Monday, December 31, 2007

Applying the Statute of Frauds in my living room

GREAT law school joke last night; or, in the alternative, if you didn't go to law school, AWFUL joke consisting of a grouping of words that would only be funny to those who went to law school (or, as illustrated here, to those who lived with those who went to law school).

The setup: The Wife and I are watching the Arizona/Memphis game last night on TiVo. An Arizona player tries to drive the lane, and a Memphis player gets called for a blocking foul. Commentator Steve Lavin uses the wrong word to describe the foul as it is shown in slow motion:

Lavin: And as he drives the lane, he initiates the contract with the other player.

The Wife: Huh...what was the consideration?

Brilliant! Five points to Gryffindor! Yet another sad example of what living with me can do to a healthy adult mind. I'm like a pre-1968 television: I'm fun to be around, but you really shouldn't sit too close to me for extended periods of time.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

The 2007 Esqys

It's that time again...time to look back at the past year, and see what made the highlights, and what was second best. As always with the Esqys, I have a good shot to win most categories. But as always, wagering.

Best Trip of the Year (Non-Family): Lake Tahoe. It was a lovely drive, the weather (mostly) cooperated, and we played some great poker. Relaxing and fun...what every trip should be.

Best Trip of the Year (Family): Kentucky. Got to see everybody, got to see lots of great NCAA basketball, and even got to see our respective alma maters. Nice.

Best Book I Read This Year (Serious): [tie] The Shotgun Rule, by Charlie Huston. Action-packed from page one, this suburban tale of kids with too much time on their hands getting in way over their heads resonated with me due to my own childhood, as well as the various children I work with today.

Best Book I Read This Year (Serious): [tie] Letter to a Christian Nation, by Sam Harris. Concise and impactful, this is a great dissection of faith in America and one of the first books that helped me feel good about my lack of faith in gods.

Best Book I Read This Year (Fun): World War Z, by Max Brooks. I feel a little bad about putting books that are a fun read into a different category than more serious books; this is the same reason a comedy will never win Best Picture at the Oscars. But I also have to admit that, while I really enjoyed this book, it impacted me in a different way than the others. Still, a great time, and now I have another reason to remember Yonkers.

Best Movie I Saw (Violent): No Country for Old Men. Wow. If you have not seen this movie, do so. Some of the best dialog I have seen in a movie in a long time, and yet I think some of the best scenes had no dialog at all (the scene in the hotel comes to mind; right in the middle of this scene is when the woman sitting in front of us chose to fight a peppermint candy out of its crinkly wrapper. Apparently, the wrapper bested her, as the fight went on for some time. I think it would have been legal for me to kick her; or, at least, no jury would have convicted me).

Best Movie I Saw (Non-Violent): Once. Wow. If you have not seen this movie, do so. If this movie does not touch you, then you are made of stone, or some stone-like substance, and I am not sure I can be your friend. Sorry to be harsh, but if even my blackened, snarky self can just sit back and be pleasantly entertained by this beautiful movie, I have faith it will work for you, too. Give it a try.

Best purchase: a plan. This year, instead of making big, splashy purchases, we instead met with and have been working with a financial planner. We're currently working on managing our remaining debts, saving for a downpayment on a house, and making plans for the future that include retirement and educational planning for some loved ones. Peace of mind is expensive, but worth it.

Best Supporting Actor: Me, on The I win again! Wow, I was just thrilled to be nominated! So many people to thank. Um, well, thanks to Steve for not only printing my letter, but writing back and asking for a photo of me looking "pathetic." Is there any other kind?

Not a bad year, and looks like I will have to clear some more mantel space for my many, many awards. Hope you had some award-winning moments yourself. See you next December; one of these years, we'll have some real competition in the "Best Route to Jet-Pack to Work" category. Fingers crossed.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Boxing Day

I am still not completely sure what Boxing Day is, but I can tell you this: it is a great idea. I took yesterday off, and wow was it necessary. Besides needing it to finally wrap up what was either a nasty stomach virus or (more likely) my body's lack of preparedness for a very rich meal filled with lots of great tastes (which, although they taste great together, were probably never meant to actually go together), it was a fantastic opportunity to just get some stuff done. I got all of our thank-you notes written and in the mail, cleaned up the kitchen from The Wife's Bake-a-palooza (every year around the holidays, she turns our kitchen into a cookie factory...that Keebler Elf sweatshop has nothing on her...), got some much-needed laundry out of the way, and still managed to make time to kill hundreds of Nazis and just randomly blow the bejeezus out of stuff. A good day all around.

Of course, if my dreams had come true (read: if I had a few hundred extra bucks lying around), yesterday would have been, let's go with, Wii-tastic, and I would be well on my way to rock godhood by now. But, that can wait. I've never been, nor felt the need to be, the first kid on my block to have the newest toy, and I have a sense that now that the holidays are over, the madness will slow down a little, i.e. the prices will go way down, availability will go way up, and wii will be rocking out at my house before too much longer.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Back home: Brendon 1, Sunburn 0

We got home from our "free" cruise yesterday; back in September, the Wife won a poker tournament on a cruise ship, and first prize was...another cruise...on the same ship...two months later. This "free" cruise was the most expensive free thing we've ever done, once you add up the airfare to Florida, various taxes, and $5 pina coladas on the Lido deck (FYI: no Gopher anywhere). Anyway, although cruising is not something we're very into, it was a fun time, and it got us out of the house and away from work for a week.

I will post stories and photos from each port below as if I was posting from the ship...which I could have done, but it would have cost me dearly, as internet time onboard is 50 cents a minute, and their connection made me long for the days of 56K dial up. Sorry, but no; you will have to pretend along with me.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Cruise, Day 7: Wrap it up

Day 7 of the cruise was a "day at sea," which means you do not get off the boat. It was actually very nice; we slept in, the Wife went back to the spa, I finished my book, and we played some more in the casino. I tried to beat the strongman, but he won.

It was also a good day to tie up some loose ends. On the last day, you are given tip envelopes, along with suggested tip amounts, for the people who directly served you throughout the cruise (waiters, assistant waiters, and cabin stewards). I got the impression some people were irritated by the idea of an "expected" tip, but these people work hard, long hours, every day of the week, and I think they more than earned their pay and more than deserved gratuities.

I am glad that this last day on the ship was a restful one, because the trip home the next day was pretty awful. Delayed planes, missed connections, and long waits in various airports added up to us getting home about seven hours later than expected. Yuck.

Did we have fun? Yes. Was it relaxing? No. Would I go on another cruise? Doubtful.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Cruise, Day 6: No mas

Day 6 dawned with us in Cozumel, Mexico. By this time, I was officially done. I was tired of standing in line, tired of listening to Angry Dad spout off about how this was a terrible ship and he was having a terrible time...on this, his tenth cruise. If people love to cruise and do it often, that's great; but I cannot tell you how many people we were forced to listen to gripe and moan about how disappointed they were, only to later learn that they are regular cruise people. No entiendo.

The Wife was pretty done as well, so Cozumel was a quick one. We got off the boat, took a cab to the main shopping area, window shopped for duty-free watches and other classy merchandise (see photo), had lunch at a "Mexican" restaurant (it was very tasty, but it was American Mexican food like you would get anywhere here), and made our way back to the ship. It was pretty hot and sunny, and on the walk back to the ship, I enjoyed a Sol beer, complete with lime, and for the first time actually understood the appeal of Corona. That appeal, by the way, is exclusive to being in a very hot, tropical climate, and should not include frat parties. We went back to the ship, took a nice long nap, and that was about it. Actually, one of our nicer days.

Note to self: when we gear up for another trip to Mexico, like the one we had planned before this "free" trip came along, make sure that where we are headed is NOT a cruise ship destination.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Cruise, Day 5: A day on the farm

Day 5 of the cruise found us docked in Grand Cayman. Back in 2004, Hurricane Ivan devastated the island, leveling large portions of the structures and leaving most of the island under water for quite some time. Our tour guide pointed out all of the new buildings as we drove along, noting that just about everything is new construction. Part of the problem is that the highest point on the island is 60 feet above sea level, which meant that the island was a blank slate before and after the winds. I was impressed with the rebuilding efforts, and can only imagine that most residents are wondering when the next big one is coming. Once again, we were one of many ships in the harbor, and we were told that this is the slow time of the year. Normally, there are apparently up to nine of these monstrosities in the harbor on any given day, flooding this tiny island with thousands and thousands of tourists, the main source of income for the island. I was glad to be there on a slow day, even if the locals would have preferred more of us.

We visited Boatswain's Beach, which is billed as an "adventure park" but is basically a ranch where the main livestock is green sea turtles. Our tourguide explained that 70% of the turtles are bred for tourism and breeding stock, 20% are released into the wild to help replenish the dwindling numbers...and 10% are for food. We were reminded that the Cayman Islands have no natural resources, and overfishing has resulted in diminishing returns for other seafood, so turtles are a part of the diet in the area. I have no idea why this bothered me, as any other form of ranching would involve numbers of an inverse proportion, but it did. I think serving turtle soup in the gift shop is a bit much, but again, I am admittedly anthropomorphizing here.

Here are a couple videos I made of the turtles...some are cuter than others...

We also stopped by Hell, which is a tiny town/post office in Grand Cayman, so you guessed it, send postcards from Hell! Ha-HA! We realized too late that we didn't have any addresses with us, and we've become so reliant on having that information written down somewhere that I could barely remember our own zip code, let alone anybody else's. Opportunity...missed.

Back aboard. we went and watched the Mariner Masters Poker Tournament final table, and had a nice time. We even met Captain Johnny, who was kind enough to pose with us for a photo. Nice day, but by this time, we were really starting to wear down. Lots of fun things, but not a lot of relaxing fun things. Tomorrow would need to be different.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Cruise, Day 4: [inhale]

Day 4 found us arriving in Ocho Rios, Jamaica. I inhaled deeply off the balcony, hoping to catch a whiff of cooking jerk chicken, mixed with some marijuana, but all I could smell was diesel fuel. My preconceived notions were shattered. To jump ahead in the story, we didn't eat any food in Jamaica, and I regret that; the time constraints would have made it very difficult to eat anywhere other than immediately off the boat at one of the three huge duty-free malls that were in convenient walking distance of the ship, and I have a sense I can find more authentic Jamaican food here at home than there. Oh well.

Once off the boat, we headed to Dolphin Cove to swim with the main attractions. This took me way outside my comfort zone, and I was very nervous to be in the water with large animals. I do not swim for fun, and I have a fear thing about not being able to touch the bottom and being in "their" (read: out of my) environment. However, the Wife thought this would be good for me, and as usual, it turned out she was right. We (and by we, I mean the two of us and five other people, so a small group that allowed a lot of interaction time) swam with Nemo, one of the younger dolphins there, and he was a bit sassy. It was early (according to the trainers, dolphins don't really sleep in the same sense we do, so I am not sure what is "early" for a dolphin?), and he was apparently not in the mood to go through the normal motions with us. I actually really liked the idea of Nemo sort of giving the middle finger (fin?) to his handlers and us; it was reassuring to me to think that he was intelligent enough to demand extra fish to allow the big white guy to touch him. When it came time to take the kissing photo, instead of one tap on my cheek, he did it like 12 my mind, Nemo was being ironic, and I pretty much laughed for the entire time we were in the water with him. I had hoped for a photo of the three of us (me, the Wife, and Nemo), but the staff said that Nemo didn't do that. I have a sense Nemo would have been fine with it, but that would have meant me only buying one photo instead of two, and apparently it is pretty expensive to feed a dolphin, let alone the 10 or so they have at the park. As much trepidation as I had, I have to admit, that was an amazing opportunity, and I am very glad I did it. Would I do it again? Probably not, but some of the fear is gone, and that alone was worth the price of admission.

The rest of the park was kind of sad; I got excited about feeding time at the shark tank, until I saw they were all nurse sharks, which I believe are the nerdy computer programmer cousins in the shark family. Here's a short video of them circling, which reminded me more of a morning commute than anything cool:

After the dolphins, we went across the street (literally) to Dunn's River Falls, which seemed to be a must-see on every tourist list. The falls themselves are very impressive, and the surrounding park was very pretty. There was the standard hawking of crappy chotchkies, and one guy even secretively offered to sell me weed. I assumed this was all part of the tourist experience, but was told later that undercover cops abound throughout the tourist areas, hoping I guess to make their quotas of arrested Americans. Sorry to disappoint. The guy who offered to sell me the weed did take this picture of us, though, so if he was a cop, he's a better photographer than police officer.

Back aboard, we were entertained that evening by Ice Under the Big Top, an ice show in the bottom of the boat. Full-on triple axels, on an ice rink that looked like it was the size of my living room, in a moving ship...and nobody fell. Impressive.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Cruise, Day 3: Haiti. Yes, that Haiti.

Day 3 found us sailing into the port of Labadee, Haiti. You read that right: our cruise ship docked for a port excursion in the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere. But don't worry: Royal Caribbean has gone to great lengths to ensure that there is no, I repeat no, resemblance between Labadee and the rest of Haiti. This article explains it in greater length, but the short version is that Labadee is a small peninsula that is wholly leased and operated by the Royal Caribbean corporation from the government of Haiti. Labadee is literally a walled-off theme park version of the third world, complete with "natives" in polyester clothing and nametags, and the whole thing is sanitized for your pleasure. I think it is fair to say that Labadee encapsulated my overall creepy feelings about cruising, made worse by the fact that I had a lovely time.

We skipped the "Flea Market" (where "Haitians" hawked their made in China wares in an "authentic" setting) and went to Malfini beach, a semi-private excursion for twenty people max to have some quiet beach time. The trip to the beach involved a smaller boat, as well as a tour guide who made safe, if pointed, jokes about Columbus "discovering" the New World and all of the people who already lived there. Upon arrival, the twenty of us were greeted with fun rum drinks, and then shown our beach chairs and water floats. No arguing, no lines...very nice. So nice I even got in the water, something I wasn't really sure would happen, but I am glad I did: bathwater warm. I didn't even sink my float, something I was a little worried about.

There were a couple natives present who may not have been vetted by RC. Here's a short video of one of them:

As uneasy as the entire faux-Haiti thing made me feel, we did have a nice time, we drank rum out of coconuts, and didn't get sunburned. Fantastic.

BTW, if you look closely at this last photo, you will see that, in my wanting to wear a white shirt to the beach and maybe be a little cooler, I for some unbelievably dumb reason picked the one that says "Public Defender: I AM a real lawyer!" Funny in the right crowd...but a cruise ship is probably not the right crowd. I had one older Angry Dad intentionally walk up to me and tell me how much he hates lawyers, and therefore hates me. Nice, right? He then said, "You know what lawyers are?" I thought I was going to hear a good lawyer joke, which I always enjoy, so I said "What?" He then described the excretory process of whales in the ocean, which distinctly lacked a punchline. I laughed it and him off, which I think pissed him off even more, and then laughed some more when his wife started yelling at him for being an old coot. I guess sometimes you have to make your own entertainment where you can.

Back on board, the Wife played in the first round of the Mariner Masters poker tournament. 25 players who won their tournaments returned for the final tournament. The Wife played well, but took a horrible bad beat, having her full house beaten by a bigger full house. Ouch. She had, of course, hoped to make it further, but she played well and just got unlucky. Not fun, but that's poker.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Cruise, Day 2: Sleep All Day

Day 2 aboard our cruise saw the sun rising majestically above the horizon of the Atlantic...or so I am told, as we slept till around noon. This was without question the most relaxing day on the cruise for us; no alarm clocks, no lines, no Angry Dads. I had room service bring me a pot of coffee and some pastries, and I sat out on our balcony for a couple hours, watching the waves and reading a book. Absolutely marvelous.

I should take a moment here to describe our room. You can see a photo of the room here, a layout of the room here, or see a short video of it here. I did not take any photos of it myself, but trust me, this is exactly what our room looked like. The balcony made a huge difference; not only did it make the room bigger, but the ability to be "outside," but still in the privacy of your own room, was really great. We used the balcony as a refuge from the mob many, many times.

Day 2 was a pretty lazy day, and we really needed it. After getting up, we made our way to the pool deck, where we found some shade, read books, and enjoyed $5 cocktails. I mention the price mostly again as a warning to you, gentle reader, about the pitfalls of an "all-inclusive" vacation. I won't go so far as to call this a scam, but I think bait-and-switch may be fair. Your cruise vacation is long as you only drink water or coffee. You want anything else to drink? It'll cost. You want anything with alcohol? It'll cost. You want anything above and beyond the bland food at the buffet and dining rooms? It'll cost. And here's where the cruise line is genius: they make it SO EASY to pay. When you get on, they require an open credit card line so you can open your SeaPass card. With this card, you can pay for everything on board with an easy swipe. Drinks? Swipe. Jewelry in the duty free shop? Swipe. Money to gamble? Swipe. Amazing.

I played in a poker tournament (swipe) in an attempt to win a seat and join the Wife in her Mariner Masters tournament, but came in third. So close.

Day 2 was Formal Night, which is I guess an attempt at pretending that we're dining and sailing on the Queen Mary, and not a floating Golden Corral. I think it is smart of RC to not specify what "formal" really means, but rather just say that flip-flops and shorts are not permitted. In fairness, there were people wearing tuxes, and in fact, you could rent a tux on board. In retrospect, I wish I had done that, as it would have been one less thing to pack. Here's a shot of us at formal night; we clean up pretty good.

This is an example of the many critters that we encountered upon coming back to the room. The cleaning staff, and for that matter the entire staff, was pretty impressive, and given the hours they work, and how hard they work, it is even more impressive. Here is a site that advertises cruise jobs and sample salaries; sadly, I imagine these numbers are actually higher than normal. However, I also imagine that cruise salaries may be tax-free for most employees, and I also think that these salaries are in US dollars, which may still be stronger than some of the currencies of the world. Maybe.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Cruise, Day 1: Up All Night

Day 1 of our relaxing vacation got off to a rough start. We caught an overnight flight to Orlando, sitting in the last row of the plane by the bathrooms, ensuring that (a) our seats would not recline, and (b) any other chance of sleeping was eliminated by the constant congregation of people waiting for the bathrooms. Nice.

We arrived in Orlando at around 6AM local time, thus ensuring that we were first in line for the bus to the port...which was scheduled to leave at 10A, but was closer to 11. After a 45 minute ride to the port, we were kept on the bus for another 40ish minutes by a 90 year old Royal Caribbean employee appropriately named Dick, who waited the full time before revealing why we were being kept on the bus. Very smart, Dick. Several lines and hours later, we were finally on the boat.

Once on, things smoothed out. We were aboard the Mariner of the Seas, a floating city, complete with ice rink, shopping mall, and its own Disney World theme park. Only one of those is false. We enjoyed a trip to the spa for much-needed massages, attended a welcome cocktail party for the Wife's poker tournament (she was given a free shirt, which was a men's polo shirt, size L. If you have met my wife, you probably know that she is not a size L, and not a man. This was the first year of the Mariner Masters poker tournament, and they have a lot of things to work out if they do this again), went through our muster drill, and got in line for our first night at dinner.

I should take a moment to talk about the lines. If you have not been on a cruise before, and are considering it, ask yourself the following questions:

1) Do I like having every moment of my day planned down to the minute by somebody else?
2) Do I like conforming to that schedule of events, including standing in line for every one of those events?
3) Do I like standing in those lines behind Angry Dads, who answered questions 1 and 2 with an affirmative, and now will show their affirmation by talking out loud to no one in particular about how angry they are that the schedule is late and the lines are not moving?

I strongly suggest that you be able to answer "yes" to at least two of those questions before booking your cruise.

Day 1 ended in our cabin, with me and the Wife collapsing into coma-like slumber on the surprisingly comfortable bed. Day 2 was a day at sea with a minimum of scheduling, and so was one of the few days we would not have to set an alarm. We took full advantage of this.

PS. If you are a man who is a size L, or know a man who is a size L, and would like an ugly polo shirt, let me know. We have a couple available.