Saturday, May 31, 2008

In Defense of Crappy Video

Here's what D and I saw this afternoon at 5:02 PM EDT:

You no like shaky-cam? Hey, Zoic gets paid to create stuff like this. On purpose.

Seriously, though--you can view professional footage on NASA TV, but it's not what we saw from the causeway. It's not our experience of this absolutely amazing event. And that is important.

No recording could ever capture how shockingly bright the rocket flame was, or the feeling of the engines' rumble and the sonic boom, or the enormous shadows cast across the hazy sky by the 22-mile-high smoke trail. This video is not a reproduction of, or a substitute for, what we witnessed today--it's only a memento, to remind us that we were there, that we were both overcome with emotion at the sight of a human triumph.


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STS-124 Launch

In July 2006, CKL and I went to see a free taping of The Daily Show. We waited in line for about three hours to get in. The return on our investment was about 20 minutes of live show. Except for the fact that Jon Stewart and team were actually in front of us, it really wasn't much different from seeing the show on TV. In fact, we needed to watch the monitors if we wanted to see the on-screen graphics. I'm glad we went to see a taping of the The Daily Show, but I never want to do it again.

Today, CKL and I went to see the Discovery shuttle launch. Like The Daily Show experience, it was a three-hour, hot, humid and nasty wait. Unlike The Daily Show, we paid a good bit of money to get seats on a bus that took us to the causeway six miles from the launch pad. The time return on our investment was also much shorter. The launch lasted about three minutes.

As before, I'm glad we went to see the Discovery shuttle launch. But this time, I want to do it again. I wish I could do it again tomorrow. If it weren't for the fact that we moved all our stuff to Portland, I'd be giving some serious thought to moving to this nasty, hot, humid and foul-smelling place just so we can be close enough to see shuttle launches on a semi-regular basis.

The return on this investment is vastly different than seeing a launch on TV. Not because I was surrounded by the sheer sticky presence of Cape Canaveral, or because I could see the brightness and color of the fire, or because I could see the steam paint the sky, or even because I could feel the sonic boom resonate through my body--something you can barely even hear on TV. It's different because I got to be there while a miracle happened.

We sent people into space. Again. It's always a miracle. But this time, I got to be there.


Thursday, May 29, 2008

Sunshine State

Not just the setting for a John Sayles movie or yet another election controversy, Florida is also our current road trip destination:

View Larger Map

The main reason we're here is the Space Shuttle launch on Saturday, but we're also taking the opportunity to visit Universal Studios and Disney World. D and I debated whether we should just skip Disney World, since we're only going to have one day there, but she felt it would be wrong to be in Orlando and not to go at all.

By the way, D's family reunion is not happening. It turns out that the sibling who has the timeshare in Asheville was waiting for his tax relief cheque, which he got, but then decided to spend it on a car and some furniture instead of a family trip out to North Carolina. At least he's doing something to help the economy, I guess.

It's also worth noting that D's Mom has been the one pushing for all these family visits, even though she has the fewest resources to actually make them happen. I suppose I should just be grateful that she's not more Machiavellian in her machinations.


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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

A Day of Animal Firsts

(30 May 2008: Edited to add links to pictures)
We went to Zoo Atlanta today. Of course, it's not my first zoo, but it was the first one where I got to see giant pandas. I even saw a cub!

Other firsts:
  • My first white peacock. He fanned his tail for me. But he was easy. He fanned for everyone else who walked by.
  • My first bathing tiger. It was adorable until someone attracted his attention. Then he looked at me, prompting my first realization that tigers eat people. Not so cute after that.
  • My first yawning naked mole rats (sorry, no pictures of yawning.) Put the tips of your thumb and forefinger together. Now spread them as far apart as you can. It's like that, but with really big teeth.
  • My first sight of a Monitor Lizard walking upside down, hanging from the mesh roof of its enclosure. He made it all the way across and back before he fell back to earth.
  • My first tortoise fight (video.) The winner flipped the loser onto his back. After a while, a zoo employee righted him again.
  • My first mama gorilla. She carried one baby on her back and kept the other one in line by making him walk between her legs. Literally. Whenever he started to stray, she shoved him back between her legs again.
  • My first baby warthog. She's only six weeks old.
  • My first flamingo mating. 'Nuff said (and no pictures of this one, either.)

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Meanwhile, back at the hotel room...

D and Jasper hear strange noises from outside. Are there kids down in the pool again? Is it yet another hyperactive dog? Or something more sinister?

funny pictures


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Humans have a lot of sayings that aren't true. For example, "Where there's smoke, there's fire." In our last mini-house, the smoke alarm went off twice--it was really loud, and I ran and hid both times!--but there was no fire. It was just the toaster, which apparently needed to be cleaned or something. I notice the humans have learned their lesson and hidden away the toaster in our current mini-house.

Here's another saying that isn't true: "Curiosity killed the cat." Obviously FALSE! I'm very curious about all sorts of things, and it hasn't killed me yet. I spend a lot of time sniffing at the front door of each mini-house, which is where all sorts of interesting sounds and smells enter. They're not all good, but they are interesting!

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Monday, May 26, 2008

I guess cats can get used to anything.

By my count, we've been in at least a dozen mini-houses since this whole thing started. I can't say that I much care for the transfer from mini-house to car, but even the drive is not so bad. Jasper and I get to look out the window and smell interesting things. Then I take several naps.

I get awfully thirsty, though. I wish she wouldn't keep tapping that plastic bottle in our carrier and then rubbing wet fingers near my mouth. Doesn't she know that I'd like a drink? Touching my face with wet fingers when there isn't any water is kind of cruel. But at least we get plenty of water when we finally reach the next mini-house.

Positive reinforcement at the mini-house seems to be having its benefits as well. The humans have been letting us settle into the mini-houses for longer stretches now. They have also been conscientious about not letting any more unsupervised strange people into our presence.

I'm continuing positive reinforcement by coming out from under the bed whenever they are in the mini-house. I give the humans lots of attention and even lie on the bed with them until they fall asleep each night. If they keep up the good work, we might just make it through this trip without anyone getting hurt after all.

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Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Kids Call It "ATL"

Because I know you all care so much, here's our planning map:

View Larger Map

As usual, we're staying on the outskirts of the metro area--this time, in Norcross, Georgia, about 20 miles from downtown Atlanta. Cheaper lodging, more options for pet-friendly hotels, and we get used to driving everywhere, so a one-hour commute to an out-of-the-way national park site doesn't seem like a burden.


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A Travel Day is a Good Day to be Sore

It's been two days since CKL and I had our Cahokia-Forest Park-City Museum day in Saint Louis. My inner thighs are still sore.

I knew there was some discomfort in my future when I looked up into the soaring, twisting play structures at City Museum. We'd already climbed 165* stair-steps that day, and I'd been mildly sore after the Houston Space Center tour. That only involved 119** steps.

But there were multi-story spiral staircases, tubes, hollow trees, pits, and tunnels, all for people to climb around, under, and in. I wasn't going to let a little thing like guaranteed future soreness keep me from playing in those amazing structures!

An hour later and several tubes, tree, pits, tunnels and spiral staircases later, my inner thigh buckled. We were climbing down the giant stairs in the parking lot fortress. It only hurt going down. After I finished that climb and walked around a bit, I discovered that upstairs wasn't bad at all. There were slides almost everywhere, which pretty much took care of down. No reason to stop our fun yet. So we explored until I squatted down and couldn't get back up. Then we skipped the nifty-spaceship-looking-metal-structure and went for lazy, tasty frozen custard instead.

Yesterday continued with me being able to squat, but not being able to get up again. But this time there was some actual pain too. According to the thigh anatomy charts I looked at, my Nemesis--the inner thigh muscle right above my knee--is called Vastus Medialis. It whines and whimpers every time I go downstairs. But hey... it's much better than yesterday. Yesterday, it shrieked and howled.

The lesson here? Other people might say it's something like, "Everything in moderation."

Or even, "Work out more."

I'll think about that one. But for now, I'm going with, "Hey, if you have to overdo it, plan to have an enforced rest period the next day."

Seems to be working for me.

*What can I say? I like data. In the absence of a tour guide to provide a monologue, I was making up my own. And tour guides should provide good data.

**See above re: good data. The Houston Space Center tour guide told us how many steps there were on the tour, and I wanted to see if she was right (No, but she was only two off. And, yes, I doublechecked my math. There were two opportunities to count each staircase. Up and down.)

*** Gratuitous bonus note: When we were up in the observation platform at the Arch, the Ranger told the blind lady that it was a very uncrowded day, and that he'd be surprised if there were more than 20 people up there. If anyone had told him, he would have been surprised. There were 27 people, counting Park employees. Well, 28 total creatures, if you counted the seeing eye dog. Which I did.


Friday, May 23, 2008

Five Great Things I Did Today

1. Walked to the top of a thousand-year-old, human-built structure. Okay, it was a big mound of dirt, but it was still pretty impressive.

2. Examined artifacts from the 1904 World's Fair. Also took in a very in-depth Charles Lindbergh exhibit. Didn't know his wife was an author.

3. Ate toasted ravioli and pork steak for dinner. My arteries may not be happy, but their complaints are handily muffled by sweet, nourishing cholesterol.

4. Climbed all over City Museum's giant found-art structures for hours. We would have lasted longer if we weren't so damn out of shape.

5. Enjoyed Ted Drewes Frozen Custard. So my arteries would have something new to winge about. And hey, I did a lot of sweaty exercising today.



Thursday, May 22, 2008

The First Seven Weeks

Here's where we've been and where we're going through the first week of June. The addresses are the hotels at which we stayed (except for Houston, because Google Maps wouldn't let me change the title on the motel listing from a business search).

Click through to the larger map to see more detail, including titles indicating what sights we wanted to see in each place:

View Larger Map

And just for fun, I'm going to start posting the local maps we've been putting together for each stop, showing the attractions we might want to visit and why. I'm sure you can't wait.


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Okay, New Plan

Over lunch today (in Laclede's Landing, after riding to the top of the Gateway Arch), D and I hammered out contingency plans for the next few weeks of our trip. This was our original itinerary:
  • May 20-24: St. Louis, MO
  • May 24-29: Atlanta, GA
  • May 29-June 6: Orlando, FL (Shuttle launch on May 31)
  • June 6-13: Asheville, NC (D's family reunion, all week)
  • June 13-17: Kitty Hawk, NC
...and continuing on up the east coast to Washington, DC, and Niagara Falls. Orlando and Asheville were the fixed points in time, since NASA isn't going to reschedule the launch for our convenience, and D's family have already taken time off from work for their get-together. It actually worked out pretty well, since Asheville is a plausible one-day drive away from Orlando.

Unfortunately, we just found out this week that D's family may not be reuniting in Asheville after all. It's a long story, but the upshot is that one sibling--the one who has the timeshare in Asheville where everyone was going to stay (except us; we'll be in a pet-friendly, child-free hotel)--may not be able to travel out from Wyoming, and they won't make the go/no-go call until June 3rd. Another sibling has offered to host the gathering at his home in Pennsylvania, but that's a bit farther than one day's drive from Orlando. And after a couple of bad stopovers*, we've struck the one-night exception from our road rules. So every stop has to be at least four days.

Here's the new plan. We have these possible conditions:
  1. D's family reunion happens as planned in Asheville.
  2. D's family reunion happens in Pennsylvania instead, on the same dates.
  3. D's family reunion happens in Pennsylvania on different dates.
  4. D's family reunion doesn't happen at all.
And this is what we'll do in each case:

1. Stick to the plan. Nothing changes; everyone's happy.

2. Leave Orlando early. We want to spend at least one day each at the Universal and Disney World theme parks, but we can leave as early as June 4th. We'd then spend four or five days at a halfway point (possible Charlotte, NC), then spend six or five days, respectively, with D's family in Pennsylvania.

3 or 4. Skip it. We are only willing to bend so far to accommodate people who can't plan ahead, even if they're family. If this happens, though, we will stop and visit individual family members later, since our plans are pretty flexible otherwise.

All we need to do at this point is check with the hotel in Orlando about their change policies (in case we check out early), and get our one-day Disney park tickets. We already have 7-day tickets for the Universal parks, so we can go hang out there (or see other sights in the area) if we do stay all the way through June 6th.

I'm sure this is terribly exciting to all our blog readers. Since it'll be a couple of weeks before we can plan the rest of our trip, I'll start by posting a map of where we've been. Later tonight, maybe.

* The cats are usually restless during their first night in a new place, and if the cats don't sleep well, D doesn't sleep well, and everyone's unhappy. Also, it's tough on us humans to do more than one day of continuous driving. If I wanted to be a long-haul trucker...


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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Spirit of Right Around Here

Greetings from St. Louis, Missouri! Well, actually Fenton, which is closer to the highway we would take to drive up to Hannibal to see the Mark Twain House. We probably won't make the two-hour schlep there, but it was a nice idea.

Because I subscribe to The Writer's Almanac, a daily email/podcast from NPR, I know that this date in 1927 is when Charles Lindbergh completed his historic, solo, non-stop flight across the Atlantic. I think the actual plane is at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, which we'll be visiting in a few weeks.

Speaking of which... I know you're all dying to see our new itinerary and route map, but we haven't been able to finalize it. We know we're going to Atlanta next, and then Orlando to see the Space Shuttle launch on the 31st, but we just found out yesterday that D's family reunion may not happen on June 6th as scheduled--or, if it does, it'll be in Pennsylvania, not South Carolina. And they won't know for sure until June 3rd. So much for planning ahead.

Meanwhile, my friend Matt, who went to school at, was kind enough to recommend some sights for us to see around here:
Missouri is FULL of things to do. JUST PACKED. Here's my anecdote: my parents bought a "Sites of St. Louis" calendar while visiting me in college; 11 of the 12 months were pictures of the arch.

But seriously, folks... Tomorrow we're going to tour the Fox Theatre, ride up the Arch, stroll through Forest Park, and do whatever else looks interesting downtown. On Friday we'll drive out to Cahokia Mounds. And at some point we'll stop at Ted Drewes Frozen Custard and, as Matt says, "soak up the middle-america-goodness."



Tuesday, May 20, 2008

New Orleans Redux

I meant to write this post right after we left New Orleans. But it's been a busy week. Whoo Hoo, Kendra! Congratulations on Graduating College!

Now, it's time to start that job hunt so she can pay off her student loan debt. Accordingly, we spent most of yesterday working on her resume, evaluating her current budget, and coming up with the minimum required salary for her new job. Sadly, we learned that the fun jobs (travel agent, flight attendant, cruise ship employee, tour guide) must be deferred in favor of a corporate job and nice, corporate salary. My Little Sister has her work cut out for her this summer.

Before we came to Chicagoland to celebrate with Kendra, CKL and I were in New Orleans. Did we learn anything while we were there? Let's compare the plan to what actually happened:

Day One Plan: Drive to New Orleans. Matched reality. Yay.

Day Two Plan: Sleep in, groceries, laundry, dinner, then movie. All accomplished except for the movie. Turns out that one night in a Motel 6--especially one where the cats spent the whole night screaming-- leads to a very tired drive day, and an even more tired day after.

Day Three Plan: Arrive early to score tickets for the 9:30am National Park Service (NPS) French Quarter tour; have a Muffuletta (say "moofaLOTTA") from Central Grocery; take a river cruise on the Steamboat Natchez; wander around the French Quarter; take in some music at Preservation Hall; have dinner at NOLA; check out Bourbon Street; enjoy coffee and Beignets at Cafe du Monde.

Day Three Reality:
Okay. An active itinerary for us involves two meals, one daytime activity and one nighttime activity. So we knew this was impossible from the start. But what the heck. We thought we'd give it a try.

The plan failed at the outset. When the alarm goes off, I usually hand it to CKL so he can enjoy a few snoozes while I shower. This time, I just rolled over and went back to sleep. I woke at 9:30am, much refreshed. Good-bye walking tour.

But after that, things went pretty well. We went to the NPS French Quarter Visitor center, and checked out the displays on New Orleans culture and history. I tortured CKL by making him hang out in a beautiful courtyard.

We bought fabulous pralines from Old South Candy. They need to bottle that smell. I could barely leave the store. The Central Grocery muffuletta is well worth the wait in line, where I also learned that anchovies come in an amazing array of packages.

Then we took a sweaty, satisfied wander down the riverbank to the Steamboat Natchez for a relaxed river cruise. Relaxing was good because it was HOT. The ice in my tea melted a third of the way through the glass.

After that, I overheated during the first four blocks of our walk through the French Quarter, so we went back to the room for a cool shower and several bottles of water. Turns out that the "drink a bottle of water every hour and have a salty snack" recommendation for the Grand Canyon also applies to New Orleans on a hot day.

Dinner was amazing. I love NOLA in Palo Alto for its colorful, vibrant atmosphere. The food is pretty good too. This NOLA was more of a trendy Fine Dining experience, and came with slow but attentive service. Impressive food, too. I had great difficulty choosing my meal, but was immensely satisfied with everything I got. We had root beer pound cake with vanilla ice cream for dessert. Best vanilla ice cream I have ever tasted. It actually overshadowed the pound cake.

Our wander down Bourbon Street was also deeply satisfying. Drunk kids of all ages were spilled out into the street, many of them spilling their drinks onto each other. I got to listen to pounding music, dodge drunks, and think, "I am too old for this shit." Then I went back to the room, proud of myself for not being a drunken fool.

All in all, it was a great day.

Day Four Plan: Chalmette Battlefield Monument, City Park, Dinner nearby.

Day Four Reality: Chalmette Battlefield took up a lot more of the day than I thought it would. We arrived early, and stayed for hours. Katrina may have done some serious damage to the park, but it was still a great experience. The war of 1812 is mostly a forgotten war, but some important stuff was going on in our country's history. Park ranger Harold Songy gave us lots of personal attention and told many stories. I loved it.

I also gained some important life lessons: a climb up a 100-foot monument is a LOT longer than it looks when the stairs are circular. Especially on a hot day. And trees canswallow things after all. One of the headstones in the cemetery was all but buried in tree bark.

By the time we left Chalmette, it was too late for City Park, so we grabbed dinner at a local Pizzeria (yumm!) and resumed our French Quarter experience. Preservation Hall was a wonderful introduction to dudes singing the blues live. It is impossible to pack too much powdered sugar into a beignet. I love it that latte is the default coffee experience in New Orleans.

Day Five Plan: Lunch at Commander's Palace; wander Lafayette Cemetery #1 and the Garden District, get Kendra her Voodoo presents, and go to Cuvee for dinner.

Day Five Reality: The day actually went according to plan, except that our original Voodoo destination was closed. We ended up in a little hole in the wall with lots of altars and an incredibly helpful clerk. Kendra has much Voodoo aimed toward her future of Prosperity. All meals were sublime. Interestingly enough, except for the humidity, wandering around the Garden District feels remarkably similar to wandering around our friend Julia and Wiley's neighborhood in Palo Alto. Except that the houses in New Orleans are much older.

Day Six Plan and Reality: Destrehan Plantation tour. Plus we saw our movie for the trip: Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay. The movie starts with a dream sequence, very briefly holds hands with reality while Harold and Kumar pack for their trip to Amsterdam, and then becomes a dream sequence again until the credits roll. It's utterly preposterous. But I still laughed a lot.

So what did I learn? I learned that I'm a tourist not a traveler. Except for hitting a few local chain restaurants for dinner, we didn't make the slightest attempt to experience New Orleans like a local.

I also learned that Katrina beat the holy hell out of that town. There were scars everywhere... piles of rubble, half-collapsed buildings, search-and-rescue crosses, boarded-up buildings, and caution tape. We even saw high water marks a few times.

That said, I wish we could have stayed longer. We never did get our walking tour of the French Quarter. My list of restaurants is still very long. And there were tours and museums I wanted to experience that never even made it on the itinerary in the first place.

I also learned that all those movies, TV shows, and bumper stickers are right: chicks DO dig scars. New Orleans may not be what it once was, but it's still here, still vibrant, and still amazing. Even if it does show some scars.

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Monday, May 19, 2008


I helped put captions on all these photos!

The humans still won't let me go outside, no matter how much I hint at it by hanging out near the front door of each mini-house, but at least I get to see and smell where they've been. They encountered a lot of different plants and animals during the first two weeks of April, but I'm more interested in the animals! As shown above!

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Sunday, May 18, 2008

There is something familiar about this place.

Not this mini-house, precisely, but... this region. It's very strange. I can't quite put my paw on it.

Maybe it's the smell, or the sound of the wind, or the angle of the sun in the sky, or the geomagnetic field of the Earth which varies with location (composition of metals in the ground, degrees of latitude from magnetic north, blah blah blah, you know all this).

I feel like I have been here before.

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Blowing Our Budget

As you may recall, when we started this road trip, we estimated a budget of $1500 per week, or about $212 a day. We've just reviewed our expenses for the first month of our trip, and--as expected--we're spending more than that, but not too much.

We're also in the process of revising our itinerary, and it looks like we'll be ending our trip and settling in Portland in mid-September. (Full details and map coming soon.) In order to make the money last until then, we're looking at a new spending target of $1700 per week, which is just $70 less than what we've actually been spending. So it shouldn't be too difficult to tune our habits accordingly.

Mostly, our lodging has been about 30% over budget, and we ate very well in New Orleans. We've now racked up over 50,000 Marriott Rewards Points, which we'll be using very soon to offset our expensive fun in Orlando. (I'm even thinking about applying for their damn credit card to get an extra 20,000 points, but I'd have to cancel the stupid card before next year to avoid paying the outrageous annual fee.)

So, the new budget is $242 a day. And with apologies to Harper's Index, here are some facts and figures from our travels so far:

Days spent traveling with cats:31
Original amount budgeted per week:$1500
Actual amount spent per week:$1769
Percentage over budget:18%
Most expensive lodging, per night:$229.40
Least expensive lodging, per night:$51.43
Most spent in a single day, excluding lodging:$239.07
Least spent in a single day, excluding lodging:$0
Most expensive restaurant meal:$160.00
Least expensive restaurant meal:$14.39
Highest price paid for one gallon of gas:$3.999
Lowest price paid for one gallon of gas:$3.379
Most paid for one fill-up:$31.07
Least paid for one fill-up:$13.55
Total amount paid for gas so far:$404.38

Now I'm curious. How much did you spend on gas last month? Post a comment!



Saturday, May 17, 2008

Well That's Just Fine

Apparently nobody wants this fanny pack, not even for free, so I'm sending it to our friend Karl, who recently returned from a trip to southeast Asia. I'm sure he'll put it to good use on one of his hiking trips, or else find some environmentally responsible way to get rid of it. Thanks in advance, Karl!

Dinner tonight: Papa Murphy's pizza at Kendra and Matt's apartment, after attending Kendra's graduation at NIU and then gaming all afternoon.


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Thursday, May 15, 2008

Hot and Cold Running Weather

Yesterday, we were in Louisiana, where it was close to 90° F and around 80% humidity. (For the record, last Saturday afternoon in the French Quarter was nearly deadly.)

This morning, we were in Arkansas, where it was cooler but still humid and a little drizzly.

After driving through a good bit of rain, we're now up in northeast Illinois--Chicagoland--where it's currently 52° outside. And windy, of course. It'll probably rain again before we leave on Tuesday.

America. What a country!


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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

One Night Only

We drove through four states today: Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Arkansas. Tonight we're staying in Blytheville, AR, and tomorrow we drive the rest of the way up to Illinois, where we'll be attending D's Little Sister Kendra's graduation from NIU on Saturday.

Our iPods have helped maintain our sanity on these long drives. Today, we finished the American Gods audio book, caught up on a few podcasts (Penny Arcade, This Week In Science, SModcast, Coverville), and listened to Neil Gaiman read his short story "A Study in Emerald." Tomorrow we'll start the It's Superman! audio book.

There are frogs outside our motel room, but so far, Quality Inn is much nicer than Motel 6, and not too much more expensive. Wi-Fi works, and the bed rests on a closed wooden frame, so the cats can't actually hide under it at all. They seem to be dealing pretty well.

Dinner tonight: McDonald's.


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Tuesday, May 13, 2008


They bark! A lot! Apparently they don't like it when their humans leave them alone. Wusses.

And they poop in the grass. Which is not the right place at all. Don't they know about litter boxes? Grass is for eating, not for pooping. Litter boxes are for pooping! It's much easier for humans to clean up. I mean, have you seen these people? They just reach down, while it's still warm! I'm glad I'm not a dog.

My humans did let me go out for a run in the hallway today. That was scary. I couldn't find our door, and she just kept chasing me! Thank goodness I can run fast. You never know what these humans are going to do. But it was okay in the end--I found our door, which was open, and I ran under the bed with Bayla. And then he came and made sure I was okay. But I've forgiven her now.

Since then, I have not tried to go close to the door. It's better to stay home where you're safe! I guess that's why they put strings on dogs. Just in case they freak out.

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Let's Try This Again

Remember this fanny pack? Well, now I'm giving it away for FREE--you don't even pay shipping. First person to send me an email gets it delivered to their door.

I'm trying to do the right thing here and keep my THDI low, by encouraging re-use instead of just tossing it in the garbage. It's like playing the Light Side in KOTOR, or protecting the Little Sisters in BioShock: it may seem like a lot of extra work with no immediate benefit, but it will pay greater rewards in the long run, I'm sure.



Sunday, May 11, 2008

The City, Not Long After

Our hotel here in New Orleans is actually on the west side of the metro area, near the Elmwood Village Center (which has new streets that aren't shown in our 2005 Prius' GPS system). We've been driving to and from the French Quarter these past few days, and we've seen a lot of houses that bear the marks painted by Katrina rescue crews:

That's a photo by Goodloe Suttler, from a Town Crossings article. The New York Times explains what the marks mean: building searched on September 10th by team C8, no dead found inside, hazard warning "EX." We saw a lot of houses still boarded up and marked "NE" (No Entry).

Of course, it's nothing compared to the photos our friend Jeff took in the fall of 2005, when he went to Waveland, Mississippi, to help with hurricane relief efforts. Debris everywhere, so much that it's hard to imagine where you'd even start picking up the pieces. And GPS would have been absolutely useless:
Directions here are funny. It's just like any small town; "turn left where the bank used to be, then right where the supermarket was, etc." The thing is, the wreckage of the bank and the supermarket are still there, so it's marginally easier to follow the directions -- once you get good at recognizing what a building used to be from a pile of debris.

One time I was giving directions, and I swear to God this was what I
  • Go to the first stoplight that's out and turn right.
  • Turn left at the Burger King with the boat in the drive through.
  • When you get to the house on it's side leaning against the telephone pole, turn right.
  • At the blown-down stop sign turn right. That's Washington St., but I think it's only spray painted on the white house that's missing it's roof. Don't bother looking for a street sign.
  • Go down Washington until there's a mobile home on the street. Drive around it and pull into the driveway the mobile home is sitting on.

(To the people in Waveland trying to follow these directions, don't bother. It's a made up example. But y'all probably know where each of these places actually are, right? )

-- "jra's thoughts," 17 Oct 2005

The city's still here, people are partying on Bourbon Street, and life goes on. But I can't help but feel that everything's tinged with sadness. It may be that way for a long time.

Dinner tonight: The "Nor'Easter" at Reginelli's Pizzeria (Spicy red pepper sauce, mozzarella cheese, italian sausage, caramelized onions, green peppers, capers).



Saturday, May 10, 2008

Six Days Ago: Critter Country

Late start this morning. We were going to see if we could catch the 9:30 AM walking tour of the French Quarter, but D couldn't sleep last night, so we'll do that later. The good news is, I finished editing the footage from our visit to Fossil Rim Wildlife Center last Sunday:

Other than a few species kept in separate enclosures (e.g., cheetahs, rhinos), all the animals roam free inside the park. The only ones we weren't able to see up close were the zebras. Why not? For the same reason that Africans don't ride zebras like horses: because they're mean.


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Friday, May 9, 2008

This is getting ridiculous.

I'm a patient cat. I have to be. The humans are oblivious to everything that doesn't directly affect them, as well as LOT of things that do. Let me give you an example. I believe in positive reinforcement, so I give the humans a lot of encouragement when I want them to groom me. I arch into the hand, purr enthusiastically, and roll around so that they can reach all the good spots.

When I'm done, however, positive reinforcement fails utterly. It is never enough to simply stop encouraging them. I'm lucky if they notice when I flick my ears back to say,"Okay, we're done now." A slap on the hand rarely gets their attention, so I usually have to yell. Often, I just have to leave. Sometimes I threaten to bite. Now and then, I do bite. I've drawn blood before. You'd think we wouldn't have to get anywhere close to that level, but there you are. They're oblivious. Sometimes, I think they can't be trained at all, but I keep trying anyway.

We've been moving from mini-house to mini-house for at least six different places now. At each place, we follow the same routine: they spray a comfortable cat-smell around, put out our perch, cover the bed with my favorite fuzzy blanket, and scatter our mats, food dishes, and toys about. Then they act like everything is normal until we get a little bit comfortable. As soon as they see me come out from under the bed during the daytime, they stuff us back into car and and we're off to visit another mini-house. Except for the fact that the humans smell a little different after each time they go out, I'd have to guess that this was some sort of experiment. I'm trying to give them the benefit of the doubt, but it's hard sometimes. I've said it before: torture is unconstitutional.

Even though I try to stick with positive reinforcement, I couldn't help myself. I had to get a little revenge at the last mini-house. It was full of interesting smells and the humans appear to know that they have no sense of smell. They always pay careful attention whenever we taste a smell. Often, they are distressed by the location of the smell, bringing out a whole host of cleaning agents and scrubbing down the area. So this time I waited until after they had their picnic on a bed, then I made a big production of tasting smells on the bed cover. He didn't seem to notice, but she got pretty excited. That bed cover got folded over several times, and then covered up with one of our blankets. And she washed her hands a lot.

Then she had to go and ruin her lesson by getting revenge on me. Don't they know that revenge just begets more revenge? You'd think it would be obvious. I especially liked it under the bed at this mini-house. It was the second place where not only could I get under the bed, but I could also get inside the bottom of the bed. I liked that a lot. So, here's what the human did to ruin it: whenever I came out from under the bed to grab a snack, she held me down and scrubbed me with damp towels. I did not encourage this behavior. In fact, I told her to stop every way I knew. I even bit. Harder than usual. Twice. She still didn't stop.

She always gets it when I bite, which is how I knew that she was just being petty. I would have had to resort to drastic measures if it had continued for much longer, but we left after a ridiculously short stop. The whole stay lasted only three meals.

To add insult to injury, she locked us in the "playpen" for at least an hour before we left. I hadn't even been under the bed, but I got a completely gratuitous wipe-down with not one but two extra-wet towels before she transferred us to the car. You'd think after fourteen years together, my humans might notice that we cats are self-cleaning.

So it came as no surprise that Jasper had to complain--LOUDLY and incessantly--for most of the drive before the humans could be bothered to cover the window. Do they really think we like all that sun and to watch things go flying by like that? It's unsettling, I tell you. But after the window was covered, I had some quiet time to think. I decided that someone had to stop the cycle of revenge.

Now we're at a new mini-house. I can't climb into the bed at this one, but the top of the bed is surprisingly comfortable. This mini-house is also quieter and has a good window. I've resolved to be better than the humans and stick to positive reinforcement. I'm giving both humans a lot of encouragement in the hope that we'll stay for more than two days this time.

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The Cats are Okay

We humans aren't very good at communicating with animals. I can't be the only one who has known that a cat was talking to me, but had no idea what he was trying to communicate. At the very least, I know CKL feels this way. This is a very familiar exchange, "Jasper. Yes? Yes? I hear you; I hear you; I hear you; I just don't know what you want."

For CKL and me, this trip is an experience of a lifetime, but it has always been critical that the cats be okay too. They may not enjoy the experiences we do, but I want them to be comfortable.

As CKL has mentioned in previous posts, more than half of the stuff that we brought with us is cat-related. We brought their favorite blankets from home, as well as their towels, catnip mats, fleece pad, perch, and food dishes. Even the car carrier and cat box are things that they used for a month or more before we left. I'm paying careful attention to their weight and health.

Because I can't hear what the cats are trying to tell us, I'm also paying careful attention to their behavior. In the broad strokes, I can see how they're doing. I know they're frightened but not terrified when they go limp and unresponsive. That's what they do at the vet. Terrified is a screaming bottlebrush, all slicing claws and biting teeth. That's what the cat who fell out the window did... and what Jasper did the day the movers came to the house on Calderon. We've been careful not to let that happen to him again.

I know that the cats are comfortable when they eat well, sing in the bathroom, demand treats and attention, sit in the window, play, and snuggle us and each other. Bayla snores when she sleeps. Jasper naps in high places. I know they're not comfortable when they eat less, make no demands, and scuttle from one hiding place to another, long-necked and low to the ground. Bayla does not snore. Jasper hides under the covers. I have hope that they'll get comfortable when I go to their hiding places, reach out to pet them, and find them welcoming.

Every day has been an experiment, where I hope that although the cats are not comfortable now, they will be comfortable soon. I'm very hopeful now. I see a positive pattern.

True, the cats are frightened on the way to the car. Nor are they comfortable in the car, but they are no longer afraid to demand attention. They both yell at us now, a little louder on each trip. When we reach in to check on them, the cats don't flinch away anymore. They reach for us. Jasper tries to climb out to explore the rest of the car. I'm looking toward the day when they're going to start trying to escape. I'm probably not going to like that day, but it's going to be a great sign.

The cats also go limp in transit to the hotel room. When we get into the hotel room, the cats go right under the bed. But now they don't stay there for long. Jasper is out exploring within minutes, albeit long-necked and ready to scurry under cover. After a while, Bayla does her own exploration. With the notable exceptions of our Motel 6 stays, they've been out and comfortable more quickly at each new place. Here in New Orleans, they were both in the window in less than two hours.

Each day, I've been watching the cats, with one finger on the abort button. But now, I think it's okay to relax a bit. Bayla is snoring. Jasper is napping on top of the playpen, four feet high.


Thursday, May 8, 2008

Road Rules

After a few weeks on the road, we've established some ground rules for planning the rest of our trip. More than likely we'll bend a few of them along the way, but it's always good to start with some guidelines:
No drives longer than 500 miles.
We don't want to make any extended stops with the cats in the car, so we need to drive straight from one destination to the next. 500 miles translates to roughly 8 hours of driving, which is a long time, even with two drivers trading shifts and a good audio book to listen to.
No stays shorter than 4 days.
We've found that it takes a day or two for the cats to adjust to a new hotel room and get comfortable enough to stop hiding under the bed all the time. Note: the first day we count is the day we drive from the previous location, and we don't count the day we leave, so this actually means 4 nights and 3 full days in a location.
Exception: single 1-night stopover allowed to break up a longer drive.
There are a few places we need to visit on specific dates: Illinois on May 17, Florida on May 31, North Carolina on June 6, Colorado on August 6, Washington state on August 28. We started with a prioritized list of must-see and want-to-see places, and we don't want to add intermediate locations with multi-night stays just to break up the drives. See "Okay, New Plan" for reasons not to do this.
No more Motel 6.
We planned short stops (2 days) in Carlsbad and Houston, since there was only one thing we really wanted to see in each place (Carlsbad Caverns and Johnson Space Center, respectively), and we booked Motel 6 because it was cheaper and closer than any Marriott properties. I wouldn't say it was a mistake, but we have learned our lesson. In Carlsbad, the toilet backed up the first night and we had to call the front desk for a plunger; in Houston, they didn't have Wi-Fi (despite a huge banner advertising it) and our room keys kept de-magnetizing themselves. And in both places, the cats were able to crawl inside the box springs under the bed, making themselves sticky and making it very difficult for us to extract them when it came time to leave.
The first full day in any location includes some chores.
We call this "putter day," and it's when we go shopping and do laundry. We're not out for the whole day, so it also helps the cats adjust to the new place. Basically we recharge and resupply. And usually go see a movie.

We just made the decision to go down to Orlando at the end of the month to watch a Space Shuttle launch (STS-124, currently scheduled to lift off May 31st), so tonight we're rejiggering our route and changing some hotel reservations. Everything's in Google Maps and Spreadsheets, so we'll publish the updated info soon.

Dinner tonight: We ate out at Smilie's.

D had the Stuffed Eggplant "Courtenay" (Fresh Eggplant stuffed with Crabmeat & Shrimp, topped with a Creamy White Lump Crabmeat Sauce, served with Potatoes and Vegetable Medley).

I had the Catfish Pecan (Fried Farm Raised Catfish topped with Roasted Pecans and a Light Brown Sauce, served with Potatoes & Vegetable Medley).

It's going to be a good week.


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Withdrawal Pains... Subsiding...

We're in New Orleans, and I have been reunited with TEH INTERNETS. (The crappy Motel 6 in Houston didn't have Wi-Fi.) More later, including a backlog of posts from the last few days...



Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Everything's Bigger in Texas

I mean seriously, WHAT IS THAT THING.

We found this insect in the usual manner: by hearing Jasper squeaking and playing with something in the corner of the room. We suspect that today's rainy weather drove it indoors and, by chance, into our room. At least, that's what we choose to believe.


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Monday, May 5, 2008

Fanny Pack For Sale

This is the Google bag I mentioned previously, a tchotchke from the 2005 sales conference. I've been using it as a camera bag, but it's pretty bulky, and all the camera stuff fits just fine inside a gallon-sized Ziploc. (Aside: did you know that Ziploc now makes "Big Bags," the biggest of which is over 5 square feet in size? Welcome to America, I guess.)

Anyway, aside from being a one-of-a-kind Google collectible, this very sturdy accessory features one large zipper compartment, a smaller zipper pocket in front, two tiny zippered slots on the sides, and an elastic side pouch for a water bottle. It's padded on the back, and also has a handle so you can lug it instead of wearing it.

Make me an offer! FREE is a valid offer, but you still pay $5 for shipping.

Y'all can thank Loren for the extra effort I'm putting into this divestment. Normally, I'd just do the lazy thing and leave it behind in the hotel room, but this is a perfectly usable item and shouldn't just end up in a trash heap. So you'd really be doing me a favor by taking it off my hands.


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It rained today! (And no, it was not chocolate rain, wiseguy.) The air definitely feels wetter here to begin with, much better than the last couple of places, which were really dry and dusty. It didn't rain very long or very much, but it was fun to watch while it lasted.

The humans didn't go out for very long today. Maybe they're getting tired of running around all the time and will stay in with us more. They even took a nap this afternoon! I crawled under the covers and slept between their legs. It's nice and cozy in there.

I found a bug tonight--it was big one, too, and brown! But then the humans saw it and had to take it away. They did the same thing with the tiny spider I found earlier. I mean, really, if they're not going to play with me, the least they can do is let me find my own toys!

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Sunday, May 4, 2008

You Might Be In The Bible Belt If...

  • You're in Texas.
  • Not many places are open before noon on Sunday.
  • There's an aisle in Wal-Mart labeled "Bibles" and "Bible Covers."
  • It seems important to include the word "Christian" in the name of your private school (perhaps to emphasize that there's no separation of church and state there).
  • There's a "Creation Evidence Museum" just down the road from Dinosaur Valley State Park. Y'know, to provide an alternative to actual evidence.

On the bright side, the young park ranger at Dinosaur Valley was the first person who's asked about the Firefox sticker in our car window. We didn't have any extras to give him, unfortunately, and the domestic Mozilla Store doesn't carry that design any more (though it's still available internationally.)


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Saturday, May 3, 2008

Ethics Suck

My current issue: do you have a responsibility to tell someone if you might have been robbed?

This is what happened. CKL and I went to see Iron Man at the Hulen Movie Tavern on Friday morning. While there, we ordered an apple crisp (very slow to arrive but very tasty) and an iced tea (very quick to arrive and very huge).

Some time into the movie, our server brought us the tab. It was just under $10, so I pulled a bill out of my wallet. I had used the last of my small bills tipping the maids, and had five twenties and a ten. I hoped I was pulling out the ten, but it was dark. I figured it didn't matter that much. If I overpaid, they'd bring change.

Just in case I had pulled out the ten, I asked CKL to give me a couple of ones for the tip. Then I folded the big bill into the two small bills, and wrapped the tab around the money.

After a few minutes, someone... possibly our server... walked down the aisle and collected the various tabs and payments from me and the people in my area. Some time later, our server came to tell me that he didn't have enough money to pay the check. There were only two dollars.

It seemed strange. I had pulled a bill out of my wallet. By definition, there was more than enough money to pay the tab. I asked him to check again. He gave me back two bills. I always prefer to believe that there has been a mistake, so I took the two bills and gave him another bill out of my wallet. He went away again.

CKL and I finished watching Iron Man. During the credits, our server brought back two fives and a one dollar bill. I took out my wallet and counted my money. I had three twenties and a ten for a total of $70. Which means that the bill I had initially pulled out of my wallet was a twenty, and the second bill was a twenty. I searched my purse for a dropped bill. Nope. I looked on the floor. Nope again.

Then I asked CKL to check to see if the bills that had been returned were ones. They were. So a twenty dollar bill went missing from the middle of a short stack of bills. Definitely weird. But if someone was systematically stealing money from movie patrons, surely they would have been smart enough to swap the twenty for another one-dollar bill. Most people would chalk that up to confusion in the dark. I would have fallen for it. Even knowing that I only had tens and twenties in my wallet. After all, We all make mistakes.

I told CKL that I needed to pee, and wandered around the theater and toward the exit to see if maybe the bill had been dropped further away. I didn't find one. I checked out the people nearby. A few guys seemed to be in heated conversation, but everyone else seemed normal. Possible geeky Iron Man movie debrief in progress. I went to the bathroom.

I wouldn't call the bathroom my happy place, but it's close. It's where I go when I need to take some time off. My way of calling time out on life. When I go in and close the door, I get to take a break and realign. If I'm having a bad day, I go into the bathroom, reboot, and start the day over. If I'm upset, I sit in that blank space and calm down. If I'm confused, I get the chance to breathe, think, and set it aside. As an added bonus, I also get to relieve myself at the same time. Efficiency is spiffy.

Anyway. I'm confused, so I go to the bathroom. I do a quick preview on the situation and its outcomes. Two things occur to me: someone made a mistake, or someone steals money. Are there bad consequences for me either way? No. I can afford to lose $20 without much hassle at all. Are there bad consequences for others? Not really; we're all responsible for watching after our own money.

All things considered, I actually had a pretty inexpensive lesson: people can rob you if you flash cash and don't pay attention to your surroundings. That lesson could have been much, Much, MUCH more painful.

Confusion resolved. I flush, wash my hands and rejoin CKL for the end of the credits. The four young guys are still in heated discussion. Turns out it's not a movie vs. comic breakdown. One of the young men never got his credit card back after using it to pay his bill.

This is where the ethical dilemma hit me.

The young guys were obviously distressed. As a person, I have to help other people if the cost to me doesn't outweigh the help. Given that something similar had just happened to me, did need to stick around and tell the manager that I was missing money too? If I did, would it serve a useful purpose? Specifically, would it help these guys? Or stop anyone else from being in the same position?

I agonized for a minute. I was pretty sure that telling the management wouldn't help these guys at all. It would just muddy the waters. There was, however, a small chance that it would help other people. Best case, however, would be that we would document that *maybe* some money was stolen and that management needed to be on the lookout for suspicious behavior patterns.

To do their job properly, management should already be on the lookout for suspicious behavior patterns. No useful purpose could be served. So we left.

But it's still bugging me. Not that the money is gone. That's nothing. What's bothering me is that maybe I missed the right thing. That there was someone else that I should have told, or something else that I should have done.

So, fine. I just told you. Feel free to tell me what I should have done.


Friday, May 2, 2008

The First Casualties

As noted before, D and I have always expected that we'd jettison a few things that we didn't think we could bear to part with but which turned out to be less necessary than we thought. We left two things behind in Carlsbad:

The fuzzy thing on the left came with the playpen; it's supposed to velcro onto one of the shelves inside the cage. The cats never took a shine to it. The thing on the right is a catnip mat. We had two, and kept the one they liked more.

We may actually have left some bowls behind in Flagstaff. I don't remember too well. The high altitude made me a little lightheaded. The car is still pretty full, but we've figured out better ways to pack a few things in. For example, we used to get the big, 20-pound boxes of cat litter, but the smaller, 14-pound boxes fit nicely in the empty space under the cat perch, leaving room for our insulated cooler bag, which we can use to transport a few groceries between stops.

The drive from Carlsbad to Fort Worth wasn't too bad. We're listening to the audio book of American Gods by Neil Gaiman, and it really helps pass the time. Today, we had a hearty breakfast at the Dixie House Cafe, then saw Iron Man (good) at the nearby Movie Tavern (bad) and went grocery shopping at Albertsons (bad) and Super Target (good). Tomorrow, we'll visit the local Lone Star Comics (it's Free Comic Book Day!), then head off to Dinosaur Valley and Fossil Rim.

Dinner tonight:


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