Wednesday, January 29, 2003

Happy Birthday to Me

I had an interesting birthday. I got out of bed, and it felt a little bit colder than it should have. I went to check, and the red button on the heating system had popped, as it does occassionally. I reset it and went upstairs. As Christina and I were discussing why this would have happened, I thought I should go back down and check how much oil we had left. As it turned out, we had (practically) none. I called the oil company (who is supposed to keep our oil levels up without prompting), and they said they'd schedule us for a delivery. Also, they would send out a technician to prime the system and give us an emergency delivery of 10 gallons of oil. By 11, the truck show up with the full tankful of oil. I asked the truck guy whether the system still needed to be primed. He said it did. I asked him if he could do it, and he said he wasn't supposed to but would for $20. Since the technician was coming out as part of the heating contract, I declined. I tried to start up the system on my own, and shortly thereafter the technician arrived. As it turned out, the system didn't need priming.

So that put the kibosh on our plans to head out to Whitetail to go skiing. So I sat on the couch, drank some bourbon I got at my bachelor party and thought about stuff I needed to do around the house. And then didn't do it. It was nice. For dinner, we went to Buddy's where we had our rehearsal dinner. We get a 10% rebate as a "Buddy's Club" member, so the rehearsal dinner paid for my birthday dinner. Er, except for the fact that the rebate coupon expired earlier in the month. I hadn't notice that, but they were nice enough to honor it, given the magnitude of our expenditure. I'm not sure when we'll be heading back there, though. The food wasn't great. The service had its usual quirk of bringing the food in rapid succession (soup, appetizer, entree).

We did get to Whitetail for skiing yesterday. It was a nice day -- not too cold, but still with good snow. And it was not crowded at all. I rode down Limelight, a blue trail, 3 times. I particularly liked the high-speed lift, but the trail was very challenging for me. I definitely have to get better -- and in better shape. But we had fun, and I am now officially exhausted.

Monday, January 27, 2003

Conference Pictures

The organizers of the conference I was at in Miami have posted pictures from it.

Those of you who are merely interested in those pictures featuring me should look here and here.

Sunday, January 26, 2003

Marathon Road Trip

I think I became a "real" traveler in 1992, during the first cross-country trip Ben and I took. We drove from Maryland to California, and I feel that the drive gave me an appreciation of the places along the way. It's one thing to look at a topographic map and see where the Rockies start. It's another to drive across the half of Colorado that is nothing more than a rerun of the Kansas scenery, and then have the mountains appear on the horizon. As someone who acquires most of his knowledge abstractly, I found the concrete experience quite revealing.

While reading the in-flight magazine on my recent trip to Miami, I noticed an article about the Florida Keys. The article detailed an itinerary for someone with more time and money than I, but one sentence caught my eye.

"Arriving at Miami International Airport affords the traveler an opportunity to enjoy one of the most scenic drives anywhere in the United States: 160 miles (to Key West) of overseas highway, surrounded by the sparkling waters of Florida Bay and the Atlantic Ocean."

After the conference ended at 4 on Wednesday, the Keys were an obvious choice for a second excursion, this one on my own. I wasn't sure how far I'd get. Perhaps Key Largo, which turned out to be the first Key in the chain -- a revelation in and of itself. Or Key West? I have a thing for extremes -- I'd love to travel north of the Artic Circle some time. So it would be cool to travel to the southernmost point in the continental US. I decided to start driving and see how much time the drive was taking. I didn't want to get to Key West in the middle of the night and face a long drive back to Miami.

My first revelation of the drive toward the Keys hit a mile or two south of the hotel on US 1 (the same highway that goes 1/2 a mile from Casa Grantham, coincidentally). There was a sign that said "End I-95". I-95 ends? Weird. As a denizen of the middle East Coast, it seems like the never-ending road.

After winding through a depressingly familiar array of strip malls (though strip malls surrounded by palm trees look somehow nicer), I escaped via the Florida Turnpike, which sped me close to the Keys before ending. Back on US 1, I drove to Key Largo just as the sun was setting -- the song playing in my head the whole time.

I turned off bayside to look for a good vantage point to take pictures of the sunset. Unfortunately, all roads seemed to lead to fenced-off private property. I don't know whether Key Largo suffers from a deficit of public beach or merely a deficit of public beach signs, but I couldn't find a good spot.

So I drove on, somewhat depressed that Key Largo reminded me of Myrtle Beach (and, to a lesser extent, Ocean City) -- a shabby strip of assorted seafood joints, souvenir shops, and beachwear emporia. Had we Americans taken this neat strip of islands and transformed it into a tacky tourist attraction?

I decided to press on, to see what I could see. I realized this meant going on until the last drops of twilight washed from the sky. After that, unable to see any scenery, I really might as well be anywhere else, and I wasn't going to make it anywhere near Key West by nightfall.

As I drove beyond Key Largo, neat things began to happen. The over-development faded into the background. The area didn't exactly become rural, but I got more of the sense of a laid-back beach resort than a place that a significant portion of Miami must use as an escape.

The road also narrowed, meaning that I could see water on both sides -- the Atlantic on my left, Florida Bay on my right. Driving between the waters on a narrow strip of land was a curious experience -- I find it hard to compare it to anything else I've seen. Not as cool as being on a tiny island in the Pacific, but really neat nonetheless.

Finally, over the water, I saw spectacular colors playing across the sky. The sun had set, but there were still amazing oranges and purples and blues... I found a nice place to pull over then. It may have been too dark for any of my pictures to come out particularly well, but it was good to stop and enjoy the view.

I also found a historical marker that described a now-gone railroad to Key West. To my surprise, it was completed in the 1910s. I had no idea that the Keys were connected to the mainland for so long. (Now I have to re-watch the movie.) The story was of the "they told him it was a foolish idea, but he built it anyway" variety. The railroad was eventually wiped out by a hurricane, so it's not clear who was right. I'd be interested to look at the history of the Keys -- I imagine life must have changed dramatically once they were tied to the rest of Florida.

The sun finally ran out on me around Marathon, which I guess is somewhere near halfway down the keys. I stopped and looked at some souvenirs and grabbed some dinner. I wanted to find something for Christina, but tackiness ruled the day. I looked at some seashells, since I know she likes them. But then I spotted a sign explaining that although conch shell harvesting was illegal in Florida, the store got all of theirs from the Bahamas and Caribbean. (If I remember the regulations wrong, conch experts should feel free to e-mail me.) Am I supposed to feel better that they're despoiling a less-regulated environment? Or is there some conch overpopulation that makes the difference OK? I didn't feel like getting into an ecological discussion with the store clerks, so I turned to the postcards.

Quite a number of them featured the "Seven Mile Bridge," which is apparently a rather spectacular drive -- and a bit past Marathon on the Overseas Highway. Oh, well. I bought a couple that didn't feature the bridge and headed back to Miami.

I'd like to come back some time, drive that bridge, see the parks along the way and make it all the way to Key West. I'd want to bring Christina, of course. But I think for this trip I did about as well with my spare evening as I could have expected.

Wednesday, January 08, 2003

Bus trip to the Everglades

I knew there was a reason I didn’t like bus tours. You’d think it would be the bus itself, but I think I spent too much time on a school bus as a child to complain about a relatively comfortable tour bus.

No, it’s the itinerary. Yesterday’s bus tour lasted for 5 hours. It consisted of 3 hours on the bus, 1 hour at an alligator farm and 1 hour at the Everglades National Park. Now, you can’t do too much about the 3 hours on the bus. But you can do a little. First of all, you can avoid getting lost (twice). Secondly, you can cut the drive time some by limiting yourself to one destination. (Probably a better part of the park than we saw.)

We were warned before hand that the alligator farm wasn’t the best place to see alligators...after all, they aren’t in the wild there. Then why where we there? For a boat ride. OK. We were also told that there would be two boats. One would have the "wild" ride and the other would have a calmer ride. Since I didn't want to get the camera wet, I chose the calmer ride. As it turned out, the people on the "wild" boat said it wasn't all that wild, and nobody got wet. It's just as well. I wouldn't have wanted the trepidation of damaging the camera combined with the disappointment of the ultimate tameness of it all. The boat ride itself was somewhat interesting. It was neat to be out "on top of" the Everglades.

After that, it was off to the actual national park. We ended up at Anhinga Trail with an hour to sight-see. I decided to walk for half an hour and turn around. About 30 minutes into my walk, I looked around at familiar surroundings. Apparently the trail is a (short) loop. So I sat down for a while to contemplate my surroundings.

Swamps aren't my favorite type of terrain. Still, I was impressed by the large variety of bird life, and the large quantity of 'gator life. Overall, though, the trip failed the crucial test of whether I could have done better myself. In some instances, like the Korea trip, I would have been at a loss on my own. It occurs to me that many of the attendees at this conference were in a similar situation of being in a foreign country. So this trip probably did them well.

It was nice to see another World Heritage Site. Also, the tour was sponsored by Microsoft. I'll leave it to you to make up your own jokes.

Monday, January 06, 2003

Waking up in Miami

I woke up this morning with the vague sense that something wasn't right. As the fog of sleep slowly lifted itself from my brain, I realized I wasn't at home, I was in Miami. I looked at the alarm clock. 8:30. Hmm, looks like the watch alarm I set for 7 didn't do the trick. I was up 'til around 1:30 last night (my plane didn't get in until 11), so I guess I slept deeply.

Fortunately, the conference is being held at the convention center attached to the hotel, so I actually made it there by the 8:50 opening remarks. And with a Pepsi in my hand. I had to wait until the 10:00 coffee break to grab some Combos from the gift shop.

One of the unfortunate consequences of having the conference in the convention center is that there isn't the free Internet access there often is at these conferences. My choice is either the "business center" at $30/hour, or using the laptop's modem at $1/call. I'm using the latter right now.

Sunday, January 05, 2003

Baby, Baby

We went to the Anne Arundel Medical Center today (Saturday) to visit our friends Martin and Jeanene. Jeanene had their baby at 5:40 this morning. After they finally got a bit of sleep this afternoon, we visited them at around 6. They were doing really well. The hospital was really nice. My allergist is located nearby, and I had my nasal polyps removed there. Anyway, some of the "traditional" ideas about a maternity ward don't apply there. There's a bed in the mom's room where where the dad can sleep. There's no nursery with all the babies lined up; the baby stays in the mom's (and dad's) room. They have high-tech bracelets identifying mom, dad and baby.

Martin handed his son over to Christina; he said if he asked people if they wanted to hold the baby, they felt funny. So he just did it. Then Christina handed the baby to me. Gulp. I had never held a baby younger than several months old. After a moment, I was able to breathe. Then I was able to hear the baby breathe. It was really wonderful, magical, to hear someone that small breathe, to watch him yawn. Amazing. Of course, I wasn't around for the pooping.

Anyway, I look forward to seeing the kid develop. Welcome to the world, Lucas Patrick Burke, and if you're reading this, congratulations on figuring out how to use the Internet. Is it 2006 yet where you are?

Thursday, January 02, 2003

High Anxiety

Ben and George ended up crashing on the couch after skiing. We watched Michigan win the Outback Bowl, then the two of them took off. Christina and I had a nice day. One of the relaxing things we did was watch the Mel Brooks movie High Anxiety.

For some reason, we have a Mel Brooks wish list set up of TiVo. I wasn't really familiar with the movie "High Anxiety", but I had heard of it and for some reason wanted to see it. It turned out to be a Hitchcock spoof. Maybe I should have set up a Hitchcock wish list first, so I would have gotten more of the references. Actually, I don't think it would have helped that much. There were some funny spots, but it was mostly uneven. I mean, jokes about psychiatrists refusing to accept personal checks are pretty trite. Nevertheless, the silly story moved along. I'd give it 2 1/2 stars.

Wednesday, January 01, 2003

New Year's Eve

Christina went up to Whitetail yesterday for some New Year's Eve skiing with Ben and George. They had a nice deal where you could pay $15 to ski from 9 pm to 1 am. We had done the same thing (sans George) last year.

For some reason, there weren't as many people there this year. Perhaps it was the conditions. Despite the colder weather we've generally been enjoying this year, we got a warm spell Tuesday and especially yesterday. The snow was very soft, which threw off everybody's skiing (well, except George's, but he had a snowboard). Nevertheless, Christina and I both got our first chance to try out our new skis. We both got skis a little longer than we're used to, so we have some adjustments to make. We were both happy with our purchases, though.

I had hoped to try some of the intermediate slopes. One of Whitetail's advantages over other nearby "mountains" is that it is a bit taller. Another is its high speed lift (despite the speed, because it is "detachable", it's actually easier to load and unload). Unfortunately, you don't get those advantages on the beginner slopes. Also, you have to deal with worse skiiers and boarders (which wasn't a problem last night). I decided to wait and let Ben and George tell me which of those intermediate slopes would be the easiest to make the transition to. Unfortunately, with the warm weather and the rain, none of them were really worth trying due to bare spots and "weird" snow.

We still had fun.