Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Bowling Green Hockey

Of the sports that I watch (most of them), I think hockey might be Amber's least favorite. But somehow, I was able to convince her to go to a hockey game while were in Toledo for Thanksgiving. Maybe she was just excited to get a night out together; we don't have any family in town, so we better take advantage of the free babysitting while we can!

We actually had two hockey game options on Friday night: we could go see the minor-league (ECHL) Toledo Walleye, or we could go see the Bowling Green State University hockey team take on the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. We chose Bowling Green, because: 1) cheaper tickets; 2) I had never been to a college hockey game before; and 3) Amber used to go to the Bowling Green ice rink a lot to watch her sister figure skate, so it would be a bit nostalgic for her.

NOT a consideration was the quality of the hockey we were going to see. I've watched sports enough to notice a discernable difference between the college game and the pro game. Generally, the pro game is more entertaining to watch than the college game, because all of the players are more skilled, and the games are usually more competitive. (Basketball is an exception, because NBA players are so skilled that teammwork isn't needed like it is in college basketball, which hurts the quality of the game.) Minor league sports play much closer to the major professional level than the collegiate level, so if I wanted to see a better-played game, the correct thing to do would have been to attend the Toledo Walleye game.

Thing is, though, college hockey is hard to find on TV, so I haven't watched enough college hockey to know how different pro and college hockey are. But having now attended a college game in person, I can now tell the difference. The game is nearly as fast, but the passes aren't as crisp, there are far fewer odd-man rushes, and most goals are of the "grind it out" variety (rebounds, deflections, etc) rather than a fancy deke, one-timer, or something that would make the SportsCenter Top Ten. In other words, the pro game is definitely more entertaining to watch.

But there is still plenty to like about college hockey. Find me a professional game at ANY level where you can get ice-level seats for $5. (Full disclosure: $5 isn't the normal price; this was part of a holiday special or something since most of the students were home for Thanksgiving.)


We didn't sit ice-level, of course; I like being farther up.

And, I can only assume that at a college game, you stand a much better chance of catching a wayward puck in the stands than you do at an NHL or minor league game. In fact, look what I got!


The atmosphere at a college sporting event is almost always going to be better than at a pro event. Smaller, more enthusiastic crowds; less annoying piped-in music and advertisements, and in the case of college hockey, almost no fighting! I know that's a major draw for Amber. (Fighting is Amber's least favorite thing about hockey. I'm not a big fan of it either, but I understand why it's there, and I can live with it.) Amber also feels she can relate to the college players a little more than the professional players.

And, how about this: a handshake line after the game. The NHL only does this at the end of a playoff series.


I think Amber's second least favorite thing about hockey is the obnoxious goal horn. I would talk about Bowling Green's goal horn here, or whatever they do after they score. But Bowling Green didn't score a single goal that night, even though they were playing a relatively weak opponent (Alaska-Fairbanks). They even didn't score in the rematch the next night, either. So, I can only assume that there is a goal horn of some kind when Bowling Green scores, followed by the Bowling Green fight song over the PA system. Either way, I feel cheated whenever I go to a hockey game and the home team doesn't score. What gives, BG? Maybe the Alaska players were just happy to be in a warmer climate for a couple of days. Or, maybe this Bowling Green hockey team is just plain lousy. No wonder the tickets are so cheap! They haven't always been this bad, though. They won the 1984 national championship, and they've churned out quite a few NHLers over the years. Hopefully they'll get it turned around soon.

Going into the game, I thought, "There probably won't be that many Alaska fans here. I mean, it's not like they're going to make the trip all the way from Fairbanks, right?" Wrong!


Did these people seriously come all the way from Alaska to Ohio, just for a hockey game? That's insane. Then again, after a week of record low temperatures (which, for Fairbanks, really means something), maybe they jumped at the opportunity to get out of town for a couple of days. If I had to spend the winter in Fairbanks, I might have done the same thing.

Here's something I was curious about before the game. Do college games go to a shootout to break ties like in the NHL? The answer: only in Bowling Green's conference, the CCHA. Every other NCAA Division I conference has ties. And actually, officially, the CCHA scores a shootout game as a "tie". They award three points in the standings for a win, one point for a tie, and one additional point (for a total of two) for a shootout win. I kind of wish the NHL did the standings this way. (My official take on the shootout: from a competition standpoint, I don't like it, but from the standpoint of entertainment and the value to the consumer of having a definitive "winner" and "loser" at a sporting event, I support its existence in the regular season.)

Here is the truly awesome video that plays prior to every Alaska-Fairbanks game. Bowling Green does not have a video board. The ice rink is pretty old school; everything in there looks like it's from the 70s or 80s. The building was recently renovated, but the rink itself was kept in "old school" condition, which I actually like. Who needs a big fancy scoreboard, anyway?

One more thing. Located in the same building as the hockey rink is...the curling club!



As I understand it, the Bowling Green Curling Club used to have dedicated curling ice, but now it's basically an arena club. The curling ice was being used as a free skate on Friday, which was sad to see from my perspective. But I know how that goes.

While the level of play is lower, there is a lot to like about college hockey. I wish one of the Triangle universities had an NCAA Division I ice hockey team. How about it, Duke?

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Chickenpox

A while back, a sign was posted at Marla's day care alluding to the fact that one of the other infants recently had the chickenpox. Two weeks later...ta da!


Marla turned four months old yesterday, so she's getting this at a much younger age than many, and several months before we would have been able to vaccinate her. She started showing the first rashes on Saturday, and was handling it pretty well until it became more of a full-blown thing yesterday. Hey, at least it wasn't full-blown when we were on the road!

Personally, I had chickenpox when I was 3 years old (I think), and don't remember much about it. But based on how Marla's acted the last couple of days, it's pretty miserable. Hopefully by the end of the week, she'll be done with it and return to her smiley old self, and promptly resume her quest to roll over on her own. (She's getting there. It's pretty cute to watch.)

Well, I guess it's good to get it out of the way, right? It was going to happen eventually, probably, although it is making for a rather unpleasant week so far. Fortunately, both of our employers are very accommodating, because obviously, we have to keep her at home until the chickenpox is gone. Unless we want to get a bunch of other babies sick, too, which...we don't.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Travelogue: Thanksgiving 2011

We're back from our weekend excursion to Toledo, and we are exhausted. With young children, I think we can forget about the idea of coming back from a vacation "refreshed". We did have a good time, though, and did enjoy showing off Marla to the Loucks side of the family.

I was going to cover the entire trip today, but that was before I wrote several paragraphs about just the road trip portion. Whoops! The rest of the stuff will have to wait.

The road trip portion: We won't be going on as many road trips now that we have a kid, of course. So in my quest to increase my counties visited count and such, I talked Amber into adding 30-60 minutes in each direction this weekend. On the northbound drive, we took OH-60 and some other roads through Southeast Ohio so that I could visit four new counties:


View Larger Map

Then, on the southbound drive, we took I-90 into Cleveland so that I could drive the northernmost 17 miles of I-77. This was the only portion of I-77 I hadn't driven before, so this makes I-77 the 8th interstate I've driven from end-to-end (10, 16, 68, 84 [east], 88 [east], 97, 99).


View Larger Map

This actually proved to be kind of tricky. There is no direct ramp from I-90 eastbound to I-77 southbound. So to officially "start" I-77 at the north end, I had to exit into downtown Cleveland and take one of several ramps that lead directly from downtown (near the Indians ballpark for those who know the city) directly onto the beginning of I-77. Normally this wouldn't have been a big deal, except that all those onramps were closed for construction! I eventually found my way onto I-90 westbound, east of the intersection, and took the I-90 West --> I-77 South ramp.

There will be more side trips on our drives to and from Toledo. But we've already done this sort of thing between here and Jacksonville and have already taken care of most of the scenic routes between here and there, sadly.

Of course, while we were at it, Marla visited all kinds of new counties. She's up to 59 counties in 5 states! Not bad for a four-month old. I don't think she'll get to 100 before the end of the year as I remember predicting, but she'll be above 80.

And finally...the traffic. Well, we left Durham at 4 AM Wednesday morning, and we left Toledo at 1 AM Sunday morning, so except for the roads leading north out of Columbus on Wednesday, we avoided traffic issues of any kind this Thanksgiving weekend. Yay! On the way back on Sunday, though, I was thinking that I would have rather slept in and gotten stuck in traffic, than left at 1 AM and had a free-flowing drive all the way home. But then after we got home, I kept an eye on Google Maps traffic just to see what it would have been like had we left Toledo at 4 AM instead of 1 AM, and...yikes. Apparently there was an accident on I-77 near Hillsville, VA, causing a massive traffic jam that surely we would have been stuck in had we left three hours later than we did. That stretch is already the most congested part of the drive, so having an accident there is pretty much the worst case scenario. Leaving at 1 AM was definitely the right thing to do, then.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

It's That Time Again

Fun fact! The last time I did NOT travel anywhere on Thanksgiving weekend was in...1999. The streak continues this year, along with our family visitation system that has worked out pretty well since it was implemented in 2007: one family gets Thanksgiving and New Year's, the other family gets Christmas, and it alternates every year. This year, Toledo gets Thanksgiving and New Year's, and Jacksonville gets Christmas.

Last time we drove to Toledo for Thanksgiving, we left home at 1 AM Wednesday morning, and that worked out pretty well. This year, we're going to do that in both directions. We're leaving Durham between 3 and 4 AM on Wednesday morning, and then starting the drive home at around 1 AM Sunday. All in the name of timing it so that we'll be on I-77 in Virginia and West Virginia outside of peak travel hours.

Of course, this time, we'll have a buddy with us! (Wow, she's grown a lot in the last three weeks.) Basically, Marla will dictate when we leave in the morning. She wakes up once or twice in the middle of the night anyway, and when she does, that'll be a perfect time for us to hit the road, I think. In theory. Or, if she doesn't wake up, we'll have to wake her up and put her in the car seat. Otherwise, we wouldn't get to our destination before sunset (preferable when you have an infant riding with you as we learned on our Cherohala Skyway trip). And we'll be far more likely to experience traffic, and I know Marla wouldn't like that. Traffic jams are bad enough without having a crying baby in the back seat.

The drive will probably be a bit of an adventure, but that's what we're all about! If it goes well, we might even take some side trips in Ohio in order to either visit some new counties (still plenty of gray to work with here), or perhaps finally clinch I-77 from start to finish (I'm only missing the northernmost 17 miles in Cleveland).

We haven't been to Toledo since last Christmas, so it'll be nice. I'm sure Amber's side of the family is looking forward to seeing nearly four-month-old Marla. (And to seeing us too, I suppose.)

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Triangle Expressway Trot

I'm not a runner. As far as I'm concerned, bicycling > running. But if I were a runner, I definitely would have participated in yesterday's Triangle Expressway Trot. Amber was running in it, though, as were a few of our friends, so it was a good opportunity to come to one of Amber's races (for once) and show my support.

What's so special about the TriEx Trot? It's a race along the yet-to-be-opened Triangle Expressway, which will become North Carolina's first toll road in another month or two. Exercise and roadgeeking, together at last! I mean, how often do you get to hang out on a major freeway? Will there ever be another opportunity for me to get a picture of Marla and her stroller in the middle of a road like this?


This was actually the first running race of any kind that I can remember going to. Here's how it works from the perspective of a spectator: 1) You watch everyone go. 2) For the next 15 minutes, you're bored. (The Marla picture was taken during those 15 minutes.) 3) At the 15 minute mark, you start looking for the winner to make his (or her) way back. 4) For the next 30 minutes after that, you start looking for people you know to finish, trying to get a picture of each of them at the finish line.

So, here's the winner:


Yes, I got the timer in the picture by design. But from that point on, there were people were standing between me and the timer, so I wasn't able to get the timer in anyone else's picture.

And, actually, I wasn't able to capture everyone I know on camera at the finish line. I was usually too late. I also tried to give everyone I know a high-five after the finish line, but you see, here's the thing with that. Running a 5K is hard, and when you're finished, you're exhausted, and you're not exactly interested in high-fiving any of the spectators, or even looking at the spectators. See why I don't run? I never feel like that when I'm done with a bike ride.

Well, anyway, I was able to get a picture of Amber at the finish line, and right under the arch, too:


This was Amber's first 5K since before she was even pregnant. She did great! She ran the whole thing. The only other people I was able to get pictures of at the finish line were Maggie and Adam, who are somewhere in these two pics:



What is it like to run on an expressway? According to the runners, it was hot (race time temperature 73°F, dew point 55°F, with the sun out) and spacious. And with the wide, straight freeway, you could see the finish line from very far away, which was kind of a tease.

One more picture: the official mascots of the Triangle Expressway Trot.


Maybe I'll have to take my bike out on the TriEx before it opens, if that's possible and legal.

Curling Recap: 11/18/11

Career game #160: 2011 Fall League - November 18, 2011

End.......... 12345678 |TTL
---------------------------
Allen........ 00212200 | 07
Chick........ 32000022 | 09

So...in last week's recap, I went on and on about what we could do to avoid giving up a big lead early in the game. So what do we do this week? We go down 5-0 in the first two ends, again. Ugh! Then, we came back (again), and then lost it at the end (again). Didn't I learn anything from the previous game?
Well, I thought I did...but the ice conditions were challenging early on. The ice started out VERY slow, much more so than normal. And as evidenced by our weekly slow start, the slow ice conditions of the first two ends do not benefit our team's style. And while I said last week that take-outs in the first end might be a reasonable strategy because they're not as weight dependent, take-outs were simply impossible in the first end. I gave my first shot a HUGE push, one that would be classified as "crazy insane take-out weight" later on in the game, and it didn't even make it to the house. I also have zero confidence in the line early in the game. If there are guards in front, I kind of just shrug my shoulders and say "let's throw it and hope we either miss the guards or hit one of our guards on the nose, because I have no idea what the ice is going to do yet". Well, we'll try again next time, and hopefully we won't give up 5 points in the first two ends again.

Once the rocks cooled down and the ice sped up, we were able to get our weight dialed in, resulting in some extremely well-played middle ends. All of us were making our shots, and there was more than one occasion where the other team had absolutely no option on their final shot.

And we were about to head into the final end with a three-point lead, until opposing Skip Brian made this shot: (our team = red)


This might have been another one of those situations where the other team had no option on their final shot, but they did have one option: a long "raise take-out". Hit their #2 into our #1 and stick for a game-tying two points. Hey, it happens. Some of these guys are really good.

But perhaps the biggest strategy failure on my part is in the final end, more so than the early ends. This is the 2nd week in a row in which we needed to score in the final end, and did not. Last week, we did not have last rock; this week, we did. My general strategy was to keep everything as open as possible; the center line was very dependable and take-out friendly, so I was planning on having a wide open take-out for the win on my final shot. But in order to do that, I basically had to call a take-out on every shot. I think I called for a draw one time, and that allowed them to get a second rock in the house. And eventually, that led to this setup, prior to my last shot of the game:


So much for the open take-out for one. If I hit rock #1 on the nose, #2 scores, and vice versa. Or maybe rock #2 was well-guarded. I don't remember. Regardless, my ONLY play was the straight draw, out turn (right-to-left curl), to the left of #3 and the right of #1. I thought I had the weight perfect, but my shot didn't curl soon enough and nicked the #3 guard. Game over.

This stinks, because I feel like we wasted a very solid effort. This was the most frustrating loss of the season, for sure. Oh well - one more chance in a couple of weeks to try and finish the season at 4-4.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Sports Saturday: 11/19/11

NHL

(Note: This was written prior to Friday night's Carolina Hurricanes v. Buffalo Sabres game.)

The Carolina Hurricanes have had better weeks. As of Friday afternoon, they have lost six out of their last seven games (all in regulation), and...well, they just stink. Fire the players! Fire the GM! Fire the coach!

Let me talk about the last of those. Head coach Paul Maurice is once again on the "proverbial hot seat". You can count me among the many Hurricanes fans who are tired of Maurice's coaching and would like him gone as soon as possible. Maurice is not the only problem, but he's clearly not the solution.

This brings up an interesting dilemma that can apply to pretty much any sports team, college or pro. Let's say your favorite team has had the same coach for a while now (note: three years is considered "a while" in pro sports), and, well, you're pretty much sick of him. The team is going nowhere, you're tired of his coaching habits, and, well, you just want someone new and fresh. And unless your favorite team is among the snobby "one championship every five years is NOT GOOD ENOUGH" types (Nebraska football, the Boston Red Sox, etc), then the only way the coach is going to be fired is if the team starts playing badly. Like, really, really badly.

The Hurricanes aren't one of those teams, so it's going to take a long, sustained losing streak - kind of like the one the team is in now - to convince GM Jim Rutherford that the time is right to fire the head coach. Shoot, even if the Hurricanes finish 10th in the Eastern Conference this year, that will probably be good enough to keep Maurice around for another year. Hey, can't really fault the organization for aiming low. I do it all the time! But still...back to the original question. Should those of us who want Maurice to be fired ASAP actually root for the Hurricanes to lose their next few games as the means to an end?

My take: NO. We sports fans tend to get a little too pre-occupied with the "future". Let's lose a bunch of this games this season so that we can get a new head coach / get a higher draft pick! But we don't really know how the future is going to pan out. What about the present? Sure, I'm tired of seeing Paul Maurice's face behind the Hurricanes' bench. But the best case scenario in the short term is, of course, for the Hurricanes to go on a long winning streak starting RIGHT NOW and make the playoffs, all with Paul Maurice as coach. Besides, there is no guarantee that another coach will do any better. He could even do worse. So, root for your team to win their next game, regardless of the circumstances. Ultimately, that's what you want to see, right? But at least in this case, there is a silver lining should the Hurricanes keep losing.

This is normally where I would list the Hurricanes' next TV game, but there are no Hurricanes games on local TV this weekend. Instead, we only get the following NHL Network games: Sat 4:00p - DET/LA; Sat 7:00p - NYR/MTL.

NFL

I touched on this last week and in some prior weeks, but I will be really annoyed if the Indianapolis Colts turn their one and only putrid season in a decade into the #1 draft pick in next year's draft, and get their next franchise quarterback as a result. On the other hand, I'm tired of the Colts, and I've enjoyed watching them suck this year. And getting back to what I just talked about, I should train myself as a sports fan to be more interested in the present than the future. And in the present, the Colts suck. Lose them all, I say! Ha! Besides, Andrew Luck could end up being a bust anyway, and that scenario would be even better from a Jaguars fan's perspective.

As for the Jaguars...I imagine there is a portion of the fanbase - just like with the Carolina Hurricanes - that are tired of their head coach, want him to be fired, and thus wouldn't mind it so much if the Jaguars lose the rest of their games and get head coach Jack Del Rio fired. I know it would annoy the heck out of a lot of people if the Jaguars finish 8-8 allowing Del Rio to keep his job, but that wouldn't bother me. Either way, in the short term...go Jaguars! Jacksonville at Cleveland: Sun 1:00p, DirecTV 707

Both Detroit and Buffalo are, predictably, fading down the stretch. Was it too good to be true? Both teams have weak opponents this week, so we'll know. There is no bigger test for a struggling team than when they play a perceived doormat. Carolina at Detroit - Sun 1:00p, WRAZ 50; Buffalo at Miami - Sun 1:00p, DirecTV 706

(Other locally broadcast games: CIN/BAL - Sun 1:00p, WRAL 5; SD/CHI - Sun 4:15p, WRAL 5; PHI/NYG - Sun 8:20p, NBC)

College football

The takeaway point from my rant last week should be this: let's not take college football so seriously. Among things we should take seriously: child rape. Among things we should not take seriously: whether or not your favorite college football team wins or loses. Last week, I started an effort to detatch myself emotionally from the outcome of college football games. This week, I hope to continue that trend. I've gotten a lot better at this over the years. We should all do the same. There would be less corruption in college football if the fanbase wasn't go so bat-s#!@ crazy about it. Sports should be entertainment, not an obsession. (Note: having a child is a great way to reinforce that point.)

Still...I don't think I can bring myself to watch the Penn State/Ohio State game this week. But I will watch Florida State, which hasn't had a scandal of any kind in, like, at least a year, right? This is actually a big game for Virginia, who "controls its own destiny" in whatever division of the ACC they're in. Virginia at Florida State - Sat 7:30p, ESPN2

South Florida is getting totally screwed by all of this conference realignment business. And as much of conference realignment is based on money and "television markets" rather than on-the-field performance, I have to wonder if South Florida would have gotten, say, an ACC invite had they managed to win a Big East title or two over the years. ... Actually, I know the answer to that. Of course not! The ACC already has two Florida teams. USF wouldn't expand their "geographic footprint" at all! Duh. Hey, maybe USF could join the Mountain West. Miami (FL) at South Florida - Sat 3:30p, ESPNU

Auto racing

So, I clicked "publish post" and totally forgot to mention the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship battle. (It's been a tough week.) Carl Edwards v. Tony Stewart. Don't really feel like giving any kind of analysis here, so I'll just close with this: go Carl! NASCAR Sprint Cup at Homestead (season finale) - Sun 3:00p, ESPN

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Jack in the Box

Back when I would regularly drive between State College and Jacksonville, I had a minor obsession with "Jack in the Box" fast food restaurants. Jack in the Box is primarily a west coast chain, but for some reason, they have a few restaurants in the Charlotte area. So, often times, I would make it a point to stop at one on my way through Charlotte. Eventually my "Jack in the Box" obsession became a "Bojangles'" obsession, but I made sure to revisit an "old friend" last time I was in the area.

I think Jack in the Box generally elicits the following response among most people: "Jack in the Box? Ewwww! I'm going to go throw up now." Is that because of the restaurant's E. coli outbreak of 1993, in which four children died? Maybe. I don't think Jack in the Box is so gross. I mean, it's fast food. What do you expect?

The best thing Jack in the Box has going for it is variety. Burgers? Obviously. Chicken strips? Yep. Tacos? Sure. Curly fries? You betcha. Breakfast sandwiches served all day? Hey, why not? I mean, this place has just about everything.

Are any of its menu items really that good? No...obviously, a chicken-dedicated restaurant will make better chicken than Jack in the Box. But their stuff is passable, and it's reasonably priced. And I'm sure this is all very unhealthy. But again...this is fast food. What do you expect? Why does Jack in the Box have such a bad reputation, anyway? I think it's undeserved. Maybe the chain actually has a good reputation out west, where people are actually familiar with the product.

I also think Jack in the Box has the best commercials out there among fast food restaurants. But we don't get them here because we do not live in a Jack in the Box market. They're basically just a "vacation novelty", for me. As in, "Hey, I just saw a commercial for Jack in the Box. I must be on vacation! Hooray!"

There's no real point to this, by the way. I just wanted to help refute the reputation that Jack in the Box is garbage. If such a reputation actually exists.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Motherly Instinct

This blog post would be very appropriate on or around Mother's Day. But I've always thought that recognizing the importance of parents (Mother's Day / Father's Day) or love (Valentine's Day) only on those "special occasions", and only because you feel obligated to, really isn't all that thoughtful. How about we pay tribute to mothers on a random Tuesday in November?

Ever since we had our daughter, I've noticed something. The vast majority of the people who give our daughter "oh how cute!" attention, are women. The majority of the baby pictures I see on Facebook are posted by women. All of the employees at our day care are women. Why is this?

There are exceptions, but I think most women are hardwired to like babies. I call this the "motherly instinct", and I've noticed it more now than ever. Women are drawn to babies. It's like they have a "baby radar" or something. And once they have had one, they need a fix. Older women, especially, can't get enough when it comes to babies. But it applies to younger women, too. Many women our age who are married without children - and this certainly applied to Amber back before she was pregnant - see a baby and think, "I want one!" And thank goodness for the "motherly instinct", too, because otherwise the human race would be doomed. Sure, some men want kids, but not as badly as the women want kids. If reproduction were entirely up to the men, we wouldn't have near as many babies.

This isn't to say that men aren't capable of being good parents, and that a motherless household is "no place for children". Male domestic partners, for example, have every right to raise a child of their own. (I just wanted to make that clear.) It just doesn't come as naturally for us men. Parenting takes a little more thought on our end because we don't have the "motherly instinct". Thankfully, in the internet age, anybody can do just about anything these days.

But the "motherly instinct" is both a blessing and a curse. Ask the parents of a six-month old. Who is getting less sleep, the mom or the dad? Who is more stressed out, the mom or the dad? Chances are, it's the mom on both counts, especially in today's era of families with two working parents. The fathers can help out all we want, but regardless, the mother will always be thinking about the child. The "motherly instinct" can be quite a burden on a young mother, as I've seen first hand. I encourage Amber to go running without Marla every once in a while, just like I go bicycling; but sometimes it's hard for her to "detach", even for a little bit. (Or, more accurately, she's usually rather sneak in a nap.)

So, we should be very grateful for our mothers and wives. They have a gift. Oh, and there's that whole pregnancy and childbirth thing, too.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Curling Recap: 11/11/11

End.......... 1234567 |TTL
--------------------------
Scheck....... 2302206 | 15
Allen........ 0020050 | 07

This wasn't the case last season, but this season, my biggest weakness as Skip has clearly been the start. My team has been outscored 13-5 in the first two ends this season; from the 3rd end on, we're about even (32 for, 31 against). Maybe this week's game, in which we trailed 5-0 after just two ends, is a good case study. So...how do we keep this from happening next time?

The first two ends are unique because we haven't figured out the ice conditions yet, and the ice is much slower in the first two ends than it is in the rest of the game. Maybe we're "too light" for our own good in the first two ends? Maybe I'm too afraid to call "taps" or take-outs early in the game because I haven't figured out the ice yet? Could be. Maybe I should call for more "back line" or "hack" weight shots early in the game; that way, if we're light, then we'll simply draw into the house. In theory. This applies to my shots as well, because I'm almost always light in the first two ends..

Starting off well was especially important in this game because we were playing against a good team. Opposing Skip Dan is one of the top Skips in the club, and he can usually pull out his final draw to the button when he needs to. And he generally calls a quiet game...except when he has a big lead, apparently. When we got a rock in the house, out it went! That is certainly what happened in the 7th end, when we absolutely had to score. (If we didn't have to score, my strategy would have been different, and I'd like to think that we could have held them to, say, two.) But in the 6th end, we were able to get lots of rocks in the house, their last take-out attempt missed everything, and we scored five. But that was the exception to the rule. I've gotten away from throwing guards once we get "early position" in the house, and I need to get back to that. I know I've played pretty well as Skip over the last two years, but this is the kind of game that makes me really think about what I'm doing out there. Maybe I should get go back and see how I called the strategy last season, when my team won the championship. If only I wrote up a detailed description of every curling game I ever played...

On the other hand, this other team is the first place team, having outscored the opposition 67-39. Maybe the fact that I'm even discussing strategy after this game, as opposed to shrugging my shoulders and saying "Well, they just played better than we did", means that I've come a long way. And even though we're a long shot to win the league championship at this point, we're still 3-3, and I'll take that. After all, it is kind of awkward when the League Coordinator (that's me) wins the league championship.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Sports Saturday: 11/12/11

College football

There are approximately 10 million opinion pieces floating around on the internet right now regarding the Jerry Sandusky child molestation charges, the Penn State football program, the university itself, and of course, Joe Paterno. But I'm not going to get into all that, though, because that's all been beaten to death by people who are better at writing than I am. Instead...well, as someone who has followed college football closely for well over a decade now, I've reached my breaking point. I was already getting there when the season began, but now, I've had enough. Basically, it comes down to this: college football has gotten WAY too big. This idea that a university's football program, the money that comes with it, and the people that are associated with it, are somehow so important that it makes it worth repeatedly violating NCAA rules, or - worse - covering up child rape for a whole decade...well, it makes me wonder. How can I even watch college football, knowing what goes on behind the scenes?

I had already kind of resigned myself to the fact that all of the successful teams in college football are breaking NCAA rules in one way or the other. When it's just a matter of secret "under the table" payments or benefits to players, I can live with that. Can't really fault individual programs for trying to gain a competitive edge when the only penalty is "vacated wins". I mean, what is that? And college football is hardly the only sport with occasional widespread rule-breaking. Rampant cheating goes in cycles; eventually, the governing body (in this case the NCAA) will catch up and get everyone in line (e.g. MLB with steroids). I can also live with the NCAA pretending that college football is an amateur competition, when really, it's not. (Except in that the players don't get paid, of course. At least not officially.) College football is big business, now more so than ever. It's almost as big as the NFL is these days. Conference realignment was cool and interesting at first, but now it's just getting annoying, and when you have Boise State joining the "Big East", it only reinforces the whole "big business" aspect of the sport. And the BCS has always been crap, since the day it was born. But I've lived with all of college football's flaws for years, because 1) I have pride in my two alma maters, both of which have good college football teams, and 2) because football is entertaining to watch.

But now...yikes. Penn State was supposed to be one of the "good schools" that didn't live on the fringes of the NCAA rulebook and/or moral compass. So much for that, eh? And for what? To protect the football program? Regardless of whether the football program or the university administration are to blame, the way I see it, this is directly tied to football. Let's say Jerry Sandusky was a trusted, tenured university professor with zero impact on the football program. Do his child raping habits still get swept under the rug? Maybe, but probably not. God forbid we let this affect our storied football team! And it's not as if things like this happen outside the football department, right? Or do we just not hear about those? Is the will to win in college football so important that some people in positions of influence are even willing to overlook this? If so, then that is very, very sad.

So, I guess the point I'm trying to get across is this. I've had it with college football, and I am no longer emotionally invested in it. Sure, it would be nice if Florida State beat rival Miami (FL) today (Sat 3:30p, ABC), but the winner of that game will probably wind up vacating the win at some point anyway, so who cares?

As for Nebraska at Penn State - Sat 12:00p, ESPN: yeah, whatever. I'm kind of ashamed to be a college football fan at this point. But I am NOT ashamed to be a Penn State alumnus. I met a lot of great people at Penn State University, all of which uphold the highest moral standard, and none of which are affiliated with the football program.

College basketball

While still profitable, college basketball isn't quite the corrupt beast that college football is. And, they actually have a playoff at the end of the season! I don't think I'm even close to the breaking point with college basketball yet, so it's still more than watchable. Which is good, because part of the reason I didn't renew NHL Center Ice for 2011-12 was because I planned on watching more college basketball instead.

But aside from Friday's "aircraft carrier" game between North Carolina and Michigan State, I don't really see anything on the calendar that is all that appealing to me this weekend. So...we'll wait another week for this.

NFL

I am looking forward to this Sunday's Jaguars/Colts game way more than I should. Either the Jaguars win (which is always good to see), or the Colts win and decrease their odds in the Andrew Luck sweepstakes. It's win-win! But for the record, "Jaguars win" is a more preferable outcome. In fact, if they lose this game, I think they might as well fire Jack Del Rio now. Jacksonville at Indianapolis - Sun 1:00p, DirecTV 708

Other games of interest:
Tennessee at Carolina - Sun 1:00p, WRAL 5: Watching the Panthers, sometimes I forget that they have the same miserable record as the Jaguars. I guess good offense + bad defense looks more impressive than good defense + horrible offense.
Buffalo at Dallas - Sun 1:00p, DirecTV 704: Is the Bills' season going up in smoke?
Detroit at Chicago - Sun 4:15p, DirecTV 711: With the Lions actually playing well, football on Thanksgiving won't be so bad this year.
New England at NY Jets - Sun 8:20p, NBC: Hey, look, the Jets are on national television again! Barf. And next week, not only are the Jets in the NFL Network Thursday night game, but it's against Tim Tebow! Barf.

(Other locally televised games: NO/ATL - Sun 1:00p, WRAZ 50; NYG/SF - Sun 4:15p, WRAZ 50)

NHL

Time for my half-assed Carolina Hurricanes analysis of the week! Thank goodness for Jeff Skinner and Cam Ward (the latter of whom I think is a little underappreciated - do Hurricanes fans take him for granted?), because I think the Hurricanes would be a hopeless bottom feeder without them. Eric Staal has been a colossal overpaid disappointment so far this season. How the heck do you accumulate a plus/minus rating of -16 by the first week of November??? Well...still plenty of time to work this out, I guess. Pittsburgh at Carolina - Sat 7:00p, Fox Sports Carolinas

I'm very disappointed that NHL Network has opted to stop airing "Hockey Night in Canada" and instead air more of the American teams that Versus already shows plenty of as it is. Is this to spite me for opting out of Center Ice for this season? New Jersey at Washington - Sat 7:00p, NHL Network

Finally, there is Wednesday night's Philadelphia/Tampa Bay game, in which the Flyers' response to the Lightning's "neutral zone trap" defensive scheme was to stand there and do nothing. Who looks worse here - the Lightning for playing boring defense, or the Flyers for not advancing the puck? My take: the Flyers look worse. Both teams were within the rules, but I don't see how doing what the Flyers did actually helped them win the game. (The Flyers ended up losing.) Obviously, the NHL will need to do something about it if this becomes a chronic thing.

Auto racing

Yep...I can't help myself but talk about the points system again. Carl Edwards has zero wins in the Chase; Tony Stewart has four. But who's leading the points? Edwards is! And it's not like Stewart's non-win finishes have been terrible, either (7th, 8th, 15th, 25th). Even if Edwards wins the Cup with no wins (and only one on the entire season), I don't expect any retalitatory point system changes like we saw after Matt Kenseth won the Cup in uninspiring fashion in 2003. Fact is, if you're going to heavily stagger the points system at the top (which I have always been in favor of) and reward winning more than you penalize a bad finish, then you're leaving the door open for somebody to dominate and get a big points lead. I don't see anything wrong with that, but NASCAR seems insistent that EVERY championship battle come down to the final race. And that's why the point system is how it is. NASCAR Sprint Cup at Phoenix - Sun 3:00p, ESPN

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Television Update: 11/10/11

Let's talk television! I like to keep our DVR in a perpetual state of being between 65% and 75% full, so I added two new (as in, new to us) shows to the "Always Record" lineup. One has been around for years now, and the other is brand new.

The Amazing Race: This CBS reality show has been around for, what, a decade now? It features teams "racing" around the world, and as someone who likes traveling and who will watch the occasional game show (and that's basically what this is), this seems like something I would enjoy. I don't know why it's taken me so long to give it a try.

Verdict: PASS. "The Amazing Race" features plenty of the "OMG CONFLICTS!!!" nonsense that plagues reality television, but not so much of it that it makes the show unwatchable. So, I can live with it. But the tasks or whatever they have to do are interesting, the places they go are likely places I'll never go myself (Indonesia and Malawi aren't real high on my list), and it's educational, too, when you see how the contestants travel from one place to another. I don't know, really, but I'm intrigued. What's going to happen next? New episodes don't stay on the DVR for long.

Other thoughts on this show, since I have taken a liking to it. Who's going to win? Hard to say, because one mistake can I also have to wonder: are the "elimination legs" pre-determined? Or do they wait until they find out who will finish last before they decide whether to eliminate the last place team that day? Obviously, I hope it's the former, but there's really no way for us to know, is there?

I'm not particularly fond of the host, Phil Keoghan, for two reasons. One, I think he's kind of a jerk. "Oh, you guys have been eliminated, so sorry...just kidding! This is a non-elimination leg!" Seriously? Also, what kind of accent is he trying to pull off here? Keoghan is from New Zealand, and it sounds like he is trying to sound American, but sometimes, his native accent slips through. I'd rather he just speak in his "native tongue", personally.

Also...this is a minor inconvenience, but because "The Amazing Race" airs on Sunday evenings, I have to record a two hour block (8 to 10) in case CBS is airing an NFL game at 4:00 PM that day, in which case, "The Amazing Race" will almost certainly start late.

Up All Night: This is a brand new NBC sitcom centered around two first-time parents. Hey, I know a couple of first-time parents!

Verdict: FAIL. Unfortunately, the whole "parenthood" thing seems to be more of a side plot than the main focus of the show. The show spends way too much time focusing on Reagan's (that's the mom) career as a television show producer and not enough time focusing on the things that young parents go through, which is the whole reason we started watching the show in the first place! Ugh.

It wouldn't be so bad if Reagan had, you know, a normal job. But for some reason they decided to give her a glitzy job producing a daytime talk show with some Oprah-wannabe. It wouldn't be so bad if the Oprah-wannabe ("Ava") wasn't the most annoying character on the show, but this aspect of the show completely ruins it for me. Instead of being a show about young parents that both mom and dad can enjoy, instead it's a show about a working mom with a glamorous job that is basically targeted towards women. Why couldn't they have just given her, I don't know, a regular job at a local bank or something? You know, something us normal folk who don't live in New York or Los Angeles can relate to? It's occasionally funny when they distance themselves from Ava, but still: off the DVR it goes.

But in order to end on a positive note: NBC's "Parks and Recreation" has become one of my favorite sitcoms. It has surpassed "The Office" as the network's best show, in my opinion.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Energy Drinks, and Other Drugs

I don't want to be one of those people who is "addicted" to coffee and has to drink one every single morning in order to get a "caffeine fix". That's true with other drugs as well. I avoid them unless absolutely necessary. That way, when I actually do need them, they are effective.

So...Saturday. I was working on five non-productive hours of sleep, I was coming down with a cold, and the sun was going down as I was driving back from Charleston. I was pretty beat, and my personal safety was at stake, so I think this instance qualified as "absolutely necessary". I then purchased and consumed my first ever energy drink. (I won't say which brand, because energy drinks are advertised enough as it is.)

Was the drink effective? Well, I was most alert in the two hours following the drink, so it had to have helped. But there are other contributing variables: I was also driving with the windows down and the music up, along a route other than the boring interstate. And, I had a Reese's Fast Break, which gave me some more sugar and calories. (Even though I haven't talked about them in a while, the Reese's Fast Break is still the best candy bar out there, for my money.) Can't really say whether the energy drink alone is responsible for my increased awareness.

Energy drinks seem to be very popular these days. Why? I think it's marketing. Energy drinks are typically promoted by "action sports stars", who are among the coolest people out there, right? Or, maybe it's just because people like drugs. Either way, it can't be the taste, right? My energy drink of choice didn't taste particularly great, which was good in a way, because it helped regulate my consumption of it.

While I keep my stimulant consumption to an absolute minimum, I haven't been so disciplined when it comes to cold and headache remedies. I'm still working on this cold - the worst cold I've had in years - and as a result, I've taken generic NyQuil each of the last four nights. And last night, it was NOT effective. It appears I've gained a tolerance to Kroger-brand nighttime cold medicine, or something. And after just four doses! (Well, four and a half, actually.) What gives?

Well, I guess that's better than being addicted to it. I'm not addicted to headache medicine (generic Excedrin) by any means, but I think I end up having to take one dose every week or two, usually after a long bike ride. But hey, the stuff works...and a few doses a month really isn't that much compared to what some people take, I'm sure.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Roadgeekery

One day when I was in high school, my brother asked me to go to the intersection of Beach Boulevard and Third Street in Jacksonville Beach, FL (not far from the high school), and take some pictures of road signs. Why? Because that intersection serves as the eastern end of U.S. Route 90, and there's a website that is looking for pictures of the end of every U.S. Route in the country. I think my reaction was something to the effect of, "This is a really dumb hobby of yours, but I'll do it." (Two of the pictures I took that day are still posted on that very website, by the way.)

Now, here I am 11 years later, taking a picture at the end of US 176 in Goose Creek, SC. Not for the same website - that site has long acquired all of the U.S. Route endpoints in the country, and has since moved on to historical endpoints - but for my own enjoyment.


And, from later that day, here is a picture of a sign for I-526 Business Spur in Charleston. The significance is that there are only a few three-digit interstate business spurs in the entire country. (So I was told. I'm having trouble finding a complete list.) Again, this is only for my own enjoyment.


When did this "dumb hobby" become something I embraced? Well, the general frame of mind of your average high school student - when "fitting in" is of utmost importance - is that quirky hobbies are, well, dumb. Then once you go to college, and eventually grad school, you start hanging out less with the general population and more with people who are just as quirky as you are. And if you're lucky, you find a woman (or man) who loves your quirky hobbies that you've always been afraid to embrace because they were "dumb". And now, here we are.

So...why? Hard to say, but some people out there - let's call them "road geeks" or "roadgeeks" (still not sure if it's one word or two) - share interests in the following:
- Maps. In the end, it all comes back to maps. What a better way to visualize where things are and where roads go! I like maps, you know.
- Roads (obviously). Where do roads start and end? Why are roads numbered the way they are? What is it like to follow a single road from point A to point B? How about when point B is 3,000 miles away?
- Road signs. Each state does highway signs and route markers a little bit differently. I think it's fun to go from state to state and notice the subtle differences. For example, the "exit tab" on North Carolina highway signs is flush to the right of the main sign (unless it's a left exit), but on South Carolina highway signs, it's slightly offset to the left. And if you can find a really old road sign, such as a colored U.S. route shield in Florida...you win!
- Road construction and design. Of the four, this is the topic I'm least interested in, but some brands of roadgeeks are more into the civil engineering side of things. Overpass design, different types of intersections, you name it.
Corollaries of these main interests are visiting as many counties as possible, "clinching" interstate highways, and so on.

Get a bunch of roadgeeks together (as happened over the weekend in Charleston), and what happens? Well, you go check out the latest construction projects (this wasn't here last time!!), look for old road signs (this sign is 30 years old!!) or remnants of old roads (this used to be US 17!!), trade maps (trade you my 1995 Oklahoma map for a 1979 Montana map! This one still has US 10 labeled on it all the way to Missoula!! Although there wasn't any map exchanging on Saturday), and so on. Good times.

God bless the internet. Now, it's easier than ever to embrace your subculture and find others who share your quirky interests! At least, once you get out of high school, it is.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Curling Recap: 11/4/11

Career game #158: 2011 Fall League - November 4, 2011

End.......... 12345678 |TTL
---------------------------
Allen........ 01112101 | 07
Witcraft..... 20000030 | 05

The level of play has gone up from week to week throughout the season, and that continued this week. No such trouble getting rocks into the house this week! Not by any means.

So...let's talk ice conditions. This being infamous Sheet 1, there was a bit of a fall towards the center of the rink, which meant a couple of things. 1) It was very hard to put a guard exactly where you wanted it, which meant that there was usually a draw available for the Skips. Not necessarily an easy draw, but a draw nevertheless. 2) The line was very sensitive to sweeping. In the even ends, the only way to get a rock to stay on the center line was to NOT sweep. Sweep, and the rock immediately fell victim to the fall, and your shot was doomed. It was much more finicky than normal. I must have figured that out first, because we scored in all of the even ends. Or...actually, I think we just got lucky. Unlike last week, there was some luck involved in this week's victory.

I'm only going to talk about the last two ends specifically here. In the 7th end, we had a four-point lead. I'm pretty sure I've gone on record in the past as saying that a four-point lead in the next-to-last end is TOO EARLY to be "playing the scoreboard". But I think I did do a little scoreboard-playing in this game, playing (and ultimately failing) to not give up the big end. And I wonder why so many of my games are so close! (Four of our team's five games this season have ended 7-5, with the other game being 6-5.) ... Actually, you know what, I don't think scoreboard watching was the problem. Opposing Skip Nick just made a really good double take-out of sorts for three that I didn't even think was possible. I would try to diagram it, but considering that I didn't see it coming, I can't really replicate the circumstances. Any second-guessing of my decision making in that end is purely in hindsight.

As for the 8th end...so, one of my "pet peeves" when watching sports on television is when bad sports commentators (especially in football) talk about "momentum". One announcer will say, "Oh, Team X has all the momentum now!"...and then Team X will immediately throw an interception or something. But what about all that "momentum" they had? If Matt Millen were providing color commentary for Friday's curling game, surely he would say that Team Witcraft had "all the momentum" heading into the 8th end. Yes, some sports teams do tend to tense up when the other team mounts a comeback, but that's not "momentum". In our case, we might have tensed up a little, because at one point in the 8th end, the other team was sitting FIVE. But our Vice Cliff made the shot that saved the game, putting a rock inside the four-foot that couldn't be touched, and ended up being the winning rock.

I'm glad I didn't have to make a shot myself there, but...on the other hand, I think my draw weight was as good in this game as it's ever been. This was the first game I can remember as Skip where I had more confidence in the final-shot draw than the final-shot take-out. Confidence in your draw weight is absolutely critical when it comes to being a good Skip. Not just in your own shots, but in your teammates' shots. If I notice during a game that one of my teammates is consistently heavy with his/her shots, then I try to give him/her a take-out instead of a draw to give him/her a better chance of success, even if the draw is more strategically sound at the time. Not this week: we were all over the draws on Friday night. As a Skip, that's really nice to have. Take-outs are fun, but draws are ultimately how you win.

But the real test will be if we can carry that into next week's game against the top team in the league. See how I avoided saying "momentum" there?

Friday, November 04, 2011

Sports Saturday: 11/5/11

This just in: when you have your first child, your priorities and your lifestyle change. No longer do I have as much time to sit on the couch and watch sports, nor do I really want to as much, either. This means these "Sports Saturday" posts I insist on writing are only going to get more and more ignorant with time. Hooray!

NFL - But the NFL is perhaps the only sport that has not been affected. Many Sundays, I'm sitting at home anyway. And, besides, I gotta get my money's worth out of NFL Sunday Ticket. This Sunday might be an exception, though, because Jacksonville is on bye. I think I'll use this opportunity to go on a Sunday afternoon bike ride.

Speaking of the Jaguars...I think last time, I said something to the effect of, "Hey, there's still a chance they could win the AFC South!" Well...I think they pretty much had to beat Houston last Sunday for that to remain viable. So, not gonna happen. Hope Jack Del Rio enjoys his last eight games as the Jaguars' head coach.

Not only are the Jaguars on bye, but so are the Panthers, Lions, and Christian Ponder's Vikings, all of which are teams I would otherwise be interested in watching. So I think this is a good week to take a break from the NFL. Except for the game that gives me the strongest rooting interest: NY Jets at Buffalo - Sun 1:00p, WRAL 5. (A close second: New Orleans at Tampa Bay.)

College football - This is the second of three consecutive Saturdays in which I'll be away from home most or all of the day. (Which is why I'm posting this on Friday.) So, I haven't been watching a whole lot of college football. Let me just touch on a couple of things, though...

Florida State (defeated Boston College 38-7 on Thursday): I know the competition has been pretty weak the last four weeks, but I can't help wonder what "might have been" had E.J. Manuel and others been 100% healthy for the Clemson and Wake Forest games. I think that will be the story of the season, especially if they close the season out by beating Miami (FL) and Florida (which they better!).

Penn State (bye week): This team is really tough to watch, but they get results! So far. The last three games are their toughest in-conference, so even though they have a whopping 2½-game lead in whatever division of the Big Ten they're in...we'll see. But at least there's reason for excitement.

LSU at Alabama - Sat 8:00p, CBS: I really hope these two teams aren't given a rematch in the BCS Championship game, because that would be stupid. ... Actually, you know what? I don't care what the BCS does anymore. Not like I'm going to stay up and watch the BCS Championship anyway. This game, however, I might.

MLB - Speaking of "staying up late and watching sports"...I'm a week late on this, but daughter or no daughter, dramatic finish or no dramatic finish, I'm having a hard time coming up with a scenario in which I would have stayed awake all the way until the end of World Series Game 6. I don't know how you people do it.

NHL - Hockey has, perhaps, taken the biggest hit post-Marla in terms of the amount of time I spend watching it. Until the playoffs start, I imagine that Carolina Hurricanes games will make up 90% of my total hockey watching. (I think it's been around 50% in past seasons.) So, the Hurricanes are going to be pretty much all I talk about in the NHL from now until April.

Nothing really intelligent to say on the Hurricanes front this week. But I do want to point out one thing: I know it's early, but the Hurricanes are currently 8th in the Eastern Conference. Here we go again! Washington at Carolina - Fri 7:00p, Fox Sports Carolinas

Oh, right, that reminds me. That whole DirecTV/FOX carriage dispute? Resolved with no interruption in service. As most cable/satellite carriage disputes are.

Auto racing - Three races left in the NASCAR season, and it looks like Jimmie Johnson won't win the championship this year. Instead, we have Carl Edwards 1st and Tony Stewart 2nd. Given the point system's harsh penalty for one bad finish (as Matt Kenseth experienced last Sunday), how aggressive will these guys be on Sunday? If both of them play it conservative in order to avoid the "bad finish", then NASCAR really needs to think about adjusting the point system. But they won't, of course. NASCAR Sprint Cup at Texas - Sun 3:00p, ESPN

Formula One: I only watched the first half of last weekend's Indian Grand Prix (I'm assuming Sebastian Vettel won?), but holy crap, the air quality looked awful. Amber was there (Delhi-ish) a couple of years ago and didn't remember it being that bad. As an EPA contractor, perhaps I should be happy that our air quality is something we likely will not be outsourcing to India.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

McRib

This country is funny sometimes. Take, for instance, the McRib. Every once in a while, McDonald's will bring their rib-shaped (but not made of actual rib meat), barbecue sauce-laden pork sandwich out of retirement for a few weeks. And in the process, people go nuts! "OMG! MCRIB IS BACK!!!" Perhaps you are aware of the impressive cult following that the McRib pork sandwich has.

I've never had a McRib before, so I made it a mission as part of last weekend's road trip: don't return home without having my first ever McRib.


My verdict: it was okay. Not bad, but not better than you would get from a local barbecue restaurant. And perhaps that gets to the root of why the McRib is only available on a "limited time" basis.

People don't go to fast food restaurants to eat pork. They come to eat, for the most part, beef and chicken. Beef and chicken are easy to mass-produce in a way that the general public will approve, because not too much customization goes into it. Pork, on the other hand...well, for one thing, pork is not as popular a meat as beef and chicken. But on top of that, pork is cooked differently everywhere you go. Different sauces, different pig parts, different cooking methods, you name it. And everyone is very particular about that. I don't think it's possible to mass-produce a pork sandwich that will be well accepted all across the country. That is, unless you turn it into a novelty item by only selling it for a few weeks at a time, and market it very well in the process, as McDonald's has done.

As fast food goes, a McRib really isn't that unhealthy. But the reputation among food elitists is that the McRib is basically processed garbage. But they say the same thing about hot dogs, I'm sure, and I like hot dogs, so...meh.

But the fact remains, the McRib is just your average pork sandwich with barbecue sauce, and local barbecue restaurants everywhere (Eastern North Carolina excluded) do pork better. Good pork is all about the personal touch. I don't think the McRib frenzy has anything to do with the quality of the sandwich itself. I think it's just a plea for mainstream fast food to embrace "The Other White Meat" more than they do. But is that really what we want? Wouldn't we rather leave premier pork preparation up to the local joints? I know I would.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

The Tail of the Dragon

I think I first saw a reference to a stretch of mountainous road called "The Tail of the Dragon" (or "The Dragon" for short) on a t-shirt. I then investigated, and decided that as a "road enthusiast", that I had to go there at some point.


View Larger Map

The official claim is that the road has 318 curves in 11 miles. I thought that was crazy, but after having driven it twice last Sunday (once in each direction), I am now a firm believer in that number. It's hard to objectively judge how curvy this road is compared to others that I've driven, but it's up there, for sure.

This road has quite a reputation, and is a major attraction for fast cars and motorcycles alike. If you want to test the limits of your car (from a braking and cornering standpoint as opposed to pure speed), this is where you do it. Because of that, there is quite an interesting culture surrounding this road.


Wait, is that race fuel on sale, for $7.99 a gallon? Well, there is a bag over the pump, so not really...but they must have sold it at some point. Or maybe the pump has never been operational, and they just put the "race fuel" pump here purely for looks.


It's impossible to translate to you through one or two pictures how insane this road is. It just keeps going, hairpin turn after hairpin turn for almost a half hour with no break! I was exhausted afterwards. Sadly, I did not time myself (having an infant in the back seat can be a bit of a distraction at times), but I probably averaged 25 mph over the course of the "Dragon". I could have gone faster if I really "went for it", but I maintained what I thought was a "responsible but not lazy" speed.

The speed limit is only 30 mph; that sounds slow, but rarely did "responsible but not lazy" take me over 35. As for everyone else...yeah, most of the others were pushing the limits of their respective vehicles. Suffice to say, most of the other cars and motorcycles drove at a faster pace than I did. There are no passing zones on the "Dragon", but there are a LOT of pullouts, and it is generally understood that when there is someone on your butt, that you use the next available pullout. Fortunately, the vast majority of "Dragon" drivers adhered to this unwritten policy. A couple of people pulled out for me, but I generally had to pull out myself once every few minutes. (Is there an inadvertent sexual metaphor in there somewhere?)

Here's something I thought was neat, and helpful! There is surprisingly little official signage along the road warning drivers of dangerous curves and whatnot, and visibility is low at times due to all of the trees and hills. So to help us out, people have written messages on the road (e.g. "SLO") that warn drivers about that sort of thing, so that they don't, you know, kill themselves. Being in the mountains, you can't always see around the next curve, so you don't always know in advance whether that next right-hander is a gentle 25-mph turn, or a tight 10-mph hairpin. People have died on this road. (That's kind of a fun map, by the way. It looks like the average is two or three deaths per year.) There are also arrows on the road pointing to each of the pullouts, which is extremely helpful, because otherwise they would often come up too fast to react. Among the most interesting road-painted messages was an arrow pointing to something called the "BOOB ZONE", whatever that is. (I'm afraid to Google that one myself.)

You know how theme parks will take your picture on a roller coaster and then try to sell them to you after the ride? Well, given that this road is sort of a roller coaster, I suppose it's only appropriate that there are people taking your picture here, too! There wasn't just one photographer, either; there were THREE. They photograph your car going down the "Dragon", and then you can view and/or buy them from their website at your earliest convenience. For example, here's us! We certainly do not plan on buying any of them, but these photographers must be reasonably successful, or else there wouldn't be THREE of them.

As for the scenery...this road is not as scenic as the Cherohala Skyway. It is mostly forested, which during Fall Foliage season, is great! But we did get one nice view out of it:


I like curvy roads and all, but the "Dragon" was actually a little much. By the time we were done, I couldn't wait to get back on the freeway. This isn't the first curvy road that's done that to me, but it doesn't happen often. But we had to do it. And, heck, we may do it again sometime.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Cherohala Skyway Trip Recap

Road trip recap time! Let's tackle last weekend's drive to the mountains point-by-point:

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most-visited national park in the country, by far. More than TWICE as many visitors come here as come to the 2nd-most-visited park, Grand Canyon (source). But how crowded would it be on a cold October day? Probably not "summer crowded", but still crowded. We are not the only ones who like Fall foliage. It was manageable, but it was chaos at this scene along the main through road, which everyone wanted to get a picture of (including us).


I'd say that peak foliage was at about 2,000 feet. Leaves were brown between 2,000 and 4,000 feet, and completely gone above 4,000 feet.


Then, above 6,000 feet, you get snow! Here was the scene up on Clingmans Dome:


I've been to Clingmans Dome three or four times. Every time, there has been no visibility whatsoever at the top. I guess they call them the Smokies for a reason, eh?


Clingmans Dome is the highest point in Tennessee, but only this week did I discover via Google Maps/Earth that the top of the mountain, and the observation deck, are actually on the North Carolina side of the border:


View Larger Map

Not only is the top of the mountain in North Carolina, but nearly the entire walkway that takes you there is in North Carolina, too. So is the actual "highest point in Tennessee" along the brief section of walkway that veers across the state line? If not, then I suppose I've never technically clinched the Tennessee highpoint. How close do you have to be to "clinch" a highpoint, anyway? How does it work when a state's highpoint is on the slope of a mountain that peaks in another state? (Mount Frissell, which peaks in Massachusetts but whose southern slope comprises Connecticut's highpoint, is a better example.) Well, regardless, I'm counting the Tennessee highpoint - not only for me, but for Marla, too. (We took Marla as far as the base of the observation tower, but we did not take her up the tower itself.)

My take on Great Smoky Mountains National Park is that, sure, it's beautiful. But there are a lot of beautiful areas around here which are nowhere near as crowded as Great Smoky Mountains. Go here, and then go check out some of the other beautiful parts of the region that aren't packed with tourists. For example:

Cherohala Skyway

Sunday morning is my favorite time to drive. It's the weekend, and there is never any traffic because everyone is either at church or sleeping. (Same goes for riding my bike, too.)




The Tennessee side (lower elevation) was at peak foliage, but the North Carolina side (higher elevation) was well past peak. Can't get everything all at once! The transition is kind of neat, though. It was even more dramatic in Great Smoky Mountains, when we went from peak foliage to snow within in a matter of minutes.

Not only is there the drive itself, but there are also several signed and marked trails along the Skyway, although we did not do any of them due to time and baby constraints. (We did do a short hike in Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, just to the east; more on that later.) And in stark contrast to the nearby National Park, there is NOBODY here! The Skyway gets my absolute highest recommendation. I would love to come back in early to mid-October.

The other scenic road we took, the "Tail of the Dragon" (US-129 between North Carolina and Tennessee), will get its own blog post. It was that crazy.

Tellico Plains, Tennessee

Tellico Plains is at the western end of the Cherohala Skyway, and thus made for a logical overnight stay. Given that this was Marla's first overnight road trip, we opted for a bigger lodge-type room, as opposed to the standard Comfort Inn types of rooms we normally stay in.

If the employees of our lodge, Hardee's, Subway, and Dollar General are any indication, the folks who live in Tellico Plains are very friendly, and their accents are just adorable. But it also looks like kind of a poor town, based on our inadvertent drive through the residential area. Another reason to drive and hike the Skyway instead of Great Smoky Mountains: Tellico Plains needs your money a heck of a lot more than Cherokee and Gatlinburg do.

(Side comment: the only time I ever go to Dollar General is when I'm on vacation, usually when I'm in a small town like Tellico Plains and there is nowhere else to go. Cave City, KY and Valentine, NE come to mind. Also: does Dollar General ever have more than one employee in the store at any given time?)

Road tripping and hiking with Marla

The main purpose of the trip was to get a road trip with Marla under our belt before we drove to Toledo for Thanksgiving. Any fun we had along the way was purely a bonus.

So, yeah, things are more complicated when you have a three-month old. Hiking is doable, but it's a hassle to get the baby carrier set up (and to get Marla dressed for the weather), so we only did one hike each day. The Clingmans Dome walk went well, but the Joyce Kilmer Forest hike was cut short of what we initially planned, for a couple of reasons: 1) Marla got fussy after a while, and 2) the trail wasn't exactly flat. (But the website I went to said "easy"!) Amber and I are veterans of moderately strenuous hikes, so it's one thing if it's just us. If one of us slips a little bit, no big deal. But if you're carrying a baby, you ABSOLUTELY DO NOT WANT TO FALL, EVEN A LITTLE. The takeaway from this is that, yes, you can hike with an infant, but choose your hikes wisely.


Babies like to sleep in the car. But what if you're in the car all day? Surely, the baby isn't going to sleep the whole time, right? Nope. But that's why one of us sits in the back seat, to keep her entertained. Marla couldn't sleep on those crazy mountain roads, either. So by the time we were done with the "Dragon", she was a wee bit tired and cranky. She slept great once we got back on the freeways, though.

In the process, we've also worked out a good system of bottle feeding on the road. This will come in handy during our holiday drives.


Marla was most cranky after 6 PM, which means that as long as there are kids with us, we're implementing the following general rule. We will keep until our kids are at least teenagers: no more than 10 hours of driving per day. That's about the length of the drive to Toledo, so that'll be the benchmark from now on. Any more than that, and the kids - regardless of their age - will start to get a bit cranky.

And, yeah, the parents might get cranky, too. These sorts of ventures are supposed to be "vacation", so we don't want to wear ourselves out in the process. Amber and I can do 15 hour days when it's just us, but when there's a kid involved, 10 hours in one day is enough. Carrying a baby around with you on the road is a lot of work. Even 10 hours might be too much when our second child is three months old, and our first child is old enough to complain. But the theory is that by then, road tripping with children will be old hat.

Finally, for statistics from the trip, consult By the Numbers sometime before the weekend. Yay numbers!