeks off in a row. With weekends that equated to 16 days off! Sweet. For the first four days I called it "Billcation" and I mostly just sat around and read some books. At the end of the four days Lisa was then off work and we celebrated our own little Festivus on Dec 24 where I gave Lisa her big gift, a trip to the Grand Canyon this summer. I went to the canyon while I was in the Army and it was amazing. Lisa hasn't seen it so I think she will really dig it. We will actually be staying in Vegas and my brother and his wife will be joining us which will make it extra cool.

After our little celebration we loaded up the car for a trip to Cleveland where we spent about 7 days with Lisa's family. It is always nice to see them. My nephews are all basically young men now which is a little strange but cool. One night my three nephews and I went to a local university to play some pickup basketball. It turns out I still suck but now I am in such bad cardio shape that I couldn't even make up for my lack of skill with effort. Danny and Chris both tried hard and Pete was doing really well from three point land. We played 3 games of 2-on-2 with Pete and I winning the series. Then we switched to a four on four game where Chris (the youngest and shortest) played much better. He had to guard a really big guy (wide, but not really tall) who was pushing Chris all over the place. Chris didn't back down and even swatted a few of the other guys shots. It was great. Danny ended up getting some seriously nasty looking blisters so he and I sat out after the first game of 4-on-4 so that the teams would be even still.

Danny, Chris, and I along with the girls went bowling one day where I dominated with an avg of 146. We all went again another day with Lisa, her sister Jane, and her dad as well and, while I had the best average (146 again) Lisa had the high score of the week with a 178. She had been using a 10 pound ball and was struggling, she moved up to a 12 pound ball and never looked back. It was really cool to see her do so well. I think she and I need to go bowling more often. We both enjoy it and it isn't too expensive (though for the 17 games our group played plus shoe rental it was over $100!)

The only truly negative part of out time in Cleveland, for me, was that I am now officially burnt out on Hand and Foot. We were playing with 7 people in each hand and that is just too many. We really should have broken out into 2 groups because each game just took way too long.

Once we returned from Cleveland my Dad, Patty, and my brother Chris, swung by and we had a nice dinner and they gave me a really nice Scarf for Christmas. I already had a Liverpool Football Club scarf but it isn't very long and its very red so doesn't go that well with my work clothes. It has been fairly cold and windy here lately so a nice scarf fit the bill pretty well. This one is green and gray striped and is very long so I can tie it on like I saw everyone in London doing so now I'm not only warm but fashionable!

Ted sent us a digital picture frame with about 500 photos of his part of the family on it. That was cool because we tend to harass him about getting some photos. My mom sent me three books I've been wanting to read and I've already finished 2 of them. In fact, over the past month I've knocked out 11 books. I have some serious reviewing to get to over on my book blog. Lisa's parents gave me some new rubber for my mountain bike tires that should help improve my grip. I haven't been out riding in a while but I am hoping to hit the hills this weekend with Ed and Mike (and maybe Gilbert).

Finally, we had a small party for my dad's 63rd birthday the night before his actual birthday. We had paella and apple pie. It was great. Plus my dad had put together a prototype for a secret project we are working on and the prototype was perfect. We agreed to work on the final version sometime in the next couple of weeks and I'm really excited about it coming to fruition. I suppose I'll probably let the cat out of the bag when it is done just because I will be so excited about it and want to show it to everyone! Stay tuned.

Stateside

5 min read

I'm home from my business trip to London. I actually arrived back home on Saturday afternoon, around 3pm or so. However, I was really, really tired at the time which led to me not really telling anyone I was home and to a most unfortunate accident on my part.

The five days after my "day 2" post were pretty uneventful in general. Jason and I worked while Mark and Paul had meetings. In the evenings we would go out for a beer and dinner but otherwise Jason and I didn't really see much more of London. Mark and Paul did get an opportunity to ride on the "Eye" one day and I hope to see the photos from that soon.

We flew out Saturday morning and had to be at the airport by 6am so we had to leave the hotel by 5am. Because of this, and the fact that Jason and I weren't packed, and our plans to go out "boozing" with one of the guy sin London on Friday night we decided we wouldn't sleep until we were on the plane. We left work around 6:30pm Friday and headed to a bar fairly close to the office for our first couple rounds of drinks. Once we were done drinking Mark and Paul headed back to the hotel while Jason, Matt (our London guy), and myself hopped in a cab for the White Chapel area of London to eat at a really tasty Pakistani restaurant named Tayyabs. They don't serve alcohol there but you can bring your own. The guy at the table next to us gave us six cans of Carlsberg to drink while we ate just before he left. About 20 minutes later he reappeared and gave us 8 more cans of beer (Heineken and Fosters). It was incredibly generous of him!

We basically hung out at the restaurant until it closed near midnight and then we headed down to the Leichester square area looking for a pub to hang out in. However, all of the pubs close near midnight and the other two weren't particuarly interested in hanging out in a club. We spent a while trying to find an unoccupied cab for Matt to ride home in and finally bid him farewell at around 2am. Jason hung out with me for about 30 more minutes before heading back to the hotel to pack. I wandered around and checked out the various clubs and side streets until around 3:30am when I finally stumbled into the hotel room. I packed and then we gathered in the lobby for the cab ride to the hotel.

At Heathrow I picked up a bottle of Sheridans Liquor for Lisa. She had tried it on our cruise years ago and really liked it but I have never been able to buy it in the states so I picked up a bottle duty free. I had to stow it in my carry on for the flight to Dulles. I had planned on sleeping for a large portion of that flight but we ended up sitting behind two 3 year old twins who had blast playing and goofing off. Nearly everytime I dozed one of them managed to wake me again. Once in DC, I had to bury Lisa's gift in my checked bag because you can't take that much fluid on a plane.

We had about an hour layover at Dulles before loading onto our small prop plane for Charleston. I did sleep for a good portion of that one hour flight. Once we arrived in Charleston I pulled the bottle back out of my suitcase to make sure it survived (it did!). Then Jason and I piled into his car for the drive to Huntington. Jason dropped me off, I unloaded my bags and my bottle, and then opened our mailbox to gather the weeks worth of mail that had accumulated. In my utter exhaustion I wasn't really thinking and tried to shift some things in my hand to make room for the mail and I dropped the bottle of Sheridans which instantly shattered on the driveway. I was so pissed at myself and full of a great many "why didn't I?" type questions. Why didn't I just take my bags in first? Why didn't I put the bottle back in my carry on or suitcase once I knew it was OK? Why why why? I felt like crap that I had destroyed Lisa's gift.

I collected the mail and then headed inside to wait for Lisa and the girls to get home from Hilton Head. I had a long wait. Eventually I went out for dinner (around 6pm) and then came home and kept trying to stay awake until, finally, Lisa and the girls arrived around 10pm. I helped get the girls to bed and then went straight to bed and fell into a solid sleep for the night only to be woken around 7am to go to church? WTF? I don't go to church. But off we went becuase the service was supposed to be Shannon's schools service. Shannon wasn't involved though and I really don't think I'll be suckered into going back for another one. After my mockery of church participation we came home and then planned on going to a movie (Beverly Hills Chihuahua - which, while lame, was still better than the Astronaut bug movie I recently saw).

London : Day 2

4 min read

Our second day in London got off to a slow start thanks to our late partying the night before. Jason and I both slept until around 10am. However, after that I think we made great use of our time.

We gathered up Mark and Paul and headed on the tube towards the Science museum. While some parts of it were oddly mundane, such as the "Household Materials" section which featured such simple items as tootpaste and baking soda, other parts were fantastic. There was a large section just on math; specifically dealing with calculus and geometry. There was also a nice section on various ships throughout time populated with incredibly detailed models. Some were huge and all were amazing.

We spent quite a bit of time in the museum until Mark, Jason, and I kind of gave up. Right next door was the natural history museum but we didn't really have the motivation to hang out in museums all day. Paul actually started to get the flu or something equally irritating so he kind of wanted to go back to the hotel. However, we looked at the map and saw we were only a few blocks from Harrods so we all decided to head over there and see that part of town.

We hardly spent any time at Harrods at all - maybe 15 minutes tops. We walked through their fine watch department and some of the watches pricetags lived up to the billing. I saw many at the 30-50k pound range; that's the $60-100k range in USD. We walked out of Harrods and there were two Ferrari's and a Mazeratti parked on the curb. Amazingly those weren't the nicest cars we saw. In fact, when we first got off the tube to go to the science museuem a Lamborgini store was just across the street so we swung by and imagined we could take a test drive. In reality we couldn't even enter the store.

After Harrods I thought Paul was going to head back to the hotel but then we realized we were fairly close to Hyde Park so we headed that way, then we were going to load Paul on a train but realized we were close to Buckingham Palace so we went over there.

We couldn't actually get close to the Palace, it is pretty well fenced off but we did get some nice photos of the famous guards. I was a little disappointed I couldn't get close to them though since Lisa really wanted me to get a photo up close. As we were leaving and heading down the main drive up to the Palace we saw a satellite guard shack that was just about to go through a changing of the guards. Sweet. I took some nice photos of the guards and Mark took a photo of me with one.

After our encounter with the guards we realized we were close to 10 Downing Street (Prime Ministers House) so we went there, then we saw Big Ben so we went there. By this point it seemed like Paul would never head back to the hotel but we finally split up. Mark, Jason, and I headed to Westminster Abbey but it was closed for tourists on Sundays so we decided to cross the Thames and check out the huge ferris wheel that is the eye. When we got there we ran back into Paul who had also decided to see the wheel.

Finally we headed toward a tube station and rode back to the hotel where we deposited Paul and then went out to dinner. Dinner was at a pitifully bad "pub" that was really more of a chain restaurant that was like a crappy Applebees. All in all it was a really good day and I think we managed to see an amazing amount of stuff. We still haven't made it to the Tower of London nor have we ridden the Eye but both are still planned for later this week.

I've put up some photos from day 2.