Monday, July 30, 2007

Vacation Diary, Wednesday, 20 June 2007

Wednesday was Jamaica day. Before we got there, we told the boys that they would not be going anywhere unattended. A couple of years ago, one of Matthew’s cousins was in Jamaica on a cruise with his parents when the police “found” some marijuana in his possession. He claimed it wasn’t his.

Of course, he’s no innocent young boy either, so maybe they saw him as an easy target. The facts of the matter are unimportant but the bottom line is that his parents had to pay a bribe to keep him out of a Jamaican jail. Wanting to avoid spending an extra couple of days waiting on Jamaican “justice” we simply told the boys that they had to stay within arm’s reach while on the island.

Sarah and I got up and went to breakfast. We were still coming in to port, so after a quick bite to eat, we went up to deck 11 and watched the ship dock. I took some pictures as the big ship glided into port. On the way downstairs, we ran into Tom and Nancy, so we joined them for second breakfast. I had a bunch of fruit and we tried to come up with a gameplan.

Once we were done, we ran into some of the kids and eventually rallied with everyone else. We were done docking and off-loaded to go walk around Ocho Rios. Right after coming off the boat, we walked the short distance to a shopping complex called Island Village. They had some shopping there and a Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville Café.

The first thing we did was some shopping. Matthew picked up a Jamaican Bobsled Team t-shirt. Sarah got Matthew a Bob Marley t-shirt, but didn’t tell him; she’s planning on giving it to him for his birthday.

Ron and the boys left us to go 4-wheel riding. They came back and said it was okay. Apparently, the guide wouldn’t let them ride wide-open and kept everyone in line.

Meanwhile, Lauren, Tom, Nancy, Sarah and I went to Margaritaville. Now that I think about it, Ron was there for a little while, too. I think the boys went back to the ship . . . I’ll have to check on that.

We had some conch fritters, nachos and some calamari. Sarah had a Perfect Margarita (or two), I had a strawberry margarita and the others had their favourite potable. The food was good, but the portions were small. We sat around and talked, all the while watching kids—and a couple of adults—take the waterslide down off the roof into the pool by the deck.

When the bill came, there was a 16% tax and 18% gratuity already added in, which comes to adding an extra third to the bill. I think I’ll stick to getting gouged at home (especially if the service is slow).

Sarah and I bought our friend Charley a trailer hitch cover that said Margaritaville Ocho Rios and then we left to go to the Hard Rock Café. It was only a couple of blocks away and I noticed the “herbal” smell a couple of times, but it wasn’t as pervasive as I thought it would be.

We were accosted by a couple of panhandlers, including one pathetic-looking old man who was on crutches and had two wooden stick legs. I was also asked if I was a “party” guy and wanted to buy something to smoke. I politely declined and the locals went away when turned down. I had heard the Jamaicans could be very aggressive, but that wasn’t an issue for us.

I picked up my city t-shirt at the Hard Rock and then we got a picture of Nancy in front of Nancy’s, a local liquor store. Then we headed back to the boat. On the way back, we ducked into a couple of the cleaner-looking liquor stores and found that the prices there weren’t any better than the prices on the boat, so we didn’t get anything.

Sarah and I got back to the boat and found that they were having a fire/emergency drill. They didn’t stop us from going anywhere on the boat, and it was good to see the crew practising for the real thing (which happened a couple of days later). We saw the fire doors closed and we saw an EMT team loading a couple of people on to stretchers. I also saw them lowering a couple of lifeboats into the water, and drive around, which was cool.

In the mean time, Sarah lay down for a nap while I went walking around the jogging track. If you want some quality time in a pool or hottub without loads of little kids, go while the boat is in port.

Have I mentioned that there is also no line at the ice cream machine while the boat is moored?

A little while later, we pulled out of port and we got dressed for dinner. Tom, Nancy, Sarah and I had a reservation for dinner at Portofino’s; the kids were on their own.

The last time we were on the Mariner, Portofino’s was one of the culinary highlights. The food is excellent and we had debated whether we wanted to do Portofino’s again or if we wanted to go to the other specialty restaurant on the ship, Chops Steak House. We decided on Portofino’s because we can get steaks at home.

I had the risotto and shrimp appetizer, a roast duck salad, and pasta in a white sauce with mushrooms. For my entrée, I had a seafood skewer over rice and asparagus. I had shrimp, scallops, salmon and lobster that was grilled and then served tableside. It was fabulous. Later in the week, we ran into a woman who said she had a whole skewer of lobster; I wish I had known I could do that.

Our server was Gergana and she was wonderful. For dessert, I had the dessert sampler, which had small portions of all their desserts. There was tiramisu, a flourless chocolate cake, pistachio pannacota and an apricot ricotta pie. Given the choice, I think I’d go for the tiramisu alone next time.

Following dinner, we went downstairs to the ever-popular Love & Marriage game show. It was hilarious. The young couple, Tyler and Amber from Utah, were good sports, as were the middle couple, John and his wife (I forget her name). Unlike last time, Cruise Director Becky actually made them try out for the game show instead of just taking the first comers. Tyler and Amber made out for applause and John and his wife had to do something equally stupid.

The older couple was Olen his wife (I forget her name, too; I guess I shouldn’t wait a month before writing these things down, huh?). They had been married for 60 years and were an absolute riot.

Becky asked a lot of the usual questions including the final one was “Where is the most exciting place you have made whoopie?” Tyler and John’s answer involved cars, but Olen’s was on a “boat that was a-rockin’.” It may have been the Mariner, but it also could have been his 40 foot boat “a couple of weeks ago”. The show was very, very funny and Becky was a great hostess. She knew when to balance the right amount of wit with a need to keep things moving.

After the show, we went upstairs and sat through some karaoke, which was bad. Unlike our last trip on the Mariner, there was no karaoke contest, which kept the good singers seated and encouraged the bad ones to sing. We only stayed for a little while and then went up to deck 11 to the poolside buffet. They didn’t have a lot of great food, but it was a good party.

When we got back to our room, we found that Royal Caribbean had left Sarah and I a pair of free totes, courtesy of the Crown and Anchor Society. They’re actually pretty nice and not the chincy crap that I was expecting.

Pedometer: 27,518 steps, 12.595 miles

Vacation Diary, Tuesday, 19 June 2007

When we booked this trip, one of the things we (meaning me) wanted a lot of port stops. I hate the idea of being stuck on a boat with nothing to do, so having a bunch of chances to leave the boat was a good thing. Of course, that attitude was one I formed before I ever cruised.

Now, after two cruises, I can safely say that there is enough to do on the mega-ships that boredom isn’t really an issue.

The first of our shore stops was on the beach of Labadee, which is Royal Caribbean’s private beach on the Haiti side of Hispañola. The harbour isn’t deep enough for the Mariner to dock, so we had to tender, which takes time. Thankfully, on Labadee, there aren’t that many things to do, so we didn’t worry about being left.

The boys had scheduled a Waverunner excursion which I joined them on. Ron and Lauren were going to a more “private” beach, which seemed like a waste of money to me. After all, this was Royal Caribbean’s private beach, right? So they paid $60 a head for a boat trip and a couple of drinks.

Meanwhile, Andrew, Matthew and I did a Waverunner trip. Andrew and Matt were on one; they took turns driving while the other hung on. It wasn’t just a ride-around-for-a-while trip. Instead, it was guided by some of the dive crew staff. They led us to several points around the island and even helped us fend off locals trying to sell us stuff from kayaks.

After that, the boys went over to a marked off area of the beach that had some inflatable water toys and paid $15 for an hour. They looked like they had a good time. There were trampolines and slides and log-rollers. It wasn’t just for the little kids, either.

During this time, Sarah, Nancy and Tom were hanging out on the beach. They took some pictures for us but otherwise just got some sun. Lunch was hot dogs, hamburgers and barbeque along with some other traditional picnic fare. I ate a little bit and then caught a tender back to the Mariner.

The first place I went was deck 11 and the ice cream machine. There was no line!!!!!

So if you ever want ice cream on the boat with no waiting, go while everyone else is in port. This will be a recurring theme throughout the week.

I walked around the jogging track for a couple of laps and then sat in the hot tub for a while. After that, I headed back to the room, showered and got dressed for dinner.

When Sarah got back, she asked if I had seen what Matthew bought on the island. They had a building set up were locals could hoc their wares. Some people were selling shirts, some carvings and some paintings. I replied that I had not, so Sarah told me I had to go next door and see it for myself. On the shelf above his bed, Matthew had a painting of Bob Marley smoking a joint. On top of being very ugly, the frame wouldn’t fit in any of our bags, but on Tuesday, we weren’t worried about that.

Everyone got back and we all got dressed for dinner. This wasn’t a formal night, so I put on the same pair of khakis I wore all week and a polo shirt and then headed downstairs.

Muharo took everyone’s order but mine; Rajeev had to come back and get it, but I guess that will teach me to change seats every night.

I had the scallop risotto (which was fab), lamb shank with mashed potatoes and warm chocolate cake. Sarah and Nancy skipped dessert and went up to the spa for a “ladies night out” special. They got a facial, massage and a foot rub.

While everyone else headed their separate ways, I hit the buffet for some not-so-good sushi. When Sarah got back to the room, we went to the main show, which was comedian John Pinette, who is fall-on-the-floor hilarious.

He didn’t do his signature line about Chinese buffets (“You been here, four hours . . . You go now!) but was otherwise very, very funny. You should see him if you get the chance.

Following the show, Sarah and I went up to the hot tub in the solarium where we hung out with some folks and compared notes. We got some tips and met one of the pairs of newlyweds on the boat before heading back to the room for bed.

Pedometer: 18,785 steps, 8.598 miles

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Vacation Diary, Monday, 18 June 2007

Being back on the Mariner was like coming home. I know that sounds corny, but it really was. Don’t get me wrong, the Star Princess is a good ship, but it’s got nothing on the Mariner. Sure, she’s showing her age, but everything just felt right somehow. Maybe it was the ice cream machine on deck 11.

We got up and found that our travel alarm clock has gone psycho. Not permanently, just on the Mariner. I don’t know what it is, but every 47 seconds, the clock advances a minute. This doesn’t happen anywhere else; I’m in Ashland, OH and the clock works fine. It worked without a glitch on the Star but for some reason, it doesn’t like the Mariner. Go figure. It’s a good thing my cell phone clock was still working.

I slept in until 7:30 (not bad considering my body was still on school time) and then we got up for breakfast. Sarah and I went up to the Windjammer; I had eggs, bacon, smoked salmon, cottage cheese, grits (with butter), watermelon and rolls. Not necessarily in that order.

After that, Sarah went to lay out and I went walking. Mornings on the ship are the best. The sun was already up, but it wasn’t too hot. There are a few people out, but not too many. I did about two miles (10 laps) around the jogging track, and threw a t-shirt on and went to the shopping seminar that they have on every cruise.

The shopping guru on this cruise was Jenn and while she was very nice, frankly, no one goes on this itinerary to go shopping. All that’s on the eastern route.

Of our four stops, only three have any kind of shopping options. The biggest draw seemed to be diamonds, jewelry and Del Sol stores. No electronics. No liquor. That’s all on St. Thomas and St. Maarten.

They didn’t tell me anything new, so I left after about an hour because I had somewhere to be at 11:00.

Before the cruise, I started a thread on the Cruise Critic message boards and signed up for the Cruise Critic Meet & Mingle. There were supposedly about 50 people who signed up and the original time was for Monday afternoon at 1:00 PM. However, Sunday night, we got reminder cards in our cabins about the gathering, but the start time was at 11:00 AM.

Sarah and I headed up along with a parcel for the Meet & Mingle gift swap. The idea was for everyone to bring something from their hometown or home state and swap it with another person/family. We brought a “We Are . . . Marshall” t-shirt for someone.

There were about 25 people actually at the M&M. Some people just didn’t come and some said they didn’t get the note about the time change. For the people who were there, Royal Caribbean provided some snacks and then we had our gift swap. I saw several of the people I met at the sail away. Somehow, I got put in charge of the gift swap and we got started.

We picked a gift bag that had a coffee mug from Gainesville, GA and some peach tea. Other people brought shirts and stuff from the local sports teams or other stuff. It was fun and we met some folks who we saw throughout the week.

After the M&M, we headed downstairs to the buffet for lunch. I had beef stroganoff, some salad and a chocolate tart, then went back outside for some more walking, some sun and a few minutes in the hot tub. I thought it was terribly funny that there was a line a mile long waiting for the ice cream machine and should convince Princess that people really want one on their cruise ships.

In the meantime, Sarah changed and then went to an art auction with Nancy. I found out later she bought a Piglet painting. It must have been the free champagne.

Monday night was the first formal night so we all got dressed up and went to dinner. Everyone got dressed up for dinner except for Matthew and Andrew. Both came downstairs in dress shirts, but no ties and no jackets. They claimed they didn’t bring them, but they did. Then they said they didn’t know how to tie a tie, which is also untrue, but that was okay. We made fun of them and at the next formal night, they had jackets and ties on.

For dinner, I had the lobster bisque and then two entrees. The first was the scallop linguini and the second was sea bass over polenta. The sea bass was better than the pasta, but both were still good. For dessert, I had the cheesecake which was okay, but not as good as Princess’s.

When we were done, Sarah and I went downstairs to pay for her art and then went to see the show, which was titled “Front Row”. It featured some showtunes and was the same show that did the last time we were on the Mariner. You’d have thought that in three years, they would change the shows. In any event, it was good.

Throughout the day, I had a sharp stabbing pain in my lower back and some soreness in my back and shoulders. I don’t know where the lower back thing came from, but I blamed the other pain on the mattresses on the ship. While in drydock the last time, they changed all the bedding on the Mariner, so it was probably due to the fact that I’m used to sleeping on a waterbed, not because of bad beds.

Pedometer: 21,436 steps, 9.811 miles

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Vacation Diary, Sunday, 17 June 2007

I love Sundays. Especially when I’m about to leave on a cruise.

We got up and packed all our stuff. After checking and double checking our stuff, we headed out to breakfast. Matthew slept in and Betsy and Dave took us out to IHOP. I had two eggs over-easy, bacon, hotcakes and hashed browns. Nothing special and nothing I couldn’t get at home, but it was still good.

After breakfast, we packed up the rental Taurus and drove to Port Canaveral. It cost us something like $4 in tolls from Lake Mary out the Bee-Line to the port. Rather than dropping Sarah and Matt off at the port, we all went to Avis and dropped the car off. The $40 it cost me to rent a car one way to the port was much better than the $120 it would have cost us for a limo or shuttle.

I turned the car in and we got on the shuttle to the Mariner. Along the way, we were with a family of four (husband, wife, two teenage girls) who were also going to be on the Mariner and a guy who was going out on the Disney Wonder (his wife and kid were waiting for him at the boat). Sarah let him use her phone to touch base with his wife because he was taking longer than he thought it would be and then we were off.

We left our bags with the porters and then got in line. On the shuttle, Sarah talked to Tom, who said they were already going through security. The three of us took a “before” picture and then went through security ourselves. We caught up with Tom and his crew in line and went through checkout.

Going along with us on this cruise were Sarah and I along with her youngest, Matthew. Sarah’s brother Tom and his wife Nancy were also there and they brought his two kids, Lauren and Andrew. Matthew and Andrew shared a room and Lauren brought her friend Ron with her. Not her friend, but a childhood friend she knew from Sacramento.

There were probably 50 or so people ahead of us and the line moved quickly. We handed over our credit card to pay for our Sea Passes. We showed our proof of citizenship and then went to get on board. Sarah and I skipped the (seemingly) obligatory pre-cruise picture, although Matt stopped with Tom & Co.

After boarding, we sought out our rooms, which were aft of the second set of elevators. Everyone but Tom & Nancy got inside cabins. We learned this from our cruise with Princess. Sarah and I don’t really need a balcony or window, and we’d prefer to spend the $300-500 difference in price on other things (spa, shopping, art auctions, etc.). We didn’t really spend much time in the room, so being inside was great.

In an interesting twist, when we got to our rooms, the beds in Sarah and my room were separated into two twin beds and the beds in Lauren and Ron’s room were pushed together in a queen. We thought this was very funny but we quickly found the room stewards to change the beds. I also ran into a woman and her kids across the hall from Matt & Andrew whose closet door was falling off; we hadn’t even left the port and were already putting in maintenance requests.

Our first stop was the Windjammer for the buffet. We had a light lunch, mostly salad and send the kids off to explore the ship. Sarah, Nancy, Tom and I did the tour of the spa and then went back to our rooms to pick up our lifejackets for the mandatory (and always-fun) lifeboat drill. I liked out waiting station, inside one of the dining rooms. It beat the hell out of waiting in the heat.

One of the kids asked, “If the ship starts sinking and we’re in here, how do we get out?”

I said, “I don’t know about you, but if we start sinking, one of these chairs is going out that window and then I’m leaving the ship that way.”

After a couple of pictures of people in their personal floatation devices, we put them up and then went topside for the sail away. The Mariner was supposed to depart at 4:30, but we actually pulled away from the pier closer to 5:00. The captain came over the intercom and said the Carnival Glory was late leaving, so that made the Wonder late and that made us late.

While waiting to depart, I ran into several friends from the Cruise Critic website. I’ve been a member of this site since before our first cruise on the Mariner and this time, I was the starter of the cruise thread. We’ve been communicating back and forth via a message board for about six months and it was good to finally meet people in person.

I had posted a picture from our first Mariner cruise and told people I would be wearing a bright red Hawaiian shirt and half a dozen people came up to me and said, “Hi, are you Dave from Cruise Critic?”

It was fun meeting these people and I saw several of them throughout the week. The ones who introduced themselves were BigAsAMountain and his wife (from California with their two boys), akcruz and her husband (New Jersey with their two kids), Poseidon1 and his wife (from Gainesville, GA) and FIRSTGRADETEACHER and her husband (from Orlando by way of Cuba).

BAAM and FGT were also teachers, which gave us lots of things to talk about.

After the sail away we went downstairs, I got a soda card (at $6 a day) at one of the bars and then it was time for dinner. Our bags showed up, but since most people didn’t get theirs until the middle of the night, the dress code for the first night is always casual.

All eight of us were seated together. We got a table in the dining room on deck 3, not as nice a table as we had the last time, but still good. Our waiter was Muharo from Indonesia and the assistant waiter was Dezly from India. Both were very good, although Dezly was quiet and not very engaging. Muharo was very outgoing and the pair of them combined for excellent service.

The first night, I had the chicken noodle soup and spinach salad. For the entrée, I got the herb-crusted cod with mashed potatoes and veggies. Dessert was ivory chocolate fondue that was very good. I’ve said before that other people have told me that Royal Caribbean’s food isn’t as good as other lines, but you won’t hear me complaining about it (and it’s just as good as Princess’s, who “they” say is better).

After dinner, Sarah and I headed back to our room where we ran into our room steward, Althea, a nice woman from Trinidad. They had switched the beds like we asked and we again asked her to remove everything from our fridge and from the fridge in the boys’s room. She was very nice, although in talking with her, she sounded like she was tiring of life on a cruise ship. I think she told me she had 8 years in and didn’t know if she was going to make it to 10 years of service.

We unpacked our bags and I found that our two of our walkie-talkies were missing. I had one, but not the others, which kind of bummed me out. What bummed me out even more was that I hadn’t left the other two anywhere, but they had slipped under the liner of my suitcase and were merely missing. I didn’t find them until Friday, when it was too late to do any good.

A little before 8:00, Sarah and I went to Tom & Nancy’s room and then the four of us went to the opening show, which featured the cruise director Becky, an aerialist and a stand-up comedian. Sarah thought that Becky was on the cruise director’s staff the last time we were on the Mariner, but I don’t think she was. Becky later told us she had been a cruise director since early 2004 and that would have put her on a different boat when we did the eastern Caribbean.

The show was good and then we stopped by the promenade café for a quick bite to eat and a drink before calling it a night.

Pedometer: 32,583 steps, 14.983 miles

Vacation Diary, Saturday, 16 June 2007

Saturday started with a trip to Bruegger’s Bagels in the old Winn-Dixie shopping center on Thomasville Road. I’m not sure what’s in there now, but the whole traffic pattern has changed dramatically since I last lived in Tallahassee. I had a bagel with cream cheese and strawberry preserves along with a Sprite. Mom had a western omelet on a bagel and I forget what Andrew had. We all played with Jesson and then Andrew and I hit the road.

The drive back to Orlando was uneventful. We stopped back at Andrew’s house to drop the baby off. I visited with Andrew’s wife for a little while and then he drove me to Avis, where I picked up a rental car. I had reserved an “intermediate” sized car, but had an upgrade coupon so they put me in a “full” sized car.

Guess what I got?

A Ford Taurus.

Everyone remembers what happened the last time I drove a Taurus, right? If you don’t, here’s the short version:

The alternator died on my prom night. That’s right, at the intersection of Thomasville Road and Meridian, the car crapped out on me. Anne, Shalini and Matt were in the car with me and it wouldn’t go. It’s a good thing Darcy and Darren were behind us or we’d have been SOL.

Thankfully, nothing bad happened to me while driving this Taurus so I invited Andrew and Megan to dinner Saturday night (they declined) and then headed back to Betsy & Dave’s. On the way, I stopped at the Sprint Store in Ocoee where I tried to get them to fix/replace my Bluetooth headset which we had gotten for “free” when we signed up our Sprint phones.

The place was a zoo, but after a short (45 minutes or so) wait, I got to speak to Javier, who couldn’t find my receipt for the Bluetooth in my records. Of course it wasn’t there, because I had gotten it in West Virginia, but he replaced it anyway (Thanks, Javier!).

I drove the half hour back to Lake Mary, stopping to pay tolls and then seeing how fast the Taurus would go through downtown Orlando (95 mph if you’re curious). I stopped at Publix on the way and picked up some supermarket sushi which wasn’t great, but it wasn’t bad either.

When I left Andrew’s the plan for dinner was to either hit a place called Fishbones in Lake Mary (not to be confused with Bonefish) or Fulton’s Crab House at Lake Buena Vista. Betsy and Sarah took one look at the Fishbones menu and decided that expensive New Orleans cuisine was a bit out of our price range, and no one wanted to drive all the way to Disney World for dinner so we settled for what was behind door #3: sushi.

That’s right, for me this made three sushi meals in 24 hours. Of course, no one knows this but me, so don’t tell anyone!

We went to a little hole-in-the-wall place in Ocoee called Sushin. I had the chirashi (again) and a couple of rolls a la carte. We had the Dancing Eel Roll (crab, cucumber, cream cheese with eel on top), the Hurricane Roll (shrimp tempura, avocado, cucumber with eel on top) and a Volcano Roll (crab, shrimp, tempura “crunch” with chopped spicy crab on top). Matthew and Sarah split a tempura and teriyaki bento box and ate off the selection of rolls. Sarah also found a plum wine she really liked called Koyuki Gold Plum.

The food was very good. After that, we headed over to Marble Slab, a Coldstone wannabe. I had the rocky road. It was just a little after 9:00, so we hit Best Buy next so Betsy could look for a computer for her son who is starting at USF in Tampa this coming year. Exciting, huh? Sushi, ice cream, geek stuff. I was happy.

Pedometer: 10,334 steps, 4.730 miles

Vacation Diary, Friday, 15 June 2007

One of the things I wanted to do while I was in Florida was go visit my grandmother. She lives in an assisted living home in Tallahassee and her health is failing. To be sure, she’s 96 years old and that’s what happens to people when they’re 96 years old. A few years ago, she fell and broke her hip. She also has Parkinson’s Disease and has had a series of minor strokes over the past few years.

Every time my father calls—especially at odd times (like during the day)—I half expect him to tell me that I need to get ready for a trip to Canton to visit Grandpa’s grave. So since I was in Florida, I figured I should go by and see her.

I told my brother about this trip a few months ago, so he said he was going to drive up with me along with his son. We were staying with my mother and made it a boys only trip. Sarah said she wanted to visit with her friend Betsy and Andrew’s wife Megan wanted a couple of days of adult-only conversation.

Before my brother confirmed that he was coming with, I was planning on renting a car at the Sanford airport, driving to Tallahassee on Friday, driving back to Orlando on Saturday and then driving it one way to the port on Sunday. Since Andrew said he would go, he also volunteered to drive his car, saving me about $120 (on day’s rental instead of three).

He showed up at Betsy’s a little after 9:00 Friday morning, let Sarah play with the boy, fed him and then we were off. I packed a day’s worth of clothes into my back pack and we go into Andrew’s Murano that was loaded up with too much crap. He’s a new parent, so we should forgive him for taking the kitchen sink every time he goes out.

The drive to Tallahassee was basically uneventful. We stopped around Ocala for some burgers for us and a bottle and fresh diaper for Jesson. You know you’re getting old when you talk about things like mortgages, 401(k)s and parenting with your little brother. He’s 31 and I’m going to be 34 in August, so that’s where most of our conversation headed.

He’s doing well for himself working for Lockheed Martin. He’s got one of those jobs that if you ask what he does, he says, “I could tell you but then I’d have to kill you.” All I know is that he’s got a degree in mechanical engineering and does something with missiles.

When he was 16, I would have given him 50-50 odds as to whether he’d be in prison or dead when he was 25, so I’d say he’s done pretty good in life.

Jesson slept most of the way, and we got in to Mom’s around 2:00 PM. She had some stuff for lunch and we sat around and talked while she played with her grandson. Megan’s father and grandmother came over for a little while, but we had to leave at 3:30 to go see Grandma at 4:00.

When I told Andrew I wanted to go see Grandma, he told me what to expect. Her health has been failing (again, she’s 96) and she sleeps a lot. Her memory comes and goes. She doesn’t talk a lot and when she does say something, she tends to say the same things over and over.

Still, I felt I had to go see her. So Andrew, Jesson and I left Mom’s and went to see Grandma. Dad had told her nurse that we were coming and advised us that a little after 4:00 was the best time to go by. It was after her afternoon nap and just before dinner.

We got there at 4:00 and found Grandma still in bed asleep. There was no sign of Wendy (the nurse) so we went out into the lobby to wait for her or Dad to come by. Wendy was a few minutes later and saw us sitting there. She asked where Grandma was and when we said that she was still asleep, she went to get her up and chide the other staff.

Apparently, she had told them before that this was the one day they couldn’t just let her stay in bed. After all, her grandsons and her great-grandson were coming by to see her.

Ten or so minutes later, they wheeled Grandma out. We had a nice visit. I think she immediately recognised us, although communication was tough. I don’t get down to see her as often as I should and the difference in her even from last November is striking. A part of me wanted to never see her again, choosing instead to remember her from my childhood when she was relatively young (in her mid 60s and early 70s), but that’s not what a good grandson does, is it?

We talked for a little while. I held her hand. She made faces at the baby. I think she wanted to do so much more than her body would let her. Dad, Cindy and my little sister Hannah came by and we only stayed for about 45 minutes. Dad says she gets overwhelmed and exhausted easily, so we didn’t want to stick around for too long.

After leaving there, we drove over to a place called Ted’s Montana Grill, a chain owned by Ted Turner that features a healthy fare of “authentic” western cuisine and has a lot of bison on the menu. I skipped one of the many bison burgers on the menu and instead had the cedar plank salmon, garlic mashed potatoes and green beans. The food was good, not great but above average.

Andrew picked up the bill for a Father’s Day present, and then we went back to Dad’s for some play time and some cake someone in Dad’s office had made. We stayed for a little while, took some pictures and goofed off.

At about 8:00, we left and headed back to Mom’s. On the way, I talked my brother into stopping by a sushi place that hadn’t opened the last time I was home, Sushilicious. It’s in one of the new strip malls on Kerry Forrest Parkway (just across where I used to work at Pizza Hut Delivery. Andrew said he wasn’t hungry, but I wanted to try it out.

I don’t know how Andrew became such a food wuss. He doesn’t eat half as much as Dad or I do. I remember Thanksgiving dinners when all the food would end up in front of me, Grandpa and Dad; I would have thought Andrew had gotten this gene, too, but he didn’t.

So we stopped in and I picked up an order of chirashi and a spicy tuna roll. We took it back to Mom’s and ate on the floor. The chirashi was good. They use lots of spicy sauce over the rice and the fish was very fresh. Mom enjoyed it, too.

As a late Mother’s Day and birthday present, Andrew and I bought Mom a 7” digital photo frame and we had loaded some pictures on it. We showed her how to use it and then I pulled out the futon in the guest room.

Pedometer: 11,649 steps, 5.332 miles

Vacation Diary, Thursday, 14 June 2007

I'm going to publish my vacation diaries here from my cruise. I've got four days done so far and I hope to have the rest done soon. Yes, I know I've been saying that for a while, but I really am working on them.

Here's the first day:

We have been planning this cruise for about six months now. We booked it back in January and invited all of the family that we liked to come with. Sarah’s brother Tom signed on along with his wife Nancy, his two kids Lauren and Andrew, Lauren’s friend Ron and Sarah’s son Matthew. That made for a crew of 8 and we were really looking forward to it.

Since our previous trip (The Star Princess Mystery Cruise) to the western Caribbean was altered due to a little weather system called Hurricane Wilma, I have been wanting to do the itinerary that included Jamaica, Grand Cayman and Mexico. Our first cruise was to the Bahamas and the Virgin Islands, so this was one of the two other Caribbean routes, the third being the southern Caribbean which includes Aruba and some of the Lesser Antilles.

Once again we booked through and got a rate of $1,163 per person in inside staterooms. I found out later that the price dropped a little bit, but I think we got a good rate. We expected to pay more in June rather than October since that’s the beginning of peak season, but we were back on the Mariner of the Seas and that was good.

Sarah worked for part of the day on Thursday; I had been off since Monday when school got out. I spent Tuesday and Wednesday goofing off and loafing and didn’t really start packing until Wednesday night.

My wife has slowly been buying things for the cruise in an attempt to spread out the expenses over several months. She bought herself a new bathing suit (and one for me, too) from Land’s End, a couple of new dresses, some jewelry and some other stuff.

We also encouraged Matthew to pack early, but he didn’t. Sarah asked him to lay some clothes out and this is what he had: two t-shirts, three pairs of shorts and an undershirt. Oh, the joys of being a teenage boy. I’m convinced he just threw a bunch of stuff in a suitcase an hour before we left.

After Sarah got home from work, we threw everything in the car, got some sandwiches from Subway and then headed to the airport. We were flying Allegiant Airlines, which is one of those discount regional carriers. They have a direct flight from HTS to SFB (Sanford Orlando International Airport) and charged $79 per person each way. Of course, where they get you is on all the nickel and dime stuff. $3 for a can of soda. $11 if you want to pick your seat in advance. $5 for an extra piece of luggage. $5 if your one piece of luggage weighs more than 50 pounds. Still, we didn’t care; for the three of us to fly to Orlando, we were paying less than $500.

The one big ticket thing Sarah and I bought for ourselves were a pair of iPods. She bought the 4 GB Product (Red) iPod Nano for herself and I bought a black 30 GB iPod for myself. So in the month leading up to the cruise, we loaded a bunch of music and some movies on them with the intention that we could use them for exercise or in the car.

The trip to the airport was uneventful, but when we checked our baggage, Sarah’s suitcase was 6 pounds over the weight limit. To avoid paying any penalty, we moved some books and shoes to my suitcase and the “body bag” backpack that I carry. After that, it was a quick (and mostly painless) trip through airport security and then we waited.

We got there a little early so we could be seated together (remember, Allegiant charges extra to pick your seats) and so we anticipated about an hour on the ground. It turns out the flight coming in from SFB was an hour behind as the aircraft was late getting in to Orlando from Ft. Wayne, Indiana.

So instead of departing at 6:05, the plane didn’t land until 6:38. After 20 or so minutes to turn the plane around, we started boarding at about 7:00 and were wheels up at around 7:20. We made up some time in the air and were on the ground in SFB at 9:00, which was an hour behind the scheduled time of 7:55 PM.

Sarah’s friend Betsy was waiting on us and we piled all our stuff in her van and headed to her place in Lake Mary, which is northeast of Orlando. At her house, they had some coldcuts and other fixins for sandwiches and then it was (for me) time to turn in for a big day on Saturday.

Pedometer: 16,250 steps, 7.438 miles

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Transformers (More Than Meets the Eye!) movie review

I'm going to expose my inner geek now. Very secretly . . . okay, maybe not so secretly . . . I've been waiting for this movie to come out. I didn't have high expectations, after all, the last Transformers movie was nothing to write home about, but it was entertaining and the idea of Robert Stack voicing a robot that turns into a truck was pretty funny.

There will probably not be too many spoilers, but if you don't want to know about the movie, STOP READING NOW!!!!

First of all, I have a new celebrity crush. Don't tell Mrs. High Lord. Megan Fox is the (human) love interest in the movie and she is H-A-W-T hawt. Not a bad actress, but let's face it, no one is going to see this movie for the acting.

Second, the movie looks absolutely amazing. The graphics are as close to real as you can get. The robots look like they were alive. The interactions with the humans are seamless.

The story is (predictably) weak. I won't bother to summarise the plot, but suffice to say that there are lots of excuses to see trucks and cars and planes transform into robots and blow stuff up. There are a few side plots on the side, one involving a team of Rangers in Qatar, one centering around a NSA cryptologist and the Sam Witwicky (Shia LeBeouf) and Mikaela (Fox).

John Turturro plays an over-the-top black project agent and John Voight shows up as the Secretary of Defense.

The coolest thing was that they got Peter Cullen to reprise his role as the voice of Optimus Prime. It was very cool to hear Optimus Prime's voice coming from the cool CGI Prime instead of the crappy old cartoon Prime.

They didn't have Frank "Voice God" Welker do the voice of Megatron; I don't know if that was an availability issue or if they wanted someone else. It turns out that Hugo Weaving played Megatron, and thankfully he didn't really sound like Hugo Weaving. I don't know how seriously I could take Megatron if he sounded like Agent Smith, Elrond or Mitzi Del Bra.

Of course, they left lots of opportunities for a sequel at the end and if it does well at the box office (or even if it just does okay), I'd expect a couple more movies from this franchise. They've got lots of people's other favourite Autobots/Decepticons to show and even though a handful died, there's no guarantee that they won't be back.

The one thing that I found to be kind of annoying was all of the product placement in the movie. The most glaring was the pervasion of GM vehicles (Pontiac Solstice, the new Chevy Camaro, full-size GMC pickup, etc.) but there were a couple of others, notably the Nokia phone and the Panasonic SD card. Of course, the fact that I remember all that stuff only reinforces how effective a technique it is. Plus, I understand that Michael Bay needs the money to make the movie, but I wish it didn't have to be so obvious.

Anyway, I really enjoyed the movie and I'd probably even pay full price to see it one more time. There are some funny lines and they don't take themselves too seriously, although I would have preferred a little bit more character development from the robots, but it's definitely worth your money.

If you're really bored, check out this clip of Soundwave not getting a part in the new movie. It's pretty funny.

I hope you all have a grest Fourth of July holiday tomorrow.

Happy Birthday, United States!