october 2006

Back. Many stories to tell. But not today.

Internet fuxored. You probably won't even have a chance to read this today.

Turns out it wasn't my internet connection, it was my router, which, after two years of absolutely flawless service, suddenly decided that it had had enough. So I've spent most of my free time at home the last couple of days diagnosing this problem, researching and purchasing a new router, and getting that router configured for all the devices on my network, leaving me precious little time to write about our trip. But I should be able to get to that tomorrow.

Um...yeah. So I still haven't had time to write anything about the trip, or to process any of the 900 or so photos I took (lots of sunsets and seascapes, of course). Hopefully tomorrow...

It's hard to believe that it's been two weeks since we went on our cruise. It seems like it lasted forever, and although it's been less than a week since we got back, it also seems like it happened a lifetime ago.

Our ship left Baltimore on a Friday afternoon (Dodd dropped us off at the pier so we didn't have to leave our car parked at the port for 10 days), and as we passed under the Key Bridge, the sunlight was glinting off the steel, and for a brief moment the industrial nature of Baltimore's port area was a thing of beauty.

Our first day on the boat was completely at sea, since our first port of call was Miami and it took nearly two days to complete the trip from Baltimore down to southern Flordia. I don't really remember us doing a whole lot—we explored the ship, played some shuffleboard (which is actually a pretty good game, akin to bocce ball or curling), started reading the books we'd brought with us, and just relaxed a lot.

I'm not a big fan of Miami, even though I was born there (I much prefer to tell people I'm from North Carolina, which is where I really grew up—we moved there when I was 3 or 4), but my mom lives in nearby Ft. Lauderdale and she works in Miami, so the plan was for her to drive down to meet us for dinner at a popular market near the port. We called her when we got close to the port to confirm, and she started her drive down from Ft. Lauderdale.

Then we got a call just a few minutes later: while she was stopped at a stoplight in a residential neighborhood, some jackass had backed his gigantor (not in the dictionary, but not a typo—a word of my own devising) SUV out his his driveway and smack into her passenger side. She wasn't hurt, but she was shaken up very badly, and obviously neither she nor the car were in any shape to drive down to Miami.

We got into the port around 1:30, and we didn't have to leave until after 10, so she decided that she'd take some Tylenol and take a nap for a few hours, and then see if she could get a friend to bring her down to Miami if she was feeling up to it. In the meantime, Julie and I went ashore to hunt for some shorts and sandals for me (both of which I had come to realize I needed badly in the first day on the ship—I never wear them normally, but on a cruise ship, khaki pants and brown leather shoes just didn't seem right) and some sunglasses for both of us.

By the time we finished our shopping, we heard from mom, and although she couldn't find a friend to drive her down, she had decided to take a taxi, which she wouldn't cost us more than $80 or so total to get to Miami and then to get back to Ft. Lauderdale (it ended up costing closer to double that amount, but she didn't tell us that until after she got to Miami because she didn't want us to talk her out of coming). We had dinner outside at a great little cuban restaurant, and although I think they overcharged me, it was still worth it. After that, we walked over to a quiet bench on the bay and just hung out for a while. We get to see mom pretty regularly up here, since her business frequently brings her to DC, Philly, and Delaware, but it had been more than a year since we'd been down to visit her in Florida, and it was nice to see her on her own turf for a bit, even though it was brief.

After that we made our way back to the ship and turned in early so we could take advantage of our short Key West stop the next morning.

Sick today. Blah.

Sixth anniversary of the site today. I've been doing this so long, I almost forgot. Oh well. Happy birthday, brain coral.

We left Miami around 11 at night on Friday and arrived at our next port, Key West, early the next morning, around 7. Key West used to be one of my favorite places to visit, but I haven't been back in 10 years (since our honeymoon cruise, as a matter of fact), and it was a shame that our visit there was so short—the ship was leaving around 3 in the afternoon, barely leaving time to walk around the island and have lunch.

Even though we hated the short visit, we still didn't get serious about going ashore until 10 or so. We walked around the main tourist area for a bit, walked across the island to the southernmost point, and then walked back up the big shopping street, stopping for a while in an artist's co-op (where I chatted with the artist whose job it was to man the cash register that morning, and where we bought several pieces of art).

I really wanted to have lunch at Turtle Kraals, which, last time we were in Key West, was a relatively small, relatively out of the way open air restaurant situated next to seawater pens with turtles and sharks (kraals is the dutch name for those pens, if I remember correctly). It had a very low-key feel, a simple menu, good prices, and great conch fritters.

As we made our way over to the restaurant, however, we could tell that the area around it had become much more commercial, with lots of new shops and restaurants, and of course it had changed a lot as well. The rustic covered wood deck that was my favorite place to eat had been redone as a large patio, there were no longer any turtles or sharks in the pens, and the conch fritters had been remade to include jalapenos (which weren't bad, it's just that they're not part of a traditional conch fritter recipe). We weren't really that hungry, so we decided to split an order of the fritters and a plate of sauteed shrimp. And it was okay, but it wasn't great, and it was certainly a hell of a lot more expensive that when we had gone before.

By the time we finished there, it was getting close to departure time, so we hurried back to the ship, stopping only briefly to get Julie a piece of chocolate covered frozen key lime pie on a stick that she'd seen featured on a Food Network show. Seeing Turtle Kraals in its new improved form was a bummer, but perhaps the most disappointing aspect of our trip was that the ship didn't stay in port long enough for everyone to see the sunset celebration; by 3:30 Key West was no longer in sight, and we were on our way to Mexico.

I'm slowly starting to catch up on my photos—I've finally posted the ten images for the first two weeks of October that I wanted to post before we left on our cruise. They're odds and ends from the past couple of months, and until I start working my way through the first couple hundred cruise photos, I'm going to leave two of my favorites on the front page.

The lower image, the wagons, is taken from a nearby nursery—we went at the end of the summer season to look for replacements for the tree that blew over in during a thunderstorm a couple of months ago. There was no one else there—in addition to being kind of a dead time for planting, we went an hour or so before closing—and all the red wagons they provide for their customers to hauls stuff around in while shopping had all been stacked up in rows in preparation for closing.

The upper image is one of my favorites that I've taken this year. I got it when Dodd, Julie, and I went to meet my mom and a couple of her friends down in Georgetown for lunch one Saturday. At the end of the meal, my mom ordered tea. When it came, they gave her a pot of hot water, a beautifully clear glass, and this bundle of herbs and leaves and flowers that had been tightly packed together. This bundle went into the glass, the hot water got poured on top, and for the next ten minutes it was like watching a flower blossom underwater while the tea was steeping. I took a ton of pictures, and I think this was the best angle (taken from directly above the glass), especially because the pristine white of the table linens serves to make the photo even more abstract.

I'm hoping to have the first batch of cruise photos ready for posting tomorrow so I can get back to my one new photo per day schedule, but if not, then it will certainly get done this weekend. But at least the photo people will have some new stuff to look at until then.

Now that I think about it, I can't actually remember if Dodd came with us when we went to meet my mom in Georgetown when I took the picture of the glass of tea that I'm so fond of. I went back in my blog because, you know, part of the reason I write this thing is so I don't have to actually keep everything in my brain, but either I'm doing an extremely poor job of searching my archives or I never bothered to write up that visit. Hopefully Dodd himself or Julie will remember whether he came with us or not...

Julie was away visiting her parents for the weekend, but I was still recovering from some sort of flu-like illness that's been going around the office lately, so I spent most of the time sleeping. I was going to work on processing my photos from our trip, but I ended up instead watching Kill Bill volumes 1 and 2 that I tivo'd a month or so ago and giving some neglected areas of the house a serious scrubbing. So the weekend wasn't entirely wasted I guess, but it drives me crazy being behind on my photos, especially when I probably have enough good ones to last me until well into the winter.

One of the dicey things about taking a cruise is the dinner assignments. They serve a fairly formal dinner each night (and they actually require you to dress in formal attire once or twice), and since almost all the tables seat four or six people, and all the seats are assigned by the ship, that means you are paired up with one or two other couples that you have to eat with every night.

On our last cruise, our honeymoon cruise, there clearly weren't very many people in our demographic: mid-20s, just married, educated professionals. As a result, we were paired with two couples who couldn't have been more different from ourselves or one another. The first were two spoiled high school kids who almost never spoke except to one another; the only thing I remember about them is that they usually arrived late and so were forced to take whatever seats were remaining. The other couple was an unmarried, mid-30s couple who were clearly there just to party, gamble, and drink as much as possible. The woman wasn't too bad, but the guy had a bad habit of sending back food after only a couple of bites and asking for another entree, sometimes working his way through the entire list of choices for the evening that way. No one else at the table really had anything in common with us, and none of them were good or pleasant conversationalists, so we spent most of our meals chatting with one another.

Since that was a four night cruise and this was a nine night cruise, getting poor table partners could have had a much bigger effect this time. True, there are other places on board to get dinner (food is available from some sort of buffet or dining room from 6 a.m. to 2:30 a.m., and if you for some reason get hungry when nothing is open, free room service is available 24 hours a day), but we really enjoy the atmosphere of the main dining room and the quality of service from the wait staff, so we try to have as many meals there as possible.

But we got lucky this time, ending up with two other couples who were similar enough to us that we had things to talk about but different enough that the conversations frequently lasted more than just a minute or two. The first couple lived about 20 minutes from us, and they were actually pretty similar to many of the people I knew in an engineering company I worked for a while back: husband is an engineer who works on government projects, while the wife stays at home and takes care of the house and domestic responsibilities. The woman was pretty quiet, but the man was very outgoing and talkative. The second couple were a few years younger than us and unmarried, but they had been together for several years and were clearly committed. They were also from Germany, and although they both spoke English fairly well, the guy was much more comfortable and fluent, so he often did much of the talking and would then translate back and forth for the girl.

We didn't grow close enough to either couple to exchange contact information or anything, but they were thorougly enjoyable dinner companions, and I honestly don't think we'll do much better than them on future cruises. Because of them, not only did we look forward to the food at each meal, but also the chance to get to know some new people a little bit better, which was a vast improvement from our honeymoon cruise ten years ago.

Two of my favorite new shows of the new fall season are both set behind the scenes on a sketch comedy show (i.e., Saturday Night Live): 30 Rock, a sitcom from former SNL head writer Tina Fey, and Studio 60, a more drama-oriented show from West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin. Both are aired by NBC, which also airs SNL, both shows are obviously drawing attention back to SNL, which has sucked mightily the past several years.

So you'd think that the folks at SNL might step up their game again, both to retain some of the audience that might be giving them a second chance as a result of the success of 30 Rock and Studio 60, and so that they don't continue to be easy targets for jokes from the writers of the two primetime shows.

But no, SNL still sucks as hard as ever; there have been sketches written for the other two shows, especially Studio 60, that are funnier than anything I've seen on SNL in years. You'd think they'd be ashamed of having a fake show about sketch comedy producing funnier bits than a real sketch comedy show, but apparently not. It underscores how much SNL has become an ossified cultural icon, as opposed to the living, reactive part of popular culture that it was in its various heydays.

One of the things I always liked about my current office was the lack of political shenanigans that I had to deal with to get my job done. Sure, we had our share of gossips, egomaniacs, and poor decision makers, but remarkably, almost all of them were pretty low on the hierarchy and had little to no power to affect the office as a whole or me and my team in particular.

I'm not sure what's changed about that recently, because we have essentially the same staff we've had for the past two or three years, but there has definitely been a change, and I'm spending way more time dealing with peripheral nonsense like consensus-building and staking out territory than I am just doing my job. Maybe it's just a case of pre-cycle jitters, or maybe some people are planning to leave next year and they're being more aggressive about trying to pump up their resumes, but whatever it is, I hope it doesn't last too long. There's nothing more irritating than having to spend time dealing with pig-headed windbags who are more concerned about taking credit for and controlling any project they're even remotely associated with instead of being able to do the job that I'm being paid for.

I spent most of my time today working on processing the first batch of photos from our cruise and catching up on my daily photo postings, so as a result, today you get to go back and look at those in the archives instead of reading more about the trip in this post.

In our office, the summer is when most teams take it easy and regroup from a relatively intense work cycle the rest of the year. May is when things start to settle down, June through August are pretty relaxed, and September is when things start to pick up again, and then everyone's pretty much in panic/slave mode until from October (when we really start to receive our first big batches of applications) to April (when we mail out our decision letters).

My team, however, has a pretty non-stop schedule—while everyone else gets to take it easy over the summer, we're busy working on projects that provide major efficiencies for the rest of the office, especially our operations team (who are responsible for the management of the applicant files, from data entry into our system to maintaining the physical files). During the busier parts of the year, we simply don't have time to work on projects like these—we're too busy doing the day-to-day work to keep all our systems up and running and writing all the reports that are needed on an almost daily basis during the cycle.

This year especially we've worked pretty hard, and next year promises to be even more intense, with the likely implementation of at least one major new system and a significant rewrite and reimplementation of our current database system. Already we've got projects planned out through February, and it's likely we'll start one of those new efforts shortly after that, which will easily carry us through the end of the summer.

I'm pleased that our work is so valuable, and I like that my staff doesn't have any dead weight on it, but still, it would be nice to have a break every now and then, especially since every other team gets a pretty significant one during the summer. I hate the idea of using tons of temps instead of hiring people full time, but honestly, with as overloaded as my team is and with the reduction in processing time that our work is producing for operations, it really makes sense to start thinking about adding another full-time person to my staff and replacing some of our full-time staff on other teams with seasonal temps—that way my team isn't so overburdened with work all year and we don't have full-time folks in other teams sitting around doing nothing for 4-5 months of the year.

It's not likely to happen in the next year or two, but it's going to have to happen sometime, because the demands on my group are getting bigger and bigger and there's very little chance that the university will add more staff members to the overall budget of our office.

But despite all this, there's one thing that makes me very happy about going into work these days: the steel structure for our building is finally being erected, and every day it becomes a little bit more complete. Less than a year from now, we'll be in a brand new building, my team and I will have a much bigger space with lots of natural light, and I, for the first time in my career anywhere, will have my own office with a window. Our space will also have desks for two additional employees besides the three we've got now, which might make it an excellent time to push hard for additions to my team, especially if we do as much work over the next 12 months as I expect us to.

We still don't have our pumpkins for tonight. We tried to get them Saturday night from the little nursery down the road where we have gotten our pumpkins since we moved here, but it was after 8 and they were closed. We went again yesterday immediately after work, arriving at the nursery before 7, and it was again closed. Normally that wouldn't be unusual for this time of year, except this place has always stayed open late on the days leading up to big holidays—I know for sure we got a pumpkin from them close to 9 a couple of years ago, and so I was fully expecting them to be open before 7 tonight.

So, we're going to have to leave work a little early tomorrow and hope that they're open then (I was a little concerned that they had left town for a family emergency or something, but there was no sign on the door to that effect when we looked last night). We can't find any place else in our area that still has pumpkins in stock, and they have a ton of them, so if they're still mysteriously closed, we're considering taking a couple and leaving a more than generous payment and a note before hurrying home to carve them before the neighborhood kids start to arrive around 6. Hopefully it won't come to that, but we're a little desperate at this point.
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