Monday, July 17, 2017

50 for 50: 16 -- Hot Air Ballooning with Sam

Once Jacob signed up for Berry Picking, I realized that Alice and Daryl's kid, Sam, could also sign up for a 50 for 50 activity.  He seemed pretty excited about the idea of Hot Air Ballooning, and his dad signed him up.  (Alice would not be going with us as heights aren't her thing.  But Daryl's mom was planning a visit which coincided with Sam's 5th birthday, and Daryl thought they might be able to work it so she could come, too.)

Which is why the day after D23 with Terry, I found myself driving down to Encinitas (which is in North San Diego County).  The drive was largely boring, although I kinda freaked out when I saw Google Maps was taking me on the toll roads and I don't have one those FasTrak transponder thingies.  But the sign said I could make a one-time payment on their website, as long as I did it five days.  (There followed about twenty minutes of me mentally repeating to 133... 241 to 133.  And, in fact, it wasn't until just now that I remembered to pay them.  And I'm about 80% certain I properly told it my route.)  The drive got even more exciting near the end.  I'd vaguely looked ahead on Google Maps, and knew that there were about two turns I'd have to make once I got off the freeway to get to the balloon place.  But, right when I got off the freeway, Google Maps ended and asked if I was happy with my navigation.  No!  I'm not happy!  I'm not there yet!  What the hell do I do at the end of this offramp?

Make a wrong turn is what I did.  Until I got far enough way that Google Maps was able to create a route for me on surface roads.  So I follow my new and improved route ... which ends me pretty near the freeway at ... absolutely nothing?  I mean, there's this Park 'N' Ride lot, but Google Maps has the balloon place right after that and there is nothing there; just the chain link fence separating the sidewalk from the side of the freeway.  I circle around a few times.  I get gas.  I see if Waze is smarter than Google Maps on this.  I finally just park in the Park 'N' Ride, and call the balloon place to see if, in fact, their meeting place IS the Park 'N' Ride lot, and there's no actual office I should be looking for.  I confirm that this is the case.  I also confirm that the restroom for our use is at the gas station.  And that the nearest Starbucks is back down the road I'd made the wrong turn on.  So I go to Starbucks, get a beverage, use their probably-better-than-a-gas-station restroom, and head back (for, like, the third time) to the Park 'N' Ride lot.

Daryl, Sam, and Daryl's mom show up, shortly followed by the balloon people and the other four passengers.  There was a big guy with tattoos on his arms, and his girlfriend/wife/I didn't ask -- they were friendly enough when directly brought into conversation, but otherwise kept to themselves.  And there was a couple from Canada whose son had gifted them the balloon ride.  (More on them later.)  We were told the balloon basket had three compartments -- one for the pilot and two four-person passenger zones.  So the four of us would take one compartment, and the two couples would get friendly in their compartment.  OK.

We drive out to the balloon take-off area.  This wouldn't be notable except one of the balloon guys was questioning Canadian dude about the Canadian government.  For the duration of the ride.  ("Do you have a President?" "How does a Prime Minister get elected?" "Does you guys have, like, a Prince or something?")  Canadian Guy answered every question totally patiently; I wondered if he gets this regularly in the States.  I was sorta growing impatient during the van ride, but Canadian Guy (correctly) approached this with an attitude of "Hey, anytime someone wants to be less ignorant, it's a good thing."  And it isn't like balloon guy was completely on top of American government either.  ("So, the prime minister can't just declare war like our president can?")

Canadian Political lesson ended and we got to the lot.  There were three other balloons there, all unrolled in the lot, awaiting inflation and takeoff.
Even though we were the fourth balloon there, we were the first ones off.  After the Safety Briefing where I was a total smartass.  (Pilot:  As soon as the basket goes vertical, I want you to get into the balloon.  Don't stand around waiting; just climb onboard.  OK, test: as soon as the basket goes vertical, you...?  Me:  We all rush to the balloon and jump in!  Pushing people out of the way!  Climbing over bodies!  Pilot:  OK, now we don't want that happening either.  What did you say, climbing something?  Me:  [looking down]  climbing... over... bodies?)

So, we climbed in the balloon at a reasonable pace where nobody got injured, and the guys who didn't know shit about our neighbor to the North came around the basket snapping picks with everyone's camera for them.
And they released the lines and we were off!  Nice and smooth and riding the currents up over some crazy expensive houses.  We waved at some folks in their swimming pool.  (We also waved at the folks in the other balloons.  And some dude in a powered paraglider.  Basically, we waved a lot.  We're in a balloon!)

The flight is not bumpy at all.  Indeed, as the pilot pointed out, you don't even feel the wind, because you're pretty much moving with it.  It's a very quiet calm ride, and isn't scary at all.

Excepting when we, er, parked.  Experience in airplanes tells your body that you can continue flying in the air as long as you're MOVING, but if you stop, you're going to drop like Wile E. Coyote having just discovered he's run out of cliff.  Now, when the balloon stops, there's SCIENCE holding you in place.  (Some sort of equilibrium between the force of the hot air on the inside of the balloon against gravity.  I don't know what's going on exactly, but I'm pretty sure I drew it out with vectors in High School Physics.)  Our pilot kept throwing a little flame in there any time we needed it to maintain height, but we pretty much just sat at 3000 feet, just above the clouds, and admired the view.

Sam, as befits a five-year-old, was alternating between being bored and saying this was the best day ever.  I particular liked the time when he started yelling, "Mom!" as though she could hear him from 3000 feet up (and about 15 miles away).  (And then "Alice!" because, clearly, he didn't need a response from all Moms in a 15-mile radius.)

During the ride, our pilot kept talking with the chase team on the walkie, trying to plan the location of our landing.  It was not going well.  He'd named a general area, and then we heard him say things like, "the large rectangular field after the white fence."  And then the chase crew responded, and he'd say, "it's a field that looks like a large rectangle."  I questioned if maybe this was a new chase crew.

Since the crew couldn't quite place the rectangular field, we landed in a tiny little valley off an access road (which they COULD place).  The landing was a little bumpy.  Our pilot (who had not shown a massive sense of humor to this point) came up with, "Don't worry; those rocks will break our fall."  We bounced on the rocks a couple times, but ended up nicely landed ON the access road.  Which made loading the balloon and basket back on the trailer a lot easier.  The guys did the loading (after deflating the balloon -- which first covered the entire basket while we were still in it -- and totally reminded me of when we were in kindergarten and played under a giant parachute.  

The pilot opened the Traditional Balloon Champagne (and offered to mix it with the Not Very Traditional Sprite) and we enjoyed our beverages (I had about a half cup of Champagne/Sprite, and two cups of water) while the crew rolled up the balloon.  We drove back to the Park 'N' Ride, where it dawned on me that maybe I shouldn't have had all that water because the Gas Station Bathroom seemed Even Less Appetizing after dark.

I drove those 110 miles home very quickly indeed.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

50 for 50: 15 -- Go to a Con with Terry

Con going is actually one of the few things on my 50 for 50 list which is almost bucket-listy.  I can't say I've NEVER been to a Con before, but my Con going history stopped somewhere in the early 1990s (if I could find the T-shirt, I could pin that date down exactly), and I'm pretty sure the whole Con experience has changed dramatically in the intervening 20+ years.  So this is basically a new thing for me.

When I posed the possibility of going to the D23 Expo, Terry volunteered.  We bought tickets for just one day of the three-day All Things Disney fest -- sort of just dipping a toe in the D23 Experience -- rather than a full-scale dive.

And while most people we met there were friendly, a lot of the other attendees were, um, kinda Hard Cord Disnerds who didn't want to waste time with posers.  (Some folks were EXTREMELY committed to their cosplay.)

But let me back that monorail up and start at the beginning.

The beginning was buying the tickets when they went on sale last year.  The middle was when we later actually LEARNED stuff about the D23 Expo and started realizing that this was a super-crowded affair with plenty of lines and the only way you can end up actually seeing the panels that you want to see WITHOUT a massive wait is if you pay way more money (and get a time machine, because you need to have paid the way more money months ago).  The more we learned ... like that there are three speciality shops inside the convention hall selling cool Disney stuff and that THE SHOPS had three-to-four hour waits in previous years ... the more we thought we might be in over our heads.

But, the day arrived and we gamely started our trip to the Anaheim Convention Center.  The Con opened at 9:00 today.  We toyed with arriving at 9:00 too, but figured everyone would do that, so we figured we'd wait out the crowds and aim for something more 10ish.

"Wait out the crowds."  Ha!

We got to the Convention Center around 10 and were simultaneously hit with two signs that we maybe guessed wrong.  The first was the sign telling us to park over at the Honda Center because Convention Center parking was full.  The second was the long line of people.  The looooooong line of people.  Down the block.  Past the hotel.  And turning around and doubling all the way the back.  At 10.

By the time we got to the Honda Center, parked, and caught the shuttle back to the Convention Center, I could not actually tell you whether the line was longer or shorter.  There were two reasons for this.  The first was that they had decided to move the line from the sidewalk to a set of switchbacks they'd taped on the ground on the premises of the convention center itself (but still out in the hot son).  The second was that the D23 Employee helpfully holding the "End of Queue" sign was not, in fact, at the end of the queue, but rather surrounded by a mob of people.  We found her and asked where to join the line.  Since she was mid-line-move, the most she could say was, "You're fine right there," while crowds of people swirled around us -- either moving in their preset line patterns or, like us, slowly spinning around wondering where the hell we were supposed to go.  We eventually found some people who seemed to be near the end of the line, and stood behind them expectantly.

45 minutes later -- including one little line move in which we feared we were being either booted back on the street or (worse) aimed back toward the "End of Queue" lady -- and we made it into the air conditioned glory of the Convention Center.

Yay!  We made it.

We aim to go inside the actual Con, but are stopped by...

OK, I'm not sure whether this is a Good Idea or a Bad Idea, but it's a Damn Frustrating One for the rest of us.  There's a big hall where all the exciting panels are held at one end of the convention center.  They've decided to use ANOTHER big hall as a holding pen/waiting room for that hall.  And the holding pen hall is at the opposite end of the convention center.  So, when we finally get in the convention center, we can't actually get into the convention, because we're stopped by the parade of several thousand people being transferred from waiting room to big hall.

So THEN we get in.  And our first plan is to wait in another line.  Apparently, the four-hour-lines-for-shops thing last time was considered something of a fiasco, so the D23 people decide to create a "StorePass" -- you pick up a StorePass and this gets you in the store later in the day at a designated time.  Great!  Let's get those!

There's a long line.  The End of Queue person somehow sends us to the wrong line (WTF is wrong with these people?!  They have ONE JOB) but we come back and stand in the right one.  It looks to be about 45 minutes.

About 15 minutes in, they run out of passes for the store we want to get into.  (We later hear, from some pin-trading peeps who share our table at lunch, that they waited SIX HOURS to get into that store yesterday.  So, we're thinking maybe without StorePasses, we're just going to take a Pass on that Store.  We later see one of the OTHER stores -- the one we don't really want to go to anyway, has a standby wait time of over two hours.  Yeah, we're not seeing a lot of Disney shopping in our future today.)

We walk around a few of the NOT Disney-owned tables.  The standard con stuff where people sell their collectibles and memorabilia and licensed merchandise and stuff I'm sure isn't licensed (and don't entirely know how it got in there).  We see some dude selling framed posters and cels, and (I am not making this up) a framed square of carpet from Walt's office.  For $2000.  There is also a U.S. post office selling Disney Villain stamps.  There are something like 5 or 6 windows.  The line is longer than your regular post office on tax day.

We move into another section of the Con -- here's the rather more official stuff.  There's a HUGE Marvel area (many, many switchbacks -- there's something Avengersy going on, but apparently you had to get a wristband for it between 9:00 and 9:30.  I think back to the helpful couple we met when we walked in who said they were in line outside the Convention Center from 6:00 a.m. and didn't get in until after 9:30.  I imagine that if they were Marvel fans, they were pretty ticked).  There's a huge area showing off the model of the planned Star Wars land expansion -- the line to GET IN AND LOOK AT THE MODEL looks to be over an hour.

There's a ... thing.  A Pirates of the Caribbean thing.  It's walled off and you can't tell what's going on in there.  You can't tell if it's about the movies or the ride or a wench auction or ... I don't know, an upcoming video game?  It doesn't really say.  There's a line of people waiting for it in a huge set of switchbacks across the way.  We decide to ask them what they're waiting for.  They DON'T KNOW.  We randomly pull over two different guests at various points in the line, and they just say it's the Pirates thing.  We ask if they know what it is, but they don't.  I think about the stories I heard from Communist Russia -- where if you saw a line on the street, you'd just stand in it, on the theory that you needed whatever product they had at the front of it.  We did not join the line.  Wonder if it was toilet paper.

There was a "Lion King" thing -- they had VR Goggles (and headphones) and you sat down and saw about 90 seconds from "Circle of Life" which they'd recorded in 360 degree VR from the Broadway production.  The line for that looked to be less than 20 minutes, and I figured we should do it largely because WE HADN'T REALLY DONE SHIT and I was getting pretty annoyed.  At amusement parks, I think of the "line to ride" ratio -- how much fun do you get for how much time in line.  At this con, all we'd bloody DONE was wait in line, and I was wanting some fun, even if it was just 90 seconds of VR of a show I've seen live quite a few times.  We waited.  We VR'd.  We got little "Lion King" pins.  I felt a measure of victory, but the con still owed us a great deal more fun if they were going to be worth the wait of getting in.

BTW, here is my huuuuuge souvenir Lion King pin (next to a quarter for scale).

I demanded a photo.  Terry and I would, at the very least, have to get a good picture for my 50 for 50 collection.  There were lots of photo opps around the con -- props ("Lola" from "Agents of SHIELD") and promotional-type things (a Lego BB-8) -- but Terry and I eventually settled on this one.

I found its very existence kind of hilarious.  I mean, it isn't like it's THE ACTUAL BOAT from "Moana."  But we lined up for our photo op on the full-scale outrigger created to look exactly like the one from an animated movie because that's how we roll.

Somewhere in our adventures we had to stop walking entirely for the parade.  NOT the next parade of audience from the holding pen to the main hall, but an ACTUAL PARADE down the middle of the convention hall.  With balloons.  And dancers.  And guests standing about three-people deep on each side, all holding their cell phone in the air to catch a glimpse of what they couldn't see.  They had (allegedly) left a path BEHIND the parade-viewers for guests to squeeze past and just move through the convention hall, but someone about three people in front of us was using a wheelchair and unable to fit into the, oh, 12 or so inches we had to sidle through to get to the clearing on the other side.  So we weren't going anywhere, and while our single-file line of people stopped progressing, we stood there NOT watching the parade.  Dude in front of me got genuinely excited when the "grand marshal" came by, but as it was an actor I'd never heard of from a show I don't watch, I didn't feel bad that my only view of him was through someone's cell phone screen in the air.

(Earlier, Terry had glimpsed Jon Favreau being whisked through the crowds -- probably shuttling between something Lion King-y and something Marvel-y.  I toyed with yelling, "Hey!  Happy!  Why were such a dick to Spider-Man?" but he was already gone, and it probably would have been wrong anyway.)

We went back into the questionably-licensed merchandise.  I bought a crocheted tissue box cover with the SHIELD and Hydra logos on it (for the Geeky Guest Room!) and nearly bought a (totally licensed) "Deadpool" handbag.  Terry and I looked at a bunch of pins someone was selling, and I amused myself by asking for a pin which they knew existed, but had never owned -- a Chip & Dale eating apples and honey for Rosh Hashanah.  (I owned one at one time, but may have lost it during the burglary.)

We left.  The fact that we were leaving early dawned on me-- well, it dawned on Terry when we first drove up and saw the line around the building.  But it dawned on me when we sat down for a rest/snack at a table and sat there for over an hour talking about books we'd read.  And as I sucked back my overpriced Italian Ice and chatted about authors who had disappointed us, I started to think, "we could probably have this conversation someplace else."

As we got home, I told Terry I'd had fun and thanked him for joining me on this adventure.  And, we heartily agreed, we're never going back.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

50 for 50: 14 -- Berry Picking with Jacob (or: Sharon Eats Vegetables -- a photo essay)

(Apparently, I was so tired from zip-lining, I skipped right over "13" when captioning that last post.  Sigh.)

When I initially planned 50 for 50, I had pretty much two rules on it:  (1)  I come to you; and (2)  We pay for ourselves unless you say otherwise.  As I've started actually DOING 50 for 50, and getting people signed up for it, questions have arisen requiring new rules.  Like:  (3) more than one person can team up on a 50 for 50 thing, as long as both agree to it; and (4) additional bonus things are certainly encouraged and enjoyed, but, as far as the list itself goes, it's one per customer.

Somewhere in the twilight space between rules (3) and (4) comes the fact that a good deal of my friends are married ... to people who are also my friends.  Do married couples get two things?  Even if they want to share both things?  Um... why not?!  More fun for me!

Last week, I had the big party with the big calendar -- I invited a bunch of my local friends to come on over (with their calendars), pick an item off the list, and sign up for it on the giganto calendar.  My friends with kids brought their kids.

Leading to the hitherto unanswered question:  What about kids?

I hadn't really considered it, to be honest.  I mean, the 50 for 50 things I've done with various cousins have often included various cousins' kids -- and I have considered that to be one of the huge unexpected wonderful things to come out of the 50 for 50 experiment.  I mean, I haven't even MET many of my cousins' kids, and the ones that I do know, I pretty much only see at Bar Mitzvahs and other family events.  This has been an opportunity to get to see who they are outside the Family Function environment, and get to know a little bit of who they are.  So, yeah, sure, bring your kids, by all means.

It hadn't actually dawned on me that a kid would sign up for something until Jacob -- Peggy and Sabing's kid -- did.  He signed up for "Berry Picking," which is a perfectly normal thing for a ten-year-old to sign up for, and it totally makes sense that I kid I've known (and had fun with, and travelled with -- damn kid skis better than I do) for his whole life would sign up for an activity with me.  (Also totally makes sense that his folks would come along.)

SO.  Berry Picking.  

Tanaka Farms is a small family farm with a lot of educational programs located not quite outside civilization in Irvine.  We'd planned to go today, which was supposed to be the last week of "Strawberry tours," but they kinda ran out of strawberries (kinda -- more on this later), so we signed up for a "melon tour" instead.

$18, by the way.  Which sounded kind of steep, but, in retrospect, was well worth it.

We get to the farm and they're having a "corn festival."  It was small -- maybe ten booths selling stuff (including popcorn -- I impulse bought me some strawberry popcorn, which is delicious, even though Sabing thought it tasted like Frankenberries), and a corn-on-the-cob bar.  I almost bought a cob to snack on before the tour, but didn't.  This turned out to be wise.

The "melon tour" involves piling into a cart pulled by a trailer, and going for a short drive around the farm.  You stop for tastings of various vegetables -- they have coolers set up along the route, containing fresh (but already cleaned) produce.  They pass samples around the trailer (and you can just chuck the rinds, leaves, or whatever you don't want outside the trailer for composting purposes -- tossing the leftovers while you eat is actually a very freeing experience).  Before we started, our guide asked us to promise to be "brave tasters," and I figured that I had to be a brave little taster since there were kids around and I was trying to be a good example because I'm pretty sure that's what grown-ups do.  (Then again, I had "Berry Picking" on my list, so I'm not sure I'm super grown-up to start with.)

First stop was cilantro.

And cherry tomatoes.  (I still don't like tomatoes.  But I ate it.  At least they were tiny.)

Then there were green beans. 

And carrots.

(By which time, Peggy -- who was sitting across from me in the trailer -- said this whole thing was just going to be Pictures of Sharon Eating Vegetables.  Which seemed even more monumental than Sharon Having Two Drinks.)

The last stop was sweet corn.  Which was AWESOME.

The tour guide said this was the last tasting stop, and I thought maybe I'd dodged a bullet on squash and zucchini, but NO.  The last REAL stop was the melon tent.  They set up a big overhang in the middle of the farm, with a bunch of hay bales to sit on, and we all got out of the trailer and under the tent.  Then, our driver picked up the Biggest Damn Knife You've Ever Seen, and started cutting up fresh vegetables, which our guide put on plates and passed around for tasting.  Including the dreaded squash and zucchini.

I continued being a Good Little Taster.

I will reluctantly concede that fresh squash is inoffensive.  (Fresh zucchini tastes inoffensive, but lost me at the texture.)  We also got cucumbers which were super flavorful.

Then the melons.  OMG, the melons.  Orange honeydew; green honeydew; seeded red watermelon; seedless red watermelon--

and not little pieces, either.  Big wedges.  And they cut enough for seconds.  Sometimes thirds.  I was so full of melon (no photos, btw -- nobody needs photographic evidence of me slurping watermelon) that I was grateful I hadn't had any lunch.  My GOODNESS there was a lot of fruit.

They weren't done yet.  From the Saving The Best For Last department, they brought out yellow watermelon.  Seriously -- the flesh is yellow.  Bright yellow.  Piss yellow.  It's like God said, "I'm going to make this fruit the color of urine, but lo, for those brave enough to consume it, they will partake of the sweetest freakin' melon I have placed upon this earth.  For I haveth a sense of humor."  That was just crazy CRAZY good.  I had seconds.  I would have eaten more, but I was pretty full up on melon.

Then they lined us up and gave us parting gifts -- our very own seedless red watermelons to take home.  

We put our watermelons in the car and then came back for one last thing.

Behind the little produce market and before you get to the actual fields, they have about a dozen rows of strawberries, and you can get a little basket and do some pickin!  So me and Jacob got to pick berries after all!  Yay!!

Friday, June 30, 2017

50 for 50: 13 -- Zip-lining with Derek!

I'm wiped.

I am so wiped.  It'll be super-impressive if I get to the end of this post without falling asleep on my Chromebook, but I feel like I need to 'blog this weekend before I forget how I feel.

Which is exhausted.  And satisfied.

When I started the 50 for 50 trips, my sister called, reviewed some items on the list, and said she wanted "Zip-lining."  But at dinner tonight, she claimed something else from the list, so we decided that Zip-lining would officially be Derek's.

We wanted the "Sunset" zip-lining tour in Boulder Canyon, outside of Vegas.  Unfortunately, it wasn't as sunsetty as we'd hoped.  Also, this was a "special" tour they needed four people for -- so we ended up putting this one together for this weekend in particular, since Cousin Roni and I were planning to meet in Vegas anyway.  With Joyce and Derek coming in, this was starting to look Super Fun!

We met last night for dinner once we'd all gotten in.  I'd also picked up a Groupon (yay) for the Ice Bar here, which seemed like a fun idea, but a somewhat LESS fun one when I realized we were all wearing flip-flops.  Joyce didn't last that long in there -- but she was a good sport in the freezing weather -- and we got some good pictures and had a drink and a laugh or two.

(I actually consumed TWO drinks that night.  For what might have been the second time in my life.  Derek was impressed.  I was pretty amused that I've gotten this far without being actually DRUNK, but now didn't seem like the time to push that particular envelope.)

And I slept well.  Really well.  Roni and I just hung in the room in the morning for a couple hours -- didn't do much except a little gambling.  (The "Simpsons" machine was pretty good to her.)  Then we met up with Joyce for lunch, and Derek afterward (he'd had work to do) for the Uber out to the Zip-line place.

Fun fact:  the Zip-line people were super nice, providing water pretty much EVERYWHERE (coolers at each platform), joking with us all the way, but generally being right on top of safety.

Slightly less fun fact:  To actually zip-line, you take a bus up to the top of the mountain.  Except it isn't to the top.  And you're supposed to walk that last 15 minutes.  While wearing your harness.  And carrying the heavy metal trolley that hangs over the zip line.  I could barely hold the trolley, much less hike in 110 heat, uphill, carrying one.  The zip line guys took my trollery.  And, at one point on the way up the hill, offered to stop and carry me.  Clearly, I am not in the best shape ever.  (Another couple was on the tour with us, and they speculated that it was because of the elevation and heat -- and not beause I'm wildly out of shape.  They're my new best friends.)

The zip-lining was super fun!  Four lines, one as long as a half mile.  Two dipped down enough that you didn't even need to brake -- gravity gave you enough speed to just make it across.  (Well, that worked for MOST of us.  SOMEONE stopped just before the end of the line and had to be pulled in with the Stick of Shame.)  But it really was spectacularly fun!  I was feeling SPENT from the hike up to the lines, and possibly a little nauseous from drinking too much water while trying to stay hydrated -- but as soon as I actually went down the first line, I felt GREAT!

(We skip here the Uber back to the hotel, which was my second Uber ever, and first possibly insane Uber driver.  She got us here, but she had issues.  Many issues.  Makes you think you've got a to be a special kind of crazy to want to drive tourists around Vegas without actually going to the trouble of getting a taxi license.)

I adore zip-lining.  If you ignore the Unfortunate Hike, it's a great deal of fun for very little physical outlay of energy.  I'm totally into that.  And I was so touched that my sister and brother flew out for this ... AND that I got a weekend with cousin Roni.


Monday, June 5, 2017

50 for 50: 12 -- Tea at Snooty Hotel with Margret

I like tea.

I like afternoon tea.

I like afternoon tea at snooty hotels.

I partake of all of these things at a somewhat greater frequency than what we'll call "normal people," so it's no surprise that "tea at snooty hotel" was on my 50 for 50 list.  And (much like Escape Rooms), tea is probably going to show up in my 50 for 50 adventures more than once.  But it officially got checked off the list today, at the lovely Fairmount Olympia here in Seattle, with my friend Margret.

Margret was a former coworker.  We became friends pretty much instantly when she was hired, and even travelled together once.  (We went up to Whitehorse Canada and saw the Northern Lights.  There are many pictures of us dogsledding together.)  But she left the court after a few years to go back to Seattle, be with family, and rejoin law firm life.  If you need legal advice on ERISA, she's your woman.

It is the nature of the work experience that co-workers come and go -- retirements, career changes, moving away -- there are any number of reasons that people you are used to seeing five days a week pass in and out of your life.  But I did MISS Margret, because she was a genuinely fun person and a good friend, and I really only kept up with her afterwards with a brief email exchange every six months or so.

When I realized the train trip would bring me up to Seattle, I immediately contacted her in the hopes we could sneak in a 50 for 50 thing.  (This was back when we were going to come up in May.)  She was going to be away for the weekend, but would be back in time for a quick tea on Monday.  Great!  Let's do it!  When the derailment forced us to move the trip, we ended up rescheduling for ... another weekend that Margret was going to be out of town.  But she offered to come back a day early so we could still have tea!

Met her in the Fairmount lobby and ended up spending 2 1/2 hours lingering over tea.  (Blueberry scones with apricot preserves -- nummy.  The tea sandwiches looked very small, but were filling, particularly on top of two scones and followed by, like, four bite-sized desserts.  Nothing was extraordinary, but it was all solidly good.  On the Tastiness scale, I'd give it about a 7.  None of which, of course, was the point.)  The point was the catching up with Margret -- lots of news there.  Big things like making partner and buying a house and adopting a dog.  Little things (but just as important) like baking challah and trying to figure out exactly WHICH type of classical musical she likes (something I've never quite figured out for my own self).  We talked and laughed and hugged (and I forgot to take a picture) and it was so delightful finding out where our lives had followed similar paths (and where we completely diverged).  I know it's probably going to be another few years before I see her again, but I'm pretty sure the next time I do, we'll just pick up where we left off.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

50 for 50: 11.5 -- Finishing Up the Sleeper Car

I'm now in my hotel in Seattle.  The bathroom alone is bigger than my roomette on the train.  (The tub very nearly is.)  And I've got a little bit of that "is the room rocking" feeling you get when you've been on something moving for too long.  I've felt it from boats before; this is the first time I've been on a train long enough that being Not On A Train feels odd.

It was a really nifty trip, but it was just about as long as I'd want to be on a train -- they've got routes that are three nights long; I think that would get old pretty quick. (Some of it actually DID get old.  Like the, uh, cleanliness of the community shower.  And possibly some of food items.)

But two days was just right.  And we had quite a lot of lovely nature to see outside the windows.  

[And that's as far as I got writing this last night.  Complete sentences were deserting me at a pretty good clip, so I put down the computer and slept the sleep of the exhausted.]

In my last post, I noted the woman who got irritatingly political (anti-Crunchy-Lefty-Radicals) at dinner.  And now, for the other side:  As we're riding through Oregon (many billboards re: marijuana tourism), we are joined in the Parlour Car by a guy provided by the Trails & Rails program (Amtrak partnered with the National Park Service for this), who gets all facty about Upper Klamath Lake and that blue heron I failed to take a picture of.  Nature Guy is vaguely interesting; he could be a lot better.  I mean, there's crazy beautiful nature going on outside my window, and he's talking about WATER RIGHTS -- how all the people with different interests in the water came together and negotiated a deal that made everyone ... well, it made NOBODY happy, but apparently that's the best you can hope for when negotiating who gets to use the water.

There are about 7 of us listening to him, and one guy immediately pipes up, "I guess we need to keep the EPA after all."

I respond with something between a snort and a chuckle.

Trails & Rails guy (who, I am certain, has been very carefully instructed on this point) says that he's not here to take a position on any political issue; he's just talking about the national park.

Guy who had asked about the EPA immediately apologizes, says he wasn't asking seriously, but just wanted to see what kind of reaction he'd get.  He seemed satisfied with the reaction; all of us were stifling giggles.  I immediately liked this dude; spent the rest of the trip exchanging amused expressions with him.

Including later in the trip, when we happened upon Trails & Rails guy speaking to another group, and giving them the same fascinating water rights talk.


Another fun thing I've learned this trip is that Marty & Linda do crosswords.  Not together, exactly.  One of them will work it for a while, then hand it off to the other.  It'll go back and forth a bit, and eventually get finished.  They included me in the Circle O' Crossword Solving, and it was fun.  Fun learning which things they know and which things they don't.  Fun learning where my knowledge neatly fits in with that of my friends.  Fun finishing a challenging little project together.

Fun putting this 50 for 50 in the books!

Friday, June 2, 2017

50 for 50: 11 -- Sleeper Car up the Coast with Marty and Linda

OK, I'll admit it -- this one IS sort of a bucket list thing.  Train travel.  Sleeper car.  Lounge in the vintage Pacific Parlour Car.  (Dress vaguely period-appropriate.)  I've wanted to give this one a try ever since I heard about it -- and the fact that our Amtrak Coast Starlight is supposed to be one of the prettiest train trips in the country sealed it a spot on the list.

Marty and Linda were not that hard to convince.  We made plans and were pretty much on the same page from the start -- sleeper car, separate rooms (but in the same car).  I got a "roomette"; they got the larger "bedroom."  We were originally supposed to go in early May -- but a freight train derailment damaged the tracks and postponed our trip.

(My standard position on travel insurance is that I don't buy it unless there's a reason to do so.  This derailment/rescheduling showed me exactly how many moving parts were in this trip:  the train ride itself; my schedule; Marty & Linda's schedule; the schedule of my friend in Seattle; the Seattle hotel I'd booked on Hotwire (no refunds!); and the flight home.  I was able to get most of it moved to this weekend.  (The hotel, I have to say, was a particularly good sport about this -- giving me a list of weekends on which they'd honor my previous Hotwire booking.  If they actually give me the room as promised, I will post very nice things about them all over the web.)  The only thing I couldn't move was the flight home -- the change fee cost twice as much as a whole new flight.  So, I ate about $88 on this one.  All things considered, not bad.)

So, we packed up our stuff--

Yes, I bought a hat box for this.  You don't go all 1940s with your wardrobe to take a sleeper car and NOT have a damn hat box.  (At least, I don't.)

-- so, we packed up our stuff, drove to Union Station, and piled onto the Coast Starlight.

Here's what you'll want to know about a roomette:  Ever since I first heard about those Japanese pod hotels, I've wondered what it would be like to sleep in one.  Well, wonder no longer.  A roomette is two oversized seats facing each other -- with a picture window between on one side, and a door to the hallway on the other.  At night, the two seats come together to form a bed, and another bunk flips down from the ceiling.  And... that's about it.  There's a fold-out table someplace, controls for the lights and climate, a single outlet, and a ledge that's just about the width of the hat box.  (The ledge does double duty -- providing both a place to keep an overnight bag AND a step to use if you're trying to leap into the upper bunk.  Actually, there are directions here for the upper bunk -- you don't leap into it, you "roll into bunk" and then "secure safety net."  I get that this room CAN sleep two people, but I'd only advise it if the second person is still young enough that rolling into an upper bunk you need a net to not roll out of is An Adventure.)  Marty and Linda wisely took the bedroom -- it has a double bed AND indoor plumbing (one of those shower rooms with the toilet in it).

But the rooms don't entirely matter because we spend all our time in the Parlour Car (and Dining Car).  The Parlour Car is vintage (although it has been renovated) and the Coast Starlight is the only route that still runs it.  The upper level has a bar at one end and easy chairs at the other, with big windows (including bendy ones that curve onto the ceiling around the top of the car).  It's perfect for sight-seeing or meeting people or just hanging out.  (It also has the best Wi-Fi on the train.  Meaning it has Wi-Fi.  Sometimes.)

The dining car takes reservations.  We sleeping car passengers get our meals included, and the single dining car -- which is all about 4-person booths -- just packs us in and cycles us through.  Since there are three of us, and the tables seat four, Amtrak parks a solo traveller with us at each meal.  (If we found a new best friend, we could just make our reservation for 4.  As it is, though, there are a lot of solo travellers, so we keep spinnin' the wheel o' dinner companions to see who we'll get.)

What kind of person (besides us, of course) decides to take a train up the coast?  I imagine there are some people who just can't afford the $88 plane ticket.  They're going to be in coach.  (We don't see them -- there's an observation car in the middle of the train where passengers in all classes can mingle; but since we've got the private Parlour Car, I have yet to see a need to go down there.)  The ones who will PAY MORE for a sleeper car than a flight are quite a mixed bag of individuals.  Some are afraid to fly.  Some hate flying.  Some are train enthusiasts.  We've met a lot of repeat customers here, although the ones who seem to be having the most fun are the ones who, like me, came here imagining all the romance of train travel -- while the repeat customers carry "fix-it kits" with duct tape, velcro, and tools, to fix whatever they anticipate will go wrong in their room THIS time.

In the first, say, nine hours on the train, we had lovely conversations with everyone we've met, with everyone staying the hell away from politics.  And then tonight's dinner companion, in what had started out as a conversation telling us what we can do in our 30-minute station stop in Portland -- somehow went off on how Portland is being taken over by radicals.  Lefty radicals.  Crunchy lefty radicals.  Whose threats to protest have shut down the Portland Rose Parade this year and she doesn't know why the city government would kowtow to the crunchy lefty radicals and let them control whether the parade is going to happen.  (Why?  WHY do people assume you agree with them politically and just rant on in the middle of an otherwise decent dinner?)  Marty initially cautiously followed up, asking her what the people were protesting that would cause them to want to cancel the parade?  (He also threw in something about, um, HELLO!  It's PORTLAND!  Where some dude just killed two people because of RACISM.  I swear -- Taliesin Myrddin Namkai Meche looks pretty crunchy and lefty to me, and that man died a fucking hero JUST THIS WEEK.  If that's what a crunchy lefty radical acts like, let's fill the damn country with them.  That'll fucking make America great again.)  But, no, I didn't say any of that.  I just stared at my food while Marty appeared to be testing if Dinner Companion over there was capable of an actual political discussion (wherein, perhaps, she could be convinced, with things like facts and reason).  Conclusion:  probably not.  When asked what the lefties were protesting about the rose parade, she didn't know, couldn't say, just "something political."  When he mentioned the racist murders of earlier this week, she seemed nonplussed.  Okay, we're dealing with someone who just hates crunchy lefty radicals on general principle (or lack thereof).  Marty just changed the damn topic.  Just changed it.  Didn't say, "Let's not talk politics or anything."  It was just a flat out, "So, when did you move to Arizona?" type of thing.  I adored it.  I have to remember that; it was very deftly done.

Well... to bed now.  I'm snuggled in my pod, various curtains not quite closing and broken parts clicking (should have brought a fix-it kit), but hopeful the train will rock me to sleep as it zooms north.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

50 for 50: 10 -- Mini-golf with Cousins Adam and Laura

I've shown my (incomplete) list of "50 for 50" activities to a few people.  And each one who has looked at it has had the same reaction:  "Mini-golf?  REALLY??"

Yeah, well, there's a reason for that.  

Some folks are looking at this as a "bucket list."  It isn't.  First, I'm too young to have a bucket list, thanks much.  But, second, this is a list of stuff I just enjoy doing with other people, and knocking items off the list is as much about the people as it is about the stuff.  So, no, I didn't fly to Fort Lauderdale "just" to play a round of mini-golf.  I flew to Fort Lauderdale to spend the day with my cousin and his family; the putt-putt was just an excuse.

Got in late Friday night (insert here a rather lengthy flight delay -- Atlanta airport was still trying to work off the delay from the storms on Wednesday.  While my plane was there on time, the crew to fly it was coming in on flights which were themselves delayed.)  By the time I got the rental car and got myself checked into my hotel, it was pretty late.  Cousins Adam and Laura had already eaten, but they piled the kids in the car and met me for dessert while I had some dinner.

(Insert here a rather embarrassing navigational error, by which I managed to get lost on the way to a restaurant located about a half mile from the hotel.  I blame Google Maps.)

The actual 50 for 50 was, as previously mentioned, a game of mini-golf.  Which happened today.

I've remarked at several other times in my journey that a lot of what has been valuable in these trips has been meeting my cousins' kids and watching my cousins be parents.  Cousins Adam and Laura were my first cousins to have kids (their eldest is in college now), so I've seen them as parents for quite some time.  Still, it was good to check in with them and the non-college-aged kids.  Particularly, the youngest one, who is 12.  I think I last saw her about 3 years ago, and there's a real big difference between 9 and 12.  OMG, girlfriend is soooo 12 -- Naomi is much smarter and more articulate than she used to be; more self-assured; better sense of humor (shaped by her father).  But she's also developing teenage cynicism, teenage pouting, and an inexplicable obsession with a K-Pop band.  She's not as good at mini-golf as she wants to be, and she frustrates easily when she fails -- which, of course, makes further failure that much more likely.  But she also can't quite get a handle on when it's appropriate to be snarky and when it isn't.  Now, her older sister has Down Syndrome, so she had her own challenges (mostly motor skills-related) in the mini-golf.  Her parents made a game of helping her; cousin Laura helped her hit the ball at the start and cousin Adam provided a human backstop behind the cup, making it that much easier for her ball to drop in.  (She tried a few putts on her own; her form wasn't textbook, but she NAILED a few of them.)  But, from time to time, we were all assisting Sarah a bit.  

Now, occasionally Cousin Adam didn't take his own play all that seriously either; if he missed a putt and the ball ran to the other side of the cup, maybe he'd take that next stroke before his ball strictly stopped running.  Part of it was just being silly; part of it was speeding the game along (seemed there was ALWAYS a family behind us waiting for us to finish a hole); and part of it was just, y'know, not caring.  But sometimes the 12-year-old would try to pull off the same hit-the-ball-another-time-before-it-starts-rolling thing.  She was unsuccessful -- both because she just didn't have the Mad Putting Skillz to catch a ball while in motion, but also because she just didn't have the RIGHT to do it.  She wasn't trying to be silly or to move the game along; she was trying to get herself out of a bad situation by cheating. 

As often with these 50 for 50 things, I was observing all the meta going on rather than just playing the game.  Trying to conspiratorially whisper advice in the 12-year-old's ear while simultaneously sympathizing with her parents when she's giving dramatic overreactions a try.  It must be hard being 12.  In some ways, she's got the brains to keep up with the grown-ups, but not the emotional maturity.  But she's definitely a good kid in there -- she's just trying to feel her way into being a teenager.

But we didn't JUST play mini-golf.  Adam and Laura then dropped the kids off at Adam's parents' house.  (They kids were spending a couple nights there.  So was the bunny.   And one of the 12-year-old's friends was at the house.  So Cousin Laura opens the bunny carrier to get the bunny out of that and into the hutch, and the bunny makes a break for freedom, hopping all over the the dining room.  Naomi's friend squeals and runs after the bunny, and it's like the house just went from same to crazy all at once.)

But I had asked Adam and Laura for one activity with the kids and one activity without them, so, for our adults-only activity, we went (with another of their friends -- Hi Corinne!) to an Escape Room.

Laura had booked us into a room called "Death and Breakfast."  While the guy running the place was handcuffing us to the walls(!) he explained theme of the room:  we've been on a cross-country road trip, stopped in a hotel, and woke up the next morning chained to the walls of a dungeon, and we've got an hour before the cannibal gets back.  (And I thought, "Wow, we've made some bad choice, haven't we?")  But we got ourselves uncuffed quickly, and escaped the room with about 15 minutes to spare.  Although a lot of the props in the game (and the creepy sound effects) weirded me out, I quite enjoyed the game, because we played it solidly as a team.  There were a lot of two-part clues -- you'd need to figure both the numbers in the clue and the order in which to put the numbers -- and I often got the first half of the clue but someone else had to get the second.  And, somehow, in the midst of all the puzzle solving and body parts, we managed to crack each other up with a series of off-color jokes.  (C'mon, it started with handcuffs and went downhill from there.)  We finished up the evening with dinner, because there's nothing like escaping a psychopathic cannibal to work up a good appetite.

So, yes, Mini-Golf.  Abso-freakin-lutely.

Friday, April 7, 2017

50 for 50: 9 -- Do Something Charitable, with Molly

Some of the stuff on my 50 for 50 list has flexibility built into it.  Such as "Do Something Charitable."

Let me introduce you to Canine Companions for Independence.  They breed puppies, turn the puppies into service dogs, match those dogs with people whom they can help, and then give the dogs to the people.  This is a totally free service for the people who need the dogs.  They matched Molly and Patterson.

It is hard to make a puppy into a service dog.  They send the puppies to volunteer puppy raisers, who raise the puppies from about 8 weeks to eighteen months, bring the puppies with them everywhere they go, and teach the puppies a bunch of commands.  (Then the puppies go off for more serious training to get ready to be matched.)  The puppy raisers (and the puppies) go to classes and work on the commands.  

I went to a puppy training class today.  I saw the puppies work on things like not getting distracted when someone is standing nearby with a very enticing squeaky toy; running to their human when called; and a great little thing called "wait."  I'd seen "wait" in action when Molly (and Patterson) and I went to the aquarium the day before.  I was pushing the chair, and I learned pretty quickly that there were doorways and pathways that were too narrow for the chair and the dog to go through simultaneously.  I asked Molly if Patterson should go ahead of the chair or after it.  She said, after -- and told Pat to "wait."  I'd push her through the doorway while Pat stayed behind on the far end of the leash, then he'd follow through the doorway and join Molly back at her side.  Seems pretty simple; Pat must have done it a couple dozen times at the aquarium.  But it has to be TAUGHT.  And, at the puppy class, the volunteer puppy raisers went up to every doorway in the training room and practiced telling their puppies to wait while they walked a step through the doorway.  Getting the dog to hold the position (without a "sit" or "stay") isn't natural, and everyone was working on it, just one step at a time.  I was pretty impressed.

Actually, what impressed me the most was a command called "release."  You know how you're not supposed to pet a service dog when they're working?  That's because even if they don't look like they're under command, they are.  And the way you really truly know this is that a handler has a "release" command, which takes the dog off duty.  Here's me, sitting on the floor, watching the puppy class happen.  One of the volunteers brings her dog over to me and starts to chat.  While we talk, her dog looks at me.  Because I'm on the floor, his face is pretty much right in my face.  There's a puppy nose a few inches from my nose.  The handler asks if I want to say "hello."  I innocently say "yes."  The handler gives the dog the "release" command and instantly, I'm covered in excited puppy.  The dog licks me, then lies on his back across my legs, begging for a belly rub.  We went from zero to eleven with one command.  And I realized then how strong puppy training is; while under command, that dog just stood there NEAR me, but not actually INTERACTING WITH me -- not until she gave him permission to go off duty and just be his wacky self.

Molly and Patterson were guests in this class.  (Patterson did the whole come-when-called thing, then impressed everyone by doing "leash" -- picking up his leash and giving it to Molly when she asked.)  But they didn't come to Atlanta just to drop in on a CCI class; they came to Atlanta to drop in on THIS class.

Because THIS is where Patterson came to class as a puppy.  And his puppy raisers were back with a new puppy.  And Molly and Patterson came to have a reunion with Patterson's puppy raisers and to meet their new puppy.

Patterson's puppy raisers are a really cool couple who have put a lot of time and effort into raising two (going on three) puppies and then handing them off to people who need them.  They've kept in touch with Molly because they share a connection through Patterson.  (Once or twice today, the puppy raiser offered to take Patterson over to the grassy area for a little toileting break; Molly said yes.  And I thought, "great, someone else is handling the toileting."  And Molly said that she just wanted to let Pat and the raiser work together again, because they both enjoyed it.)  

Yesterday, at the aquarium, I saw the relationship between a service dog and the person it helps.  Today I got to see the complex and beautiful relationship between someone who put time and love and effort into raising a service dog and the person whose life was changed by that dog.  

I made a donation to CCI, in thanks for giving me a peek into what they do.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

50 for 50: Pre-9 -- Getting the F*ck to Atlanta to see Molly

As loyal(ish) readers of my Facebook page know, I was supposed to get on a flight from Knoxville to Atlanta around 3:30 yesterday afternoon.  Then 4:30.  Then 6:00, 6:30 and 7:00.  Then, no really, we'll board at 7:30.  We'll board at 7:45 for an 8:30 takeoff.  We'll update you again at 8:30.  We'll update you at 9:00.  Oh, sorry about the cancellation.

As early as 4:00, Steve had offered (half-jokingly, I assumed) to drive me to Atlanta.  Around 9:00, with Delta customer support putting everyone on hold (the storm had caused the cancellation of something like 300 flights), and no rental cars to be had at the Knoxville airport, I was thinking that, um, yeah, maybe I'd need to take him up on it.

The problem was that the storm was NOW approaching Knoxville, and words like "hail" and "tornado warning" were being thrown around.  Steve was willing to drive me, but needed to wait another half hour to see if the weather would clear.  More time passed.  I got my luggage back, my refund (Delta couldn't get me on another flight until after 5:30 p.m. the next day), and noticed that there was a nice little covered walkway from the baggage claim to the airport Hilton.  I was WIPED from my eight or so exciting hours in the Knoxville airport; Steve was estimating another 45 minutes before he could get me; and that Hilton was looking super-enticing.  I opened up the Hilton app and ended up booking their last room -- a nice disabled-accessible room.  Grab bars 'round the john; light switches lowered; the whole bit.  I walked over while lightning crashed all around me, then crashed in the room.

Steve, bless him, picked me up around 6:00 in the bloody a.m. for our three-and-half-hour cruise to Atlanta.  We were aiming for early because I'd pre-purchased tickets for the Atlanta Aquarium at the Early Bird Discount rate, and you could only use them if you got to the aquarium by 10:30.  Seeing as I didn't want to drag my luggage around the Aquarium, Steve needed to drop me at my Atlanta hotel first.

And he did, at just after 10:00.  I checked in and went up to our room.

Now, unlike the Knoxville Airport Hilton, we actually NEEDED an accessible room here.  And we booked one, too.  A "Suite Mobil Accessible Roll Shwr" room.  Several e-mails with the manager before arrival confirmed that this room in fact, has a roll-in shower and toilet grab-bars.  Arriving at the room (which did, in fact, have the little wheelchair icon on the door, so, yeah, this WAS their accessible suite), I find that BOTH of the bathrooms have regulars tubs -- no roll-in shower.  And each has a single vertical grab-bar on the wall near the shower -- nowhere near the toilet (and not likely much use for the shower, either).  They flat-out LIED to me (or switched the room and thought we wouldn't notice).  Weasels.  

But, no time for that.  I had to get going to get myself to the Aquarium in time.

Now, Molly and her mom were driving here from Alabama.  They hit a bunch of traffic and were running late, so I was going to talk about sneaking her in after the Early Bird deadline.  But I had some trouble actually talking to someone -- because you had to go through security and mobs of people just to get to someone who would look at your ticket.  And I realized I couldn't just meet Molly after security, because her mom was going to the hotel (rather than the Aquarium with us), so I needed to meet them at their car to hand off a room key.

This seemed UTTERLY IMPOSSIBLE (especially when there were three different roads on which they could be driving) until, by magic, the car aiming down the street started cheerfully honking at me.  (No.  Way.)  Molly was quickly dropped off; Patterson -- her service dog -- also dropped off; the hotel key was exchanged; and we tried to get Patterson to take a quick toileting break before we went to the Aquarium and tried to sneak in 15 or so minutes after the ticket deadline had passed.  Patterson was having nothing to do with it, and we were trying to rush to the Aquarium, so we didn't pay this much mind.

(That right there is FORESHADOWING.)

Now, I haven't seen Molly in over a decade.  She's another internet friend from forever ago -- we met in person in about 1995, and again a few times after that.  We even travelled to London together once.  But it's been bloody ages.  No time to catch up, though -- we've got to get in before the tickets die.

So:  Molly's got Patterson's leash; I've got Molly's chair (and a vague idea of where the entrance ramp is) and we book on through security.  Ticket Lady takes our Early Bird tickets without a second glance, and we're IN!

There's a Dolphin Show starting in about a half hour, so we go to see it.  We make a wrong turn (because Sharon stupidly thinks that the ramp leading toward to the Dolphin Show will not, in fact, end with four stairs going down), but we eventually find an Aquarium volunteer who is happy to escort us to the other volunteer who is happy to escort us up the elevator to the special wheelchair seating section at the Dolphin Show.  Patterson curls down next to Molly, which puts him in front of my feet, and he's starting to work his Adorable Dog charm on me.  Whenever the audience hoots and hollers his head perks up and he looks around, as if to say, "What's that noise, and do I need to protect my human from it?" but he calms quickly and tucks his head back down.

The Dolphin Show is super cool.  I'm particularly impressed by the dolphin who likes flipping in the air.  It's beautiful.  And the dolphins look to have a genuinely loving relationship with their trainers.  

After the Dolphin Show, we go through the Ocean Exhibit, which is really incredible.  We walk through the "tunnel" part and see fish all around us.  We go to "touch a shark and ray" exhibit (we have to maneuver the chair "upstream" against a bunch of people going the other way, but we manage it; Patterson's a champ) where another happy volunteer brings Molly around the side so she can reach over and touch a small shark.  

We finish this exhibit and ask someone (another happy volunteer) how to get the dog outside for toileting, and then bring him back in.  She says we have to go to the Guest Services Desk and get our tickets stamped, then exit (through the gift shop), let the dog do his business, then come back in through the zoo that was security.  This seems CRAZY.  Molly thinks it would be better if I do it myself, but that's an awful lot of me alone with the dog, and I have no idea if he'd listen to me giving him the toileting command.  We wonder if there's anything else we want to see in this aquarium, as we might as well just leave.  The happy volunteer suggests the one thing we should see are the Beluga Whales, upstairs.  We ask Patterson if he can keep his legs crossed for one last exhibit before we get out of there.

(Foreshadowing.  A valid storytelling technique.)

This volunteer doesn't quite know where the necessary elevator is, so hands us off to another one, who happily takes us upstairs, down a hallway, into a ballroom where there is a huge window through which you can watch the Beluga Whales.  A nice man in a Captain America hat offers to take our picture in front of them.  (The lighting sucks, but you get the idea.)

There are Tiger Sharks in another window in the same ballroom.  We look at them too.  We exit the ballroom and Patterson poops right there on the carpet.

I ... run to the nearest happy volunteer and politely inform him that the service dog had an accident.  He's remarkably cool with it, and goes for cleaning help.  Molly stays with Patterson and keeps pedestrians away from the, um, stuff.  In classic closing-barn-door-after-horses-gone action, I run our tickets downstairs to Guest Services, to get them stamped, so we can take the dog outside to tinkle.  (Hell, one accident was enough.)  But the first volunteer wasn't quite right -- it isn't your ticket that gets stamped, but your hand.  And while I have both our tickets, I only have my hands.  I get stamped, realizing that I'm going to have to take Patterson to pee, despite our best efforts to avoid this.

I get back upstairs.  The evidence is gone, and Molly is with yet another happy volunteer.  Now that my hand is stamped I reach for the leash, explaining that I've got to take Patterson outside to pee, and reluctantly headed downstairs toward the gift shop exit.  Not so fast.  THIS happy volunteer happily leads me and the dog (at a trot) out a secret back door into the parking lot, calling to the attendant along the way, "Service dog!  Long story!"  We take him outside; he does his business ("do you think that's enough?" asks the happy volunteer; "I have no idea" I reply, realizing that the two of us together have zero knowledge about Labrador bladder size); and we jog back in.  In retrospect, perhaps this whole thing would have been avoided if, when we'd asked the first volunteer how to get the dog outside for toileting, she'd have said, "Come with me and we'll do it right now."  

Now that Patterson was no longer rushed, Molly and I caught one more exhibit (something about rivers -- there were piranha and otters and alligators, not in the same enclosure) and I continued to marvel and how, with thousands upon thousands of fish around us, kids kept getting excited about the dog. 

By now the line for the aquarium restaurant had dissipated, so we got some lunch and went back to the ballroom to eat.  (Patterson was under the table, regaining his composure.)  This was our first chance to really chat and catch up, which was great.  Found out what Molly had been up to over the past fifteen years.  

After that, we came back to the hotel.  Had a nice chat with Molly's mom.  Got some Chinese take-out and more chat.  And ready for bed before the actual 50 for 50 tomorrow.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

50 for 50: Post-8 -- Still in Tennessee with Steve

The way my scheduling worked for this trip, I actually stayed in Tennessee until now (which is Wednesday).  I'm presently cooling my heels in the Knoxville airport Starbucks, awaiting my flight to my next city (Atlanta).  We're a bit delayed, due to the major storm in Atlanta I'll apparently be flying into.  (I made a reservation for a nice dinner in Atlanta tonight.  The restaurant called me to confirm my 6:45 reservation, and I said, "That's my plan, yes."  Five minutes later, I got the text that my flight was delayed to 3:30.)

So, yes, even though I've technically finished the 50 for 50 with Steve, we still had a couple days of fun, which I didn't get a chance to journal because I was so freakin' exhausted.

Our original plan had been to go back to Dollywood on Monday.  Indeed, if you plan to go to Dollywood one day, you can get in for free after 3:00 the day before.  So our afternoon at Dollywood on Sunday was really supposed to just be our free add-on to a full day at Dollywood on Monday.  

Excepting it rained.  A lot.  I saw pictures from Dollywood and a tree got knocked down.  The word "monsoon" was used.  We decided staying dry would be the better plan so nixed Dollywood.

There followed a good deal of trying to figure out what to do, because all of the other indoor activities at Pigeon Forge were totally overwhelmed by all the other people dodging the rain.  We opted for a road trip to see Gatlinburg (and some of the Smoky Mountains on the way).  Back in Pigeon Forge, it was still raining, so we opted for the indoor attraction:  Alcatraz East.

Not actually a prison, more of a crime museum.  (John Wayne Gacy's clown suit!  Al Cowlings's Ford Bronco!)  We kind of cheated and parked in a lot reserved for a western wear store next door, so we first went into said store and I got an education on just how many ways there are to put an American flag on a pair of cowboy boots (more than you would think).  Then, the crime museum.  Which I quite enjoyed.  Although I think Steve might have been a bit put off as to how much I knew about famous criminals.  I remembered -- and told him -- that when I was young, I read a lot of true crime.  And my parents never really minded because, hey, I'm reading.  It's only when we're standing in the middle of the "serial killer artifacts" room and I'm excitedly looking at all the stuff that I think, "hmmm, maybe that WAS a little odd."

(I am probably in the right line of work.)

The rain cleared a bit while we were in Alcatraz East, but it was too late to get to Dollywood by then, as we had another show that night.  So we went for a nice dinner at one of those places that claims to be all locally-sourced food (and, for some reason, was playing the Dodgers' Season opener on a big TV right in front of me) and then off to the "Smoky Mountain Opry," which had some really good singers (and some not-so-good) singing all kinds of music.  I got a little thrown when they began their "classic rock" segment with music (and costumes) from the '80s, and I thought, "Fuck, I'm old," but eventually the leather jackets and motorcycles came out, so I felt better about that.

Tuesday, I had booked us an Escape Room (yet another Groupon).  I had booked it for way too early in the morning, and the nice lady let us change the time to a bit later, so we could sleep in, which I really needed.  It was Steve's first time in an Escape Room, and we did pretty well, although ultimately failing.  (The lady running the place said we were only two clues from the end.  The first, I would have gotten if time hadn't run out.  The second, I probably could have stared at for hours and not figured out.)  Although, admittedly, part of the decor of this room (a secret terrorist lair) included a chair with handcuffs and ropes for tying someone down, and I kept getting distracted by trying to untie the ropes.  (There was no clue at the end, I just like solving knot puzzles.)

After allowing the world to get blown up by terrorists (sorry) we did a little wandering around "The Island" and a bit of shopping.  

I wanted a photo with Steve to commemorate this 50 for 50.  Well, every damn place you go in Pigeon Forge stands you in front of Green Screen, takes your picture, puts it in front of a related background (the ferris wheel, the Hatfield/McCoy cabins, the Opry stage....) and tries to sell it to you for $20.

There's a place in Pigeon Forge called Parrot Mountain.  There's a little annex of Parrot Mountain at the Island where you can "have your picture made with parrots."  (I love that they actually use the phrase "have your picture made.")  And it's ACTUAL PARROTS, not a damn green screen.  And it's only $15.  (And the nice guy lets you take a ton of pics with your cell phone, too.)  So now we've got pix of me and Steve holding parrots, being high-fived by parrots, cuddling parrots, being "blessed" by a parrot....

.... ok, big aside here.  Parrot Mountain isn't JUST Parrot Mountain.  It's Parrot Mountain "and the Garden of Eden."  It's real Bible-y.  Pigeon Forge is a really fun place, and I thought it might make a good spot for a family vacation for my family (I'm getting my brother-in-law in a Zorb someday) but we'd have avoid the stuff that gets all New Testament on you.  Steve and I discussed the idea of assigning attractions a "Jesus Rating" for the level of Jesus involved.  Parrot Mountain is probably a "J7."  But Parrot Mountain at the Island is way more like a J2.  But the nice man (with the bad teeth) who made my picture asked if I minded being blessed by a parrot.  I didn't mind.  I do not even come from a frame of reference where I'd even think to ask that -- that one's faith might be so serious that having a parrot tap them on a forehead would somehow be questionable from a religious point of view.  But, hey, live and learn.  Points to the guy for asking, I reckon.

THEN we went to MagiQuest, because I'm 12.  MagiQuest is a place where they give you an LED magic wand and you wave it at stuff and stuff happens.  Like, you wave it a treasure chest and the chest opens and you see treasure inside and a voice says "you have found 50 gold pieces!"  The establishment has a bunch of little areas (a forest, a village, a dragon's lair) and it sends you on a bunch of quests of increasing difficulty.  Like, you have to find four different crystals, light 'em up with your wand, and then "give" them to the Pixie.  (And then the Pixie -- an animated character on a screen -- giggles happily and "gives" you a magic rune you can use for ... something or other, I never got that far.)  ANYWAY, you get about an hour on your admission, in which I obtained the first six runes.  Steve had played before, so was on one the way harder quests, and it took him an hour to complete it, but he ended up being a Master Magi (while I only made it to Junior Magi).  As we were leaving, we saw a group of pre-teen girls checking in for a party of some sort, and they were wearing homemade magician robes.  Love anyone who brings their own costumes.

MagiQuest also had a mirror maze, which Steve and I got lost (and eventually found) in.  And a laser maze, which we raced through.  I am surprisingly competitive.  At first, I didn't want to get down on the floor, but after I heard a buzzer 'cause I hit a laser beam, I got all angry and dropped down so's I could properly get around under them things.

After MagiQuest, we went back to the Island, bought some smoothies, and sat around chatting and watching the fountains dance (everything from "Rolling in the Deep" to "The Devil Went Down to Georgia") until it was time for our last dinner/show:  The Dixie Stampede.

We actually saw the shows in the right order, in terms of ... fiscal investment in the shows.  The magician the first night was in a tiny theatre, had a cast of six, and two of them were running the lights and waving you into the parking lot.  Hatfield/McCoy the second night was in a large theatre (a dinner theatre) with a larger cast and better production values.  The third night Opry stage was about twice the size of the magician's stage, and the show was all about costumes and aerialists and quick-change artists (and singing).  Dixie Stampede was in a large arena, with an equestrian competition and trick riders and some woman standing on the backs of two horses and all three of 'em jumping through a ring of fire.  (And because Dolly Parton presented it, it was all just good-time family fun, with some comedy and some magic and an all-you-can-eat meal served without utensils, so's instead of clapping you just stamp your feet, 'cause your hands are too greasy to clap and you can't holler 'cause you got food in your face.  And OMG, I can't believe the genius of serving this meal without forks, because that ALONE was so much fun for the young 'uns, they could barely stand it.)  Steve was proud of me for not using the plastic spork he snuck in for me, but, y'know, I'm in for the full experience.  

(The pre-show had some gospel music, but the show itself was a straight-up J0.  And I learned that it isn't just Jesus and America.  In these parts, it's Dolly, Jesus, and America.  The order may vary.)

After Dixie Stampede, we drove back to Knoxville, and I spent another night in Steve's guest room, before he drove me to the airport this afternoon.  And now my flight for Atlanta is showing a departure around 6:00, so I better cancel that dinner reservation.