Monday, December 28, 2009

Christmas 2009 - A Time For Joy



Despite the expressions displayed by the two gentlemen in the photo above, Christmas is a time for joy. It is a time to visit with family and friends and to celebrate the birth of Jesus. As with most holidays celebrated in America, it is also a time to eat plenty.

Rachel and I arrived in Knoxville on the Sunday afternoon before Christmas (only a day and a half late - more on that in a minute). After dinner, breakfast, and only a few brief hours with my family, we packed up and headed to Nashville.

Monday evening, Rachel, her parents and I celebrated Rachel's sister Heather's birthday at Amerigo's in Nashville. Heather is once again a year older than I am, which is reason enough for me to celebrate.






Tuesday, Rachel and I met our good friends Liz and Tim Nagy, proud owners of Peter, the world's largest 4 month old, pictured with me in the title shot for this blog, for lunch on West End in Nashville. Liz and Tim made their first trip home from Sydney, Australia as new parents for the Christmas holidays. Rachel and I really feel sorry for Tim and Liz, as they have to constantly endure the rough climate of Sydney (pretty much sunny and 70 year round). They also really "roughed" it on the way over, as they layed over for a week on Maui to break up the trip. It was great to see them and to meet Peter.

Tusday night, we headed to Linden, TN (about an hour and a half west of Nashville) for dinner with Rachel's Mom's family - Aunt Janice and Uncle Dan, their daughter Amy, husband Charlie and son's Trey and Caleb (pictured here), daughter Becca, Cousin Stewart, and Uncle Tommy. We ate at the Rusty Fishhook and then went to Tommy's for desert and to socialize for an hour or so.

Wednesday was a down day, with no plans. Rachel got together with some of her high school friends that evening. Her dad and I watched some bad football - BYU vs. Oregon St. and bad basketball - Illinois vs. Missouri, a game of turnovers.

Thursday evening, we celebrated Christmas Eve with Rachel's Dad's Family - Sister Ginger and Ricky and their sons Neil and Patrick and Sister Judy and her sons Daniel and Jonathan.

Christmas morning, we opened presents with Rachel's parents and sister.










Toby the Wonderdog, pictured here with Rachel's mother, was also with us Christmas morning. Thanks to Tim and Nicole Callahan (actually, Tim's dad), Toby had some good presents to open, too.







Rachel and I left Nashville around lunchtime and headed to Knoxville to join my family for Christmas evening. We drove directly to Reid's and Renee's (cousin and his wife) for Christmas dinner.






This is my cousin Reid and wife Renee and their two kids, Kara and Ryan. My Uncle Stan and Aunt Lou are also pictured here with them. We get together at Reid's and Renee's house every year Christmas evening.






Renee's parents and brother also join us each year (or we join them, depending on how you look at it). Ronnie, Kaye and "Little" Ronnie all live in the Raleigh, NC area.


After we left Reid's and Renee's, Rachel and I went back to my parents' house and opened presents with them. Exhausted, we turned in about 10 PM.


Saturday, we met Tim, Liz and Peter for coffee on Market Square Mall in Knoxville. We forgot to give them one of Peter's gifts at our initial dinner in Nashville. Tim and Liz are similar to us, in that Tim is from Franklin (near Nashville) and Liz is from Knoxville. Their travel schedule often matches up pretty well with ours.




The city has really done a lot around old downtown Knoxville and the Market Square Mall area. They have given all of the buildings a face-lift and attracted some nice stores and cafes in addition to the condos that have been developed in the area.











Rachel and I, once again, had the opportunity to hang out with our big buddy, Peter. You really get a much better perspective of just how big he is when Rachel is holding him.

Sunday morning, we had to get up early and start the long drive back to Philadelphia.







REFLECTIONS - Makin' Memories in Harrisonburg, VA



Due to some work meetings that ran over, we ended up leaving Philadelphia several hours later than we had intended to on the Friday before Christmas. Normally, this would have been a minor inconvenience. Unfortunately, the delay this year threw our travel directly into a large winter storm that moved up the east coast.

We ran into snow about 8 PM just south of Winchester, VA. It quickly became obvious that we were not going to make it through, so we pulled off of the interstate and got a hotel room at the Hampton Inn in Harrisonburg, VA (home of James Madison University). Due to the 20+ inches of snow accumulation and a portion of I-81 being closed, we stayed 2 nights.

The video below shows the landscape during our drive to Tennessee on Sunday morning. They were still unable to get the interstate completely cleared in northern Virginia.

video

With a full day in a hotel room, unable to go anywhere (including restaurants within walking distance, as they were closed because employees could not get to work), I had a lot of time to compile several observations and reflections during this trip:

1) 5 Stars, Two Thumbs Up, Kudos, and a bag of Cheetos for the Harrisonburg, VA Hampton Inn. Clean room, continental breakfast (especially important since all restaurants were closed) and a friendly staff made this hotel a winner. They went above and beyond the call of duty when the evening Manager brought pizzas in for the guests, who were all stuck without food. The Hampton Inn policy was also to lower their normal room rate by $30/night in order to help people get off of the treacherous roads. We still have to write our Thank You note to corporate.

2) If I am going to be stuck in a hotel room, I am happy it was below the Mason-Dixon line. Why? Because you get biscuits and gravy at the Continental Breakfast. I never realize how much I have missed this southern delicacy until I spend the night in a southern hotel.

3) Technology is great. When you are unexpectedly confined to a 600 square foot space for 36 hours, against your will, wireless internet and cable television on a flat screen television make all the difference in the world.

4) By harnassing technology, one can win friends. I became the cult hero of the Harrisonburg Hampton Inn on Saturday morning December 19. Laptop in hand, Rachel and I headed to breakfast, where I amazed everyone over the age of 50 by having instant real-time weather reports and up-to-the-minute road conditions in 3 states. I provided weather updates and convinced several older couples that they should probably stay put an additional day. The following morning, I plotted the proper course to deliver them safely to their destination.

5) Isolation in a hotel in the middle of nowhere makes you appreciate computer social networking. It is easy to see why the freedom seekers in Iran and survivors in Haiti went to Facebook, Twitter and other electronic social media to provide updates. It is a powerful communication tool. It also helps pass the time. At this point, I would like to thank all of my friends who "Liked" my status of being stuck in a hotel in northern Virginia. You are some really insensitive people.

6) Mama Mia is for women. I normally like romantic comedies and other "chic flicks". However, Mama Mia pushed way beyond my estrogen threshhold. Had I not been stranded in a hotel room with a pregnant lady, I would not have finished that movie (My mom loved it).

7) There was obviously a big hockey game somewhere in Virginia or Tennessee. We saw no less than 6 separate cars with Quebec license tags. The only logical explanation for this is that there must have been a hockey game... or French cooking and/or wine festival.

8) Everyone in Quebec drives 65 miles per hour regardless of weather conditions. Friday night, before we ran into snow, we passed several cars from Quebec going 65 miles per hour. Sunday, on the snow covered roads of northern Virginia, we were passed by several cars from Quebec, going 65 miles per hour.

9) My wife is smart!!! Thinking ahead, she procured extra toast and packets of peanut butter and honey from the continental breakfast line. Thanks to her, we had peanut butter and honey sandwiches for lunch, even though all of the restaurants in the area were closed.


When we pulled over for gas north of Roanoke, Rachel made me take this picture. She thought it was hilarious that a FedEx truck would be snowed in. I bet the driver didn't think it was too funny.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Labor Day Guys Weekend - New Bern, NC



Labor Day Weekend, I flew to Raleigh, NC, where Mark Clark picked me and Jeremy Graves (Tuscon, AZ) up at the airport and shuttled us to a riverside cabin outside of New Bern, NC to meet up with Larry Wray. Graves needed a "guys weekend" right after spending 14 days in Maui (none of us are quite sure why you would need to get away after being in Maui). Clark found an awesome cabin on-line and Graves booked it.

We got a great deal on the place. It sat on the river, had a fully stocked kitchen, grill, dock for fishing and canoeing, canoes, and had DirectTV (no local channels as we learned when trying to catch the 3 PM CBS SEC football game).

Larry Wray served as our Grill Master and Chief Chef for the weekend. He brought seafood for a boil, beef for cheese steaks and steaks. The food was AWESOME!!!






The boys relaxed and fished a bit. I would make fun of Graves for this "whopper" that he brought in, if Larry had not caught a tree along the bank (unfortunately, I could not get the video of that event to upload).

Graves got out and canoed a bit. I tried to go out with him, but I felt that the canoe was very unstable with me in it (I can't imagine how frightened he must have been). It was peaceful and uneventful, except for the guy who came whizzing by at 30 mph in his speed boat twice a day. He about ran over Jeremy once when he was canoeing as he came through.

Of course, no guys trip with Larry, Clark and I can be complete without video games. We had the Wii and Tiger Woods 2009 (seems so ironic now). I also brought the old N-64 and Larry, Clark and I took Glasgow Rangers through the phantom "World League" unscathed in Fifa 1999. It's a classic!


A view of the fully stocked kitchen and bar area.











REFLECTIONS - New Bern, NC - Cultural Capital of North Carolina



Little did we know, but New Bern is the cultural capital of North Carolina. I always figured most of the action occurred in the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill Research Triangle, but New Bern had many activities Labor Day Weekend.

Saturday morning, we loaded up and headed into town to watch the UT vs. Western Kentucky game. We went to Halftime Pub and Grub, a new sports bar in New Bern. This sports bar would stand up to any sports bar I have been to. They had 27 high definition televisions, and Chef Ben Wheat (the owner) took really good care of us. The highlight of the day was that we were able to watch the game with Montario Hardesty's Dad (pictured with us above). Hardesty, Tennessee's star Running Back, is from New Bern. Mr. Hardesty and a friend were there watching the game. When the younger Hardesty was recruited, he originally committed to North Carolina and then changed his mind on National Signing Day and came to Tennessee. I think the picture shows why he was originally going to North Carolina, which is where his younger brother is projected to go.

There is also downtown "Historic" New Bern to visit. Ironically, I will not be able to write about the experiences there, as there were none - we never ventured to "historic New Bern".

On Sunday, they had wrestling, or as it is better known in the south - "Wrasslin'" at the area high school. Unfortunately, we thought the festivities began in the evening. The event started at 2 PM, so we ended up missing it. Robert Gibson, of the Rock and Roll Express and "Hands of Stone" Ron Garvin were the headliners. The most interesting match to our group was the Lady's Champion, Tracii Taylor vs. Little Brutus, the Midget Champion.

I can only imagine the stories I would have been able to write about if we would have had the time straight.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Thanksgiving



As many of you probably know, Rachel and I do not travel home for Thanksgiving. With the crowds and chaos at airports and 3 hours distance between our two families, it is just too much trouble to travel when we will be going home for Christmas in less than a month anyway. It is our one holiday at home.

Our good friends, Nicole and Tim Callahan, invited us to go with them to Nicole's family get-together in New Jersey for Thanksgiving. Nicole comes from a large Italian family, so Rachel and I were very anxious to see what Thanksgiving in New Jersey was all about.

The family - about 50 in total - converged on Nicole's mom's place in central Jersey. Luckily, there is a community center there, which the family rents for these events. Nicole's Aunt and Uncle also live in the community, and they are "connected" (Nicole's Uncle is the President of the Community organization).

Let me tell you, New York/New Jersey Italians know how to do Thanksgiving. The main course is very similar to a southern Thanksgiving - Turkey, ham, stuffing, relish tray, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, peas, corn, sweet potatoes, and they even had biscuits and cornbread. Nicole's Mom, Uncle Tom, and Cousin Jack were the main chefs. Jack, upon learning that Rachel was a vegetarian, had even prepared cous-cous for her.

The picture at the beginning of this blog shows the desert table. There were enough pies to feed a small army. Cookies, Nicole's Mom's AWESOME rice pudding and pastries were also plentiful.

The primary difference from a southern Thanksgiving was that there was an opening course. Nicole's mom had made manicotti from scratch for an antipasta course. They also had Italian salad, which was awesome. I am a big fan of the extra Italian flare added to Thanksgiving. We should do it this way in the south!

I have to give an extra shout-out to my buddy Tim Callahan, who fought through a concussion, earned in a vicious hit from "Uncle Bob" in the annual Thanksgiving morning Callahan/Carroll touch football bowl. After the vicious hit, Tim went on to throw 3 TD passes, take a shower (which he doesn't remember), ride to New Jersey, and eat Thanksgiving dinner, before going to the hospital to learn that he did, in fact, have a concussion. If you zoom in on the photograph here, you can likely see that one of Tim's pupils is much larger than the others (which we now all know is a sign of a concussion). "No fun" Nicole has now forbade him from playing in next year's game.



REFLECTIONS - Black Friday



The above picture is from the back of the Best Buy store in Montgomeryville, PA at 4:30 AM on Friday November 27, 2009. This is from the exact spot where I was standing in line 30 minutes before the store opened for Black Friday. The video below shows the line at the front of the store that led from the door, around the side and half way around the back of the store 30 minutes prior to opening.

Prior to Friday morning, I was a Black Friday virgin. I had never participated in this ultimate symbol of capitalism. After my experience at Best Buy, I will never participate again. I had always been told that Taiwan was capitalism on steroids. I am not convinced that Taiwan must be like Black Friday every day of the year.


video

At 5:07 AM, I entered the front of the Best Buy store with one simple mission - pick up two gifts. I would then head back home and go to bed for an extra hour of sleep before taking Rachel to work. Things didn't quite work out as planned.

I was surprised by the lack of chaos when I entered the store. This is when I learned of the "Racetrack System". Best Buy blocks off aisles with huge boxes of stereos, TV's and other appliances, so that shoppers are directed through a single line, as they enter each department. If you want an I-Pod, you have to form a single cue and maneuver through the "Audio Racetrack". If you want printer ink, you enter the single-file "PC Racetrack". I believe that this invention was set up to protect passive southerners, like myself, from aggressive shopping "Yankee" women. I have few phobias in life... only spiders, alligators and angry northern women.

There is only one problem with the Racetrack System. If you miss what you are looking for on your first pass through, you have to reenter the line and continue the entire process again.

Best Buy severely disappointed me on this trip. The items that I was trying to retrieve from their mailing circular were not clearly marked or distinguished from other items. Many of the large ticket items on the floor were not clearly price marked.

After wandering through "Racetracks" aimlessly for about 25 minutes, I left Best Buy dejected and giftless. Live and Learn. Some people just aren't cut out for Black Friday shopping. I am one of those people.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Outer Banks 2009



The last week of August, 5 couples, 7 kids 4-years old and younger and Albright rented a beach house in the Outer Banks, NC. (In the picture: front row kids L-R - Kate and Abby Edwards, Jack and Emma Jeter, Henry Viscardi; 2nd row Adults and infants - the Kennedy's, Tim and Nicole Callhan, Meg and Keith Edwards and Olivia, Vanessa and Rob Jeter, Mike and Sarah Viscardi and Caroline, and Brian Albright).

This is probably my favorite picture from the trip. Abby randomly pulled this book off of the book shelf and was running around with it. Tim asked her what she was reading, so she held it up. Everyone in the room lost their composure!!!

This is Henry Viscardi. Henry normally has arms, legs and a torso attached to his head. Very few 4 year olds will lay still long enough to be buried in sand. Henry obviously will. He ran around most of the week covered in sand. When he was not digging on the beach, he ran around inside the house with his Handy Manny tool set repairing everything in sight.

This is Olivia hamming it up for Tim's camera.














Rachel with Abby and Kate.

(Albright making steamers). Every family was responsible for dinner one night. Brian boiled crab pots for Friday night's dinner. They were D-Lish!!!

Sweet Caroline


Me and Albright making our fashion statement. (Please note that he is sporting Lilly Pulitzer, while mine are a more economical brand).

Me, Rob and Albright enjoying steamers.

Olivia wearing "Pasta Night".

Rachel, Sarah and their matching tops.

Rob and Emma chilling in the living room.

Sarah Viscardi - lifelong Vanderbilt fan, caught sitting in a University of Tennessee beach chair - SCANDALOUS!!!



Tim, Nicole, Rachel and I rode from Philadelphia to the Outer Banks together. We left Friday and stayed in Norfolk, VA. While we were there, we went to see the Norfolk Tides baseball team play. Above is a photo of Tim, Nicole and Rachel outside of the stadium before the game.

The Tides is a AAA team and at least used to be affiliated with the New York Mets. I believe that they are now with the Nationals or Orioles, as the Minor Leagues re-aligned several years ago to place Minor League franchises closer to their Major League home market. For instance, the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs are now one of the Philadelphia Philly affiliates (only 90 minutes from Center City Philly). Trenton, NJ is the A affiliate for the New York Yankees (again, they are only ~90 minutes from Yankee Stadium).

The Tide Mascot was very active before the game started. He took a special liking to Nicole (see video below). He was very good interacting with both kids and adults.

Tim and I left in the 2nd Inning to pick up Brian Albright from the airport. Brian currently works at the Dow Plant in the San Fransisco area, and flew in for the week. Brian's flight was delayed due to the hurricane, so we did not make it back to the stadium until the bottom of the 8th inning. We saw the Tides seal the win and donned our sporty 3-D glasses for the Fireworks Extravaganza.


Below is a video of the Tide Mascot torturing Nicole.
video


Above is a picture of the sunrise I awoke to on the first morning. I took this picture from the deck outside of our kitchen.

This is our big green house. It comfortably slept 11 adults (some might argue that there were fewer adults than this, but technically 11 people met the legal definition of adulthood) and seven children 4 years old or younger. We had a pool, hot tub, a Playstation 2, pool table, foosball table, horseshoe pit, basketball goal and wireless internet. It also had many, many bedrooms, bathrooms and dual dishwashers, which comes in very handy when living with 18 people.

(View from our overlook deck)


(Another view from our overlook deck)

We arrived to the beach house on Saturday afternoon, while Hurricane Bill was about 150 miles east of the Outer Banks. Before we left the following Saturday, Hurricane Danny rolled directly over us (luckily, it was a lower grade storm). Due to the storms, the lifeguards kept everyone out of the ocean Saturday through Monday. Below is a picture from that Sunday. As Keith so eloquently stated many times during the week, "The Sea Was Angry, My Friend."


Tuesday was "Mothers' Day Out". For their event this year, the ladies chose to take surf lessons and eat lunch. (Pictured above L-R: J.M. (Instructor), Sarah Viscardi, Rachel, Vanessa Jeter, Meg Edwards, Nicole Callahan).

The girls arose early and headed off for their 9 AM surf lesson, leaving the dads (and Tim and I) to execute breakfast duty with the kids.

(Surfer Meg). The entire session was about 2 hours or so, including the time it took them to get fitted for their wet suits. After getting their suits, the ladies received instruction on the beach for about 30 minutes and then spent about an hour in the water. According to Rachel, this was plenty of time in the water, as they were all worn out.

Surf Nicole won the distinction of being the first surfer to get up on her board. Her reward... a free lunch.

(Surfer Rachel) Tim and I left the house when the Dads took the kids to the beach in order to get some pictures and video footage of the surfing. We made it to the beach about 15 minutes before the end of the lesson.

After the surf lesson, the ladies came back to the house and showered before their lunch.

Sarah and Meg even decided to dress alike.











Below is a video of Rachel getting up on her board. This is the first shot I got when Tim and I arrived to take pictures.
video

On Tuesday night (our normal trivia night in Philadlephia at the Lucky Dog), Rachel and I hosted trivia for the three teams. The winning team of Tim Callahan, Meg Edwards and Sarah Viscardi are shown here. They were a well-balanced and solid team (do not ever go up against Sarah in "Entertainment Trivia"; she is lights-out).

Rob, Vanessa and Brian are shown here. Going into the night, they were the favorite. We played the normal 6 rounds - Current Events, Sports, Random, Music, Portrait Round, and Entertainment. According to Brian, I chose lousy music, lousy pictures for the portrait round, lousy entertainment and current events noone would know (which was somewhat true, as nobody had been watching TV or reading the newspaper). Nice blanket, Albright.

Wednesday was Guy's Day Out. The group (present company excluded) decided to play golf. This was also one of the Decathlon events.

We had a 7:45 ish tee time at Nagshead Golf Links, which meant we had to be up at the crack of dawn, as it was an hour drive from the peninsula. The course was very nice, but pretty tight, which meant I lost several balls throughout the day.

Edwards preparing to tee off.

Callahan winding up for his tee shot.

We split into two-threesomes. Keith, Tim and I played together. They were great partners for me, as I am fairly confident that we were the less serious-minded of the two threesomes.

As expected, Mike Viscardi took the golf event, shooting near par. Callahan edged Albright, who had not played in over a year, for second by one stroke. Also, as expected, I finished dead last.

Following golf, the guys had lunch at a micro-brewery in Nags Head. Here is a picture of Callahan eating his first hush puppy ever. Somehow, the great southern fried delicacy that are hush puppies did not gain wide acceptance in the north. Although, I am confident that with the gaining popularity of NASCAR and country music, hush puppies cannot be far behind. The food at the pub was pretty darn good. In addition to hush puppies, I loaded up on fried okra, too.

(L-R Rob, Keith and Mike passing an appetizer to me at the Brewery after golf)

Wednesday after golf, all of the families loaded up and headed to Corolla for Wine Tasting and a picnic near the lighthouse.

It was an absolutely beautiful afternoon, and we had a wonderful time. There was space for the kids to play (and for Albright to conduct his Fantasy Football Draft conference call).



(The Sound at sunset)

(Currituck Lighthouse)



(Artsy sunset photo - Courtesy of Brian Albright)

(Chef Robert Jeter and Emma) Rob and Vanessa provided bar-b-que for the picnic dinner. It was great being back in the south, where we could get some good old North Carolina pork bar-b-que.

Meg, Nicole and Rachel before dinner.

Tim, Nicole and Rachel enjoying dinner after wine tasting.

Nicole at the conclusion of a long day.

Thursday, the day was spent relaxing on the beach and male competition in more Decathlon events (horse shoes and obstacle bocce). Callahan won both events. Thursday night was poker night. This is a shot of Rob and Tim at the outdoor picnic poker table. Notice Tim's shirt, advertising the Philadelphia Phillies, the "losingest" franchise in sports history... any sport. The pain is somewhat dulled by the World Series Win in 2008.

Keith invoked the "40 Rule" for poker night - No beer at the poker table smaller than a 40 oz. As you can see in the above picture, Tim quickly violated the rule. Here, the refined Brian Albright is enjoying the "Champagne of Beers" Miller High Life.

Keith and I with our "GARS". Keith is wearing his "Rolling with my Gnomies" T-shirt, which is one of my favorite T's. After jumping out to a quick chip lead, I faded fast. Albright ultimately took poker night. Edwards was 2nd.

Saturday morning, after the passage of Tropical Storm Danny (it was afraid to upgrade to a Hurricane following the angry taunts of Keith Edwards yelling at him from the ocean on Wednesday night), we all packed our cars and headed home. It was a great trip with great friends. Special thanks to Rob and Vanessa Jeter, who spent a week with us during their relocation to Midland, MI (I mean this literally, as the movers took their furniture the night before they left to come to the beach. They would reunite with their furniture after there LONG drive from the North Carolina coast to Midland).