I'm amazed at the year that was 2012. It was a big mess of contradictions. The year seemed to go by quick, and at the same time lingered. It was a great year, and it was suboptimal. It was a year of good decisions and bad decisions. I find myself happy to have had many adventures, and anxious to move on.
I have to include a disclaimer here this year. I definitely left some stuff out here, maybe more than I used to. I've become a bit more discretionary about what I write on my public blog. As such, this is at best a "somewhat complete" picture of life in 2012, but certainly not the whole story. I mean, if you ready my posts in 2005, you'd never know I was going through one of the most painful years of my life, but obviously it happened. The parts I leave out this year include things about work, gross things about my child, and certainly the finer details of being in a close relationship. Wink wink, nod.
Work and career was the big experiment of the year. As indifferent as I was about staying or leaving Microsoft, mostly because of the team I was on, I'm more honest with myself now in asserting that I have a little bit of regret about leaving. That regret is concurrent with moving in general, but I'll get to that in a moment. Because the overall quality of work in my profession is simply not as good here in the Midwest, in terms of its frequency, anyway, finding a job that's satisfying is a lot harder.
In any case, I started the year working at Humana, remotely, after they found me and flew me to Louisville for what amounted to a 45-minute interview. It was a strategic hire to help a support team be a voice in the process of software development that was supportable and maintainable. Initially, I felt like I was making some progress, and getting the attention of the right people around the company. My boss was pretty well connected and networked, and that made a huge difference. That momentum stopped when he switched to a new job late in the summer. I had the right knowledge and experience, but I needed his connectedness to have influence. When I couldn't find a better place, that's when I started looking elsewhere for work. I ended up working there for just one year. I did get quite a bit out of it though, doing some fun prototype work, refining my presentation skills, getting focused on how best to teach the kind of dev skills that many of my friends likely take for granted. It was not a wasted time.
Humana came to me, and it wasn't on my radar, but they made a compelling offer. What I really envisioned for my career, and this is going back even prior to working at Microsoft, was more of a leadership role that was part technical, and part managing people. These jobs are harder to find (especially in the development tract at MSFT), but they mix the things I enjoy most, and have been most successful at... engineering, people management, coaching and process design. In fact, it was an obvious destination in my consulting days, prior even to Insurance.com.
When I was really testing the waters at various points, I had three high potential situations, and the most promising offer came while we were on vacation in Florida. I was still pretty careful about accepting, and wasn't sure until I met with the partners of the company and got to understand the state of their company and their goals. Hopefully I made a pretty good choice.
I think it took a lot of reflection and honesty with ourselves to admit that moving back to Cleveland was probably not a good idea. When we did it, we felt it was a strategic move that would have two strong benefits. The first was that we'd be financially better off because of my damn house. The second was that we'd be closer to "everyone" and "everything," a feeling brought on by our summer 2011 trip to Cleveland.
That first part about finances panned out. I have never saved as much money as I have this year, and that's even after putting down a huge chunk on the car to replace our totalled lease car last Christmas Eve. The rest of it... well, I guess nostalgia got the best of us, because I don't think we're happier here, even if we are saving money. The grass is not, as it turns out, greener. From May to October, we had a fantastic summer and did fantastic stuff, but aside from certain location specific things, living here is not better than living in Seattle. We miss our mountains, friends and family out there.
The thing that makes it harder for me is the house. As the partial motivation for moving back, it represents everything that I hate about the situation. It's the source of $40k in wasted money while we lived in the PNW. Despite a lot of redecorating, it's not "ours." There is too much baggage associated with the house, and I find it impossible to make it a place where my new family can truly make it our own. I want out of it.
So what do I do with all of that? Obviously, we have to move. The when and where are "to be continued." I will say that my desire to own a house is not what it used to be.
One of the key changes in attitude last year was toward money, as indicated in the move motivation. Regardless of whether or not that was a good reason to move, I started the year fully believing that I could save half of my take-home pay. There was one very significant barrier to that: My health insurance sucked. The irony is not lost on me since I worked for the insurance company itself. With the plan year restarting in July, we paid almost the entire deductible amount, twice. All it took was an instance of Simon's pneumonia and Diana's shoulder problems. I don't know how a family making $50k or less survives with shitty insurance like that.
So as it turned out, I only saved about 30% of my take-home. I know that's solid, but it's disappointing anyway. As someone who spent far too many years living on credit, I feel like I have to make up for lost time. To minimize the disappointment, I decided late in the summer that we were going to do some no-compromise travel, and even a forthcoming winter trip is paid for. As it turns out, money can to some extent make memories.
My opinion about home ownership is also evolving. I'm not sure if it's the American dream or just a pain in the ass. I know too many people who are stuck, some to the tune of six figures, because of declining home values. There is increased mobility associated with not owning a home. I'm not saying that I never want to buy another one, but it's a decision I won't take lightly.
One advantage to living in Cleveland is that you can drive a great many places, and that we did. We drove to my in-law's wonderful "mountain hideaway" twice in North Carolina. I finally got to visit Dollywood, and it was awesome. We had a fun little weekend in downtown Chicago, which was also a nice reunion of the Swedish Hospital Mattoni cousins. There were even a few overnighters in Sandusky.
As you can imagine, we went to Cedar Point quite a bit, even though we didn't ride very much. We did three trips just for Soak City. Simon still isn't very interested in riding stuff, or doing stuff in the water park, but we still had a great time. Given his intense interest in walking, I can't think of a better place that has a two-mile loop. The roller coasters scare the crap out of him when they're loud, and yet, he can't watch them enough.
Cedar Point is still a focal point for our summer social life. We still have friends working there, we meet friends there, and I even introduced one of my Seattle friends to the park this year. And obviously, I half-run a Web site about the place. It was fantastic to share the good times with Simon this year.
Just as we visited Cleveland the year before, it was obvious that we should visit Seattle. My brother-in-law Joe and his family graciously hosted us, and it was easily the thing I looked forward to the most during the summer. The cousins got to hang out, and we were able to visit all of our old stomping grounds. We saw Garbage there, too. I had a great reunion of sorts with former coworkers, and our former PEPS group got together as well.
I should mention that, while it isn't traveling exactly, we were also zoo members this year, and we went quite a bit. Diana and Simon went even more than I did. A zoo membership is a steal, and worth it even if you never visited. The Cleveland Metroparks Zoo still needs quite a few things replaced, but it's getting there.
Our biggest trip of the year was without Simon. While he stayed with my in-laws, we were determined to have a great time, adult style. Originally we thought it would be someplace adult focused, like Las Vegas, but ended up settling on Walt Disney World. There was precedent to having an awesome time, awesome food, and great holiday memories there, so why not?
We had a fantastic time and it was long overdue. The last trip we took without compromise was our honeymoon, which wasn't as good as it could have been because of weather. It was a great chance to reconnect in a non-trivial way, without having to split attention with our darling son. Say what you will about the expense of Disney, but we have such a great time there, and feel like we get what we pay for.
I got more involved with my favorite charity this year. We started the year working with Cedar Point to do an off-season park tour, and donated all of the money to GKTW. We promoted the crap out of Coasting For Kids, which was an unprecedented success this year. We also worked with the park and the Village when promoting a last ride fundraiser for Disaster Transport. I spent a lot of time talking to the president of the charity as well, which gives you a lot of perspective about what it takes to run what is essentially a resort that doesn't charge its guests. I gave a lot myself this year, too.
What really changed for me though, was my visit to the GKTW Village itself. After years of supporting it, I finally had the chance to see it in person (I was in Orlando for my stepdad's memorial service). For years, a part of me didn't want to visit, I think because I'm a parent and I wasn't sure how I'd feel about seeing kids that might not see next year. But as it turns out, it was kind of life changing. It put faces to the cause that I had been supporting. When you see families making memories and having a good time, under what are otherwise the worst circumstances, there is no way to describe it. I take it for granted that I'll keep having these moments with my kid. I envy my friend Kara for being a part of that, as her job.
My hope is that, at some point, we can take time on an Orlando visit to volunteer at the village. It's one thing to give money, but I think giving your time is just as important.
This will be the year I took up tennis. I spent quite a bit on lessons, and then played USTA. I really like the sport, but once summer rolled around, I didn't have any opportunities to play. I really liked playing singles, but I didn't like playing doubles because of the people I played with. My last match, I might as well have played solo against the other dudes, because I had to chase everything down myself.
It was interesting finding the similarities and differences between tennis and volleyball. There are certainly some transferrable skills, but there are some things that I had to simply unlearn. I enjoyed it though, and it helped get me a little more in shape. At the very least, it got me ten pounds below where I was last Christmas.
Speaking of volleyball, it was nice to see quite a bit of it on TV during the Olympics. The women really choked in the gold medal final, though the context of that failure was lacking because of NBC's stupid editing choices.
It was an election year, and it was painful. I wrote quite a bit about the stupidity of the candidates, and worse, the American public. People complain about partisanship, and engage in it. They simultaneously want government to fix problems, but believe it causes them. Worst of all, they engage in this ridiculous false dichotomy where everything is black and white, liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican. If that weren't enough, they let themselves be influenced by the politics of fear.
There's a general consensus that everything is going to hell and it sucks. I understand that we're in a recovery period, but I've never been more optimistic. I see unprecedented opportunity, if you're willing to work for it. I wonder what it will take to shift the conversation and the attitude toward that.
My stepdad died in October. As I said then, it was something I had been prepared for since, well, probably early childhood, when he first had heart surgery. It had been a year and a half since I last saw him, and I honestly wondered if it might be the last time. Even though we never had a great relationship, he certainly was a good man, and provided for us.
Experience with our family shapes so much of our personality, and David's passing forced me to think a great deal about my own life. Sometimes it takes the death of someone you know to remind you that you have a lot less to lose than you might be willing to accept. We're all headed toward the same end. His last gift to me was to force me to think about the kind of husband, father and person that I want to be. It didn't take long to start looking at changes for myself, and I haven't wasted any time implementing them.
It seems absurd to say this, but I remembered this year that I'm married. To be more clear, I think I realized it and embraced it in a non-trivial way. Diana and I have had a fast moving, whirlwind of a life together. I had to Ferris Bueller life a little to make things more solid, and deeper. I've always been a guy with a lot of love to give.
We hit a point early in the year where we were both a bit overwhelmed, simply because we didn't check-in with each other enough. Diana was burning out with Simon and domestic duties, I was living in my head over work and finances. We weren't asking each other for help, or asking how things were going. It's not that we were resenting each other or anything show-stopping like that, but we definitely weren't exercising the benefits of partnership the way we should have.
In some ways, Simon has become a little easier to manage, and that also gave us the chance to reconnect and strengthen our relationship. Working from home helped, too. We make more time for each other now, and it really came to a head when we finally took a Simon-free vacation. We so needed that. We don't take for granted the awesomeness of our relationship.
Being Simon's mom and dad brings new adventures constantly. This year brought us into new stages of parenthood that included greater mobility, a big boy bed, more words, lots of new clothes, and of course, more love. Oh, and much bigger tantrums.
The "terrible 2's" didn't start to really become evident until later in the year, and honestly, terrible is relative. We started the year where Simon still needed near constant supervision, and now he doesn't. You can take a shower and be reasonably certain that he isn't going to hurt himself or break something. He can count (to an extent), jump, "dance," organize things, clean up after himself, take his clothes off, and most importantly to us, say "I love you."
The terrible part comes in short bursts. He continues to test boundaries, and when he doesn't get his way, he flips out. When he's really upset, he completely melts down into a mess of tears and thrashing about. It's all normal, but what's so crazy about it is that Diana and I observe him in that state, and remember being in it ourselves at his age. As much as you have to let him work through it, you remember just how intense the emotions are.
Simon has been a part of the local birth-to-3 intervention program, and it has absolutely helped in ways that we could not have. He hasn't been diagnosed with any kind of learning disability, so certainly he would catch up developmentally eventually, but one would be insane not to take advantage of a free program that helps. Just today we had what might be the first true conversation with him. He asked Diana to pick him up, and she asked why. He replied, "So I can see Oliver," who was in the cat tree next to them.
I can't begin to describe how wonderful it was to spend extra time with Simon this year, at a particularly interesting age. Since I worked at home, I got to see him every day around lunch time, and we would wrestle on the spare bed, play with cars, hang out in the back yard... all things I couldn't easily do if I were away. One of my favorite things was to see out the window, from my desk, Simon and Diana coming back up the driveway after getting the mail. It just never got old, and it made me smile every time. Mommy's little helper is really adorable.
Maybe the most important thing I learned about parenting this year is to make it a seamless part of life, without it dominating everything else. Looking out for your own needs, and your relationship, isn't that hard to do concurrently with wanting to be a good parent. It's just a frame of mind.
Yeah, I have to ask this again this year. Last year my answer was ambiguous. This year, I can be honest and say, "Not really to the extent I'd like to be, but I'm also in transition." Winter here is not good in terms of my mood, and I just left a job that I probably stayed in way too long. I've never been so happy in my primary relationship, and having a child is a constant joy. I was much happier in the summer. I love hot weather and thunderstorms.
So at this point I'd say that I'm on my way to being happier. I'm definitely excited to start a new year and put this one to bed. Again, it wasn't particularly bad, but I waited too long to make a career adjustment, and that caused me more stress than it should have. Even considering that, we had a lot of really fantastic adventures this year.
It has been a yearly tradition for me to use the new year as an excuse to look back at how my accidental business is doing, and I was dreading it this year. For the first time since, well, I guess for the first time, I didn't pay that close attention throughout the year. Perhaps because last year wasn't good, I expected more of the same this year. As it turns out, it was a relatively good year in terms of things I could control.
I delivered one minor and one major version of POP Forums this year, and the audience for that is really growing. As an open source project, I don't make anything from it, but it's easily one of the most satisfying things I do. I was really stoked to build a mobile version of it, with minimal hassle. It's headed toward 5,000 downloads, and I'm glad people are getting use out of it.
The bigger project I delivered was a new version of CoasterBuzz, the first in about four years. It was long overdue. The new version runs on the MVC framework, and it's the lightest and easiest to maintain code base I've ever had for the site. It's also the fastest, with pages being rendered in half the time of the previous version.
Traffic to CoasterBuzz was essentially flat in terms of visitors, reversing the trend from last year where there was a decline. Page views were technically down slightly, but only because they're not measured the same way now. The newer forums allow you to load more posts into a page without going to a new page. There are other features, in the amusement park and user profile pages, that work similarly. That's not as good for ad views, but it's definitely a better user experience. The new site definitely stopped the bleeding from last year, and because it's so much more search engine friendly, the percentage of visitors who are totally new is through the roof. I get so much more organic search traffic now. Next year, I have to figure out how to keep them coming back.
PointBuzz had a fairly awesome year, including one day that I think was our biggest ever. Considering we haven't changed the site much in years, beyond Walt's awesome home page evolution, that's not bad. Of course, a lot of that has to do with some new ride Cedar Point is building, but I'm not complaining. As I start to make some progress on v11 of the forums, it's time to build a new PointBuzz as well. Because we're about community and photos (and video at times), we need to figure out a way to better organize our photos. I do have some ideas.
My science project that I called "Server Metric" got a solid start when I spent a weekend diving in and making it a real viable product. It's basically a simple app that dashboards data in a fairly platform agnostic way, so you can see in a browser a snapshot of information. It more or less works, but I've found some performance problems to work through. They're not hard problems, just things I need to spend time on. The other part is building the commerce part, and that is less fun. The rules around handling credit cards are somewhat strict, and I certainly don't want to store any account numbers myself, but the API's and systems of the processors that handle it for you are kind of brittle and a pain in the ass to integrate with. I often wonder if I'll ever make it a real product. If not, I'll be disappointed in myself, but at the same time, it has been useful as a playground for trying new technology.
The bad news this year is that ad revenue overall was down another 10%. That's better than a third, like last year, and I can attribute most of the shortfall to Federated Media, my primary ad provider for CoasterBuzz. They basically delivered almost no value this year. Combine that with reporting problems that Google clearly had, but would not admit to, and honestly it could have been much worse. Having Cedar Point announce a new ride really minimized the damage by driving PointBuzz traffic. There is also an effect caused by the mobile version of CoasterBuzz, which accounts for 17% of traffic. It's harder to monetize that with ads at the moment.
I'm proud of myself for tightly controlling regular expenses this year, but I spent liberally on replacing a lot of hardware. My laptop was over three years old, so I replaced that. That actually wasn't a big deal, because I sold the old one to a friend, and the new one, a 13" MacBook Air that I love, wasn't all that expensive, even tricked out. I did not replace my desktop computer, or Diana's laptop, both of which are about three years old. I'm not sure yet what I'll do next year with the other old stuff.
The big expensive purchases this year revolved around replacing my video camera. I finally sold my HVX200, after more than six years of great service. The last thing I shot with it was a great interview with Cedar Fair's new CEO, Matt Ouimet, and I was pleased with it. I think by the time I bought wireless stuff and microphones and other accessories, I probably spent nearly ten grand on it back in 2006, though I made up a little over half of that in some easy freelance gigs that year. I suppose in overall audience attraction, and the related ad revenue, it probably paid for itself by the time I sold it.
I replaced it with an AF100, which is smaller, lighter, better quality, and most importantly, can use a wide array of lenses, including my SLR glass. That thing makes gorgeous images. I didn't have to spend nearly as much on it, either, though I took the opportunity to buy a better tripod and some related gear. It took some doing to learn how to shoot run-and-gun video, but I think I've got that figured out. It will be great for the filmmaking I've talked about doing for years as well. I don't have any real plan for recovering the cost, however, since I'm not really looking to gig with it. Meh. So this year the business takes a loss, but it was financed on 0% offers, so it was worth it. Like my open source project, video interests me, and income matters less.
Looking to the next year, obviously PointBuzz is long overdue for a refresh. If things go as easily and smoothly as CoasterBuzz did, that will be awesome. The hard part will be a better way to handle photos. And the best part of this year will be the opportunity to cover the launch of a new roller coaster, for the first time in six years. I'm glad I'm around for it... I think this one will be as special as Millennium Force was.
I'm not sure what else there is. I haven't thought much about it. I hope to have a new forum version out early in the year, but that's it. I guess when your business is your hobby, you tend to be free of big constraints like planning!
Today is my last day working for Humana, after about a year. One of the initial considerations in taking the job was that it was remote, as the home office is in Louisville, Kentucky, and I'm not. I had worked from home from time to time while at Microsoft, but it wasn't on a schedule or anything, just when it made sense. I didn't see any reason why it wasn't possible to do it on a full-time basis.
My conclusions after a year are that it totally makes sense to work remotely in this line of work. The only negative consideration that I can think of is that you don't build the same kind of social relationships with your coworkers. You obviously can't go out for a beer with them after work. Beyond that, the benefits are huge.
The most obvious benefit to me is increased productivity. I didn't expect this at all, but it makes sense. There are fewer distractions when you're not in the same physical environment as everyone else. When you don't have to worry about the commute, I would also argue that you're a lot more willing to spend more time on actual work. In on-site jobs, I've always been quick to make sure I'm out by 4:30 to get a jump on traffic. That concern goes away when your commute involves going downstairs to your kitchen.
The benefit applies to companies as well, because remote workers don't require real estate, where they take up space. If it costs $10 per square foot (double that in a lot of prime markets), and you plop someone in a 5x5 cube, you're spending $3,000 a year for that office space, for one person.
Technology is in a state where it's not hard to collaborate with people in different places. Ideally it means you have more real-time, ad hoc collaboration and less meetings, but certainly big old companies have a hard time with this. IP telephony, Web cams, screen sharing, wikis, Sharepoint... these all reduce barriers to remote work.
There are cultural problems that I'm sure can get in the way. This is especially true with what I call the "Midwest factory culture" in the workplace. These are businesses that have a strict working hour policy, where face time is associated with productivity. They're the same kinds of businesses that promote people for working later instead of working smarter, oblivious to the actual results of work. Those are places not equipped to handle remote workers because they don't know how to evaluate their effectiveness.
The personal benefits are many, not the least of which is not having to get into a car. I estimate that I saved almost two weeks of my life this year by not having to drive anywhere. The best part of that is the fact that most of that time was directly translated into more time with my 2-year-old, and that's priceless. Not seeing him for pre-nap roughhousing is something I really struggled with when I considered changing jobs.
Overall, I see a future world where many business, especially in those related to software development or other primarily electronic endeavors, will tend to work in a hybrid mode of sorts. Formal and structured work spaces, with cubes and offices, will go away. It's rarely necessary to meet in-person, but there are certainly times when it adds certain intangibles to the work experience and the output of the business.
It's no secret that I'm a big Quentin Tarantino fan. Pulp Fiction is, in my view, one of the greatest movies of our time, and I don't think he'll ever top it. I took the liberty of sneaking away for a few hours today to see his latest movie, Django Unchained, which is a genre-bending western set in the pre-Civil War south. The executive summary is that it was an excellent movie, but stopped just short of going completely over the top. If I were to describe it in a slightly more verbose manner, I would say that it's Tarantino's homage to at least a half-dozen genres (western, blaxploitation, slasher, bromance, action, dark comedy), pushed to the point of caricature, sprinkled with some of the best performances I've seen in a very long time. At the end of the day, I think it works, and frankly I'm glad it wasn't another Kill Bill, which was certifiably awful.
Let me get this out of the way: Tarantino's gratuitous use of the word "nigger" made me uncomfortable. It starts right away, it's unrelenting, and frankly I'm not sure it was necessary. Maybe that was the point, and I think one might be willing to give him a pass as the film rolls on, because he paints the racists and slave traders as complete morons. They're bad people using a bad word, and I guess he wants you to know that, so you don't feel bad when they inevitably will die.
The other distracting choice was his use of cartoon-like ultra-violence, specifically the absurd use of blood splatter. While many like to paint Pulp Fiction as a violent movie, it's worth noting that the sum total of people getting shot on-screen might be three seconds at most. It was more subtle, and frankly more sophisticated. That said, the ridiculousness of the violence makes it fake enough to discern real life from fiction. Again, maybe that was his intention. There's one point where a character is shot standing in a doorway, and they fly backward off the set and out of the frame. It got a huge laugh, presumably for its intentional absurdness.
With those comments out of the way, the movie follows the exploits of a German dentist turned bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christopher Waltz) who finds Django (Jamie Foxx) and frees him from slavery in return for helping him find one of his bounties. In what almost feels like a historically precognitive apology for what Germans would do decades later, not to mention Tarantino's own Inglorious Basterds, he agrees to help Django win the freedom of his wife (the gorgeous Kerry Washington), owned by plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). The risk and tension isn't hard to build, as a freed slave atop a horse in Mississippi is bound to have issues. Dr. King Schultz's purpose in life is not hard to figure out, if his name wasn't a big enough hint.
Tarantino's single greatest strength is dialog, but he keeps it shorter in this movie, relative to his other works. While his long monologues can often cause you physical anxiety (think the scene in the French farmhouse in Basterds), you're largely spared of this here. The speeches are short and the movie keeps moving toward an obvious outcome, where the former slave will have his day mowing down the people who have wronged him and his wife.
And yet, with less to work with, the performances are still some of the best you'll see. Foxx is a badass, growing more confident each minute. Waltz is funny, intelligent and so warm that you want to give him a hug. DiCaprio plays another period character well enough, but it isn't until you pair him with Samuel L. Jackson, playing a cranky old slave of his, that you see total magic happen. The banter between the two is some of the funniest, if not particularly historically accurate, dialog I've seen in a long time. It's like Jules was transported back in time and aged. Tarantino obviously wrote the role for him. There are so many smaller parts by actors you know, and each one owns it. I was shocked to see Don Johnson play "Big Daddy," a total dipshit of a plantation owner, and he nailed it. Michael Parks (the guy who made Kevin Smith's Red State) is gripping in all of the five minutes he's on screen. Even Jonah Hill manages to make the precursor to the KKK funny.
Visually, Tarantino uses the bag of tricks that he has in the past, paying tribute to his own movies as much as anything older. Fast zoom-ins, close-ups of blood splatter, playful use of shadows... it's all there. It even has the classic hero kiss. One stand out that I thought was beautifully shot was the telling of a German myth by Dr. Schultz to Django. Sitting in front of a giant rock, his hand motions cast shadows from the nearby fire.
The soundtrack covers virtually all of the genres as well, leaning heavily toward a 70's vibe, with western and the occasional hip hop feeling mixed in.
The more I talk myself through it, the more I see that nothing in the film was done by accident, including the very things that I found initially distracting. Virtually everything about the movie is derivative, whether it be from Quentin Tarantino's own movies, or others, and it's so obvious that I think he's proud of this. There aren't likely many people in the world who are movie fans the way he is, and the truth is that he can take all of these elements and remix them into something you've never seen before. That's what ultimately makes the film so brilliant, that it's everything you've seen, but completely new. It already has five Golden Globe nominations, for best picture, director, screenplay and best supporting actor (DiCaprio and Waltz).
Django Unchained isn't for everyone, but it's better than most of the movies I've seen in recent years. I loved it.
If there's anything that I try to be extra open-minded about, it's anything that concerns parenting. I've got one kid, and one shot at not screwing him up too much. I've got less than 20 years to do the best I can and send him out into the world. His education is important to me, and I'm grateful for the subsidized programs that are helping him catch up with regard to his delayed development issues, however minor they might be in the long run. I'm also painfully aware that moving to Florida would be suboptimal because the schools there suck so much, and that's a bummer because I really like warm weather and palm trees.
Home schooling always struck me as an odd choice that would lead to socially screwed up kids. This belief wasn't based on any actual data, just assumptions. Beliefs and values around education in the US are a lot like religion. We're given a set of values at an early age, and we grow up with them as the holy word, but we don't choose them. And it's an entire spectrum that includes everything from preschool to college. Where did you get your education virtues? The same place you got religion: From your parents and community. Most of us don't question these virtues, and just accept them (that goes for education and religion).
I was already reading Penelope Trunk's blog about careers, and it turns out she also writes one about home schooling. Her posts are often about her experience, but they're so full of links to research, including this one about why she home schools, that it's too fascinating to not read. Not only is there little research that illustrates the negatives of home schooling, but it tends to go the opposite way. Pair this with the fact that public school education is so filled with problems and suddenly home schooling seems like a much better way to go.
When I posted a link to this blog on Facebook, one friend gave me an "are you serious?" kind of response. It wasn't long after that another friend, a former public school teacher who now home schools her kids, chimed in.
I'm not sure why I'm so surprised that home schooling is not only viable, but maybe even preferable, beyond the fact that I have been conditioned to thinking otherwise by the dogma that says preschool to college is the right thing. I should know better, because school failed me in countless ways that I can see now. Even the resulting metrics of school didn't make sense. If I get a 2.9 GPA in high school, and that's with the benefit of weighted grades for honors classes, and blow away all but 4% of the kids taking the ACT, clearly something isn't right.
The truth of the matter is that it's unlikely we'll home school Simon. My earning potential is too high, and Diana would like at some point to reenter the workforce. We have no intention of doing all of the stupid shit that parents like to do now (like holding back their kid or whatever), but if he's not being challenged, or not getting what he needs out of school, we'll be sure to look at our options to make sure he does get what he needs.
Simon's third Christmas is in the books, and it was a quiet one spent together at home. For his first, we propped him up against pillows, and he shared the fun with his cousins. For his second, we spent time with my in-laws, the day after a scary car accident. This year, we were quite content to have an uneventful day, but we really missed getting the cousins together.
Diana spent a good part of Christmas Eve doing preparatory work for pie, cinnamon rolls and bread. Simon helped quite a bit, adding stuff to the mixer. He really likes small appliances, which I'm not sure how to feel about. The cinnamon roll recipe made enough for a small army, so she gave half to a neighbor and parent group friend down the street, who in turn gave us a half-dozen eggs from their chickens. (Yes, they have chickens.) The bread was interesting because it didn't require a whole lot of work, certainly no kneading, and cooked in a dutch oven.
The evening of Christmas Eve was reserved for romance and Miracle on 34th Street. If our vacation taught us anything, it was to remember to make more time exclusively for each other, meaning without Simon, hobbies, the Internet or whatever. In fact, Diana had made it a point to schedule babysitters and make sure we have date nights on a regular interval.
Christmas day started out with those amazing cinnamon rolls. So good, but not good for you. Our gift exchange was fairly brief, because we agreed to go light on gift spending, since I already bought Diana her sewing machine, and frankly our vacation spending has been an extraordinary gift for us both. I know it makes me sound like a Christmas hipster or something, but we really try to make kindness and gift giving a regular affair among us. It might also sound cliche to say it, but I really think that every day I get to spend with my little family is a gift.
As for gifts and Simon, we have no idea what we should be doing as parents yet. Diana has been pretty conscious of how much stuff Simon has, because kids obviously have their favorite toys. I know I often had a lot that were never played with. In future years, we would like him to choose toys to donate prior to Christmas and his birthday. A lot of his own toys are already second-hand. But certainly we like to buy him stuff, and want him to have engaging toys, and he's just starting to understand what a gift is. Diana cheated a little, by buying him a toy cash register that one of his play date friends has, because he seemed fascinated by it. Sure enough, it's a hit. He also got another die-cast car from his grandparents, and he loves it. Being a growing train nut, his aunt and uncle sent him a remote control Thomas, but he's a little freaked out by it at the moment. I think he'll come around to it.
Simon can now identify who Santa is, but I don't think he knows what he does. There's a part of me that feels like telling him about Santa is a big lie, but as Diana put it, it does give him a chance to really embrace a bit of imagination and magic, even if it only really lasts a year or two. The irony is that I really want him to have a diverse religious education, and at the same time would prefer him to view Christmas as the birth of Christ first, and leave the Santa stuff second. Yeah, I over-think it.
We're still one year plus cable-free, but I still put in the A Christmas Story DVD and let it run through twice. Year after year, it never gets old. It's really one of the things about Cleveland that I like (and there aren't many these days).
For dinner, Diana prepared a turkey breast, without the bone, because we only eat the white meat, and an entire bird would be pretty ridiculous for two of us. Simon is still not really eating any meat we offer him beyond hot dogs, and even this sweet smelling poultry was not something he'd try. It was so moist and delicious. It was joined by broccoli and Diana's awesome skin-on mashed red potatoes. And then there was that ridiculously awesome loaf of bread that baked in the dutch oven. I don't know how bread can steal the show, but being the carbivore that I am, it did. It was completely awesome.
Simon was very sweet toward us most of the day. When we were winding down for bed with a little Sesame Street, he climbed up on the couch between us, and leaned over to kiss each of us on the shoulder. He's a real handful at times, but he's such a great kid. I love that he's a big hugger and kisser.
Since Diana was on her feet for much of the last 24 hours, she got exclusive Xbox usage for the evening so she could work on Lego Lord of The Rings. Oh, and there was the chocolate pie. I don't even want to know about the calorie intake for the day.
I really enjoyed our quiet family time at home, but I really missed having a Snoqualmie holiday. I really like holidays with my brother-in-law's family, especially for Simon, because his cousins are so close in age. Still, this is a holiday season less burdened by my work situation. Heading into November, I wasn't feeling great about things because my job was sucking my soul. I got serious about a new gig, and a weight was lifted when the right thing came along.
It's another year where the entire holiday season continues to evolve into something I look forward to and enjoy, after years of not doing either. Obviously that's largely because of my darling wife and child. It started with our fantastic Thanksgiving in North Carolina ad our fantastic Disney vacation, and it has been guided all the way by Diana, the queen of Christmas. We've had six Christmases together, each one very different, and every single one has been awesome.
Next comes the reflectivity of the new year. Lucky 2013 is on its way...
I'd like to consider myself a digital man about town. You know, I think I generally get the Internets, seeing as how most of what I've done for a living in the last 14 years or so has involved it in one way or another. I didn't "get" Twitter at first, but as it turns out, it was more that I just didn't have much use for it. Now the great quasi-mystery is Pinterest.
I say quasi-mystery, because I have some theories about its popularity. It tends to be a "girl thing." That seems weird at first, and a lot of people have made theories about why that's true. Most of those theories talk about branding or momentum. I think it's the design.
I wish I could find the article or paper that I read years ago about the wiring difference in men and women, but it goes something like this. A study was conducted about the way that people navigate. Men had a great tendency to think spatially, like a map. They would take freeway A to exit 2, turn right on street B then left on street C. Women, by contrast, had a tendency to think visually, using landmarks. They would get on the freeway, exit where the tall Holiday Inn sign is, turn right toward downtown, left at the library. Mind you, there's a spectrum between these thought processes, but these are the tendencies between the sexes.
So apply that study to the design of Pinterest. It uses collections of images as links to different things on the Web, arranged in a fairly random set of columns. It's very visual compared to, say, a big table of links nested in a hierarchy. I've seen it compared to scrapbooking, which is also something that tends to lean very female.
The idea behind Pinterest is actually not new, sharing links with others. The one-ups for this service include a subject agnostic approach, so you can share links for anything and see them grouped together. The visual nature of it is the bigger win, even if the appeal tends to lean toward women.
One week has passed since the heartbreaking tragedy in Newtown, where a man shot his mother, then shot a bunch of first graders and educators. There is no way to explain it, because it doesn't make sense.
My gut reaction, beyond the horror of it all, especially as a parent, was to run right over to my computer and blog about it. But as is the case with most aspects of my life, I thought it would be a better idea to think a little about it. Not only that, but I felt like I would be just another blowhard on the Internet (and I'm probably going to be that anyway).
The reaction of people in general has been completely bizarre, and frankly almost as irrational as the crime itself. Some go off on religious tangents, claiming the end is near. Others draw dire conclusions about the state of our society and culture, based solely on the actions of this one guy (and Obama, of course). Outright annoying is the people who think that political activism is sharing someone else's picture on Facebook with text of some completely inane position on something they don't even understand.
I understand that everyone deals with tragedy in their own way. To be honest, I found it so impossible to wrap my head around this, and was having such a great day with my family, that I simply chose not to think about it. Children are massacred daily at the hands of the Syrian government, and like most Americans, I choose not to think about that either. That doesn't mean I don't care, or that I don't have the deepest sympathies for the families of the victims, it just means that I don't have the capacity to become more deeply involved.
There are a great many issues that are brought to the forefront of our society and culture. Though it doesn't get as many of the headlines as those about guns, I don't think that it's a stretch to believe that there was mental illness involved in this awful event. I'm no psychologist, but I think it's safe to assume that people with average, functioning brains don't commit this kind of act. But what do you do with that information? Screen everyone for mental health problems, medicate everyone, or go back to medieval times and throw people in an asylum? Maybe you just chalk it up as an anomaly that will, in the worst case of exceptions, result in the slaughter of innocent people? I don't know where you start with that.
Gun control is front and center, and like everything else in this country, there's a pretty deep divide. I personally find any interpretation of the 2nd Amendment that implies we should all have automatic weapons at the ready to be completely absurd. When you have more gun related deaths per capita than any other industrialized and democratic nation, 40 times more than the UK, I'm not sure how you don't find at least some measure of causation. It's a strange place we live in where you can't operate a car without a test and a license, but you can walk out of a gun show with a device that can kill a crowd of people.
I'm not suggesting people shouldn't be allowed to have guns. I'm suggesting that the current regulation of guns is completely inadequate. So-called gun rights activists say that regulation only inconveniences law-abiding citizens. I suppose if that's true, then law-abiding citizens have nothing to worry about beyond the inconvenience.
And what about non-government entities taking action? The NRA says we should put more armed people in schools, while retailers like Dick's Sporting Goods have yanked rifles from their shelves.
Regardless of your postion on the political issues, it is necessary to keep some level of perspective. Violent crime has been on the decline for almost two decades, with some upward spikes in that time. The 1994 assault weapons ban, lobbied to congress by presidents Reagan, Carter and Ford, and signed by Clinton, along with legislation to provide for more law enforcement, appeared to greatly impact crime statistics, especially those involving guns. The expiration of the ban a decade later coincided with a rise in these crimes, though it has again reversed its trend.
As for schools, there's no question that even a single life lost in a shooting can't be trivialized. I don't want for a second for anyone to think that I believe otherwise. That said, the drive to school is significantly more dangerous than your child attending school. 80 million kids in the US will go to school this year, and again, while even one child's death is tragic, it's beyond rare.
There is a culture of blame, and desire to attribute senseless violence to something. Even though no scientific study has made a plausible connection to video games, they are again a target. Mind you, the sales of violent video games has steadily increased for years (except maybe this year, which hasn't been good for the industry), while violent crime has been on the decline. To me, that inverse relationship makes video games as likely to be a contributing factor as movies, TV and comic books before that, which is to say it's extremely unlikely.
So even though I'm still in favor of changing the regulation and culture around guns in the US, for this specific and horrific event, I tend to keep coming back to the one conclusion that is easily the least satisfying: One severely broken individual committed a mostly random crime that killed innocent women and children. There is no way to rationalize it. At the same time, I can't conclude that the world is really an awful place... not when I see the outpouring of support for that community, or the efforts of charities, religious institutions and individuals following any crisis, natural or manmade. If we are to hold on to our humanity, we can only conclude that this kind of event is an unexplainable anomaly, and take comfort in knowing that people will take care of each other.
I know that I've expressed my distaste for the apptasticness that has permeated mobile devices. For a lot of situations, I'd guess 90% of the apps on my phone and tablets that I never use anyway, could have just as well been Web-based apps that would work just as well. And by being Web-based, they would be available on every platform, including my desktop and laptop computers. It's a whole lot less work for the developers, too, to target one, universal platform.
But there's another side effect that I had not thought about as much, and it's the most annoying one to the user. I'm talking about updates. It used to be just my phone, and it was infrequent that some app had an update. Now it's the phone, the tablets, and even Windows 8 and OS X. There's always a nag badge or live tile reminding me that something has to be updated. Worse, sometimes an app says, "Sorry dude, I won't work until you update me." It's completely annoying.
You know what happens from a user perspective when a Web app needs to be updated? Nothing. It might look different, and have new features, but getting the new version took no effort on my part. "Updates available" is a step backward for the Internet.
As we approach Christmas Eve, we approach the anniversary of the carnage to my previous car. I'll spare you the details, save to say that we were rear-ended at a red light, hard, by some hilljack in Bristol, Tennessee, and pushed into an oncoming car turning in front of us. The car was totalled.
I had never been in a car accident prior to that. In fact, I used to boast about how many accidents I've avoided in snow. When I'm actively driving, I have a strange sense of calm to react and process things, even in crappy conditions. I once slid through an intersection (and red light) without hitting any of the other cars. It never occurred to me that I could be in an accident simply by being stopped at a red light.
To this very day, it has affected my driving. I look in the rear-view every time I'm stopped now, and it makes me anxious. Because I saw the truck coming that hit us, I replay that in my head all of the time. It's like a recurring nightmare that happens when I'm driving.
I'm generally more cautious than I used to be with street driving. It's like I leave the house fully expecting someone to bounce off of me at some point. I haven't changed my freeway driving that much, but there's a fair amount of stress I endure with long distance drives. Driving into Chicago last summer, a place that is not meant to be driven in, was awful just for the four blocks from the freeway to our hotel.
If I'm being honest with myself, being a more cautious driver is probably not a bad thing, especially since I also carry a smaller passenger much of the time. I'm just surprised that it has stuck with me as long as it has. Since I worked at home this year, I didn't do a ton of driving outside of our big trips. I think that accident will stay with me for awhile.
It was a great treat to see Stephanie, my first wife, today. She moved to Colorado, and was back in town catching up with people around Cleveland for the first time in a few years. I haven't seen her since some time in 2006, so it has been a very long time.
Obviously we didn't make much of a married couple, since we are not, in fact, married anymore. We were together for about 11 years. That's a really long time to spend with someone. While there was certainly a period of time where we had to figure out what our relationship was going to be, we eventually became friends. In fact, she's one of the very few people that I exchange e-mail "letters" with on a fairly regular basis. You know, the kind people used to put on paper and mail to each other.
I certainly realize that some people exit relationships because they're physically or mentally abusive, and I understand that there's little reason for people in those situations to stay in contact. However, I know a lot of divorced people who harbor these bizarre grudges and vats of toxicity toward each other, for reasons that frankly don't benefit anyone. I can't put into words how thankful I am that I don't have that situation with Stephanie, or anyone I've had a serious relationship with.
Also important, I'm thankful that Diana is OK to be around Steph, or anyone I've previously had a relationship with. In fact, we've spent time socially with them all, many times. It was kind of fun to see the two of them geek out over Diana's new sewing machine. It was a reminder that while they represent two distinct eras of my life, they both have so much to do with who I am. I still feel very fortunate that I've had the opportunities to have the relationships that I've had.
I put in my notice today, after about a year at my job. I feel like a huge weight was lifted from my shoulders.
I feel like I've been making some strides toward improving my life this year, especially in the summer. I've spent time learning how to be a better dad. I feel like Diana and I have strengthened our relationship (not that it was weak, but we've tried to make it even more awesomer). I'm getting back to taking better care of myself. I've learned to be financially responsible, but not too stingy to enjoy life. I also felt like I might be selling my professional life a bit short.
It really came to a head in October. I was in Orlando for my step-dad's funeral. Death is already something that forces you to contemplate life a bit, but my visit to Give Kids The World Village only forced me to prioritize and appreciate life even more. In particular, seeing how my best friend loves her job there, excited to get up every day and go there, made me think very hard about what I was doing with my professional life.
I originally joined the company because I saw enormous opportunity. I was hired in part to help them figure out how to make software more supportable and maintainable. There were so many obvious things I could see right away, that I'm sure many of my friends around the industry would likely take for granted.
By the time summer came around, my boss moved on to another position. I think he probably saw a lot of the same issues I did around the silos and cultural issues that made change difficult or impossible. The technical actions to take were honestly the easy parts, but literally decades of established culture made those actions difficult to discuss, let alone implement. The organizational structure, about as non-flat as possible, constantly got in the way.
I finally started to get honest with myself about the real potential. Long-term potential for hero status might have been there, but it would come at the cost of delivering quality software. I'm very passionate about that. Going back to my days of consulting, seven years ago, I didn't always write the best code, but I knew how to conduct a small team and iterate quickly, with results. I was fortunate to work on teams after that who shared the same passion to iterate quickly.
So an opportunity came up to run a development team for a smallish company that wants to make its core asset a serious product, best in its class. I've been burned by small companies before, so I was reluctant at first. When they made an offer, I more or less interviewed them back. The owners are really smart guys with a vision, and I respect what they've built in a relatively short period of time. Most importantly, they appeal to that core passion, to deliver great software.
I'll miss working from home, but it will be great to get back to managing people and process as a part of what I do. It's hard to say what percentage of the work will be coding, and what will be the management component until I get on the ground, but I'll be thankful to get back to shipping stuff, regardless.
Diana and I went to see A Christmas Carol at the Ohio Theater today. The show is of particular importance to her, because she stage managed it for several years, over a decade ago. Her "Scrooge" is still in the cast, playing a different role, but this just happened to be his 500th performance. While I too can appreciate what it's life to entirely leave a profession, I don't think I can totally understand what it was like for her. Fortunately, she did get to see a number of people still working for the company after the show.
I think it's safe to assume that you know the plot of the original text, or have seen stage and film adaptations of it at some point. While the ghosts of Christmas past, present and those yet to come are intended to show Scrooge that he's a stingy bastard of a man, it's interesting to see these characters as ghosts. It seems like we're haunted by these three ghosts in real life to some extent, if for reasons different than those that caused them to haunt Scrooge.
The past is such a tricky thing, because it will always define us to some degree, for better or worse. Our experiences and our decisions shape who we are. Reflecting on the past, we open feelings of joy, sorrow, happiness, regret... pretty much all feelings. Perhaps most strong are the feelings of relief, that the past is over, or despair, that we can never again experience that past.
The present isn't necessarily scary for what it is, but scary for a lot of other reasons. It's so easy to get stuck on the past, or drive toward a future that we can't entirely predict or control, that we completely miss what's going on around us. We can be completely discontent with our present situation, or like it so much that we disregard our future.
The future haunts us with endless possibility, though some days it's hard not wonder if the thing most possible is imminent doom. I don't think that many people can say, "Yeah, I'm exactly where I thought I would be," and if they can, they're probably horrified at how boring it is. What I find most disturbing about the future is the number of people who are willing to simply allow it to happen to them. I think that constantly praying to have someone (or something) save you instead of trying to save yourself and make things happen is a dangerous game.
I see these ghosts on a regular basis, and they're the source of everything I love about my life, as well as all of the things that I detest. Some academics would suggest that Charles Dickens mainly intended to be critical of the evils of capitalism relative to charity, and maybe that was what he was after. But I think there's a more abstract lesson, bigger than Christmas, and that's a reminder to be self-aware. We are all shaped by our life experience, and it does in part define our lives today. And yet, what we do with that information will ultimately shape our future.
Diana started to get into quilting this year. The sewing machine she inherited from her mother, as you might expect, is quite old and limited in its capabilities. As you might expect, a new machine that helps do the work in a capable way isn't cheap, and this discouraged her a bit. I told her she should do the research and buy whatever made the most sense. I'm totally behind her.
The fact is, even when it comes to hobbies, it's worth it to buy the right tools, if you have the means. Buying something less only leaves you frustrated, and you won't enjoy it as much. Certainly, you find what the sweet spot is in terms of price and performance, but if you cheap-out, I think you're wasting money to an extent.
For example, my inner video nerd will never go away, and this year I decided I wanted to buy a new camera. I bought the previous camera six years ago, and learned a lot from the experience. The replacement is something I would like to last another six years. The ideal would have been to buy the $15k Canon that makes dreamy images. While not a $50k camera, that's still a bit much. But I could justify $3,500, an improvement over the 2006 purchase. Granted, I make a little money with my tools, but I know that a $300 consumer camera won't do what I want.
It's really not any different from regular tools. I learned as a teenager what happens when you have a cheap socket wrench (hint: it splits). That's why after almost 20 years, I've only bought one set of sockets. Car mechanics don't buy their tools at Wal-Mart. I wouldn't buy a $300 Dell to use for software development either.
Yes, constraints can force you to get creative. A lot of artists are fond of reminding you of this, from Jack White in music to Robert Rodriguez in film. I agree with them, but there's a difference between constraints and being Amish. In the case of sewing, you could use your hands, sure, but there's a point in which the right machine gets you most of the way to realizing what you want to achieve. The camera scenario is like that too. I can't record uncompressed video without additional equipment, so I have to be careful with what I shoot, but it sure beats trying to get some Best Buy camcorder to do what I need.
Diana will be happy with her machine (merry Christmas and happy birthday, dear!), and I suspect having it will help her enjoy the process a great deal more. You can't feel bad about buying the right tools.
Ugh, it started on Facebook right at Thanksgiving. People bitching and moaning that you "can't" say "Merry Christmas" anymore. Let's explore why this is annoying.
First of all, "Happy Holidays" has always, in part, been used to group Thanksgiving, Christmas and the New Year together. This isn't political correctness, or some other such nonsense, it's just shorthand.
Second, 75% of Americans self-identify as some flavor of Christian. So if you're a retailer, you ask yourself, "Do I really want my messaging to appeal to everyone, or just leave out one in four?" Or maybe, if you work and live in a diverse place, you just figure you won't make any assumptions about what the people around you believe. You know, just as a courtesy.
Third, in the case of government, and I'm talking about public schools here, it's not permitted to establish religion. You know this. And frankly, it's hard enough to trust some school districts to teach your kids the basics. I sure as hell wouldn't want them taking a stab at religion. I'll own my kid's religious education, thanks.
Let's be even more obvious: You can say Merry Christmas all you want. I hear it all of the time. I mean, we've got two radio stations here that play Christmas music all day, every day, for an entire month out of the year. Don't be dramatic.
More importantly, the intent here is not to crush Christianity or some other stupid conspiracy. There is no coordinated effort here to squish anything. The issue reminds me of the loudest critics of same-sex marriage, who make the case that it somehow dilutes the value of their own marriage. That's absurd. You don't become any less married because a couple of dudes are married. Similarly, you don't become any less Christian than because someone else isn't.
There's a part of me that wants to explore why people get so bent out of shape about this, but I would probably be making a whole lot of assumptions and generalizations. The bottom line is that if you observe Christmas, perhaps you should spend more time celebrating the joyous birth of Christ instead of being angry about something that isn't a problem.
This is probably the longest period in awhile that I've gone without writing some stuff. Here's why, in bullet point form:
There is stuff that will flow, but it's likely to be of a fluffier variety. I've spent a lot of time being deep and reflective lately, for generally positive reasons, so dick and fart jokes are feeling pretty necessary right now.
Simon is just about 2.75-years-old now. While much is made of the "terrible 2's," he really hasn't been all that bad. Well, not until the last couple of months, anyway.
While Simon is starting to catch up in his speech, he's also having little freak-outs on a constant basis. Instead of communicating his desire, frustration or other feelings, he slips into shrieks and yells. Words can't explain how annoying this is, and it's insanely hard to simply ignore the ridiculous behavior because you really want to just tell him to calm down and get over it. I think we've adapted to this pretty well, and we don't validate. We do ask him to use his words and tell us what he's feeling, and sometimes he'll tell us.
On the flip side, we've managed to slip into a nice bedtime routine. Bedtime has been a veritable sine wave of good and bad since Simon was born. We had a few weeks there where he wouldn't go to bed without a meltdown, and we'd give him 20 or 30 minutes of crying before we revisited him. Now, we read books, do puzzles, or whatever, then we turn off the light, leaving his "stars" (an Ikea projection lamp) on. The three of us lie on the floor, with a little blanket over him, and we talk about his day. Five minutes later, we ask him to crawl into bed, give him hugs and kisses, exchange "I love you's," and he just goes to sleep. It's awesome.
Watching this little personality evolve, one that didn't exist and was impossible to predict three years ago, is completely amazing.
In the first part of this trip report, I described mostly the theme park experience proper, but here I wanted to talk about all of the other stuff, including the resort, the food and the mini-golf.
My previous on-property stays, all four of them, were at the Pop Century Resort, which is one of the value resorts. To be honest, it's really adequate, really inexpensive, and like everything else at Walt Disney World, really clean. Particularly if you don't visit very often, or it's your first time, it makes a lot of sense since you'll likely do little in your hotel beyond sleep and eat breakfast (which is also good there). It's not close to anything, but again, if you're not coming back until late in the evening, no big deal.
For us, there is no rush to see everything, and we knew we would spend a whole lot of time at Epcot, as we usually do. Location matters. We got a mailer for 30% off the room rates for deluxe resorts, so we figured now was as good of a time as any to stay at Beach Club. It was worth every penny. We got on a bus three times: Once coming back from Magic Kingdom (took the monorail there from Epcot), and to and from Animal Kingdom. The boat takes you to Hollywood Studios, and Epcot was quite literally 1,000 feet from our closest exterior door to the International Gateway entrance. It was awesome.
Beach Club is a fairly nice hotel. It's about 20-years-old, but the rooms were updated in the last few years. While you can see a little wear-and-tear if you look hard enough, the overall condition of the rooms and public areas is tip-top. Being clean is a huge priority for them, as I saw housekeeping staff wiping down the railings on the little quasi-balconies, where you probably would never notice dirt. The king bed in our room was just fantastic.
There are a bunch of places to eat in Beach Club, including a snack bar kind of "marketplace," a buffet, an ice cream and hot dog joint, and a nice steak and seafood place. We ate in none of them, actually, aside from getting a few snacks out of the marketplace. The pool is pretty great, with a huge shipwreck, but we didn't use it. We did use the hot tub at the secondary pool near our room. There is a nice faux-beach with swings and such along the water. Did I mention it's a thousand feet from Epcot?
We once again did the dining plan, but I think this time, it was very much a neutral value proposition. It costs about fifty bucks a person, per day, and it includes one snack item (basically anything under five bucks... we did a lot of popcorn and other snacks), one counter service with drink and dessert, and one table service with dessert. I was doing the math, and we generally came out in the $55 to $65 range for the food we ordered. I say it's neutral, because we didn't always eat the dessert, or didn't finish it.
So this time, the dining plan was convenient, but it didn't necessarily add value. Two things have changed since our last visit. The first is that we're eating differently. I just don't eat as much, and Diana was pregnant, and definitely doesn't eat as much now. The second thing is that, because they emphasize reservations so much, the more expensive restaurants are harder to get decent reservations for. Forget a place like Le Cellier, which is booked months in advance (not sure why, beyond it being essentially American food), but even Tutto Italia is left with late dinner times. Mind you, that's just within the parks. There are a lot of places in the hotels and other areas, but given our Epcot fetish, you can understand the disappointment. We had no problem eating in the Chinese restaurant and Tokyo Dining.
Our other two table service credits were used on the Boardwalk. One was at ESPN Club, which is really above average bar type food. Delicious wing sauces there! We ended up back there for drinks and appetizers after our mini-golf endeavor. The other credit we used at Big River Grille, which includes a brewery. We met our friend Kara there for dinner and were pleasantly surprised. I'm a chicken alfredo snob, but what they had was delicious. I did not get any brews, because honestly, I wanted to give myself a break after the previous night's drink-around-the-world.
So overall, I wasn't as enthusiastic about the dining plan, because we didn't save as much as we did last visit, when we were doing $50-each dinners at a few of the better restaurants. Again, pre-paying it does have a convenience factor. Most of the food we had was excellent. Also, they give you a mug that you can refill in the hotel, 7 to 11, with sodas, tea, coffee or hot chocolate. We actually used that pretty effectively.
Our room package included a voucher for one person to use at the Fantasia Gardens mini-golf courses, which are just across the street from the Swan hotel, next door to Boardwalk and the Beach Club-Yacht Club complex. It has two courses, one being the traditional "windmill" type of mini-golf, in this case themed to Fantasia, and a second fairway course, which looks more like a real golf course. It's $12 per person, so we brought Kara along with us for some sporty fun.
We played the fairway course, and it is seriously not easy. You have to get over the idea that you're going to get a hole-in-one, because in most cases, you're really just positioning yourself for a good second shot. Some holes are over a hundred feet long, and there are no concrete barriers around them. It's a really beautiful course, and the most fun I've had with mini-golf since playing the greens at the Newcastle Country Club outside of Seattle. Having fun tee-mates that are better sports than me helped, too.
As I mentioned in the first part, we really should have stayed a day longer for mid-week down time. Given the "frequent enough" nature of our visits, we're into enjoying just being there as much as we enjoy trying Spaceship Earth in alternate languages. It's possible we might do it again next year (maybe for Food & Wine Festival?), but who knows. Simon is out until he's 4 or 5, at which time we might be considering a resort with suites (Art of Animation is a likely, if inconveniently located, option).
It really was the in between stuff... the mini-golf, the Segway tour, the new to us restaurants... that really made the trip. It was much needed grown-up time together.
Diana and I spent our first multi-day Simon-free vacation at Walt Disney World, the week after Thanksgiving. We stayed at the Beach Club Resort this time, and I'll talk about that and all of the other topics outside of the theme parks in the second part of this report.
We had a really early flight out of GSP to ATL, which put us at MCO at 10:30. Using the Magical Express, we arrived at the hotel just after noon, and they had a room ready for us. We immediately got started by doing a lap around Epcot and had lunch in China. As is pretty typical that week, the park was not particularly crowded. We stopped in to see Voices of Liberty and The American Experience, both of which are as excellent as ever. We decided to spend the evening at Disney Hollywood Studios. After a brief nap in the super convenient location of our room, we used the boat to the studio park.
DHS has an enormous stage up now in front of the sorcerer hat. I'm convinced that ridership on the Great Movie Ride is small just because people can't find it (although we skipped it because it grows tiresome). First look was of course at Toy Story Mania, which was allegedly 100 minutes and no Fast Passes. We moved on.
We got an unnecessary Fast Pass for Tower of Terror and queued standby for Rock-n-Rollercoaster. The sign listed 40 minutes, but it ended up being 50 for some reason. I theorized that they had to take a train off or something. The launch did not seem as strong as it used to be, with quite a bit of coasting toward the end. It wasn't fall into your restraint slow, but I remember it having more of a kick. Regardless, it's still a really fun ride.
Tower of Terror is still the best ride at the park. It just never gets old, and with the varied programs, you never know what you're going to get. What I'd give to have a tour of that thing with the lights on.
We saw they were still letting people in for the Indiana Jones stunt show, so we got a nice seat down front, stage left. My first thought was that I had never seen the show at night, and my second thought was that the show really hasn't changed in the 22 years it has been running. That's crazy to think about! When they introduced a couple of the stunt folks, we found it odd that Marion's double was blonde, and the Nazi muscle dude was a black guy. Well, the film cameras obviously aren't real either, so I guess we can let it slide.
As we headed toward Extra Tragic Hours, as they came to be known, one counter service restaurant after another closed, until we were stuck eating at the ABC Commissary. I was annoyed. Pizza Planet had closed at 6:30. Really? With all of the traffic going there for the lights, that struck me as colossally stupid.
Next up was the Osborne Family Christmas Lights, and they were even more awesome than the last time (2009). The lights they're using now seem to respond better to dimming. They also have a number that can do the "video" matrix thing, including those over the side-street. Instead of doing a long show, they do a song, wait a bit, do a song, wait a bit. Once Magic Hours started, it was possible to actually stand on the street and not get squished.
I haven't been on Star Tours since the year it opened, and we skipped it last time because Diana was pregnant. So with the new updates, it was new to me as well. It's exceptionally well-done. We only did it once, but there are multiple programs. The 3D is pretty solid, especially when you compare it to something like Captain EO, based on 3D from 25 years ago. My only criticism is that it would have been better if it was done at a higher framerate. That's clearly the biggest obstacle to tolerable 3D.
We started our second day by doing the Segway tour at Epcot. Our group of 8 people was 75% non-virgin, so the training session went really quickly, giving us more time to ride around the park. The price is still $100 per person, but they've added breakfast at The Land. They have a cold breakfast of fruit and such, and one of hot stuff like eggs, bacon and taters. It's not bad, and really helps when you're standing on the Segway for two hours. The highlight for me, on this tour, was that we were able to stop briefly and peek backstage where they were loading Illuminations fireworks, including the globe. It's huge when you see it up close!
After a flight on Soarin' and lunch at the ESPN Club on the Boardwalk, we headed back through Epcot for a monorail spin to Magic Kingdom. We noted early on when counter service places were closing so we wouldn't go hungry or get stuck with burgers and chicken nuggets. We orchestrated a sequence to ride Space Mountain, the new Little Mermaid ride and eat, with virtually no waiting time.
Space Mountain was better than I remember. It was outright violent in one place, but I really had a lot of fun. My eyes did not adjust to the darkness at all. Big Thunder Mountain Railroad was also better than I remember, though the anti-rollbacks have to be a hearing hazard. Wow are they loud. Epcot really needs a roller coaster.
The new Under the Sea dark ride is really cool. There's nothing particularly unusual or ground breaking about it, although we were both really surprised at how cool the tiny animated Sebastians were. His blinky eyes, which appeared to be some kind of video, were so neat. The big room where they perform "Under The Sea" is particularly neat, and I would have liked to have gone through a second time to see it all.
The changes to Fantasyland overall really up the ante for the theme throughout Magic Kingdom. Even the circus area, where they have the dual-Dumbo, is pretty great. The playground and pager queue for Dumbo is so smart. If we had Simon with us, good luck getting him actually out of there and on the ride!
Other notes, I'm so glad that they restored The Enchanted Tiki Room back to its pre-bastardized Disney bird mess. I don't know if my love for that show is nostalgia or what, but I love to see it every time. Pirates and Haunted Mansion were their usual thing. Hall of Presidents was closed by the time we got there, unfortunately.
We started Tuesday, the third day, with a brief visit to the studio park to hit Toy Story Mania. With a surprise diversion up the right side of the stairs, we ended up only waiting about 35 minutes. I totally crushed Diana's score, but her gun appeared to be miscalibrated.
By 2:30, we were back at Epcot, scoring margaritas and nachos in the Mexico pavilion. We were pretty wrecked after the previous day, especially given the Segway-induced fatigue. With plans to have dinner at Tokyo Dining, I decided to try drink-around-the-world half-way, but ended up doing the whole tour (I blogged about that here). Along the way, were able to see the British Revolution, and they were awesome despite a crowd that was totally not into it. We also so Mo'Rockin, which seems to have an ever-changing lineup.
The Candlelight Processional was being read by Neil Doogie Harris, and he was really excellent. While that was going on, we were talking with a Sarah from Kent State who was in the Disney College Program. She was minding a colonial toss-across. After an awesome dinner (details in part 2), we went back to our room briefly, then headed back and finished in the Norway ride.
Illuminations has changed a bit since we last saw it. I can't tell you exactly how, but it's different. It remains the best night time show of any theme park that I've seen, though I'm told World of Color at California Adventure (if you can get close enough to see it) gives it a run for its money.
On day 4, Wednesday, we struggled to get out of bed. We hoped to get to Animal Kingdom early and do Kilimanjaro Safaris, but it wasn't meant to be. We bailed on it entirely. On previous trips, I've always stayed an extra day, and spent one in the middle doing very little. This time, because of expected anxiety over being away from Simon that never really materialized, I left that day out. We were really dragging ass. I'm sure the night of drinking for me didn't help, although I wasn't hungover at all.
We did eat lunch from the counter service next to Yak & Yeti, and honestly, it was pretty close to the same food, some delicious Asian fusion type stuff. The setting outside, behind the building was surprisingly lovely.
The unexpected treat was getting stuck on Expedition Everest. At the end of the backward segment, which still freaks me out to no end, we stopped to see the Yeti animation, and then... nothing. Stopped under an air conditioner blower, we just sat there. Soon, the work lights came on, and shortly after that, we were greeted by three very tired cast members who just walked up 17 flights of stairs.
From the point where we were stopped, you could see the track switch, which did flip, just before you go out of the front of the mountain. We walked down from the train, to a large platform inside the mountain, about 150 feet up from the floor. You could see the backward spiral tunnels and the mass of very tall support columns for the coaster. An enclosed stairwell, which had several restricted exits along the way, led us all the way down to the floor. There we crossed the bottom of the mountain, dodging huge supports, and it was just a huge, cavernous space. We exited through the final brake run, which was surprisingly not fenced in from the rest of the interior as a low zone. They gave us Fast Passes to come back another time, which we never used.
No Animal Kingdom visit is complete without seeing Finding Nemo: The Musical, and it was mostly solid. Wasn't a fan of the dude singing Crush this time. Diana got to talk to the stage manager, who calls the show from next to the sound console. Seeing shows is still very hard for her, because she still has her Actors Equity membership, but left stage managing some years ago because it's such a hard lifestyle to manage.
After that, we bailed on AK and took a nap. That evening, we met a friend at another Boardwalk restaurant, and the three of us did the Fantasia Fairways mini-golf course (see part 2).
Our last day, before we had to go leave for the airport, we did pick-up stuff at Epcot, including a little shopping. We did Spaceship Earth (in French), Universe of Energy, Captain EO, The Seas, and saw Off Kilter perform.
Overall, it was a much needed vacation, qualifying as a second honeymoon of sorts. It was also a day too short. Next time, I'm pretty sure we'll schedule an extra day to just crash at the pool or whatever. Even without a specific agenda, we were just hitting it hard the entire time, and that makes you tired.
In part 2, I'll talk about the hotel, the dining plan, mini-golf, transportation and such.
I suppose getting out with Diana for the first time without Simon for a significant number of consecutive days was reason enough to craft activities that were truly adult in nature. That's why we originally were thinking Las Vegas. But as things go, we were thrilled to go to Walt Disney World instead, and stay in a room that was about 350 yards from the Epcot International Gateway entrance (seriously, check this map out... the location was the tits).
Drink-around-the-world is a juvenile challenge to go around the International Showcase and have an alcoholic beverage at all 11 of the countries represented there. It seemed like a good idea, if a little frat-boyish, but as we got closer to the trip, I decided that I was too old for that kind of debauchery. However, I spontaneously decided on Tuesday afternoon to go half-way. We spent the morning at Hollywood Studios picking up our Toy Story Mania credit, and we hit Epcot for nachos and margaritas in the Mexico pavilion. We had reservations for dinner at Tokyo Dining, half way around, so that would get met to six drinks, and I could do that.
So it began, and from there we went to Canada, the UK, France, Morocco, skipped Japan, and went to listen to Doogie Howser read at the Candlelight Processional in the American Experience. In some cases, I had crappy beers (Canada and US), others familiar favorites (UK), and even great wine (France). I had some crappy red wine in Morocco, listed as "Moroccan wine" on the menu, which was suspect since Morocco is primarily Muslim, and Muslims don't drink. That said, the Google says French influence and investment has produced some good Moroccan wine, but that's clearly not what I had.
After dinner, I had seven countries down, and we went back to our room briefly. When we got back to the park, with about 90 minutes to closing, it occurred to me that I only had four countries to go. I wouldn't characterize myself as drunk, but I was far from sober. With great disregard for my kidneys, I decided to go for it.
I ended up stacking the last few drinks, because I wasn't sure when they'd stop serving, and cranked out Italy, Germany, China and Norway. I did it! We took a celebratory ride on the boat in Norway, which seemed shorter than I remembered.
As Illuminations began, I definitely felt it, but again, didn't feel particularly drunk. The 11 drinks occurred over seven hours, which is a pretty good spread. I think the buzziest I felt was watching the British Revolution perform, and that was after the first three drinks. It wasn't nearly as hard as I thought.
This was the run-down:
So there it is! One off the bucket list.
It's done, for real, now that we're back home. We half-jokingly called this our second honeymoon, but even if it was less than four years since our actual honeymoon, I'd say it's an accurate description. Diana and I have pretty much had a constant whirlwind of a life since we met. It was time to take our first multi-day trip without Simon, leaving him with my in-laws. It was long overdue.
Originally, we were strongly considering Las Vegas. There just aren't many places you can go that are quite that adult. When your movie references are replaced with Sesame Street references, and you think the hottest actress on TV is also on that program, it's time to get out and look for something vulgar. However, a perfect storm of ideal circumstances led us to Walt Disney World. It started with the math of Vegas, where the rooms are cheap, but every show is $100 a piece, good food is also not cheap, and frankly the flights were not cheap or convenient from anywhere in the vicinity of my in-laws. Then we found super cheap flights to MCO from GSP, and Disney sent a well-timed promo flyer that knocked off about a third of the cost to stay in a good room. OK, sold.
We stayed at the Beach Club Resort, literally a few hundred yards from Epcot's World Showcase entrance, and I'll write more about that later.
I'm not sure if we even realized it, but Diana and I desperately needed some time to really reconnect. I don't think we were drifting apart of anything, but we certainly weren't finding opportunities to really give each other our due attention. Work and being parents can obfuscate a relationship. Having five entire days (and six nights, considering the travel) where we could do whatever we wanted together, and not have to look after our little person, was fantastic. Going through airport security was easy with less stuff. We never had to park a stroller. Meals (and drinks) were when and where we wanted. The only accountability we had was to each other.
Probably the biggest take-away from the experience was that we need to make more time like this. If that means paying out the nose for trusted babysitters now and then, so be it. If it means a hot tub lunch date while Simon is at school, that's OK too.
For me, there were additional layers of reflection, placed squarely on me during the 9 hours of driving from North Carolina back home. Home, as it stands, is elusive. I feel so comfortable and at home when staying in my in-laws' house, but my own house, that cursed structure that I couldn't sell after two years in Washington, represents a lot of the things about my life that I don't like. I'm more anxious than ever to be rid of it and living elsewhere. And yet I need to wait a bit longer before that's a financially responsible course to take.
The vacation also reminds me of my career dissatisfaction. Hanging out with one of my best friends, however briefly, always reminds me that some people love what they do. I love my field, and doing what I'm capable of doing, but I'm not currently doing it. I'm bored, and don't feel like I'm being challenged or moving forward. Fortunately, this is one thing that I'm already working on, and I do see that change is possible.
That's one of the things that isn't obvious about vacations. When you take a really incredible trip, it helps give you the perspective that if the "real life" you go back to is something that evokes even the smallest amount of dread, you obviously need to change some of it. I flatly reject the notion that you have to suffer or hate your day job or components of your daily life to make your weekends seem great. Same thing with retirement. If you view the journey as suffering so you can have a couple of decades living a life of leisure, you're doing it wrong.
Our last week and a half was epic. We missed Simon, but I think the time spent away from him will only make the time going forward that much better. It will also, hopefully, server as the genesis of more balance in our lives.