Friday, January 29, 2021

The Best Of 2011-2020

It’s been a decade since I started keeping lists of all the cool experiences that occurred that year, selected the top ten, ranked them, and picked the best of that year’s best.  I thought I would follow the same process for this first “Best of the Decade” list, but I found myself not wanting to rank these, so the list below is simply in chronological order.  I wasn’t too surprised to find that most of this top ten list consist of the yearly number one experiences, however, 2015 and 2017 do not have any, while 2016 and 2020 each have two.

I also found that I wanted to combine some individual experiences and not pick a single item out of an entire vacation, as the collective made them extra special.  Finally, while most of what is written below use the exact verbiage found in the previous blogs, some are new, as I didn’t start writing entire paragraphs until the fourth year, and some are rewritten as needed to tell the tale of a phenomenal decade.  So I’ll jump back to 2011 and start reminiscing.

Oktoberfest in Munich (2011)

The flight to Germany included a longer-than-appreciated stop at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport, followed by a ride from the Munich airport whereupon departing the train we were greeted by rain and trying to get our bearings to find the hotel.  But after napping for a couple of hours, a walk, dinner, and a full night’s sleep, we were ready to experience our first Oktoberfest.  We took the train to the Theresienwiese station, followed the crowd up the escalator, and were astonished to find ourselves already inside Oktoberfest, sort of like when Dorothy opened the door and she saw the multi-colored Oz for the first time.  It’s really like a huge county fair with food, rides, and entertainment, and the famous beer-drinking is strictly limited to inside one of the many “tents”, which hold up to 10,000 people, so each is more like a small village.  To order a beer you must be seated at a table and Elaine’s job was to find a party that would allow us to join them, which she was excellent at doing.  Beer is served in one liter (aka “Maß”) mugs and it never took more than a couple minutes to get a refill, as the waitresses moved with German precision.  There was plenty of traditional music, but about every hour the band would play Sweet Caroline or Take Me Home Country Roads and the entire crowd sang along.  We repeated our first visit, on Tuesday, with a repeat on Thursday, taking a day’s break to walk around downtown and visit the famous Munich Hofbrauhaus.  

Chef George (2012)

Aruba is one of our favorite Caribbean destinations.  It’s always hot, windy, and dry, the beaches are gorgeous and the restaurants are a collection of Caribbean, Latin American, and Dutch.  Our favorite restaurant was The Flying Fishbone, where our group ate at tables directly on the beach.  But our favorite meal was from Chef George, the sous chef from the nearby Marriott Resort and Casino.  The ladies thought it would be nice to celebrate their sister’s birthday by hiring a private chef to prepare a meal in our condo.  Chef George and his girlfriend came over for a planning session and an elaborate menu including fish, risotto, salad, asparagus, avocado with shrimp, and garlic bread.  A birthday cake was secretly added later.  For our party of nine, we expected quite a price tag, and when it turned to that point the men figured that would be the end of it.  Chef George wrote, tallied, and gave us the number.  About $330 total.  I had to immediately turn away and mouth “Oh my God!”.  We couldn’t say “yes” fast enough.  Two nights later Chef George and his girlfriend prepared one of the most awesome dinners I have ever tasted.  We all dressed up, drank champagne, then wine, ate as much as we could, then sang “Happy Birthday” and ate cake.  What a night!

Cirque Du Soleil “O”  (2013)

During one of my occasional business trips to Las Vegas, my IBM rep asked if I would like to go to the Cirque Du Soleil show at the Bellagio.  Since I had heard they were excellent, I said yes, not knowing what it was all about.  The show was named “O”, which is a homonym for “Eau”, the French word for water.   What I was treated to was spectacular, a high-flying and underwater production of diving, synchronized swimming, and aerial acrobatics in and over a 1.5-million gallon pool of water.  It was equally stunning and terrifying. The performance ended with high divers plunging 60 feet to a small exposed section of the pool, where a single small mistake could be a disaster.  I’ve never jumped from that high a distance, but the impact has to be thunderous.  This remains one of the best live shows I’ve ever seen.

Ireland Vacation (2014)

Ireland is a beautiful country and I took a week’s vacation with my wife and her sons, all of Irish descent, to The Emerald Isle at the end of June, where the sun rises around 5:00 am and sets around 10:00 pm, making for a lot of daylight.  Aside from a week of perilous driving from the front right seat, on the left side of the road, with a stick shift in my left hand with the only-thing-familiar, left-to-right shift pattern and navigating clockwise roundabouts, here are the top four highlights from a great week.

The Guinness Storehouse tour was interesting and it was capped by learning how to pour a perfect Guinness, tilting the glass at a 45-degree angle while pulling the tap forward, letting it settle for 119.5 seconds (yeah, it's a joke), then topping it off while pushing the tap backward.  Tullamore D.E.W. is my wife’s favorite Irish Whiskey and learning their history and the distilling process was fascinating.  We also learned that “D.E.W”, not Dew as we all thought, stands for Daniel Edmund Williams, who worked for nearly sixty years at the distillery.  Departing from Galway City, we took a 45-minute bus ride and a 45-minute ferry ride to Inishmore, the largest of the Aran Islands.  Everything on the islands is lined with rock walls, busted out of the ground to provide land for food and housing.  Most impressive were the cliffs, with no barriers to keep you safe, and braving wicked high winds to take memorable pictures. The final day in Ireland was spent traveling to Doolin, a small seaside town near the Cliffs of Moher.  The cliffs were awesome, albeit on a foggy day, but having dinner and listening to real Irish music at McGann’s, a small local tavern, was even better.  

Flying a Helicopter (2016)

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. In 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, descent 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 back to stop the forward motion a few feet off the ground. In the final second you’re a rock, but hopefully an alive rock. Re-engaging power, we continued back to the airport, and suddenly we pitched right, then pitched left, the scariest moment (for me) of the flight. Matt pointed to a couple of 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!

The Ohio State University vs Michigan Football Game (2016)

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 Ciders 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 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 the 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!

Cameron Indoor Stadium (2018)

When something comes off your Bucket List, it’s no surprise it becomes the highlight of the year.

I’ve been a Duke basketball fan since the early 1990s and have wanted to see a game at Cameron Indoor for many years, so when my friend and local resident Bob invited me down to see Duke play Princeton in December, I couldn’t say yes fast enough. Cameron is a unique stadium, seating only 9,300 without a bad seat in the house, and looks from the outside a building that could be a church. This year’s Duke team features the most talented group of freshmen in the country, headlined by the high-flying Zion Williamson and super-smooth RJ Barrett, and complemented by floor general Tre Jones and sharpshooter Cam Reddish. After a slow start, Duke blew out Princeton by the lopsided score of 101-50.  The dream has come true.

Celebrity Edge Cruise (2019)

The Edge was the newest addition to the Celebrity cruise line and we enjoyed a week aboard one of its first sailings, staying in an Infinite Veranda stateroom.  Abroad we saw three shows in the Theater, usually starting and ending at The Martini Bar where the bartenders would pour a line of fifteen martinis in a single pour from sixteen interconnected cocktail shakers. The food was very good, but the highlights were the hot dogs and french fries at the Mast Grill.

Our excursion in San Juan was The Food and Culture Tour, and Stephanie guided us through historic districts explaining their significance, while the food portion included island coffee, meat, and cheese sandwiches on a buttered croissant at Cuatro Sombras, plantain with butter and garlic, that we mashed ourselves, served with a side of rice and beans, and a Mojito, at Cafe El Punto, and flan at Vaca Brava.  In Tortola, we took the “Tour to Virgin Gorda Baths” excursion.  A small, open-air bus took us to Devil’s Bay, where we got into the water for a short time, and then we walked paths, ducked under huge rocks overhangs, turned sideways to slink through narrow openings, and navigated the many slippery spots. Arriving at Back Bay, we spent 45 minutes in the water bobbing up and down and being shoved around by the warm waves.  Our favorite tour was America’s Cup Sailing Regatta in Saint Maarten, which pitted two sailboats, manned by us landlubbers against each other in a race.  Our boat, the American “Stars and Stripes” was led by Captain Morgan of Jamaica and his crew of two. My job was being the “back grinder”, where during our into-the-wind changes between port tacking and starboard tacking, I would reel in one of the ropes supporting the main mast’s large sail.  While our boat lost the competition by two lengths, it was an absolute blast sailing in the most perfectly clear blue-green water imaginable.

February in St. Augustine Beach, FL (2020)

Our first attempt at being “snowbirds” was spent in St. Augustine Beach, Florida, where we rented a two-bedroom, oceanside condo for the month of February.  The weather was a mixture of nice warmer days, lots of mostly seasonal days somewhere in the sixties, and a few on the chillier side.  We took a relaxing four days to drive there, visiting friends outside Atlanta one night and not driving too much on any given day.  Adjusting to the smaller confines of the condo, finding the best places to shop, and generally being outside our comfort zone took three days to overcome.  We enjoyed numerous trips into St. Augustine, the oldest city in America, taking tours, visiting shops, going to church, and eating at one great restaurant after another.  We hosted family and by the end could recite the history of the city as well as the tour guides.  The trip home included a night in Charleston, SC, dinner at Husk, and an over-the-top brunch with friends at Jasmine Porch on Kiawah Island.  The final leg, Charlotte to home, was the longest at seven hours, but we were happy to be back in the comfort of our home, not knowing yet that February would be the last normal month of 2020.  The timing was perfect.

Griffin Patrick Dougherty (2020)

I know all grandparents think their grandchildren are the cutest on the planet, but we have lots of pictures to prove that our first grandchild, Griffin, truly deserves that title.  He was born three weeks early, on May 13th, after a difficult pregnancy, which was undoubtedly made even more difficult due to coronavirus restrictions on if and when daddy Pat was allowed to accompany mommy Emma to medical appointments and some really scary trips to the emergency room.  Imagine all the jitters that come with a first child, then amplify that with having to sit in your car waiting to be told what you can and cannot do.  After many weeks of praying to get him a few weeks closer to full term, that beautiful baby boy arrived and jumped right into our hearts.  Since daddy, like many daddies around the world, worked from home most of the summer and fall, he had the unexpected opportunity to fully participate and watch Griffin as he gained weight, outgrew outfits, found his hands, kicked his legs, rolled over, and best of all, developed that cutest smile. 

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