Back From Bermuda

Hello! How are you? I’ve been off the grid lately. Shortly after Gina and I discovered we were expecting, we booked a last-chance vacation to relax before getting into the baby preparations for real. As Merlin said in The Sword in the Stone, “blow me to Bermuda!”

Merlin knows.

Merlin knows what’s up.

The logistics of the trip package we bought included a bus transfer to and from the cruise terminal in New Jersey, and the cruise itinerary included an almost three-day stop in Bermuda. Great! Relaxing! Beautiful! The forced relaxation of a couple of days at sea! Sign me up.

The bus portion of the trip also allowed me to do something I usually don’t do: take down notes, travel journal style, in real time, using Google Docs.

This lasted all of three days into the trip.

After that I forgot what the Internet was thanks to insanely high Wi-fi and cellular data prices on the ship and in port. I enjoyed the time being disconnected, but as a travel journal project goes, it was basically a failure.

However, as a special bonus to readers like you, I’m going to post my notes in raw, mostly unedited form and then wrap this whole thing up with some quick impressions of Bermuda.

Quick impression: it's pretty cool.

Quick impression: it’s pretty cool.

Here we go:

We left the house on schedule. Coffee cup mishaps: I nearly spilled McDonald’s coffee on myself before getting in my car, then left it on top of our cab that was taking us to the bus pickup. It toppled over when he pulled out but it stayed on the roof. Still drank it. Then Gina stepped on it when shaking bus driver’s hand. Still intact, still drinkable. Thanks McDonald’s!

Made great time to Baltimore. Stopped at Best Western to pick up a family where one of them was in a raccoon suit. Walked to McDonald’s. The whole morning was sponsored by McDonald’s (I’ve never been to McDonald’s more in a 12-hour period in my life). We waited for the raccoon suit family to show up, go to McDonald’s themselves, and eat breakfast in the parking lot while talking to each other like they wouldn’t be spending a few hours together on a bus. One of the Dads looks like Tommy Lee Jones, but he’s not going on the trip.

I’m sure they’re very nice people.

Turns out we’re waiting on one more person, so they’re allowed to stand around and eat.

The final person was related to the first group. They were late but she had her husband go to McDonald’s to get breakfast anyway, so we left later than we could have but still 10 minutes ahead of the bus’s schedule.

Next stop: Philly for 5 more people! I hope they’re prompt. Look at me, getting somewhere 30 minutes early for once and all of a sudden looking down on people.

Stopped at a park and ride lot outside Philly. No McDonald’s in sight. One couple already here, had to wait on three more. They got lost and ended up in the wrong parking lot. Found out later that the directions they got were for the wrong parking lot. Bus company fail.

I wish I’d packed a sandwich.

After Philly, despite numerous highway signs saying the Bayonne Bridge was closed, bus driver bravely tried to cross it anyway. Bus driver got lost in the residential side streets of Staten Island. I finally used Google Maps to help him get to the cruise terminal, to the relief of every anxious person on the bus. Made it there with an hour and twenty minutes to spare before ship pulled out.

First night was a blur, very tired. Stumbled our way through to dinner and the first show. Met a nice family from outside Philly who would be our dinner companions for the week.

Next two days at sea relaxing. Sort of a sleep hangover the first full day, took us a while to get situated and figure out where everything was. Got a little bit of sun deck time. Figured out that the stern sun deck was the quietest place away from the Jersey Shore-like atmosphere of the main pool deck. This was the first formal night, took some pictures that Gina actually liked.

By day three, our second full day at sea, firing on all cylinders again.

As I said, from that point I gave up keeping notes, but the rest of the trip would have read like this: three days in Bermuda allowed us to tour historic St. George’s, the first capital of Bermuda and the first permanent settlement there. There’s a really old and fascinating church, lots of narrow twisty streets, and a cool old fort. I love the Bermudian architecture – the homes there are all basically made of limestone, so they can stand up to darn near anything. We went to a street festival in Hamilton, the modern capital with high-end shops, frozen yogurt places, and other things a big city has to offer. We spent half a day at Horseshoe Bay, one of the famous pink sand beaches, and it was wonderful. We took a glass-bottom boat at night out to a coral reef and a shipwreck in the middle of the Bermuda Triangle and came out without disappearing. We ate ourselves silly on the cruise ship and made friends with the family from New Jersey at our dinner table. We competed in a trivia contest and almost won, saw a Vegas rock-n-roll juggler, and worked on our tans. I read three books.

Really the only downside to the trip was the bookends with the bus company. My notes already hinted at the company’s planning failures, but the return trip was even worse. After we dropped off the Philly people (which was after the driver missed the exit again and took a 30 minute detour), the bus broke down on the side of I-95, and it was almost two hours before a new bus got there and we were off again. Starving and exhausted, we arranged for Gina’s mom to pick us up in Baltimore versus braving another thrill ride with our sleepy driver. All this made us pretty delirious after going with no lunch for hours on end, and we were a little angry that our trip ended that way. But we just tried to imagine the cars that were rushing past us at 80+ mph with inches to spare between them and our bus were mere waves crashing into a pink beach. That worked until all of our snacks were depleted.

But hey, in summary, Bermuda was great! Just don’t take a bus there. More photos to come when I get them sorted out.

The Butterfly Effect of Owning a Home

It’s funny how one thing can lead to another, right?

A few weeks ago, Gina noticed a faint water spot in the ceiling of our music studio / home office / library / crafts refuge / basement fun room. I crossed my fingers and closed my eyes shut really tight and hoped that it would go away. Surprisingly, it got worse.

That meant, of course, that it was time to get a plumber involved. And not just for your average toilet clog. No, we’re talking sawing-through-the-ceiling, drywall-dust-everywhere, blowtorch-wielding, no-holds-barred plumbing action. At the end of a Friday afternoon, two pipes with pinhole leaks had been replaced, and there was a giant hole in the ceiling of our fun room. A younger version of Bret might have called up a handyman next to patch the hole, but now I’m older and wiser, and trying to save every dime of money I can now that there’s a baby on the way.  So I resolved to take care of the cleanup and patchwork on my own.

Eatin' drywall dust.

Eatin’ drywall dust.

This part wasn’t too bad, actually. I think I surprised everyone, including myself, by patching the hole up rather nicely with some replacement gypsum board, drywall tape, and a healthy amount of joint compound. It’s amazing what you can fake your way through after watching a few YouTube tutorials. I’m still picking the stuff out of my fingernails three weeks later, but it was a triumphant occasion. I climbed down from the ladder and gazed at my accomplishment, but only for a few minutes. If you’ve ever patched up a ceiling or wall, you know that the patch is only half the battle. Patches may look good on your jeans in the late 80′s or on your eye if you’re a pirate, but no one wants a discolored, mismatching glob on their ceiling. And so I knew I had to paint.

There are times in our lives when we know, deep within our soul, what the right thing to do is. Maybe you see an elderly lady struggling to help her husband out of the car, so you take up their offer to help. Perhaps you find a lost dog with a collar, so you call the owners to bring the dog back to its loving home. Maybe you’re facing a relatively small painting job, but you realize that if you really want to do the job right, you should just go ahead and paint the whole room to match the colors you and your wife had picked out but still hadn’t bothered to extend to the bottom floor of your house. These are the times that try men’s souls, but it’s a testament to your character if you press on and do them anyway. So, reluctantly, I did.

I should point out that Gina, by this time, had succumbed to a nasty summer cold that left her in alternating fits of coughing and sleeping for three solid weeks, so I took on the job knowing she couldn’t help that much. I still did it.

Our fun studio room is packed deceptively densely with memorabilia and other items of, well, fun. It took me the better part of a day just to clear out the shelves and other totes, bins, and boxes until the adjacent basement family room resembled a small-town general store, or maybe just a teenager’s bedroom, with every surface covered by random stuff. From there, it was a time-consuming but otherwise uneventful and uninteresting process to paint the room. Sometime along the way, though while I was painting, Gina began going through boxes of mementos to try to thin down our massive collection of junk stuff that I’d hauled out of the room. We’d long ago decided that we were going to try to purge the house as we began preparing the nursery. It’s as good a time as any, right?

What’s amazing is what she found: mementos of nearly all the trips we’ve taken since we’ve gotten married, stuffed in boxes for years. While she sorted through, we got to relive pieces of our honeymoon cruise and road trips that we’d nearly forgotten. She even dug out some emails that we’d exchanged while we were dating in college – mushy stuff, mostly embarrassing, but they brought smiles to our faces all the same. For my part, I took a break from the brushes and mined out a box that held notes I took while trying to play some early computer games – passwords, notes to myself on where to find items, that sort of thing. But I also found a calendar from high school where I’d actually marked the days when some of the best times of my teenage years happened.

I guess part of life sometimes is your wife noticing a water stain that ultimately leads to her and you sharing memories in a hallway overcrowded with junk. Thanks, butterflies.

When I finally did go back to paint, leaving Gina to finish up the sorting of papers, I smiled despite the aches in my neck and shoulders. For the first time in a while, I was conscious of the fact that we’ve really built a nice life together, even if it means patching a few holes now and then.

I crossed my fingers and closed my eyes shut really tight and prayed that would never change.

A New Addition

If you’re reading this and we’re friends on Facebook, you already know. And since I’m pretty sure only my Mom reads this blog, she definitely already knows anyway. But let’s pretend you’re neither my friend nor acquaintance nor person who brought me into this world so I can break some awesome news: I’m going to be a father! Gina and I are expecting a baby in December. I’m thrilled!

Most of the advice I’ve gotten from other young fathers (and this is one area where people freely give advice) has swirled around one basic theme – that words can’t accurately express how my life will change. Not all of them were talking about simple things like losing sleep or having to change diapers, either – they were trying to convey how awesome fatherhood is, I think.

I suppose I’m as ready as I’ll ever be for this, because the concept doesn’t freak me out. I’m not going to pretend that I’ll be prepared or know at all what I’m doing on day one, but that’s okay. I’ve been an adult long enough now to realize that a big part of life is just adapting to new stuff and new situations, and I know that together Gina and I can eventually stumble toward something resembling our own parenting style.

Announcing our news has also got me thinking about my own parents and how I can’t wait for them to meet their newest grandchild. My Mom and Dad prepared me for life in every way possible, and I’m forever grateful to them for that. From reading to me at night and encouraging me to keep picking up books, to pushing me out of my comfort zone to do things like spelling bees and Space Camp. They took me on camping and fishing trips to learn to appreciate the outdoors and the environment. They taught me the value of hard work by making me help around the house and sweat through countless big projects in the basement. They showed me that using your brain can usually lead you to a better solution. They imparted their ethics while letting me figure out where I stood on my own. They nurtured my faith. They provided me with the opportunity and encouragement to go to Virginia Tech, which affected my life in countless ways. And to this day they exemplify what it means to be part of a larger family and good neighbors.

If I prove to be the merest fraction of a parent as mine are, then my kid will surely turn out fine. Thanks Mom and Dad!

So, anybody know where the official parenting rule book is kept? That’s a thing, right?

Austin Convention Trip Notes, Part 2

Below continues my write-up of our latest trip to Austin. Read Part 1 here.

What About The Music?

No trip to Austin would be complete without seeing at least one live show, but once I discovered I was not chosen for a taping of Austin City Limits, I defaulted to selecting one by venue instead of by “band I’d heard of before.” Thus I found myself at the legendary Stubb’s! (It’s a BBQ restaurant in the front, and a party in the back! Or, you know, upstairs and downstairs.) It was a night of local favorite bands playing four in a row, and not all of them were my cup of tea so I didn’t stick around for the whole shindig. It was, however, just cool seeing somebody up on that stage in a historic venue and being part of that scene. I guess you could say I also experienced six or seven free live shows while walking down 6th Street at various times, and I also re-visited my friends at Waterloo Records to see what they were featuring that I would be interested in listening to soon.

The most profound connection to the world of Austin music, however, came early in the week when I paid a visit to the memorial statue of Stevie Ray Vaughan standing on the shores of Town Lake. From here, Stevie stands with the downtown skyline as a backdrop, the statue casting a symbolic shadow of him in the middle of a guitar solo. The plaque behind the statue simply calls him a “musician,” which is fittingly understated for such a game-changing guitarist. RIP, Stevie.

Let’s Wrap It Up: Miscellaneous Thoughts

Another reason Austin is a great town is the built-in 10-mile plus trail looping around Town Lake, crisscrossed with several bridges including a couple of pedestrian-only options. I was able to keep eating all the great food I mentioned above without feeling terrible by going on several long, humid runs around various sections of the trail. I looped into the expanses of Zilker Park and Barton Springs on several occasions, as well, and I was never alone on the trail matter what time of day I started jogging. Three cheers to you, Austin, for fitness.

Gina, a group of her co-workers, and I tried to check out the Congress Ave. Bridge bats one evening. Apparently June is a hit-or-miss season for them, unfortunately. We crowded against the rails with several dozen others, hoping for a Batcave-worthy swarm of the nocturnal masses, but the swarm never came. We did see decently-sized groups of the bats dart in and out from under the bridge in brownish blurs, and we certainly heard their chirps (or whatever you call the noise a bat makes) rise up from below. I also smelled them quite plainly when I jogged underneath the bridge later that week, but that was it for bat sightings. I guess the bats will have to wait until next time.

One last food-related plug: if you’re in Austin and in need of some sauce (either barbecue or hot, it doesn’t matter), there’s only one place you need to go: Tears of Joy.

Since I think it’s clear I’m fond of the city and I’ve said everything positive I can say over the course of what has turned into a treatise, I will close my Austin odyssey with a note about graffiti and construction. It seems the local government is a-okay with officially commissioned murals and probably less-official graffiti adorning the various sides of historic buildings and newer structures alike. These pieces quite often rose far above the mere scribblings of gang members; I would call many of them proper works of art. Some were commercially tied to restaurants and bars, some gave shout-outs to Willie Nelson and other Texas heroes, and some were just plain weird. For this reason, I kept my eyes open and camera ready as I walked through downtown, always on the lookout for some kind of graffiti Easter egg, and they usually made me smile.

Just a small sampling of Austin's free artwork.

Just a small sampling of Austin’s free artwork. Yes, that is a tank coming out of the side of a building.

Austin is a great city, but that’s no longer a well-kept secret. Throughout the week, streets were periodically closed due to construction, and it was clear that several buildings had been recently demolished or were being hastily constructed to keep up with growth. Orange cones were littered everywhere. The residents I talked to had very mixed reactions about this kind of growth, which I can totally understand coming from densely populated and traffic-choked Northern Virginia. The picture below sort of sums up Austin’s current state in my mind: a cool, retro, slightly odd public building being quickly obscured by construction.

Progress is progress, and change isn’t something to be feared. I just hope as Austin grows, it’s done smartly. And I hope those in charge manage to keep it weird.

Austin Convention Trip Notes, Part 1

As I wrote in the fall after Gina and I visited for a weekend, I quickly found out that Austin, Texas and I were going to be best friends. Food and music, two of my very favorite things in the world, can be had by the plenty in the central Texas city. Quirkiness and friendliness, weirdness and awesomeness, country and rock ‘n’ roll, all mixed up in the same roughly 272 square miles. In short, what’s not to love?

Recently, Gina had to return there for a conference, so I wasted no time in arranging to take off work to join her. I remembered that I had quite a list of things to do there if I ever went back, and spending a week in Austin offered me nothing but time in which to do them.

Out of respect for your time, I wrote so much about this trip that I am splitting the trip notes up into two parts. This is the first; the second will come next week.

I Will Have All Of The BBQ, Or At Least All Of The Food

As I’ve no doubt mentioned before, one of the first things I do in any new city is to compile a list of intriguing restaurants through Yelp, so as my time there progresses I have a short list of places to eat, ready at a moment’s notice. I did the same for this go round in Austin and pretty much stuck to it, with a few detours based on suggestions from friends. The thing is, Austin is so chock-full of good places to eat that you have to try pretty hard not to find something tasty.

Practically every meal I had during the week was a highlight. I stopped at several coffee shops, but Patika Coffee‘s little truck that could served up the best brew by far. The friendly girls making smoothies at Blenders & Bowls guided me to the perfect post-run recovery drink full of healthy goodness. The Asian-fusion specialties of Koriente and its jasmine tea was the best break I could have hoped for on a hot afternoon. We revisited Moonshine one night for a piece of bison meatloaf as big as my head, which put Ted’s Montana Grill to shame. Other highlights included the authentic New York style pizza of The Home Slice, local food trucks Kebabalicious and Downtown Burgers, Torchy’s Tacos (where I partook of a taco stuffed with beef and bacon – need I say more?), and the one chain I must have anywhere it’s within driving distance: In ‘N’ Out Burger.

But a special mention needs to go out to La Barbecue, an unassuming food truck tucked away a few blocks from downtown. On advice from my former co-worker Nick, who had already guided me to Home Slice to hang out, I made the walk out to La Barbecue early on a Thursday. But I must admit I didn’t follow his advice to the letter and didn’t get there at 10 AM like he’d advised. If I had, I probably would have gotten to sample some of the meats that ran out by the time my 45-minute wait in line was over. As it was, the free sample of melt-in-your-mouth brisket was enough to bring me to my knees. I hedged my bets and went with the El Sancho, again on Nick’s advice, which featured both pulled pork and brisket (I would have gotten it “loco” with sausage but they had already ran out). Suffice it to say that all my prayers were answered. I had found barbecue heaven, and its name was La Barbecue.

Just a small sampling of when I remembered to take a picture of where (and what) I ate.

Just a small sampling of when I remembered to take a picture of where (and what) I ate.

Besides catching up with Nick, I also looked up college friend Kent, he of the incomparable laser gun noise of years past. We met up at Torchy’s, which proved to have not only one of the largest and best tacos I’ve ever eaten, but also an original-recipe Dr. Pepper concoction on tap that dates back to the origins of the drink itself, but since 2012 it’s had to stop calling itself Dr. Pepper, settling on the name Doppelgänger instead. Duplicate or no, it tasted just like the good Doctor but with pure cane sugar that offered a sweeter finish.

Good For a Few Laughs

Kent also invited me to join him for a show at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema. This is a group of local theaters that not only screen the latest Hollywood releases, but they also specialize in quirky showings like 90′s music video singalongs and re-screenings of cult classics. We indulged in a recurring show featuring the local Austin comedy troupe known as Master Pancake, which basically involves a group of guys doing a live action MST3K-style commentary of some of the greatest films ever made, or at least the most popular. Wackiness ensued as they tore apart the 90′s movie that simultaneously launched and ended Michael Jordan’s acting career while spawning one of the most inexplicably popular soundtracks ever, Space Jam.

Another highlight of the week for me was sampling a couple of hours of The Hideout Theatre‘s 45-Hour Improv Marathon, which was just as it sounds and just as hilarious. A group of eight core people were involved with all 45 performances at some point or another, resting only for a few minutes between shows. That’s serious business, but also hilarious and delirious as time went on, I’m sure. I personally saw their takes on the original Star Trek and 70′s cop shows, and both were well done. The troupe offers improv classes as well as resources for teaching local children. Hurrah!

The Hideout Theater's take on Star Trek.

The Hideout Theater’s take on Star Trek.

To Be Continued…

That’s it for now. As promised, check out Part 2 next week!