Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Best of 2016

2016 was another memorable year of experiences with over forty items accumulated. As usual, it’s easy to pick the top few, and the best of the best is usually not in much doubt, but this year the top two, each a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and each provided by one of my children, was as close to a coin flip as I can remember. So I punted, and this year there is a tie at the top! I really can’t decide. Both were incredible! Thank you Mike and Laurie!

The last one in is always a most difficult choice, leaving a couple worthy experiences on the proverbial cutting room floor. So starting with lucky number ten, here’s the best of 2016.

10. The Lion King at The Schuster Center

I might have been one of the very few attending The Lion King that had no idea what the play was about (except something to do with lions), but at least I knew most of the words to the songs. The performance was brilliantly choreographed, turning the stage into a huge African landscape where Simba flees in disgrace, grows up and triumphantly returns to claim his rightful crown and place in the Circle of Life.

9. Irish Coffee at Sam’s Social Club Around the Fire

Located at the Indian Springs Spa (more on that below), Sam’s is a bar/restaurant with a large, circular, outdoor gas firepit which at least a dozen chairs can comfortably fit around. After a day of wine exploration and dinner, we spent several evenings as the temperature began to cool sitting around the fire conversing with people and enjoying Irish Coffee, made with Equator coffee, Jameson and a couple dollops of the most delicious freshly whipped cream.

8. Dayton School of Medical Massage

I’ve been to this school several times in the past but the visit this October delivered unexpected and amazing results. The masseuse asked if I had any particular problem areas and I told her that the lower right part of my back had a “stitch” in it for years and that I regularly go to a chiropractor to help manage it, but it’s never gone away. She began exploring that area, found the tightness and worked on it for several minutes until she worked it out. I left that appointment without a trace of that old familiar discomfort, and it’s not returned. A minor miracle, delivered by a student, now later in life, working on her next career. Incredible! She will go far.

7. Walk Along the Scenic Road in Carmel

I’ve been to Carmel a dozen times, but it took a breakfast conversation with the owners at Friar Tuck’s to learn about walking Scenic Road, which starts at the bottom of the Ocean Avenue hill, just before Carmel Sunset Beach. Walking south you have the Pacific Ocean on the right and multi-million dollar homes perched on the left, facing the setting sun, and each unique and beautifully landscaped. A few had wavy roofs, at least that’s the best way to describe them.

6. Indian Springs Resort and Spa Mineral Pool

The city of Calistoga was home base for our wine exploration, focused on discovering new Pinot Noirs, and Indian Springs is an old-style resort built by Sam Brannan in 1861. The olympic-sized pool is fed from an adjacent natural geyser, with water spewing every few seconds at 230 degrees Fahrenheit, then cooled before reaching the pool at 100 degrees. It’s basically a really large hot tub you can swim in. It only takes a few minutes to walk to downtown Calistoga to get groceries at Calmart, lunch on fish tacos at Palisades Deli Cafe or wander through the variety of specialty shops. Mornings included jogging through Calistoga’s neighborhoods, with maturing grapes on rows of front-yard vines, utilizing every available space in prime wine country.

5. The U.S. Open at Oakmont

It was quite the shock when I discovered that it’s possible to buy single day tickets to a major golf tournament. This year’s U.S. Open was played just outside of Pittsburgh at the Oakmont Country Club, so it was a no-brainer to scoop up tickets for the Saturday round. After major rain storms in the days before, Saturday was sunny and beautiful and the golf course in excellent shape. We watched the top pros battle narrow fairways and slick greens, frequently seeing what appeared to be great approach shots ever so slowly roll ten or more yards off the green, then followed by a great chip shot and par-saving putt. These guys are phenomenal.

4. Iron Horse Vineyards

We visited about a dozen wineries during our five-day stay in Napa Valley and most were beautiful buildings with gorgeous views, but the one that topped them all was Iron Horse. We had asked a number of people where to go to taste champagne, named sparkling wine in the U.S., and everyone named Iron Horse as their top choice. Iron Horse is located in the Green Valley appellation within the Russian River Valley of Sonoma County, on acres of gentle rolling hills at the end of a one-lane road. Tasted a variety of sparklers and stared at the scenery in the late afternoon sunshine. Serenity at its best.

3. Lady Antebellum

We attended several concerts at The Fraze Pavilion in 2016, all good, but Lady Antebellum was over-the-top excellent. There are not many concerts where standing the entire time is OK with me, and this was that rare exception. Starting with their hit “Downtown” and including all their hits like “Just A Kiss”, “American Honey”, “Bartender” and “Need You Now”, Lady Antebellum is a high-energy trip and the entire band gets into it. The 4,000+ people in the audience joined in a chorus of “ABC’s” with Eisele Tyrrell, the three-year-old daughter of lead singer Hillary Scott and husband/drummer Chris Tyrrell. It was Eisele’s first ever stage appearance and the crowd applauded widely.

1 (tie). Flying a Helicopter

My daughter bought me a gift certificate to Cloud 9 Living and my selection was taking a helicopter lesson which included a half-hour ride and some solo piloting, of course with a certified instructor (Matt) that monitored everything and could take over in a split second. After about forty-five minutes introducing how helicopters function, the purpose of the overhead and tail blades, how to control motion horizontally and vertically, and plenty of safety training, Matt pulled the small, two-seater out of the hanger and towed it to a take-off pad. After performing a thorough outside review and then the inside pre-flight checklist, Matt fired up the engines and we waited while the engines came up to operating speed. We checked over our right shoulder to make sure all was clear and Matt lifted off and moved over to the runway. It what I can only describe as a “Superman Moment”, Matt gunned it forward, then banked right as we climbed. No fear, just the rush of flight as the ground fell away. It was probably the coolest feeling I’ve ever experienced. Once up to our flying altitude and positioned over a highway to follow, I got to fly for about ten minutes, following one highway, then another. After we began our way back to the Batavia airport, Matt demonstrated how a helicopter can glide down without engine power. Disengaging the motor, the helicopter began a gentle, and eerily quiet, decent towards an open field. Matt explained that in an actual emergency landing he would get close to the ground with the helicopter pitched forward, then pull backwards to stop the forward motion a few feet off the ground. The final second you’re a rock, but hopefully an alive rock. Re-engaging power, we continued back to the airport and all the sudden we pitched right, then pitched left, the scariest moment (for me) of the flight. Matt pointed to a couple birds that had passed by and emphasized the importance of avoiding them. Now back at the airport we hovered over an open field and Matt had me practice trying to hold the helicopter in place about 20-30 feet above the ground. This is much harder than it would appear, and the 10-15 mph wind made it an even greater challenge for this first-timer. Finally Matt took over, moved us back across the runway to the pad and landed as light as a feather. The guy is good!

1 (tie). The Ohio State University vs Michigan Football Game

My son bought season tickets for the OSU football games and offered me the chance to go to the traditional, regular-season-ending rivalry game versus Michigan at “The Shoe” in Columbus. Little did I know in August that OSU would be ranked #2, Michigan #3 and the game would likely decide which team would make the four-team College Football Playoffs. We made it to Columbus by 8:00 am for plenty of pre-game tailgating before the noon kickoff, enjoying several hot Fireball Apple Cider’s to stay warm, listening to music at the outdoor HineyGate and well positioned on the main way as Urban Meyer and the team made its way to the stadium. We were part of the record crowd of 110,045 fans as Ohio State took an early 7-3 lead, only to give up two touchdowns to fall behind 17-7 and not looking sharp. But the defense stepped up their game and a late third quarter touchdown left them trailing 17-14 entering the final quarter. A missed chip-shot field goal, Durbin’s second of the day, with seven minutes to go left the crowd stunned. But a three-and-out gave OSU one more chance from their own 18 with 5 ½ minutes on the clock. They made it an even deeper hole following a 6 yard sack on the first play of the drive. OSU got traction at that point, JT Barrett and crew passing and running down to the field before sputtering in the final two minutes and lining up for a potential tying field goal, another chip shot that had the crowd praying and hiding their faces, waiting for the either the thunderous explosion of enjoyment or the bitter quiet of defeat. The explosion was heard and we headed to overtime, the first ever since overtime started in 1996. OSU got the ball first, at the opposite side of the stadium we were sitting, and took only two plays, the first by Samuel and the touchdown by Barnett to take their first lead since the first quarter. Michigan responded with a fourth-and-goal 5-yard touchdown pass. They switched ends of the field, now directly in front of us, and Michigan got the ball first in the second overtime. The Buckeyes limited them to a field goal on another three-and-out stop. With Michigan leading by three, Ohio State made a first down on fourth-and-one on a controversial spot by the referees, but I saw it and it was the proper spot! On the final play, Samuel sprinted around left end for the game winning touchdown and a 30-27 victory! The place went nuts and tens of thousands of fans stormed the field in joyous celebration! An instant classic!

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Catching The Cruise Ship

I solemnly swear I will never go through this again.

My first cruise experience got off to a rocky start, to say the least. We booked a direct flight from Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky airport to Miami so that we would arrive several hours before departing on the Celebrity Century cruise ship. We awoke to a beautiful Saturday morning and the weather would not be an issue. Saturday morning traffic through Cincinnati would also not be an issue. We could taste the salt air and the rum drinks already. Then the first text arrived, early in the morning.

Our flight was delayed.

We looked online and every other plane in the whole airport was making an on time departure, except ours. Just our luck. But not a problem, we still have plenty of buffer, and now we have time from breakfast at First Watch. We loaded our luggage in the Jeep and left for the week. During breakfast the second text came through.

Our flight was further delayed.

This delay was going to make getting to the ship tight. And what are the chances that this wasn’t the last delay. We headed to AAA, our travel agency, for assistance in finding alternate flights. There was a flight from Dayton connecting through Atlanta that would arrive about the same time as the twice delayed original choice. We rebooked, not wanting the maintenance issue the first flight was having to bite us a third time. We also starting some contingency planning, which included stopping at home to pick up two carry-on bags in the event our luggage was delayed in baggage claim.

We headed to the Dayton airport talking about what we should put in the carry on luggage. Swimsuits, some dressy clothes and makeup made the list. Anything we thought we could buy on board was left in the large suitcases. We parked at our usual Park-N-Go and packed the critical twenty percent in the carry on’s, in a wicked, blustery 34 degrees, and sat our near-frozen bodies in the shuttle van. Our new flight was on time and we had no issues getting to Atlanta.

Getting to Miami was a different story.

The plane was late leaving Atlanta and now the stress was building. It would be close, and we had to be the first people off the plane, abandon the large luggage, sprint through the airport and find the first available taxi. We were first off, really upsetting the flight attendants by getting out off seats way before were at the gate. We ran, dragging our little luggages, and found a cab. “$20 tip if you get us to the port really fast”. He didn’t disappoint and literally flew down the Interstate to the dock. We arrived with just under a half hour to spare. We started calming down, until the dock agent told us the boat was already closed.

That’s when panic set in and the stress level shot through the roof.

One of us called the Travel Agent and the other her sister who was already on board. What the hell was going on? We have to be on board by 4pm we were told and we still had time. Her sister ran down the boarding plank looking, but couldn’t spot us. But we were at the correct dock, we had checked and double-checked that. Finally another dock agent came out and asked what ship we were on. The Celebrity Century we said. The agent pointed across the parking lot to another gate told us to run there as fast as we could. While we would have been in the proper place three hours before, when the lines were long, we were out of place now. The first agent thought we were on the boat directly behind her, and didn’t think to ask. God bless agent number two!

We ran across the parking lot, dripping sweat in the hot Miami sun, and finally made it to the proper gate.

With nine minutes to spare.

The stress, the shaking and the trembling called for immediate medical attention, in other words, the first alcoholic drink to be found. We dumped our little luggages in our room, found the family and banged a beer. And another. And watched as the boat pulled away from the dock, more ready than ever to enjoy the cruise.

And I solemnly swore, from that day forward, to fly in the day before.

So help me God.