2.28.2016

First Bike Ride of 2016

The weather was mild yesterday, so my biking buddy Sherry and I got out on our bikes for the first time this year. We biked the lake loop around Lake Monona and explored a couple establishments: the Lakeside Coffee Shoppe for coffee during the first part of the ride and Mr Brews Brewhouse for an end of ride beer. It was good to flex the biking muscles, though it felt chillier out than the thermometer suggested. Spring will be here soon...

2.25.2016

Walk More Places People

When people tell me, "I want to exercise but I don't have the time," what I hear is, "I don't really want to exercise." Because what they are really saying is not that they lack the time to exercise, but rather that they have not prioritized exercise over other things in their lives that demand their time.

Think of time like currency. Every day when you wake up, you get a deposit in your time bank of 24 hours (1440 minutes) to spend that day however you want, no more or less. Everyone gets the same time allowance, as dictated by the Laws of Physics. That's 168 hours in a week. Everyone decides for themselves how they want to spend the time and how much they want to spend on various activities. Like actual currency, people want the most bang for their buck when it comes to spending their time allowance. Some of the time spent can generate actual currency, like time spent going to work.

Health experts recommend 30 minutes of moderate exercise five times per week (SOURCE). That's about 2.5 hours out of 168, or about 1.5% of your weekly allowance of time, that should go to exercise for optimal health (all else held constant). It's not that much time and the return on investment can be immense, in the form of not dying and fewer medical costs over time. Consider that most people with full time jobs spend 40+ hours (~25%) of their weekly time allowance going to workplaces they would probably much rather avoid. Why can't they spend a fraction of their time allowance on exercise? Is it because they don't see immediate benefits or monetary value in it? Exercise doesn't usually generate money for most people and some people spend exorbitant sums of money on gym memberships and the like, even if they never go (wishful thinking). Some health insurance providers offer wellness rebates to customers who join gyms, but the amount is usually meager. The real value of exercise comes in the form of better health and longevity, which in turn means more time to spend over the course of your whole life.

I realize that the 30 minutes per day figure does not take into account the time it takes to change clothes, maybe drive to a gym (if you can't work out at home or in your neighborhood), shower afterwards and change into clean clothes, etc. The time cost needed to work out can increase substantially when those other things are at play, and I can totally understand people not wanting to spend their precious time on all the secondary stuff.

The bottom line though is that if you really want to exercise, you'll need to carve out the time to do it. If you want to make binge watching the new season of your favorite Netflix show a priority instead, you can do that. You don't need to change clothes or make much effort at all to watch Netflix. Just press a couple buttons and you are good to go. You'll be instantly gratified with entertainment value.

Note: Modern technology being what it is, you can actually binge watch Netflix whilst exercising at the same time, if you are resourceful.

That all being said, some people literally may not have the time to spend on exercise. Their lives are so action packed with priorities like family, job, and whatever else that they simply can't prioritize exercise. Or by the time they get to the end of the day, they are simply too wiped out from everything else they spent time on to muster the energy for exercise. This is why I advocate for exercising in the morning whenever possible, before the other demands and priorities of the day suck out your will to live.

It's not like the time police are forbidding you from spending time on exercise, or anything else for that matter. You are your own policeman. You decide where your time allowance will be spent. Sure, other people will demand your time, but ultimately you decide where your time is spent.

I used to work with a guy who was ridiculously bad at getting his work done. When pushed on it, his excuse was always, "I wanted to get to it, but I had meetings all day." And it was true. He had meetings filling up his calendar almost every day...BECAUSE HE SCHEDULED THEM! He basically prioritized meetings over doing his work and so he "didn't have time" to do work. On the face of it, it seemed like a valid excuse, but it really wasn't. He had a choice to go to less meetings so he could do more work, he just chose not to. On top of that, he still had to get the work done, so he ended up working after hours and on weekends. That's no way to live.

It's possible to passively exercise in such a way that it doesn't even seem like a big expenditure of time. For example, I power walked over 4.5 miles today in the course of going about my business. I walked to work, then I walked to lunch, and then I walked home (and drove back to work). I didn't change into gym clothes or anything. It was actually kind of chilly outside, so I had to bundle up and barely broke a sweat. I walked the streets and bike paths around my neighborhood for a solid 90 minutes, in total. During that time, I saw about four other people walking around outside and that was kind of sad.

Why don't people walk places more? It's an easy way to get decent exercise without a lot of fuss and gym memberships and other hassles. Plus, you kill two birds with one stone by getting exercise while you travel between point A and point B.

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Fighting the Undead

I had some cool dreams last night that involved battling the undead. While this is in part due to watching the new season of Walking Dead on AMC, the dreams definitely had a strong sociopolitical bent, in that these particular zombies were minions of Donald Trump and I was an agent of Bernie Sanders sent to dispatch the mindless hordes.

However, I was under strict orders to find a cure for the plague and Bernie Sanders had firmly instructed us that we could not simply kill Trumpheads to get rid of them or build a wall to keep them away from the living. So my job involved going behind enemy lines to build treatment facilities (clinics) and re-integration stations (schools) where the undead could be cured and returned to civilized society. The cured ones were then hired by my team to further assist in building the infrastructure to cure more zombies. But Donald Trump had instructed his hordes to seek out and destroy the change agents of Bernie Sanders, leading to a lot of me being chased by zombies who were quite a bit more strategic, wily, and savage than Sanders gave them credit for...

2.24.2016

Michael Moore Inspired Basil Chicken in Coconut Curry Sauce

Deborah and I saw Michael Moore's movie, "Where to Invade Next," last week. It was pretty good. In one segment, Moore visits a French school lunchroom where it is quite normal for the children to eat a five course, chef prepared meal that includes fine cheeses and elaborate desserts they can order off a menu. For lunch!

In French schools, lunch is integrated with the childrens' education, teaching them about good nutrition as well as French cuisine. When the children were shown pictures of the abominal food served in American school lunchrooms, they rejected it out of hand.

Anyway, that scene in the film gave me an idea. Deborah and I have been trying to improve our nutrition, especially since returning from our fortnight of tropical vacation, where we ate excessive amounts of tasty but fattening food.

"For date night, we should pick a recipe from a cookbook and make it," I suggested.

"That sounds fun," Deborah said.

Last night we perused the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook and landed on a recipe for a basil chicken with coconut curry sauce. Tonight, we prepared it. It was pretty easy and turned out great. Our only critique was that it needed lemon juice, which was not part of the original recipe. We added it to half the batch and it definitely should be an add on.

If we can stick with this recipe cooking idea, I think we'll get to be pretty good cooks over time.

1. Cut up about 4 half chicken breasts into one inch cubes.
2. Toss chicken in a bowl with a spice mixture of salt, pepper, chili powder, and curry powder, with the latter being about half the total mixture. Chill this for an hour or two to let the spices flavor the meat.
3. Sautee a chopped large red onion, six minced garlic cloves, and a diced jalapeno pepper (or poblano for less heat) in a TBSP of olive oil for two to three minutes on medium high heat, then remove.
4. Sautee the chicken in olive oil until cooked, then remove.
5. Mix a TBSP of corn starch (optional if you prefer a soupier curry sauce) with a 14 oz can of coconut milk in a small bowl.
6. Add the coconut milk mixture to a large skillet and heat slowly until it starts to bubble and thicken.
7. Add the cooked chicken and onion/garlic/pepper to the coconut milk and stir.
8. Add a few leaves of fresh basil, a tsp or so of minced ginger root, and a splash of lemon juice to the concoction and simmer for a few minutes to let flavors blend.

That's it. Eat straight or over rice or noodles. It takes under 30 minutes to prepare, not including the 1-2 hours of chillin' the chicken with the spices (Step 2).

2.22.2016

A Bit of Backstory

This is an excerpt from the backstory behind the sci fi novel I am working on. This is not actually part of the novel, but you could think of it as a prequel - although on matters of time travel, that may not be the best descriptor.
***

Biff was in a foul mood when he got to the conference room. Gary and John were already there with their laptops open. Biff plopped his notepad loudly on the table and sank into a chair.

"I don't think we should attempt this time travel proposal," Gary said, looking up from his laptop and cutting right to the chase. "It's too dangerous. We might re-write history with bad results."

"Yeah, like some of us ceasing to exist, for instance," John chimed in.

"John, I don't think you are understanding the science," Biff said. "Time travel to the past doesn't change history. It can't. Physics prevents it."

"How do we know that for sure though?" Gary asked, smirking.

"Because...math!" Biff raised his voice, exasperated. He slid his notepad across the table toward Gary so he could see Biff's scribbled calculations. "Physics is pure math. When you do the calculations, the results tell you what will happen. And changing history is just not possible."

"Why not?" John asked. "If I go back and kill my mother before I'm born, then I cease to exist, by definition. Can your numbers figure that out?"

"Ye-ess," Biff said in a taunting voice. "You do cease to exist, but only in an alternative universe, completely separate from this one." How I envy the inhabitants of that universe, Biff thought to himself.

"We don't know if parallel universes can exist," Gary said. "If you go back in time and spawn a parallel universe, it might implode, annihilating you and everything in it."

Biff had to admit his calculations did not preclude the creation of a parallel universe that immediately annihilated itself via quantum tunneling, due to the time warp's albeit brief singularity. But it was highly improbable. In fact, the risk of this universe they were currently bickering in disappearing in a quantum tunneling event was just as probable.

"That's a small risk," Biff responded. "And it's mitigated by two important facts. Firstly, the parallel universe would never exist unless you did time travel backwards. So if it imploded and vanished, so what? It's not even a real universe. It's artificially created by the time traveler him or her self." An image of Ruby flashed in Biff's mind.

"Tell that to the inhabitants of that universe," Gary said. "They'll think it's plenty real."

"But they'll all be perfectly alive and well in this universe," Biff countered. "None the wiser. And secondly, the parallel universe is completely separate from the one you time traveled back from. It's annihilation has no effect on our universe by the fact that our universe is obviously still in existence."

"What if the wormhole annihilates our universe in the present?" John asked.

"There's no evidence that it would," Biff replied. "By the numbers." He pushed away the fleeting doubt he felt.

"I don't know if I trust the numbers enough to risk the destruction of the known universe," Gary said. "I'm saying no to this proposal."

"Aw, c'mon, Gary," Biff whined. "Where's your sense of scientific adventure? We could win Nobel prizes for this. There are no laws written yet that say we can't do it!"

"This meeting's over," Gary said, snapping shut the screen of his laptop and standing up. John followed suit.

***

"Say, John, can you do me a favor?" Biff asked at the end of the next day, as John walked through the lab with his coat on and his briefcase in hand.

"Maybe," John replied, pausing and glancing sideways at Biff.

"Ruby and I were messing around with the old Area 51 machines earlier and she wanted me to run some entanglement diagnostics on them to see if we can repurpose them for the mini project," Biff said. "I just need someone to port a couple times while I run the numbers. Would you mind?"

"I'm tired, man," John said. "Can it wait?"

"Five minutes," Biff said. "I'll buy you a beer this weekend, I promise."

John sighed but dropped his briefcase on a chair and went through the swinging doors into the transport bay. He stopped in front of Machine A and signaled Biff to fire up the quantum field.

Biff dialed in the numbers he had calculated. 1960 had to be the right run, he reassured himself. He was just about to press the intercom button to tell John to step into the machine when he remembered the Mini portal and palmed his forehead.

He grabbed the stainless steel case with Ruby's Mini #2 in it and tapped the control panel on the front. It illuminated and he quickly confirmed its entanglement to Mini #1, which Ruby had with her in Melbourne. The panel indicated #1 was turned on. Perfect. Biff picked up the case and carried it into the transport bay. John turned an aggravated stare at Biff.

"Sorry," Biff said, sounding sympathetic, though he was merely apologetic about his own mistake. "I almost totally forgot the whole point of the diagnostic was to measure entanglement disruptions on the Minis after going through a transit themselves." He held up the Mini case and John took it.

"That one's entangled with Ruby's in Melbourne," Biff said. "Bring it back to the lab when you exit Machine B so I can measure how it held up."

John nodded and said, "Fire it up."

Biff returned to the lab and sat down in front of the console. His heart beat rapidly as he double checked the numbers. He flipped up the clear plastic cover on the activation button and his fingers hovered over it for a couple seconds as he took a deep breath.

Then he palmed it and turned to watch through the glass windows to the bay.

The light above Machine A's entry port changed from red to green. John opened the outer door of the airlock and stepped inside, pulling it closed behind him, after which Biff could no longer see his colleague.

Biff turned back to the console and watched the instruments. The Inner AL Hatch Open warning appeared on the screen. Then it changed to Inner AL Hatch Closed. The interior pressure gauge read STABLE. Biff held his breath and waited...

The screen flashed TRANSIT IN PROGRESS and a second later TRANSIT COMPLETE.

Biff lept from his chair and charged through the doors of the bay. He ran full pelt across the large hall to where the iron metal dome of Machine B sat. The light above its airlock was red. Biff peered into the window, trying to see through to the interior transit chamber. It was too dark. The wormhole had already closed.

Then he heard it. It was the faint sound of a barking dog. Biff opened the outer airlock door and stepped in. The barking was louder now. He peered through the window of the inner door into the transit chamber and burst into uncontrolled laughter when he saw the German shepherd leaping against the inside of it. He tore open the inner airlock door and took the excited beast into his arms.

As the dog licked his face, Biff said, "I did it. I f@cking did it!" He took the dog's head in his hands and smiled into its dark brown eyes. "We did it, boy! You are a boy, aren't you?" Biff tilted his head to look at the dog's underside.

Biff heard the phone in the lab ringing, but he ignored it.

"C'mon, boy," Biff said to the dog, which followed him out of Machine B and through the transit bay. "Let's get you some water and a treat." At the sound of the last word, the Shepherd gave an excited yelp and looked up at Biff.

Biff and the dog entered the lab where the ringing phone demanded his attention.

"Hang on, boy," Biff said and reached for the phone.

"Hello," he panted into the phone, still out of breath with excitement.

"What...the F@CK...did you do?" Ruby's voice seethed on the other end of the line.

"What do you mean?" Biff asked. "Except for making f@cking history!" He smiled smugly, though only the shepherd could see it.

"Do you know who just stepped through my Mini #2?" Ruby asked.

"If my calculations were right, you are probably referring to a Mr. John Hammers, yes?" Biff replied.

"Oh yeah," Ruby said. "It's John Hammers alright...an 85 year old John Hammers!"

It took a moment for Biff to register the words and then his face blanched white and his smile contorted into a grimace.

"F@@@@ck," Biff moaned as the receiver fell from his hand and he slumped down the wall to the floor. "I f@ckin' biffed."

Ruby's transistorized voice screamed faintly from the phone receiver as it lay on the floor. The German shepherd started licking Biff's ashen face, but he barely noticed.

6 Word Novel


Step off cliff. Spread wings. Fly?

2.19.2016

MAWL Rats


I wasn't entirely sure what to expect when I attended my first Madison Area Writer's League (MAWL) meeting tonight at Banzo's Mediterranean restaurant on the east side of town. I have attended other writer group meetings similar to this before and they haven't been particularly useful as a tool for motivating and improving my writing, other than just to validate that I am a fairly talented writer on the whole. Validation is certainly good, because I tend to be a bit insecure about my writing talents, notwithstanding a journalism degree and over 15 years of professional writing experience in Corporate America. The mechanics I certainly have down. But what I am really looking for is not validation so much as brutally honest constructive critique of my writing, no matter how painful or irritating or demoralizing it may be to hear, so I can get better at the art of creative writing and give my readers what they want.

My friend Elizabeth, a writing professor and published fiction and non-fiction book author, invited me to this meeting during a social outing late last fall when I told her I was working on a couple of books. I had picked her brain on the subject of book writing via an "informational interview" a few months before that. Elizabeth had asked me to review some of her writing last year and I must have done a decent job of it if she thought me worthy of attending her writing critique group.

I was not disappointed with the MAWL group. It met my expectations and may be a good one for me to be involved with. I didn't submit anything for critique because it was my first meeting and I wanted to scope it out and see how it went first. I had a sense that if Elizabeth found it worthy, I probably would too.

Prior to the meeting, I had reviewed Elizabeth's submission, the first four chapters of her newest novel in progress, which she had emailed me a few weeks before my recent fortnight of tropical vacation. Several of the participants submitted their work a day or two before the meeting and I didn't have time to review the longer ones of those (other than a short triad of haikus submitted by a woman I learned was an MD resident at UW Hospital). I fully disclosed this when I arrived at Banzo and met the small amicable group of writers. It seemed to be understood that if you submit at the last minute, you might not get as many or as comprehensive reviews from the group, par for the course. My rule of thumb for writing group submission etiquette is to allow one full day per page of manuscript, probably because I am a slow reader, but also because people have other responsibilities too and there are often multiple submissions for each meeting that people need to get through.

The group was intelligent and got really deep into the critiques and discussion of the submissions, which proved helpful to the submitters. Even though I did not have a submission at this meeting, I could tell this group is the sort I am seeking as far as getting serious, useful feedback to empower my writing. I felt like I was among equals and professionals, which also served to validate my self worth as an aspiring author.

I am feeling good about submitting some of my short fiction or book excerpts for review at the next meeting, in late March.
Near the end of our meeting, one of Banzo's wait staff enquired as to what we were doing.

"Are you guys working on a book or something?" she asked, apparently eavesdropping on as well as intrigued by the energetic discussion we were having.

"Several books," Eric, the MAWL group organizer replied warmly. "This is our group that meets to talk about our writing."

"Oh, how cool," the waitress said, smiling. "I graduated from college with a communication arts degree, but my favorite class I took was creative writing."

"We've recruited waiters and bartenders in the past," Eric informed her, by way of passive invitation that the group was open to newcomers of all stripes, such as myself.

I left the meeting feeling very upbeat and positive and I am looking forward to the next one.

2.18.2016

2.17.2016

6 Word Novel


"You like music?"

"Sometimes. Sabbath mostly..."

Any Palm Tree Types Are Fine By Me

I like palm trees. More precisely, I like places where palm trees find optimal habitat. This is the principle conclusion drawn from the awesome fortnight of vacation that Deborah and I just returned from this past weekend.

We flew into Tampa FL to board a cruise ship and spent a week at sea in the Caribbean, porting in at Key West, Belize City, and Cozumel before returning to Tampa. We were supposed to port in Costa Maya, but rough seas prevented it. I had never been on a cruise before, though I had read a hilarious article in Harper's Magazine about cruises years ago that pretty much set my expectations (SOURCE). They were set a little bit too high, but it was still great fun.

Another conclusion drawn from the cruise portion of the trip was that I tend to over eat when offered unlimited quantities of food, even if the quality of the food is only slightly above mediocre. The cruise ship had a buffet style restaurant with plentiful offerings. I mostly (but not entirely) stayed away from the worst of these, such as tater tots, processed meat byproducts, and cookies. But I ate a lot of fish and eggs and succumbed to certain non-cookie desserts on more than one occasion. There's always room for dessert (I drew this conclusion decades ago, so it is not a conclusion drawn from this trip). I will fully admit gaining 10 pounds during this vacation (though I've dropped three of them since returning to the healthier lifestyle rituals of home).

We were a week at sea or in the various ports. Our first port of call was Key West FL, where we went on a kayaking expedition through mangrove...groves? The most memorable snapshot from that excursion was passing a houseboat with a couple or permanent residents and their dog. Our tour guide told us that while real estate in Key West was beyond the grasp of most people with incomes under a million dollars (non-military...there is naval base housing there), you could rent a mooring ball for a houseboat for $80/month, and many people do this to enjoy the tropical lifestyle on the cheap. When storms come, boats can find refuge in "mangrove caves," which are gaps in the thick growth of this salt water plant. Of course, you first need a houseboat... We also learned how mangroves have adapted to living in saltwater by "sweating" salt and sacrificing certain leaves that take one for the team by absorbing any salt that manages to reach the foliage.

After Key West we had a day at sea churning across the Caribbean to Belize City. We never actually saw much of the city because we chose as our excursion for that port a snorkeling trip on a reef and a couple hours at a private beach resort with white sands, palm trees, and fruity boozy drinks. The ship did not dock in Belize City. Instead, passengers left the ship by way of "tendering." The ship anchors off the coast and smaller boats zip up and "tender" people to shore, or in our case to the second largest coral reef in the world, where we snorkeled in overcrowded rough seas. Hectic, but worth it.

The rough seas kept us at sea the next day, instead of dropping us off in Costa Maya. We were supposed to do some biking and more kayaking there, but we were refunded our fee for this excursion. It was rather fun being on the boat in 10 foot swells. I did a 5k power walk on the ships track on the upper deck that day and that required a fair amount of balance control. I would feel heavy as a swell lifted the boat and then light as the boat dropped into the next trough. Luckily, I am not prone to sea sickness at all. The crew set out piles of puke bags that day for passengers with weaker stomachs, and I only smelled the bilious acridity of vomit once.

Cozumel was a tourist trap between the pier and the dolphinarium where we spent most of our shore time. There, trained dolphins impressed us with their intelligence, which I rate at about that of the smartest dogs, in exchange for bait fish treats. An unexpected perk of the dolphinarium was free food and drink included with the price of admission. So we ate some authentic Mexican food and had a couple of fruity tropical cocktails there before navigating the slolum course of vendors en route back to the boat (Deborah did, in fact, haggle for a couple of souvenirs to give to our dog sitters when we got home).

It was another rough sea day back to Tampa (through a fun gale), where we arrived in the early morning hours and disembarked the ship after offering up tips to our favorite stateroom and restaurant service personnel via envelopes provided by the crew.

We spent the week after the cruise at Deborah's parents' timeshare in Sanibel FL. That's where we heard news of the cruise ship that sailed into the hurricane in the Atlantic (same cruise line as ours). We watched portions of the Superbowl there and saw dolphins, alligators, and all manner of sea life while various members of our families popped in to visit. My folks flew into Fort Meyers from Ohio on Superbowl Sunday and stayed with us until Thursday morning. Deborah's parents came down from Sarasota FL, where they are snowbirds from Wisconsin, for the day on Monday, and her brother Mark and his wife Michelle, also from Sarasota, hung out with us on Tuesday. The over eating continued in Sanibel, although it now had a considerable price tag. We seemed to develop an addiction to key lime pie. On Friday, we drove up to Sarasota in the rental car we had for the week and spent the day sightseeing around town with Deborah's extended family, the most memorable moment of which was seeing dolphins swimming in the boat channel from the patio of the restaurant overlooking the water we had lunch at. We ate Thai food that night and stayed up chatting with the loved ones until the threat of a very early morning on Saturday sent us to bed.

We woke before dawn on Saturday and drove up to Tampa to return the rental car at the airport before flying home to wintry Wisconsin. Deborah and I had a Valentine's dinner of delivered Chinese food on Saturday night and lazed about on V-Day Sunday until I had to go to my music class on Sunday evening. Good times.

Keywords: palm tree types, types of palm trees, sago palm

2.13.2016

Terminus

Deborah and I were chimed awake by the redundant dual alarms of our smart phones in the guest room of her brother Mark's Sarasota Florida home at the unsatisfying hour of 5 AM.

I slept well, albeit not long enough. The night before, we'd gone out for Thai food with Mark, his wife Michelle, and Deborah's mom Sandy (her dad Howie had stayed back at the house), after which we chatted for a couple hours in Mark and Michelle's living room before retiring. I got about six hours of sleep, within spec, but far less than the eight or more I'd gotten used to over the past fortnight of our vacation.

Deborah complained of hip pain as we sprung from the bed and got ready to depart, via rental car, for the Tampa airport.

"I must have slept on it wrong," she said.

"Or it's bone cancer," I replied, pushing the conversation over the cliff prematurely.

She rolled her eyes and went to the bathroom to wash her face and insert her contact lenses.

I dressed, then went to the kitchen and made coffee using the "one hitter" coffee machine Howie had shown me how to operate the night before.

I turned on the power and waited. After a few seconds, the machine made a gurgling noise as it preheated the water in its reservoir. A half minute later or so, two buttons on the top of the machine illuminated blue. Both buttons had coffee cup icons on them, though one had a smaller icon than the other. I wasn't sure if the size difference referred to the volume or strength of the coffee produced. As I'd been instructed, I opened the compartment on the top of the machine and inserted the small, vacuum-sealed, plastic catridge containing the dry coffee grounds. It was about twice the size of one of those little plastic containers of chilled creamer they give you when you order coffee at a restaurant. I closed the compartment and put a coffee mug on the platform underneath the dispenser nozzle before pressing the blue button with the larger coffee cup icon. Size or strength? Either way, I was going with the optimal selection. The machine made a whirring noise this time and seconds later coffee began to pour into my mug, filling it about three quarters full. As it did so, I reflected on the convenience and efficiency of these one-cup-at-a-time machines. How many of the tiny discarded cartridges of spent coffee grounds would it take to fill a landfill? Would some end up in the oceans and be eaten by baby sea turtles? Were they biodegradable and how long would it take? These are the places my mind goes before I have amply caffeinated it.

I opened the refrigerator and pulled out the jug of unsweetened almond milk I'd seen in there the night before. I topped off the coffee mug with this, to "take the edge off," and then drank the cooled coffee quickly. I put the empty mug in the sink and returned to the guest bedroom.

I was fully dressed and packed, but Deborah was still getting ready, so I reclined on the double bed and read a couple pages of the Orson Scott Card book of short stories Mark had lent me the previous night until she was done. The story was gripping, about a ghoulish monster baby that relentlessly stalks the sociopathic main character. I had foolishly started reading it before I went to bed, not realizing I would have difficulty putting it down, which probably also cut into my sleep time a bit.

When Deborah was ready, we rolled our suitcases down the hallway toward the garage entry as quietly as we could and were greeted by Deborah's mom in the hallway, barefoot, bleary eyed, and wearing one of those old school flannel nightgowns - the kind I always picture Dickens' Ebenezer Scrooge character wearing as he is accosted by the ghosts, past, present, and future, but without the accompanying nightcap.

"I hope we didn't wake you up," Deborah whispered to her mom.

"Oh no. I was already up," Sandy said, waving a hand dismissively. "Actually, I woke up before you did."

Sandy and Howie were "snowbirds," migrating from their home in Wisconsin to Florida to share the house with Mark and Michelle during the winter months.

"We are heading out," Deborah said.

"I'll close the garage door behind you," Sandy said, following us down the hall.

We wheeled our suitcases through the garage and out into the quiet pre-dawn gloom. Sandy watched us from inside the house through a crack in the garage entry door.

"Let's hurry up and go so she isn't waiting there too long," Deborah said as I loaded our suitcases into the trunk. I closed the trunk and put my carry on bag on the back seat before climbing into the passenger seat of the rental car. Sandy returned our farewell waves as we backed out of the driveway and the robotic female GPS voice on Deborah's phone instructed us on the most expedient route to the rental car return lot of the Tampa International Airport.

The drive was fairly easy at that hour of the morning, save for a few blinding high beams in the rearview mirror that caused Deborah to flick the tiny lever at the base of said mirror in an attempt to dim them. Deborah missed a confusing exit for the airport, but the scenic route provided a fortuitous opportunity to refill the tank of the rental car at a gas station before we returned it.

Requesting a wheelchair at the Delta checkin counter was simple and we didn't need to rely on airport staff to push Deborah to the gate. They let me do it. At the gate, we requested a seat change to allow Deborah to sit by the forward bulkhead behind first class, due to her handicap. That was successful and afforded me more leg room as an added bonus. The flights were smooth and Deborah got wheelchair assistance between gates during our layover in Atlanta.

It was not entirely pleasant transitioning, in the span of a few hours, from balmy subtropical Florida to artic subzero Wisconsin. But the fortnight of vacation was ample to reset my psyche and allow me to step back and reflect on life while hanging out with loved ones in spectacularly cool and relaxing places.

2.08.2016

2.06.2016

High Seas

Today we interacted with real live captive dolphins in Cozumel Mexico. It was pretty cool. I estimate dolphins to be about as smart as the smartest dogs. These were bottlenosed dolphins, raised in captivity, which means they have never known life at sea and likely could not survive in the wild. Their enclosure was not very big and that made me sad. But they were fun animals. I learned that although they have teeth, they do not use them to chew food, which they swallow whole. The teeth are primarily used for defense and dominance displays. Dolphins can make a lot of sounds with their blowholes. Their skin is leathery and they are born with notches on the back of their dorsal fins that are unique to each animal, the way thumbprints are in humans. This can be used for identification, presuming you know what you are looking for. Male dolphins retract their penises into a recess on their undersides when not in use, to maintain streamlining. Female dolphins have retractable mammary glands for nursing their young, for the same reason. Dolphins have tiny ears but excellent hearing. Sometimes dolphins play too rough and start to actually fight, explaining the gouges and scratches on their bodies.

The place where we saw the dolphins also offered snorkeling in another area (sans dolphins), but it was pretty lame compared to the snorkeling excursion in Belize a couple days ago. The gear was cheap and we were restricted to a pretty small enclosed area. There were a few schools of cool fish there, but nothing awesome. There were some stingrays cruising around, but they were not very interesting. No sharks...bummer.

The Dolphinarium did offer free authentic Mexican food and drink with the price of admission, so that was cool. We soon discovered that this was underwritten by exorbitantly overpriced photos for sale of Deborah and I posing with dolphins (which we of course bought!). I had a tequila sunrise and Deborah ordered a pina colada; later we both had a mudslide. The food was OK.

On our way back to the cruise ship, we navigated the throngs of merchants selling "authentic, handmade" Mexican trinkets and Deborah haggled us a few of these Chinese made wares to bring back as souvenirs. They were kind of cool items.

Once back on the ship, I power walked a 5k on the track on Deck 10 as my workout before getting ready for dinner, a "formal" night in the dining room that necessitated wearing a shirt and tie. After dinner, we checked out a live music show in the ship's Masquerade Theater, but it proved lame, so we headed up to the outdoor movie theater, poolside on Deck 9, and watched the remake of the James Bond movie "Casino Royale." It was a bit weak, but a few minutes into the flick, a freak gale blew up around the ship, preambled by a sudden downpour that sent movie goers scattering for cover. We adjusted our seating arrangements to accommodate the new weather conditions. The rain ceased pretty quickly but high winds on Deck 9 from the gale made hearing the movie a bit hard. Deborah had seen the movie before and used the change in weather as an opportunity to retire to our stateroom. I saw the movie through and then walked around checking out the storm from Deck 9. Being as it was late at night, there was not a great deal to see, other than a few white caps in the viscinity of the boat and the water sloshing around in the Deck 9 pool as the ship rocked to and fro on the angry sea.

2.04.2016

Unexpected Day at Sea

I would like to be able to report that some unfortunate explosion in the engine room of the Royal Caribbean cruise ship Deborah and I are traveling on is responsible for us not making landfall in Costa Maya, Mexico, as we were scheduled to do this morning. The life boats on this ship intrigue me and a legitimate, albeit non-life threatening, reason to use them would be thrilling fodder for future non-fictional storytelling. Alas, the tale is far less sordid.

We awoke about 7 AM, back in Eastern Standard Time after briefly venturing into the Central Standard Time off the Belizean coast yesterday. Our massive floating city churned through windy ocean swells up the Yucatan Peninsula coast toward Costa Maya during the night. When my smart phone alarm chimed, the lovely Deborah beside me sprung from the bed that spans most of the width of our Deck 3 stateroom and started prepping for the day in the petite restroom. I was slower to regain full consciousness.

"So what's our plan again?" I called out from the bed.

"Workout," Deborah replied back.

"Then breakfast?" I needed coffee. "Then showers?"

"Sure," Deborah said. "Are you gonna get up?"

"Yes, but I have to pee," I replied. "Can I get in there?"

She stepped out of the aptly named water closet and I rolled lethargically out of the bed and shuffled across the room in my boxer shorts to micturate.

Voided, I returned to sit on the foot of the bed and force my uncaffeinated mind to make useful decisions. It was difficult.

Did I have any shorts to work out in? I pulled open the drawer of the dresser by the bed that held some of my clothes for the duration of our weeklong Caribbean cruise. I reached in at random and my fingers caressed the cool Spandex of my bike shorts. That'll do, I thought and pulled them out to place them next to me on the bed. I remembered that I had a semi used blue shirt on the bedside table. I could wear that to work out, rather than soiling a clean shirt with sweat.

Still feeling too lazy to change, I opened the stateroom safe and pulled out the envelope that contained our prepaid shore excursion tickets. I found the pair for today's bike and kayak trip and examined them.

"Deborah, I think we might have a slight problem," I said.

"What?" she asked.

"Well, these tickets say we are supposed to meet on the pier at 8:15 AM," I replied.

"Really?" she said. "I thought it was 11."

"Not according to these tickets," I said. "I think we need to haul ass to make this in time."

My brain was working a little better, now fueled with adrenalin. Our copy of the shore excursions itinerary that we'd printed at home before the trip was on the countertop. It clearly showed 11 AM as out meeting time for the excursion.

"Look in the excursions booklet and see what it says," Deborah advised and started putting on makeup, in case we really did have to hustle. I found the pamphlet on her bedside table and flipped to the section for Costa Maya. I scanned the listings until I found the one we had signed up for.

"It looks like there are two times for this one," I said to Deborah. "8:30 and 11:30. I guess we are in the earlier one."

"That's not what we signed up for though," Deborah said. "Not according to our sheet."

Deborah picked up the phone receiver and dialed zero (0) for customer service. Someone answered and Deborah explained the discrepancy to them better than I would have. They conversed for a few seconds and then Deborah hung up.

"She said she'll call back," Deborah said. "They're looking into it."

"I guess maybe I should go score us some breakfast," I said, pulling on my regular shorts.

"Can you get me some fruit?" Deborah asked.

"Yeah, that's what I was gonna get," I replied. "I'll just score a big plate of fruit."

I pulled on the blue tee shirt and made for the stateroom door, grabbing the room keycard as I crossed the tiny room. I pulled open the heavy stateroom door and stepped into the hallway.

"Be back soon," I said before letting the door thud shut.

I had not gone more than two or three paces down the narrow hallway when the ships PA system chimed, indicating an announcement. A moment later the ship Captain's voice came over the speakers.

"Good morning everyone...this is your Captain speaking...Captain Michaels...with an important announcement...I am sorry to inform you that due to rough weather, we will not be able to dock in Costa Maya today...there are high winds and eight foot waves that are making it too dangerous to approach the port...several of our sister ships have also been turned away...in the interests of passenger safety, therefore, we will not be stopping in Costa Maya today...for those who had shore excursions scheduled, there is no reason to go to the Shore Excursions desk, as you money will be fully refunded...again, we do apologize for this...I will speak to you again soon with further updates."

I inserted my key card into the slot on our stateroom door and pushed it open.

"Did you catch that?" I asked Deborah.

"Not really," she replied. "The room speaker still doesn't work."

"The Captain said Costa Maya is canceled due to weather," I informed her.

The phone rang. It was customer service calling back. Deborah answered.

"I guess it doesn't matter now," Deborah said to the person on the phone and hung up shortly thereafter.

"So do you still want to work out?" I asked. Deborah pondered. "Nah, let's just go to breakfast," I executively decided, meeting no resistance from Deborah.

It was an enjoyable day at sea, notwithstanding the rocking boat. The thrashing sea put on a good show. The water in the pool on Deck 9 of the ship was sloshing this way and that, occasionally surmounting the pools boundary walls and flooding the deck, to the excitement of those reclining on deck chairs. Deborah and I had a couple of ridiculous fruity cocktails and chillaxed. I wrote in my journal and she read a book.

In the late afternoon, I power walked a 5k on the track that circumnavigates Deck 10 where I saw some crew members doing some work in the engine room. I don't know what they were doing, but a strong ozone smell reached my nostrils as I passed by on each lap of my power walk. Due to the undulations of the boat, it was a fun walk. At times, the massive boat would heave upwards as an ocean swell passed us, and I felt artificially heavy, as if gravity had increased in strength. Then the ship would drop into the next trough between swells and it felt as if I were floating upwards. Combined with the high winds coming across the deck that I had to fight, I think I got a solid workout in. When I finished, I jumped into the sloshing pool to cool off before heading back to our stateroom to clean up for dinner.

As I write this, I'm about to go to bed. Tomorrow, weather permitting, we should dock in Cozumel, Mexico, where we are scheduled to pet some dolphins and chillax on a beach for a few hours. After that, we spend another day at sea, en route back to Tampa FL, the terminus of this, my first cruise experience. Thus far it gets fairly high marks, though I don't know that I would be that eager to do it again. Not that it wasn't fun...I just think I prefer other ways to travel and see places.

Belize

Truth be told, we didn't see much of actual Belize proper when our Royal Caribbean brand cruise ship, "Vision of the Seas," anchored off the coast of Belize City and began ferrying people off to various activities, called shore excursions, in the area. We didn't even see much shore at first, because our chosen shore excursion, booked weeks earlier, was a guided snorkeling tour. So the small ferry that "tendered" us (as they call boat to boat transfers of people at sea that don't involve any land) off the ship took us directly to a section of the second largest barrier reef in the world where we jumped off the boat into the colorful aquatic realm of the coral reef habitat. The waters were a bit rough and visibility was reduced, so it wasn't optimal for snorkeling, but we saw a lot of cool stuff - tropical fish, and corals, and sponges, and the like. The excursion was well organized and the operators were a fun bunch, keeping us entertained and on schedule during the narrow time window of the trip. The snorkeling gear they supplied us was top notch and easy to use, all of it bright yellow and branded with the National Geographic logo.

We had jumped into the choppy marine waters with the beginner group of snorkelers (they had divided the passengers into three groups, beginner, intermediate, and advanced). I initially panicked a little bit when I realized my buoyancy system (an inflatable life jacket they made us wear to aid in flotation) was insufficiently inflated, causing me to expend unnecessary energy staying afloat. But I was able to blow some more air into the vest via its spring action air valve and all was well. Deborah and I held hands, gayly, as we sought some decent views of the reef while avoiding getting flippered in the face by the novice snorkelers around us. The 35 minutes of snorkeling seemed to go by too quickly and before we knew it, our guides were leading us back to the boat. Once back on board, they began serving up some complimentary boozy fruit punch to everyone, while ferrying us on to the second leg of this so called "shore" excursion.

"That was kind of a clusterfuck," Deborah commented, referring to the chaotic mass of flippered beginner snorkelers all jockying for views of the reef in the churning waters.

"I was trying to guide you away from the herd to look at cooler stuff," I responded, trying to rationalize away our sickenly romantic handholding. "We probably should have gone with the intermediate group, not the beginners."

The next stop was technically land, if you want to call it that, but it wasn't the mainland of Belize. It was a small tropical island resort off the coast called Starfish Island, a purely hedonistic oasis - barely above sea level - of beach chairs, fruity tropical overpriced drinks, and a gorgeous sandy swimming beach. Deborah ordered a $10 pina colada and I got some kind of rum based concoction called a Creole something or other. Then we found a couple of beach chairs to drink them on after slathering on a ton of what must have been a faulty batch of 50 spf sunscreen, because we still got a little sunburned (discovered later). After the drinks, I spent most of the remaining 90 minutes we had on the island in the water paddling around and assessing the many various styles of bikini on display. Deborah joined me in that water for a little while, until she got a little chilly. Even though it was gorgeous weather, the strong sea breeze was enough to generate a wind chill on scantily clad, ocean moistened bodies. After what again seemed like too short a time, the crew of the ferry sounded the horn to signal passengers that it was nearly time for the trip back to the cruise ship. I wanted to stay on the island a lot longer, since it was so enjoyable and our cruise ship was not scheduled to leave for its next port of call, Costa Maya Mexico, for several more hours.

As we boarded the ferry, I asked one of our guides if it was high tide on Starfish Island, because I could not imagine this low lying dot of tropical paradise existing at all if the ocean waters were to rise any higher than they already were. He assured me that yes indeed it was "a very high tide." I hoped this wasn't wishful thinking on his part.

"One reason to fight global climate change and sea level rise is the future well being of this island," I commented to Deborah on the ferry ride back to the ship.

My only critique of our Belize shore excursion is that it was too short. I would have been happy to snorkel for an hour on the reef and then spend the entire afternoon on the island chillaxin'. But I know the tour operators have to make money and that probably means getting more tour groups out to the reef per day than just one. So it was a nice little sampler plate of tropical paradise.

Back on the ship, we succumbed to rum and vitamin D induced power naps, before waking in time to assess the extent of our sunburns and head to dinner in the ship's main dining room.

Belly

There was a belly flop contest by the ship's pool this afternoon. Deborah and I had seen this posted in the daily happenings newsletter that housekeeping provides each stateroom and it was something we talked about spectating on. Fortuitous then that we were sunbathing by the pool when the event transpired. There were several contestants, all of them sporting substantial girth. The audience voted by show of fingers, zero a low score and five the highest. The crew member MC-ing said five fingers was reserved for only the most fantastic of belly flops, high in both volume of belly smacking and volume of water displaced. It was a nice break in the monotony of sun, sea, and serenity.

After the contest ended, we retired to the Windjammer restaurant to load our bellies with lunch, and we ate too much as usual, though I mainly stuck to salad and protein. There we determined that we had exposed ourselves to excessive sun, as evidenced by our rosy skin.

In anticipation of hanging out in Belize tomorrow, we sought out some bug spray, as a precaution against the zika virus, which is apparently going to microcephalize everyone in America in the years to come. Pinheads everywhere... We found some overpriced insect repellant in the duty free liquor store, of all places.

Deborah had jacked her kneecap on something this morning and it has been bothering her all day, so we decided to seek out an ice pack for her at the ship's infirmary after lunch, but it was closed.

"I guess we just have to make our own ice pack the ol' fashioned way," I said.

"What way is that?" Deborah asked.

"We fill a baggy with some ice from the restaurant," I replied.

There is a tentative plan to do that, but right now we are resting in our stateroom after a busy day of chillaxin'. Actually, we worked out this morning before breakfast. I did a full 60 minutes on a recumbent exercise bike while Deborah took some free stretching and abs classes with the onboard trainer. I also walked a little over a mile on the ship's outdoor track, which circumnavigates deck 10. I burned some calories, but I am pretty sure I replaced them all during breakfast and lunch. Plus there's still dinner to literally put the frosting on the belly fattening cake.

Disc

When you are on a boat in the middle of the sea, it's easier to understand how ancient people's might have thunk the Earth was a flat disc.

Conversely, a little bit of logic applied to it would raise some uncomfortable questions. If all the land on Earth sits atop this disc, then it should always be visible, even if just really small and far away.

These are things I ponder sitting on a deck chair by the saltwater pool on a cruise ship churning through Caribbean waters between Key West Florida and Belize.

Is this really the end result of my genes' 4.5 billion years of evolution - me boosting my vitamin D levels absorbing tropical UV rays on a floating metropolis of luxury? Well done, genes! Very well played.

We are at sea all day today. According to the giant LCD display above the ship's pool, we are passing the western tip of Cuba, though too far out to sea to see it. We should be docking in Belize City about 6 AM tomorrow, and about mid-morning, we'll sally forth from the boat and do some coral reef snorkeling and chillin' at a reef resort for a few hours.

But today is all about keeping ourselves occupied on the boat. I'm going to get a haircut in about 15 minutes. After that, probably more work on my tan, then lunch.

Fine Dining

Tonight was one of the "formal" dinners on the cruise ship, necessitating that Deborah and I wear the nice clothes we packed for this contingency to the dining room. It was a classy affair, although the food was just OK. I wore a shirt and tie that Deborah had bought a me few weeks ago. This pretty much rounded out our day today, most of which was spent onshore in Key West FL.

We woke up at 6:45 AM, fully planning to work out in the ship's fitness center, but that didn't happen because I had a poor night of sleep due to allergies and when the alarm went off, I opted for more sleep while Deborah showered and got ready for our day.

When I did eventually get up, we hit the Windjammer restaurant for the breakfast buffet and much needed coffee. Deborah's foot was bothering her (I was wrong...she didn't buy the overpriced orthopedic inserts that the fitness trainer lent her yesterday), so we had Customer Service whip us up a wheelchair that I can push her around in on the boat for the rest of the trip. The only pain in the arse about it is having to take the elevator instead of stairs.

The ship docked at the naval station in Key West about 10:30 AM and we disembarked a little before eleven to meet our tour guides for a kayaking expedition. This involved riding a shuttle out of the naval base to the tour guide's van, in which she drove us over to a marina, pointing out interesting things along the way. For example, we drove past (but did not stop at) the southernmost point in the continental USA, where a long line of tourists were waiting to have their pictures taken. That's the kind of thing that doesn't need visual proof in my opinion. You can just make a note to scratch that off your bucket list and forget it. It was not especially noteworthy, just a historical marker on a beach, the kind of picture your friends do not need to see.

Kayaking was fun. Deborah and I doubled up in an aptly named "double" kayak, known to make or break relationships. Deborah wanted the front, so I took the rudderman position in back. It took Deborah a little bit to grasp that I had steering under control and that my random directional deviations were intended to avoid colliding with some of the more directionally challenged participants in our small tour group. The weather could not have been more perfect, partly sunny in the 70s with low winds. The tide was coming in as we paddled out from the marina, which was a bit of a struggle, but coming back from the excursion, the tidal current did most of our work for us. We saw big ol' iguanas roosting in the mangroves, waterfowl (including cormorants, pelicans, and herons) and a starfish that our guide (a different one than the one who shuttled us to the marina) plucked out of the shallow water for us to pass around. What must that poor starfish have thunk? We learned a lot about mangroves, like how the red mangoves protect the island from erosion and their adaptations for living in salt water (they actually "sweat" salt and every branch has a sacrificial leaf that takes up any salt that reaches the foliage and dies so that the other leaves can live. There are mangrove "caves" that boaters can hide in to be protected from freak storms (unlikely we would need them). These are just naturally occurring little coves and tunnels in the mangrove canopy. We saw a couple and their dog who live on a houseboat and our guide told us houseboats are popular because while real estate in the Keys is super expensive, you can rent a mooring ball for your houseboat for $80/month. Not bad...you just need to score a houseboat.

"If you were wondering what happens to lottery winners, there it is," I quipped to Deborah as we passed the houseboat where the couple was sitting on the deck drinking beer.

"I wonder how they walk the dog," Deborah said. I was more puzzled by where their poop goes...

After kayaking, the first tour guide drove us back into the touristy part of town and Deborah and I had falafel at a little Mediterranean joint (the "Bud's" of Key West) followed by slices of key lime pie (because, of course...that's the big thing in Key West) at another place. I bought a nice looking hat before we jumped a shuttle back to the naval shipyard and got back on our boat to gussy up for the aforementioned formal dinner.

Sedate with rich food, we had little motivation to make our way to deck 10 to workout in the fitness center (we are on deck 3). This is a bad sign.

Tomorrow I'm getting an overpriced haircut in the ship's salon in the morning, after breakfast. We are at sea all day tomorrow, chugging across the Caribbean sea toward Belize, where we'll hopefully snorkel one of the finest barrier reefs in the northern hemisphere in Belize City. There is no excuse other than sloth and utter laziness to avoid working out tomorrow. The cruise line has many activities planned for tomorrow to keep passengers from going stir crazy while surrounded by vast ocean in all directions, but most of them are not things Deborah and I are that into (bingo, poker, mixology demonstrations), so we can keep ourselves busy burning off all the calories we have been consuming. We will probably check out the men's belly flop contest up at the pool after lunch. That sounds fun, though I probably won't be a contestant (if it were a cannonball contest, I would).

Stay tuned.