Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Walmart Neighborhood Market

Lost among all the Kroger/Harris Teeter/Publix hubbub of the last couple of months is that Walmart is still the #1 grocery chain in the area, in terms of market share. Let's talk about them for a second.

I don't actually have a Walmart within 10 minutes of my house. (How many of you can say that?) But even if I did, I'd still avoid them, for groceries or otherwise. Sure, Walmart has low prices, but their Supercenters are huge, and almost always busy. It takes an hour just to find a parking spot and walk in the front door. (Slight exaggeration, but you get the point.) And, checkout takes forever. Shopping at Walmart is rarely a pleasant experience, especially for grocery shopping, and it's certainly not efficient. In fact, if a Walmart Supercenter was my only option for grocery shopping, I'd probably hate grocery shopping.

But, Walmart has an answer to those who feel Supercenters are too impractical for everyday grocery shopping: Walmart Neighborhood Market. You won't find everyday goods here, like at a "regular" Walmart. Instead, it's just groceries, like at the grocery store down the street.

I thought I'd give it a try. The nearest Walmart Neighborhood Market to my house is a good 15-20 minutes away, so it would have to really blow me away to become my weekly grocery stop. I figured that was pretty unlikely, since after all, it still says "Walmart" on the front. But you never know until you try it, right? If I'm happy enough with it, maybe I can go once every few weeks.

So, I said that Walmart Supercenters are always busy, and that's a turn-off. Walmart Neighborhood Market, on the other hand: not busy! The parking lot was no more full, and the store no more busy than, say, a Food Lion. (Which is to say, less crowded than my neighborhood Kroger.) We're off to a good start.

My next item of concern: would the Neighborhood Market be a small-ish grocery store with not much in the way of selection? Nope. It's a full-size grocery store, and is able to compete with Kroger on that front. No problem there, either. Sure, there are some items I can find at Kroger that I couldn't find at the Neighborhood Market, but it works both ways. Those "Whips" strawberry yogurts that Kroger doesn't carry anymore? Walmart Neighborhood Market has 'em! I stocked up.

Walmart obviously specializes in low prices, and the Neighborhood Market has those, too...some of the time. While things like Cheez-Its and cereal were often cheaper, Milk was more expensive than I usually pay. And one major beef (pun intended) a lot of people have with the Walmart grocery section is the quality of their meat and produce. (Same with SuperTarget.) But, I chose this particular week to try out Walmart Neighborhood Market because we didn't need to buy any meat or produce this week. So, there you go.

I'd say everything has been pretty good so far, prior to checkout...

How does Walmart offer such low prices? By hiring only as many employees as are absolutely necessary, particularly in terms of cashiers (maybe two?) and baggers (LOL!). And, the cashiers they do have aren't particularly efficient. So, at your typical Walmart, checkout takes a while. Sometimes, a long while.

How is it at Walmart Neighborhood Market? Well, the checkout lines are shorter, because a Neighborhood Market isn't as busy as a Supercenter. However...the cashiers are still painfully slow, and of course, there are still no baggers. Instead, they really, really, really want you to go through self-checkout. I've always loathed self-checkout, but I thought I'd give self-checkout another go this time, since that's likely going to be the best way to get out of there efficiently on a week-to-week basis. And, it's been a while since I've used it - maybe self-checkout technology has advanced over the last couple of years, and isn't such a pain anymore?

Nope. My self-checkout took 10 minutes, during which time the register twice locked up and required assistance. And, of course, said assistance is anything but prompt. That's what I get for bringing my own bags, I guess. Seriously.

I'm sure I would get better at self-checkout the more I did it, but I really don't feel like concluding my grocery store trips by banging my head against the wall every single week at self-checkout. No thanks.

So, in summary: in terms of everyday grocery shopping, everything about Walmart Neighborhood Market really is better than Walmart Supercenter. But checkout is still slow, so next week, it's back to Kroger.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Playground Reviews: Kelly Road Park; Forest Hills Park

Both of these parks were recommended to us by friends of ours. (By the way...I'm only saying that because I'm giving both playgrounds good-to-decent scores. If I was going to give one of them a bad score, then no need for me to shame them, anonymously or not. "Our friend said we would like this playground here, but it sucked! So, thanks for nothing." I wouldn't do that, because I actually appreciate all of your recommendations.)

Kelly Road Park - Kelly Road (duh), Apex, NC
Visited: August 14, 2013 | Google Street View

Summary: This playground - not be labeled on Google Maps, by the way - is one of our favorites. This wasn't our first visit, and it won't be our last. But it has one tragic flaw that will ultimately keep it from attaining the #1 ranking...

Things for Marla to do: 11/14. For a climber like Marla, this playground is perfect. It doesn't just have one or two small-ish playground sets with a couple of stairs, slides, and whatnot. This place is a maze, and an extensive one at that. It's awesome.

In terms of things to climb, places to explore, and such, I haven't seen a more expansive playground. It's fantastic. I recommend bringing both parents to the park, though, because with just one parent, you might lose track of your child.

And, of course, there are swings. Gotta have swings, because that's where we spend most of our playground time these days.

Uniqueness: 9/10. Like I said, I haven't seen another playground like it, yet. Also: much of the equipment is made out of wood, not plastic, which is pretty unusual these days. ... Well, it could actually be plastic that's made to look and feel like wood. I didn't analyze the materials that closely. Either way, it's different, because pretty much EVERY playground is made out of plastic these days. The wood - fake or not - also lended itself well to the overall "castle" theme of the place.

Of course, the slides themselves are plastic, because a wooden slide wouldn't be very comfortable. I'm talking about the general construction and frame. That's wood, or at least fake wood.

Upkeep: 3/10. Here we go. Now...the problem with wood over plastic, and the reason why most playgrounds are plastic these days, is that it's harder to maintain, and looks more "run down" up close. I don't know if this playground is actually any older than any of the plastic ones, but it looks older.

But, I'm actually not holding that against them here. The reason I'm giving such a low "upkeep" score is the trash. I've seen more trash here than I have at any other playground I've reviewed to date. And, that was true both times we've been here, so we didn't just pick a bad day, either. It's too bad.

Crowd: 6/10. Really not sure what to do here. Both times we've been here, it was early morning - like, 8 or 9 AM - and the playground was pretty empty both times. Obviously, a playground is going to be less crowded in the morning, especially on a Wednesday morning*. But is that indicative of the typical crowd this park gets? Hard to know for sure. By the time we left, it was starting to fill up, although still well short of capacity. So, I think 6/10 is about right. That's about average.

(* - If you're wondering why we were visiting a playground on a Wednesday morning, she was sent home sick from day care on that Tuesday, and wasn't allowed back to day care until Thursday due to standard protocol (have to wait 24 hours), even though she felt fine on Wednesday itself.)

Marla enjoyment: 5/5. Marla's first 5 out of 5! In case you're wondering what it takes to attain a Marla score of 5, basically, we have to stay there for over an hour (check), she has to be entertained throughout (check), not want to leave when it's time to leave (check), and generally just have lots and lots of fun throughout our visit (check). Watching your kids have fun is the best.

TOTAL: 34/49, ranked 2nd out of 10. Just one point behind Pullen Park. So close! And all they really have to do to become #1 is pick up some of the trash.


Forest Hills Park - University Drive, Durham, NC
Visited: August 24, 2013 | Google Street View

Summary: Believe it or not, this is actually the first City of Durham managed playground that I've reviewed. Do Durham's playgrounds match up against those of Raleigh, Cary, and Apex? (Generally speaking, no...but not by too wide of a margin.)

Things for Marla to do: 7/14. One playground set and a couple of sets of swings normally wouldn't score all that high by themselves...

...but this playground also has a water spray area. It actually took Marla a surprisingly long time to warm up to the water area, which is why I don't have a picture of her playing in it. We thought the water play would be a slam dunk. Oh well. Maybe we've over-exposed her to it. (It's become a weekly thing at day care.)

I also thought the water area could have been better designed. It's not self-contained; some of the water makes it beyond the boundaries of the designated "water play area" and into the grass. Which, I guess isn't a bad thing if you like your kids playing in the mud... (Yeah, I know, kids are going to get dirty. But still. They could have designed it better.)

Uniqueness: 5/10. The water spray area gets most of the credit in this category. Everything else on the playground is pretty standard, although not overly so. In other words, there are a couple of little things on the playground that you don't see everywhere, such as little musical instruments.

Upkeep: 7/10. The playground is in pretty good shape. This is not an "inner city" park whose better days are behind it. The city is definitely working to keep this playground up to shape, and somewhat trash free. (Although I've noticed that pretty much every playground has SOME trash.) Also, they get credit for the rubber surface upon which the playground sits, which we prefer over mulch. (Most places use mulch, but some have rubber, and that's nice.)

I should mention that the other features of the park, such as the picnic area and the bathrooms, are not in as good a condition as the playground. But my reviews only concern the playground.

Crowd: 4/10. When we got there, the crowd was more like a 3; then, by the time we left, it had thinned out to a 5. So, split the difference? In addition to the people on the playground, there was also a large group of people having a cookout in the picnic area. I don't factor picnickers into the crowd rating if they're not on the playground, but it did force us into the overflow parking, which might count for something.

Marla enjoyment: 3/5. We stayed for over an hour, and Marla didn't want to leave when we were done. Normally that would result in a 4 or 5, except for two things: 1) Due to the large crowd early on, it took Marla a pretty long time to start, you know, having fun. We almost bailed 15 minutes in. 2) Marla actually spent most of her time doing things completely unrelated to the playground, such as eating an apple, and following a puppy around.

TOTAL: 26/49, ranked 5th out of 10. Decent, but probably not high enough to warrant a return visit, at least in the short term. scores aren't necessarily correlated with the likelihood of a return visit. For example, Amber has taken Marla back to the RDU Observation Park, even though that park only scored a 25. That park is kind of different, though. And, airplanes have been a recent obsession of Marla's. Any time we're outside and we hear an airplane, Marla points up and says, "airplane!" (Or, more accurately, "ee-pee".) Seriously, she can detect them better than we can. It's uncanny.

Finally, since I have 10 playground reviews under my belt now, I've decided to post my Google Spreadsheet with all of my rankings in it. A link is now over there on the right under "The Good Stuff", or you can click here.

Friday, August 23, 2013

I-95 Corridor Adventures

I am glad that neither my parents, nor Amber's parents, live along the I-95 corridor between Washington and Boston. Could this be the least fun area to road trip to? Perhaps, but occasionally you get some interesting experiences or stories out of it. Especially if you go to extreme measures to try to avoid all of the traffic.

Normally when it's just me and the family, we avoid the I-95 corridor completely when going northeast. But since I had the rest of my curling team with me, I owed it to them to at least try to get to Philadelphia and back as quickly as possible, within reason. Here's how it went...

View Larger Map

Traffic jam #1: Downtown Richmond on I-95, caused by some bridge construction. This only cost us 2 minutes, so no big deal. Let's call this traffic jam the "appetizer".

Traffic jam #2: North (I think) of Fredericksburg, VA, on I-95, caused by a lane closure due to construction. This one cost us around 20 minutes; in hindsight, we should have bailed and taken US-1 for a few miles instead. (Maybe. Sometimes the side roads are even slower, as we'll see later.)

Side trip: Carroll County, MD. So, yeah, this side trip by way of Frederick (point B) had nothing to do with traffic. I just wanted to go take a route through Carroll County, which was the only county in Maryland I had yet to visit. (By the way, while we were in Philadelphia, I snuck out one morning and drove to Cumberland County, NJ. So I've visited every county in New Jersey now, too.)

Aside from some brief slowdowns on I-270, this route was mostly clear sailing, until...

Traffic jam #3: The ramps from I-70 East onto I-695 (both directions) in Baltimore. However, we got around that by staying on I-70 for another couple of miles, turning around at the end of I-70, and then taking the ramp onto I-695 South from the other direction, which was completely free and clear. Ha! (I wasn't the only person pulling that maneuver, by the way.)

Here's what the end of I-70 looks like (point C on the map). It just kind of, well, stops, and then spits you back out in the other direction.

View Larger Map

Their original plan was to build I-70 into downtown Baltimore, and I assume connect with I-95. But there's this giant park in the way, you see...

Google Maps traffic data (a frequent resource throughout this ordeal) suggested that we take I-895 through Baltimore. That worked out okay, at first...

Traffic jam #4: The I-95/895 merge east of Baltimore. That's another 10-15 minutes or so. Should have gone I-695. (By the way, it's about 4 PM here, on a Thursday. Fun time to be driving through a big city!)

Side trip: Avoiding the Delaware toll booth (point D on the map). Those people in Delaware are a bunch of jerks, charging everyone $4 to drive on their dinky section of I-95. Except for those of us who know how to easily drive around the toll booth, that is: take the last exit in Maryland, take local roads for a couple of miles, and rejoin at the first exit in Delaware. I thought this would be relatively quick, but our little money-saving detour actually added 10 minutes to our drive time. Was it worth the savings? ... Not really. Next time, I'll just pay. Jerks. (Avoiding the Delaware toll booth used to be more of a thing a few years ago, before the toll booth was rebuilt to handle more capacity. Back then, the toll plaza would frequently cause long backups, such that driving around the toll plaza would actually save time and money. Not so much today.)

Traffic jam #5: The I-95/495 merge north of Wilmington. Now...we left Raleigh that morning at a time that allowed us to miss DC rushhour. But, I completely didn't consider that it would put us right in the middle of Philadelphia rushhour, which might be even worse than DC rushhour, given how little capacity its freeways have relative to other big cities. Whoops! Live and learn.

Google Maps suggested that any attempt to take I-95 to I-476 (our next road) through Chester would prove slow and painful. Well, how about US-13? That could be fun.

Side trip: US-13, Blueball Avenue, and other scenic local roads. Basically, taking US-13 from Delaware into Marcus Hook, PA, was a BAD DECISION. For one thing, it goes through a run down part of town - that doesn't bother me so much, but maybe it's not the best thing to do when you have trusting passengers with you. But we spent several minutes basically stopped on US-13, at which point I made a rather brash U-turn (apologies to the car I turned in front of) so that I could take a road called Blueball Avenue (point E on the map) into an even worse part of town than we were already in. So, that was fun. I think the moral of the story is that when it comes to Philadelphia at rushhour, you can't win. May as well stay on the freeways. Or, just don't come here.

Traffic jams #6 and #7: Not done yet! The ramp from I-95 North to I-476 north was backed up, costing us a few more minutes; then, I-276 north of Philadelphia had some backups, too. In the end, it took 9½ hours (including stops) for a drive that Google Maps says should only take 6½. (Well, 7, if you count the Carroll County detour.)

The southbound drive was much less eventful, although we did take some alternate routes there, too (point G to avoid backups on I-95 in Maryland, point H to avoid some supposed backups on I-95 in Virginia). The return trip took us less than 8 hours, as opposed to 9½. I considered that a huge success.

Sincere condolences to those of you who have to drive this way for Thanksgiving or Christmas.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Philadelphia Food

Philadelphia is known for several various food "staples", many of which were prominently featured on the bonspiel menu throughout the weekend. I like food, especially regionally popular food, so let's discuss!

Let's start with the most famous one:

Cheesesteaks: Several years ago, I was in Philadelphia, and we thought we'd go sample one of Philadelphia's iconic cheesesteak joints, Pat's or Geno's. They're pretty much right across the street from each other, so I don't remember which line we stood in (Geno's?). But regardless, the lines were so long, we decided that there's no way Geno's or Pat's could live up to the wait. So, I had never had an authentic cheesesteak before, at least prior to last weekend.

This is not Pat's or Geno's, but I don't think it really matters, given that this was my first ever cheesesteak. My thoughts: good, and VERY filling. I actually thought there'd be more cheese; instead, there was only a "hint" of cheese, and it was white cheese rather than orange. Regardless of what color the cheese is, I would have preferred more cheese.

As far as toppings go, these cheesesteaks came with nothing on them (other than the cheese, although you can get them without cheese). The way I like 'em! Most people put onions or tomatoes or peppers or something on them, but not me. Several people put ketchup on them, which really surprised me. I had just assumed that putting ketchup on a Philadelphia cheesesteak would be heresy, especially if said ketchup came from that city on the other side of the state. But I guess not?

So, anyway, cheesesteaks are good, and it's something different, although you could probably get a "footlong steak sub with cheese" at Subway if you wanted to. Because let's be honest, that's all this is, although I'm sure the cheesesteak I had was far better than the Subway equivalent. I still don't feel like I need to try Pat's or Geno's, though.

Hoagies: Don't call them subs! Philadelphians (?) call them hoagies. And based on the one "hoagie" I had last weekend (assuming that a cheesesteak does not count as a "hoagie", although it very well could be), they actually seem a little different. As in, when you're eating it, you get the sense that it's more than just meat on a bun. Whatever extra stuff they put on it, it worked. I'm a fan.

Soft pretzels: And now, my favorite Philadelphia food item. In most of the country, it seems the only place you can get a soft pretzel is "SuperPretzel"-branded pretzels at sporting events. But in Philadelphia, you can get soft pretzels almost as easily as you can get donuts, and for MUCH cheaper than at sporting events. As in, 12 times cheaper. Yes!

This is Jim's, located just down the street from the curling rink. We got a dozen soft pretzels for $4. That sounds like a great deal, and it is, when you consider that ONE soft pretzel typically costs $4 at a baseball game. However, by the next day, the pretzels are pretty soggy, and by the second day (e.g. by the time we got back home), they're pretty much unedible. So, better eat them fast! And that we did, mostly. The soft pretzels are what I'll miss about Philadelphia the most.

Tastykakes (TM): In Philadelphia, the word "Twinkie" is a bad word. (At least, I would assume as much.) Philadelphia is TASTYKAKE (TM) country.

They set up a dedicated Tastykake (TM) table at the curling rink (right next to the soft pretzel tray), and I had a few. Most other people had more than a few. My take: obviously, they're delicious, but if I'm going to be consuming that many calories in such a short period of time, I prefer Little Debbies. Where are Little Debbies made? And are there any curling tournaments there? (Answers: they're headquartered near Chattanooga, and, no.)

That said, Philadelphians (?) are very proud of their Tastykakes (TM). I don't know how popular they are outside of southeast Pennsylvania, but I have seen them in our neighborhood Kroger before. I wouldn't guess that they have much in the way of market share outside of Philadelphia, but for all I know, maybe they do?

Pizzas: Finally, there seemed to be a local pizza joint on every other street corner around here. We didn't have any pizza while we were up there, so I can't comment on it. You can get a pizza pretty much anywhere, of course; is there anything "special" about Philadelphia pizza, ala New York and Chicago?

Monday, August 19, 2013

2013 GNCC Arena Club Championships: Recap

I think my short and succinct preview worked out pretty well. Let's see if we can do the same with the recap, shall we? After all, I'm assuming you've got better things to do than spend more than five minutes reading this blog post.

Oh, who am I kidding...I'm sure this recap will end up being just as long as they usually are. (Thanks for reading!)

The host club

The 2013 GNCC Arena Club Championships were hosted by Bucks County Curling Club, in Warminster, PA. This was the first time they'd ever hosted a bonspiel, and we didn't hear a whole lot from them leading up to the event, so I've got to be honest: we didn't know what to expect.

Well, they did a terrific job. The ice was the best arena ice I've ever played on, everything was well organized and on time, the curling atmosphere was great (people were actually watching the games and cheering, which doesn't always happen at these things), and the food was excellent too. Regarding the food, I will say this about Bucks County's inexperience hosting a bonspiel: they had way more food than they needed. (The menu prominently featured Philadelphia culinary staples, which I'll talk more about another day.)

The club appears to have solid financial support, too, so you'll be hearing more about the Bucks County Curling Club in the years to come. I'm a fan of any curling club named after a county.

The curling

I tried to downplay this somewhat in my preview, but I was pretty confident going into the weekend. (Was it obvious?) At the very least, I thought we could at least play in the final draw. (Not necessarily the first event final; just any of the event finals.) Maybe I was a little too confident, because the first game brought us back down to earth:

Career game #224: GNCCACC Game 1 v. Woodstock (VT) - August 16, 2013

End.............. 12345678 |TTL
Triangle (Jaun).. 20020200 | 06
Woodstock........ 02301021 | 09

It seems like this game happened forever ago. Did we really give up a steal of three? I don't remember that happening. (To our credit, that was the only 3-ender we gave up all weekend.) All I really remember from this game is the last shot, in which our only shot was a double take-out for the tie, which we actually came close to making. Kind of. By our standards, it was close.

So, any dreams we had of actually winning the whole thing were quickly dashed. But we can still win the second event trophy, a.k.a. the bulldog!

Speaking of losing the first game of the bonspiel, here's a fun stat. In 11 away bonspiels, my career record in the first game of the bonspiel is 2-9. After the first game, my record is 16-15.

Career game #225: GNCCACC Game 2 v. Green Mountain (VT) - August 16, 2013

End.............. 12345678 |TTL
Triangle (Jaun).. 02110211 | 08
Green Mtn........ 10002000 | 03

A solid win, top to bottom. Every time we had hammer (twice), we scored two. When the other team had hammer (six times), we stole a point four times. All weekend, our execution and gameplan was as good as any team I've been on in a bonspiel in which Debbie McCormick wasn't on my team. This is why I've given up on the idea of playing Skip at a bonspiel, at least for now. There are many curlers in our club who a) curl more often than I do, and b) know what they're doing better than I do. (Speaking of which, here's another fun stat: my career record at away bonspiels is 2-9 when I'm the Skip, and 14-10 when I'm the Vice. So, which position do you think suits me better?)

That win put us one win away from accomplishing my competitive goal for the weekend, of playing in my first ever final draw at an away bonspiel. (In Detroit last February, we won the D event, but the D event final wasn't in the final draw, so we weren't in the bagpipe ceremony or anything. I want to be in the bagpipe ceremony!)

Career game #226: GNCCACC Game 3 v. Green Mountain (VT) - August 17, 2013

End.............. 12345678 |TTL
Green Mtn........ 01100210 | 05
Triangle (Jaun).. 10021002 | 06

Our opponent here was a solid team, and we needed everything we had. Again, I only really remember the last end here. We were already sitting one, I threw a pretty awesome draw behind over with my last rock to sit two, Skip Chris J. threw an equally awesome guard to hold our position with his first rock, and he didn't even really need to throw his last rock, because we were already sitting two.

Or were we? The other team called for a measurement at the very because it was close. But the rings were painted so accurately - like I said, the best ice conditions I've ever seen in an arena - that I was pretty sure our second rock was closer than their first rock, giving us two points and the win. But, technically, I guess the game did come down to a measurement at the very end. That might be a first for me, too.

I'm all about "fun stats" today, so here are two more: our first three games were all against Vermont-based teams (which made up 5 of the 18 entrants). Also, the opening coin flip game up heads in all four games, and every time, heads was called. (We called it twice, so we split the coin tosses.)

And that brings up the second event final, the bulldog championship game, against the other Triangle Curling Club team at the event, skipped by Murray J. (In the scoreline below, I'll just refer to the other team as "Them".)

Career game #227: GNCCACC Game 4 v. Triangle - August 17, 2013

End.............. 12345678 |TTL
Triangle (them).. 00010210 | 04
Triangle (us).... 10101002 | 05

Perhaps the shot of the weekend came in the very first end: a draw for one, against four opponent rocks. Leave the draw short and give up a steal of four, and that's pretty much the game, before we even got started: the ice was good enough to allow for lots of take-outs, and so it would have been very difficult to come back from four points down, especially against Murray's team.

After that, we stayed in control, and didn't really start to slip until the 6th and 7th ends, when we gave up the lead. But once again, we scored two with last rock in the 8th end for the one point win, except in this case, it did come down to a final shot, clutch draw for two and the win. Victory!

Even more "fun stats"! Out of four games, three game down to the skips' rocks in the last end. Also, we were trailing after 7 ends in three of the four games, but ended up winning three of the four, and without any extra ends needed.

Building on that point, the last two games ended the exact same way: the other team scored two to tie the game in the 6th, we gave up a steal of one in the 7th, and then we scored two for the win in the 8th. Actually, if you're tied with hammer after 6, giving up a steal of one in the 7th isn't terrible. I think scoring one with hammer puts you in a slightly better position to win the game than giving up a steal of one and keeping hammer, percentage-wise, but it's probably pretty close. Of course, blanking the 7th end is preferable to either of those options.

The trophy

Chris J., me, Wyatt P., Bill Y. (Photo courtesy Triangle Curling Club.) The second event champions, and proud owners of the bulldog for one year. Woohoo! I know I don't really look it in the picture, but I'm excited. (Actually, by the time the awards ceremony came about, I had already moved on and was busy thinking about which route we should take home. True story. Even so, at least I look more excited than the guy clapping in the doorway.)

I think I'm the first and only person to have won the bulldog twice, but I don't actually know, because the team that won the bulldog last year didn't bother engraving their names on it. I think we're going to go ahead and do it for them, whoever they are, while we're at it. Maybe we'll make up names.

That will probably be my last solo bonspiel until at least next summer. As much fun as I had, I missed my family a lot. Besides, maybe it's best that I sit on this one for a while.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

2013 GNCC Arena Club Championship: Preview

I didn't have a lot of time to write a really long and detailed preview like this, so I'm just going to hit the high points here:

Every year, the GNCC (that's the Grand National Curling Club, a consortium of all curling clubs on the East Coast, including ours) hosts something called the "GNCC Arena Club Championship", contested among clubs who do not (yet) have their own dedicated curling ice, and instead curl on rented hockey ice.

I last participated in the GNCCACCs (that's an acronym I just made up, by the way; remember, I'm trying to keep this short) in 2011, when we (the Triangle Curling Club) hosted it. My team did well, winning the second event, and getting our names on a bulldog trophy.

We may not be an arena club much longer, so I made it a point to go back to the GNCCACCs this year. The 2013 GNCCACCs start this Friday, hosted by the Bucks County Curling Club in Warminster, PA (northern Philadelphia suburbs). For those who know our club, my team is Chris J., me, Bill Y., and Wyatt P.

And, I think we're good enough to go all the way! Well, probably not ALL the way, really. I believe Bucks County are the defending champions of the GNCCACC, and since they're hosting, one would assume the defending champion team will be back this year. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that they're probably quite a bit better at curling than we are. Nevertheless, I think this is best opportunity yet to accomplish my goal if curling in the last draw of an away bonspiel for the first time.

So, should be fun! Go us!

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Untitled Breaking Bad Blog Post

(This post contains no spoilers. Actually, it doesn't contain much of anything, really.)

For those of you who are tired of hearing everyone talk about Breaking Bad, my response is that this is how I feel whenever The Walking Dead is on. So there.

Most network television shows air something like 20 to 24 episodes per season, and they air steadily throughout the year, except in summer. So, the show is always somewhat fresh in your mind. And in terms of the timeline of the show, there is usually a long gap between seasons, so you don't really need to remember what happened last season in order to enjoy the next season.

Breaking Bad, however...well, they decided to drag it out. It's not unusual for a cable show to only have 13 episodes or less in a season, but "seasons" of only 8 episodes? That's stretching it. And watching last night's show - the first new episode to air in over 11 months - it's almost like they expected me to still have the last few episodes immediately fresh in my mind, as if they had just aired last week instead of last year.

I guess they can name their price, because it's a great show, and it comes down to how much the fans are willing to put up with. Doing it this way allowed the show to stay in the "conversation" for another year and create "buzz" that wouldn't have been there if they aired the last 16 episodes all in a row last year. So, I understand. In fact, based on the Nielsen rating that Sunday's show pulled, mission accomplished.

Well, anyway...despite all the perceived "buzz", I don't think enough of you actually watch Breaking Bad to justify me spending lots of time talking about it, like I used to do with 24. So, I won't be contributing to all that "buzz" too much. Besides, I've forgotten most of the details of past seasons by now anyway.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Smooth Yogurt

In an effort to eat something with our daily lunches that at least has the guise of being "healthy", Amber and I have been eating yogurt. But not really "normal" yogurt; instead, we've been eating "Yoplait Whips", because it has no chunks of fruit in it. If given the choice, both Amber and I will only eat yogurt that does NOT have chunks of fruit in it.

First yogurt that doesn't have chunks of fruit in it really "yogurt"? Maybe by definition, sure, but...I suppose that's debatable.

Second point: outside of the "Whips" brand, it is very difficult to find fruit-flavored yogurt that does not have chunks of actual fruit in it. "Orange Creme" flavor is the only one I've found. That's what I've been eating over the last couple of weeks, ever since our neighborhood Kroger pulled the strawberry-flavored "Whips" "yogurt" from the shelves. (The only Whips flavors they sell now are chocolate and key lime pie, For me, it has to be fruit flavored.) Does a strawberry-flavorted "Whips" "yogurt" actually contain any real fruit? Honestly, I don't know - I've never looked at the label.

So, anyway, Amber and I think there needs to be more yogurt varieties that are "homogeneous" in texture and don't have chunks of fruit in them. Yeah, I know, we're weird.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Playground Reviews: Parkwood Lake; North Wake Landfill

Parkwood Lake Playground - Sedwick Road, Durham, NC
Visited: Wednesday, July 31, 2013 | Google Street View

Summary: This is the "home" playground, within walking distance of our house. So, we go here a lot, although this was the first time we had been here since I started doing these playground reviews. How good of a playground is it compared to the others?

Things for Marla to do: 5/14*. A swing set, a slide, and a few other things for older children. So, for Marla, is basically comes down to the swing and the slide. They are quality swings, though...but not the absolute best.

(* - The scores I've been giving in the "things to do" category have been consistently low, so I changed the scale so that it's out of 14 instead of 15. Otherwise, all previous scores stay the same.)

Uniqueness: 4/10. See that elevated seesaw type thing over there on the left? I've never seen this anywhere else. The little rolly thing on the right is also unique. Everything else is pretty standard.

Upkeep: 5/10. The playground is maintained by the local homeowners' association, meaning that this is one of the things that our HOA fees pay for. (The playground is officially for Parkwood residents only, but I don't know how well that's enforced.) They do take time to maintain the landscaping and repair equipment when needed, but it's not immediate, and I think they could do a better job than they do. Then again, I'm going to hold them to a higher standard, since I'm more directly paying for this playground than I am for any other playground.

Crowd: 7/10. Sometimes we'll go here, and we'll have the playground to ourselves. Other times, there will be a couple other families (usually never more than that). But even then, it's still okay, because we're more likely to make small talk with other parents at this playground than we are at others, since we all live in the neighborhood. There are a lot of young children in our neighborhood, which is nice.

Marla enjoyment: 3/5. This is basically an average of all our past visits. She usually has a good time.

TOTAL: 24/49, ranked T-5th out of 8. For a neighborhood playground that you can walk to, it's more than adequate.


North Wake Landfill Park - Durant Road, Raleigh, NC
Visited: Saturday, August 3, 2013 | Google Satellite View

Summary: A playground at a (former) landfill? Sure!

I should get this out of the way before I get on with the ratings: this review isn't going to be particularly fair. To explain, let's start with the "Marla enjoyment" rating.

Marla enjoyment: 0/5. So, we got to the playground, and after standing there for a minute, the first thing Marla did was...try to climb in someone else's stroller. She was more interested in going on a stroller ride than playing in the playground. It's not necessarily fair to penalize the playground for that, but, those are the breaks. (Side note: The park connects to the ever-growing Raleigh greenway system, which is nice, but I don't factor that into my ratings.)

Crowd: 3/10. On the other hand...maybe it was just because the playground was crowded. Even though this playground is pretty far out of the way - there's not much signage, and you have to drive all the way around the landfill hill to get to the playground, such that it's not the easiest playground to get to - it's no secret. Outside of Pullen Park, this is the most crowded I've seen a playground since I started these reviews. I think a big crowd is generally a turn-off for Marla. (Which makes her a lot like Amber and me.)

Things for Marla to do: 6/14. The playground does have a couple of age-appropriate playground sets for Marla to play on, if she were interested. Honestly, I was expecting the playground area to be bigger, though. Given the crowd, maybe it needs to be bigger. Also, I'm not entirely sure if there were swings or not; I don't remember seeing any, but I can't tell if those are swings or not in the back right of the picture.

Uniqueness: 6/10. Well, the playground is right next to an old landfill, which is unique. And during the three minutes in which I actually had a chance to look at the playground, it didn't seem overly generic. So, 6 out of 10 sounds good.

Upkeep: 8/10. It looked pretty clean to me.

TOTAL: 23/49, ranked 7th out of 8. Like I said, this wasn't the most fair assessment of the playground, given how much time we spent (or didn't spend) there. But given how crowded it was, we're not likely to give it another chance, either.

Two more reviews, and I'll start publishing the master playground ratings spreadsheet. Which playground will we go to next?

Thursday, August 01, 2013

2013 Carolina Classic

The Triangle Curling Club's annual bonspiel, the Carolina Classic, is this weekend! It should be a fun weekend, even if Amber and I aren't curling in it. We figured, there's no way we would have been able to top last year's Classic with Debbie McCormick this year, and that it would be good for us to focus on volunteering at the Classic for once. (By the way, Debbie is curling in Kansas City's summer bonspiel this weekend. I'm glad we took that opportunity while we had the chance!)

So, I've been writing some blog posts for the club website over the past few weeks; here is my Carolina Classic preview that talks about who the favorites are and such. In the past, I may have put some of that commentary here, but the Triangle Curling Club website obviously has a much higher reach among people who like curling than my own dumb blog does. So while my general curling commentary will start moving more towards the club's website, I'll still put the personal stuff here, such as my scoreline from a recent pickup game:

Career game #223: Pickup - July 19, 2013

End........... 1234567 |TTL
Allen......... 1121010 | 06
Franklin...... 0000201 | 03

In a way, I'm looking forward to watching this weekend's Classic as a spectator and/or "reporter" of sorts, without having to worry about my own team's performance. Then again, once the games start, I'll probably wish I was out there on the ice. Oh well. I'll get a chance to go bonspieling in a couple of weeks.