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.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

50 for 50 #8 -- Zorbing with Steve

When I first suggested to Steve that he should join me for bouncing down a hill in a big plastic ball, he was skeptical.  Even more so when I suggested early April.  But the weather cooperated with us in a big way; it was over 70 degrees, and the Zorb location on a nice sunny hill made it seem warmer.

So, after a morning breakfast, the morning purchase of a hairbrush (the FOURTH I've bought on a trip -- seems I keep forgetting to pack them), Steve picked me up at the hotel, and we went directly to ...

... the other alpine coaster.  It IS warm here in Pigeon Forge, but the weather doesn't hit the high until about 4:00, and doesn't even get close until after noon.  Although we'd been promised something like 76 degrees for the high, it was barely 50 at 10:00, so we decided to burn up our Groupons for the second alpine coaster while we were waiting for it to warm up.

Which, long-story-short, resulted in us riding it twice, because, again, the ambiguity in the Groupon description ("one ride for up to two people") was interpreted in our favor (instead of, "the sled goes down once with one or two people in it," it was "have two tickets; use 'em how you want").

By the time we finished that, it was time for a quick lunch (Steve and I had BOTH thought of going to Chick-fil-A, but he remembered at the last minute that it was Sunday), and then off to the Zorb establishment.

From the outside, the Zorb looks like it is taking a leisurely trip down the hill, gently bouncing as it goes.  But you're on the inside -- actually, you're in a small sphere inside the larger one -- and from that angle, you're tearing down the hill pretty damn quick.  They put you (and up to two of your friends) in the ball, put in just enough warm(ish) water so you're sitting in a puddle, and send you down the track.  I sort of think of it as a self-contained water slide; and you're the mat.

We had a Groupon (of course we did) for one ride each (really) but we encouraged them to upsell us on a pack of three each.  After all, they had three separate tracks.

The first track is a slight zig-zag track.  You'll see no video of that, because, apparently, when I'm trying to operate my GoPro without my glasses, I don't quite see the difference between "video" mode and "burst" mode.  So there are 30 really quick shots of us sitting in the zorb, just before they let us go.

I was laughing all the way down, until I started coughing on some water.  Then I thought, "the reason they put water in here is so that nobody notices if you pee yourself," and just started laughing again.  

The next ride down was the "speed" track -- straight line.  There's video of that.

The third track is a big zig-zag.  They claim it's the more advanced one, and it's too ... I'm gonna say "dangerous" ... to ride it with someone.  It didn't seem much more involved than the first zig-zag, so we decided to do that one.  Since I'm the more adventurous of the two of us, I went down first.

Holy.  Freakin.  Cow.

The first two times down, Steve and I sloshed around that thing at great speed.  Alone on the zig-zag track, the Zorb hits the railing and the impact makes me fly up (inside the Zorb, of course).  I came back down, limbs flailing.  This run was wild, barely-controlled, just levelled-up Zorbing.  (I'm sorry I didn't capture it on video -- I was on "burst mode" again.  Doesn't matter, though, after about 15 seconds, I lacked the ability to keep the camera aimed in my general direction.)  I came out of the Zorb at the end-- There is no way to do that and keep your cool exterior -- I was a laughing, out-of-breath, drowned rat, sliding into a pile on the ground.  And I thanked the dude who helped me up, and then asked him to get on his walky and "tell my friend not to go."  He asked if I was serious.  Oh man, yes.  I'm serious.  Steve does not seek out adrenaline; if he goes down that track, there's a good chance he won't speak to me again.  Dude radios up there.  A few minutes later, I see a Zorb coming down that track, and I'm just thinking, "please be a little kid in there."  But it was Steve, and he didn't hate me!  (He didn't get the warning, either, but that's not important.)  So fun!  And we cross another 50 for 50 off the list.

But we're not done with Pigeon Forge yet.  THEN we went over to Dollywood for a few hours.  

For my California friends:  Dollywood is a sizeable amusement park that has a Country Charm theme; a bunch of rides that are good for kids, older kids, and wussy adults; a zip line course (for an extra fee); a bunch of shows (it's "Festival of Nations" time -- with several shows of international performers); a church; and a bald eagle reserve.  And the rides are going to have themes like "volunteer firefighter" or "Wild Eagle."  It's all good wholesome American values, and I say that without a hint of snark.  Look, I know (BELIEVE ME, I know) that, right now, "American values" has somehow become a shorthand for the not-so-great values held by some of the more extreme supporters of our current President.  Dollywood is almost a reality check -- let's take the politicians out of it and remember that things like volunteerism, helping others, preserving nature, and learning about other cultures are ALSO American values.  Props to Dollywood, really.

Steve and I rode the volunteer firefighter coaster, which is fun but not hard core.  One of Steve's friends, Jimmy, happened to be in the park, and he was happy to introduce me to a few of the coasters that weren't Steve's cup of tea.  (Jimmy is fun.  Hi Jimmy!)  Two fun facts.  Fun Fact One:  The Wild Eagle Coaster is a freakin' marvel of modern roller coaster engineering.  Smoothest fucking coaster I've ever ridden.  The cars are shaped like eagles' wings.  The track runs up the center of the eagle and wings (with seats for two people on each side) dangle on either side.  So as the ride twists and turns, your side goes up or down, like the wings of a soaring eagle.  I used words like "beautiful" to describe it.  Total unexpected treat.  Fun Fact Two:  The volunteer firefighter coaster had a 45 minute wait; we WALKED RIGHT ON the Wild Eagle.  Conclusion:  Dollywood is including rides aimed for a hard-core theme park audience (they're testing a 20-story drop tower), but the audience it's GETTING are the families who want the more moderate coasters.  

But we still weren't done.  (But I can't imagine anyone is still reading.)  After all that, we went to the Hatfield & McCoy Dinner Feud which was way more fun that I'd expected, with toe-tapping music (heavy on the banjo and fiddle) and a high-energy boot-stomping (and tap-dancing) cast.  Minimal plot.  Fart jokes.  And pudding for dessert. 

And sleep.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

50 for 50: Pre-8 -- Meeting up with Steve (for Zorbing tomorrow!)

This is a crazy-ass 50 for 50 trip.  My first two stops are for visiting friends I haven't seen in over a decade.  Also, both are friends I met on the internet.

I first met Steve in the world of "Jekyll & Hyde" fandom.  If I recall correctly, I first connected with him back when my internet connection was dropping every twenty minutes for no known reason -- the router was a first generation Apple AirPort; the computer was running Windows; my ISP was ... lord, I don't even know, probably early Earthlink.  Everyone blamed everyone else.  Earthlink blamed Apple; Apple blamed the Windows PC; Microsoft blamed Earthlink.  I couldn't even get anyone on the phone to troubleshoot the damn thing, rather than just pass the buck.  I went on the Jekyll & Hyde mailing list and just begged if any of the nice "Jekkies" out there could try to solve this.  Steve offered to help.  That's kind of who Steve is.  (He also diagnosed it in a few phone calls.  That is also who Steve is.)

We met in person a few times in New York -- he'd come up from Tennessee and I'd fly out from L.A.  We'd see some shows, meet for a few meals, and -- on a handful of super fun occasions -- go the Tony Awards.  (I describe attending the Tony's as "a once-in-lifetime experience I did a couple more times.")  But the trips fell off (damn you, American Theatre Wing, for moving the Tony's out of Radio City!  :::shakes fist at sky::: )  and the e-mails slowed down, and we fell out of contact.  As you do, sometimes.  And, as you do sometimes, we reconnected on Facebook.

Which sort of explains how I find myself in a hotel room in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.  

For all my California pals, let me explain Pigeon Forge:  It's ... Southern Vegas.  Remove the gambling.  Remove the night clubs.  Remove the sin from "Sin City."  Add more Jesus.  You still have tons of hotels; you still have tons of theme shops; you still have shows every night with annoying flashing advertisements up and down the main road.  Except, instead of Cirque du Soleil, your shows are things like the Hatfield McCoy Dinner Feud, and I am not making that up (we're seeing that one tomorrow night).  Also, every few blocks, there's an old timey photo place.  And a moonshine tasting establishment.  There are lots of "family fun" things -- go-karts, alpine coasters, Dollywood, laser mazes, and one of the few places in North America where you can bounce down a hill in a big plastic ball (that's also tomorrow).  Putting it another way:  there are dancing fountains in front of one of the hotels, but rather than "Con Te Partiro" in front of the Bellagio, it's Van Halen's "Jump" in front of Margaritaville.

It's also a buttload of fun.

After a (mandatory) stop at a local Starbucks, and a quick driving tour of Knoxville (go Vols!), we drove out to Pigeon Forge.  Our first stop was an alpine coaster at a place called Goats on the Roof.  (Because they have goats.  On the roof.  Just go with it.)  We had each bought a Groupon for a ride, but, due to a certain amount of confusion at the box office, we actually ended up with two tickets each.  There was no line, so we walked right on.

It is GREAT to have no line at an alpine coaster, because then you don't have to worry about having to brake to make sure you keep the necessary distance between your car and the car in front.  I'm a bit more of an adrenaline-fan than Steve, so I took the first car, and just tore down the hill, full throttle all the way down.  Twice.  Yay gravity!  

We stopped at "Mel's Diner" for lunch, which is exactly like what you imagine, and had tasty burgers and fries (and I may have had a root beer float).

Then we went over to the Island, home of the Margaritaville with the dancing fountains.  We sat in some deck chairs out by the fountains and just mellowed out for about a half hour.  We walked around the shops, rode the giganto ferris wheel to take in the view, and obtained some dinner before our first show, the Darren Romeo magic show.

Man, part of me SO wants to switch hats and go Full Critic on Darren Romeo, because, honestly, I could do 1500 words on this.  It's what I would call a Vegas-style show (and he did, in fact, have a solo show at the Mirage, as a Siegfried & Roy protege).  You're talking about mostly pretty standard illusions you've seen before -- lots of levitation, lots of disappearing and reappearing, a sawed-in-half, a metamorphosis -- but each one is surrounded by a production number or audience-interaction.  (At one point, I got a little annoyed, thinking, "you're doing 5 minutes of business based on the fact that you managed to force a card on a six-year-old.")  But Romeo's "thing" is that he's also a legitimate singer, so he's singing -- mostly non-original stuff -- during most of the show.  (During intermission, while waiting in the restroom line, I idly wondered about whether this show was legit from a licensing standpoint.  WTF is it when he sings a Broadway song in a full performance around an illusion?  It's not a concert; is it a dramatic performance?  A derivative work?  And why am I wondering this while I'm on freakin' vacation.)

Oh man, I need sleep.