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Our First Dive

I hate keeping secrets from my wife.  But I’ve become very good at it. So when my mind was made up to surprise Amanda with a diving trip in the Bahamas, it was just a matter of saving the right amount of money so she didn’t notice a $300 check being cleared and avoiding making any other plans for the day I had booked.

The last part there was harder than it sounded, as Amanda asked me for two months if I’d found a sailing trip I wanted to go on.  But I kept it quiet, so much so even after the shuttle from Stuart Cove Dive Center, 25 minutes from Nassau,  picked us up and we checked in, she still wasn’t 100% sure.

The plan apparently was so secret the dive company didn’t even know. You see, after we checked in we were directed to a boat with several other couples. The boat had tanks, fins, dive masks, snorkels and several crew members — everything we needed. We pushed off and powered our way off the coast toward a reef known as the Hollywood Bowl.

The captain gave us a little talk about safety and our itinerary, then separated our groups. We had one guy who was getting certified in rescue diving, a couple doing SNUBA — like SCUBA but tethered to an air line — and one couple of snorkelers.

I felt something wasn’t right when we were directed to a boat and not the pool. You see, beginner dive lessons always start in a pool.  So as everyone was getting in the water, I talked to the captain. I had held on to the paperwork (just in case) and yep, we were on the wrong boat. It took a little time, but we got everything sorted out.  The company would send our instructor out to us and we would do our first dive lesson in the open water.

The sensation of breathing under water is not natural. The moment I put on the equipment and took the plunge I felt what I think is a natural reaction: anxiety. We began our basic lesson in the front of the boat, holding on to the tether line and using that to help us descend.

My heart was racing out of control, but my mind was the key. I knew that I was fine, that I just needed to breathe normally. So I closed my eyes as our instructor worked with Amanda and concentrated on my breath, in-out, in-out, in-out.

I will let Amanda take it from here…

After we descended, regulating the pressure in our ears every couple of feet, we showed our instructor we could perform a couple of key safety-related moves. We let a little bit of water into our masks and cleared it, and tossed our regulators over our shoulders (yeah, that was unnerving), and blowing little bubbles as we brought them back in front of us, getting them back into our mouths and purging the saltwater.

Amanda SCUBA Diving

Neither of us nailed all of the skills on the first try (anyone who’s met me won’t be shocked that I lack some coordination skills), but we got there. Then it was time to explore the beautiful blue water. We followed our guide, swimming through schools of fish and checking out the intricate coral growth. We’ve been snorkeling many times — and loved it — but the ability to swim with the fish rather than over them was incredible.

Zeke surprised me, all right. He’s full of surprises. And through nine years of marriage I’ve loved every one of them.

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We’re Doing The Bump…

JetBlue over Fort Lauderdale

JetBlue over Fort Lauderdale

Our most recent trip ended a little differently than we had planned. I found myself spending the night in Fort Lauderdale and Amanda was at home in our own bed in Pittsburgh.

This little story began with airplane that couldn’t fly, and was replaced by a smaller plane. The problem is when you use a smaller plane for a fully booked plane many people who have tickets no longer have seats. The airline, JetBlue, handled it the best way they possibly could; they politely asked for volunteers to be bumped from the flight. They guaranteed, in return, vouchers for future JetBlue travel.

The opening offer was for $500, along with a free hotel stay and transfer to and from the hotel, as well as rebooking on a later flight. Not too shabby, but this particular group of passengers was very determined to get home and no one stepped up to take one for the team.

The gate crew and then the flight crew made many, repeated attempts over the course of an hour and a half to get customers off of the plane — all while patiently dealing with customers eager to get on the plane who were still left at the gate.

Quick reminder: It gets you nowhere when you’re rude to the flight crew or the gate attendants.

You may feel like you’ve been wronged, but the gate attendants did not oversell the tickets and the flight crew did not break the plane. The craft was unsafe and they were doing the best they could with a back-up.

I’m told it’s JetBlue policy to swap out an inoperable plane with a larger one, but in our case there were no larger jets available.  I understand everyone has their reasons for needing to be at their destination on time. In our case, someone needed to get home to care for a starving cat (no, she wasn’t really starving — but you try to tell Storm that).

I kept looking over at Amanda as a bidding war broke out. The crew was determined to get volunteers for the bump, so they kept increasing the value of the vouchers. The price reached $800 and after looking at Amanda and making sure she was comfortable with the decision, I volunteered. I did feel guilty still leaving her on her own. But I know she travels for work and could easily make it home.

Our next vacation is $800 closer (if we fly with JetBlue). So for the inconvenience of flying the next day, and to Cleveland as opposed to Pittsburgh (they drove me the rest of the 2.5 hours home) I receive $800 in credit. I really do think that’s a fair trade.

I noticed a comical thing as I went through security in Fort Lauderdale. If you have ever seen Up in the Air with George Clooney, he makes several statements about who not to get in line behind at airport security (namely old people and children). Well, Fort Lauderdale is filled with both. People packing strollers, multiple children and grandparents — all of whom seem confused by the security apparatus.

I just kept my patience and knew I had plenty of time. The flight didn’t exactly leave on time. But what can you do? I was fortunate to be given a seat by the bulkhead with extra leg room, and unfortunate enough to be seated next to one of those couples who put on airs yet fly a budget airline. I promptly put my headphones in and tuned them out. If you have a bag that’s so expensive you’re worried it will be scuffed up in the overhead bin, don’t take it with you and don’t be so stupid to buy such a bag in the first place.

The $280 Cab Ride form Cleveland

The air travel in itself was unremarkable, which in my opinion is a very good thing. I deplaned in Cleveland and was given a voucher for taxi service. I was instructed to go to the taxi stand window near baggage control and show the woman in there the ticket. She directed me outside to the cab stand and I promptly asked which one of them drew the short straw since I was headed to Pittsburgh. The cabbie loaded up  my bags with a smile and we headed on our way.

I was very tired and fell asleep as we began our journey. I stirred around the halfway point as we hit the end of the Ohio Turnpike, where I paid the toll and then a mile later paid for the Pennsylvania Turnpike. I got to talking a little bit about travel and life with my driver, learning he was from Ghana (in East Africa), then New York, then — to get away from the noise of the city — he headed to Cleveland.

I don’t think seeing the Pittsburgh skyline has ever had me so relieved. I convinced him to drop me near our apartment leaving me to take the short walk to my own door for a welcome hug and the end of an interesting journey.

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Cleveland Rocks

When I got the go-ahead to attend Content Marketing World in Cleveland, Ohio, one of my first thoughts (aside from the work stuff) was of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I had never been Ohio, but the Hall has been in the middle of my ever-growing to-do (someday) list since it opened in 1995.

As luck would have it, the conference organizers arranged for the event’s opening night reception to be held at the Hall, so I got to explore it with 3,500 of my closest content marketing friends.

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Cleveland, Ohio

I grabbed a drink from the bar and wandered around the museum, delighted by the creative displays around every corner.

Of course, my personal mission was to track down every item on display from one of my favorite rock bands, Metallica. I found their signatures on the wall first (and texted photos to friends and family immediately — like you do).

Metallica Autographs


I snapped pictures of part of the massive display honoring The Beatles and sent them to the biggest Beatles fan I know:

Beatles Display

I knew Metallica had its own display at the Hall (they were inducted in 2009, Flea did the honors), but I was having trouble tracking it down. I asked one of the Hall staff-members for a little help, and he happily led me right to it (I had simply missed a turn in my wanderings).

The “artifacts” (as the Hall calls them) in the collection include one of James Hetfield’s guitars, two of Kirk Hammett’s, Jason Newsted’s shirt, pants and electric bass, and the Scales of Justice stage prop from their 1998 tour.

While the Metallica items were my absolute favorites, there’s something for everyone at the Hall. You can practice your lean next to Michael Jackson’s Smooth Criminal suit, or trace the technology that’s been bringing us all of these sounds from records and radios to CDs and iPods.

I was able to waltz right in to the Hall thanks to my Content Marketing World conference badge, but you can grab an adult ticket for $22 (kids 9-12 are $13, 8 and under are free with an adult ticket purchase). It’s money well spent for the opportunity to visit the artifacts from your favorite artists — and discover pieces from some of the other rock and roll greats.

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A Permanent Vacation … Someday?

I do a lot of travel planning and the down-side of most of the trips are that the visits are for only a limited time. You have to go back again and again to get a real sense of what it is like to live like a local.

The first trip, you are just wowed so much by what you see it’s hard to focus on the details. The second trip you do your best to pay attention to the details, but you still have the stress of figuring out a new place. The third (and most of us don’t get a second or third time) is where you finally can get to the point where you really get to know the place.

The easiest way to get to know a place is definitely to live there — to get a job and an apartment and live there.  You will learn things that a stay in a hotel for a week can’t teach you. Things like shopping, cooking, doing laundry, commuting to work, paying taxes, etc.

We, Amanda and I, have a lifestyle that lets us travel from time to time. We hope to get to a point where our entire lives are more portable, too. I’ve compiled a short list of places where I’d like to live in the future:

  • Mars: We are space nuts. We’d love to travel in space and explore new places. I’d love to gaze out at the wide open places, devoid of life, and take in the tranquility. Yes, the odds of us visiting Mars or even the moon are not very high. But we can dream, can’t we?

(Now for the serious part of the list)

  • Darwin, Australia: The capital city of the Northern Territory is small as far as cities go, with a population of around 140,000. The tropical seaside city is bordered by national parks and the sea. The city, destroyed twice once by the Japanese and once by a cyclone (hurricane to you east coasters), is considered one of the most modern cities in Australia. I like Darwin for its climate and location as a jumping off point for discovering southeast Asia as well as the rest of the Australian continent. It may be naive, but the thought of moving to a country with similarities to my own (language, for example) does put me somewhat at ease.
  • Kyoto, Japan: I chose this location for a couple different reasons, including history, population and industry. You see Kyoto has a population of 1.5 million people (compared to Tokyo with a population of 37.8 million). That makes Kyoto a small town by comparison. I’m drawn to Japan because its culture is so alien to my own. I’d be immersed in a culture that I don’t know a lot about, from food to customs. I don’t even like sushi, and that alone shows how little I know about Japanese cuisine — it can’t all be sushi. The move to Japan would push me outside of my comfort zone.

    Kyoto is known as the city of 10,000 shrines and has a history more than a thousand years old. The climate is moderate with an average low around 40 and high around 86, so that’s pretty comfortable.  The city is filled with universities and cultural landmarks. The city is slightly cheaper than Tokyo. It’s connected with the rest of the country by the extensive rail network, including the famous Japanese bullet trains that can get me to Tokyo quickly (for my manga and anime fix). I also like Japan because of cats. They have a strong love for the neko, just like me.

  • Sailboat, Caribbean: The third largest bundle of travel books in my collection have to do with people living on sailboats. My favorite is An Embarrassment of Mangoes, the tale of a Canadian couple that spent two years sailing the Caribbean Sea. If you’ve been following our blog you might have picked up on our love of sailing.  So, the chance to chuck it all and sail around the islands enjoying an eternal summer has quite the appeal.  I’ve planned and picked out the boats several times. I’d love to get something in the 40-foot range and make a living off of writing, supplemented by the occasional charter, getting a chance to explore and soak up the culture of each of the islands in that azure sea.
    Amanda fights her natural floating abilities.
  • Tuscany, Italy: We made a promise to each other years ago, maybe even unsaid on that first fateful trip, that one day we would live in Tuscany. I’ve even written short stories of our imaginary life in Tuscany, describing the ins and outs of our life there in a farm house that was painstakingly renovated by yours truly. We love Italy. We love the culture. We love the food. We truly want to be immersed in the world we’ve grown to love. I’d love to learn Italian and truly get to know the region we love not just as friends visiting, but as locals.
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I’ve Got Your Plug Right Here…

I remember in my early days traveling the world, the concept of what kind of plug adapter to use wasn’t one that I’d thought about very much. I don’t think we took one electronic device with us on our first trip. I had a book — you know, the kind made of paper — a journal (also made of paper), and a Pentex K1000 camera (completely mechanical).  At times I think that was better than the way we travel now, with gizmos galore. I mean, a tablet, laptop, GoPro, two phones, etc. — all so we can stay connected. We even broke down and rented the incredibly slow WiFi on Virgin Gorda, and we mean dial-up slow.

We know we aren’t the only ones wired to life, and the choice of what kind of plug and/or what kind of adapter to get for which destination can be confusing. I currently have an all-in-one, but figuring out what goes where can still be difficult.

The descriptions from major travel information sites like Frommers make suggestions like this for travelers going to Greece:

“Electricity — Electric current in Greece is 220 volts AC, alternating at 50 cycles. (Some larger hotels have 110-volt low-wattage outlets for electric shavers, but they aren’t good for hair dryers and most other appliances.) Electrical outlets require Continental-type plugs with two round prongs. U.S. travelers will most likely need an adapter plug and a transformer/converter. Laptop computer users will want to check their requirements; a transformer may be necessary, and surge protectors are recommended. But increasingly various appliances — including laptops and hair dryers — allow for a simple switch to the 220 volts.”

I work with electricity all the time, yet this is confusing for me. The terms aren’t even explained. What’s a continental-type plug? I can tell you that a 220 plug (like your washer or dryer has) is two parallel 110 circuits and would fry any other electronic device. That’s why those major appliances have special plugs.

We’ve always managed to muddle through, but I stumbled across WhatPlug.info the other day and was blown away at the simple concept.

The name says it all.  You go to this simple site and choose your home country, and then where you’re going. You get a page with — get this — pictures! Holy Crap!

Pictures of what the heck a continental plug is, or any other kind of strange plugging device. It even tells you what kind of adapter you’d need. This person should get a Nobel Prize for his or her contribution to the traveling community. When you tell the site you’re traveling to Greece you get this:

I mean, really. Genius. Hit this site before you hit the road and you’ll be ready to keep everything safely charged.

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Farm to Fork Frederick

IMG_3038 Where does your food come from? I’m not one of those “it’s gotta be organic” nuts that’s always evangelizing the benefits of organic food.  I pretty much don’t mind better living through chemistry, and am willing to eat food that has been made better and protected by science.

But I’m also one of the first people to tell you that supporting local farms is important, and not just because the green space they protect is pretty, or the cost of shipping food from a local farm is cheaper and better for the environment than bringing it in from anywhere else.  When you buy local you enrich the local economy and make the place you live an even better place to live, but helping to create jobs and opportunities for your neighbors.

So when Frederick decided to host a event called Farm to Fork we just had to get the message out. The 11-day event is a celebration of the rich farming heritage in Frederick County, Maryland. The restaurants that participate have strict guide lines for their Farm to Fork menus. The dishes offered must contain 60% locally sourced ingredients. You won’t be disappointed either, the menus aren’t just some lettuce and carrots grown in someone’s backyard. I may have mentioned before but Frederick, for its size, has an amazing restaurant scene with extremely talented chefs, each up to the challenge of taking the local fare and creating something spectacular.

A couple of examples are aged Gouda-stuffed jumbo shrimp with smoked bacon wrap and roasted jalapeno aioli. If the jalapeno aioli sounds a little spicy for your palate, how about a goat feta and heirloom tomato salad with a white truffle crème fraiche, basil, and avocado powder.

The local-sourced menus don’t just stop at veggies and meat, because no meal is complete without a little vino or beer. The wines and brews had to meet the same standards as the food, so the hops, barley, and grapes all are grown in the surrounding hillsides and valleys. The vineyards in our area are growing and the region is being recognized for producing some outstanding wine.  I’d put the merlot we produced from our own vineyard up against any major bottler this year.


The dates for this geographic gastronomic event are August 28th through Labor Day,  for a complete listing of participating restaurants and a peek at their menus go to the Farm to Fork Frederick website.

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Get Crabby…

Steamed Crabs and Mallets to "get crackin' with"

Steamed crabs and mallets to “get crackin’ with”

Regions of the United States all come with an attachment to food, a food they each think they do better than anyone else.  The deep south has grits and fried chicken, Texas has tex-mex, New England has clam chowder and both Chicago and New York claim pizza.

We Marylanders claim crabs. We can steam, crack, pick, or cake them like no one’s business. The crab is key to Maryland culture; the state tourism site has pages of information on the Great Places to Eat Maryland Blue Crab. Heck, the Blue Crab is the state’s official crustacean, and how may states have an official crustacean? We will even eat them whole, shell and all (when we catch a soft shell, that is). So we celebrate our love of crustaceans with crab festivals.

I know it may be a little late but the biggest festival is the Chesapeake Crab & Beer Festival, which boasts it’s the largest one of its kind in the world. The annual festival is held in two locations, one at the beginning of the summer in June, and the other at the end of the summer in August. The June festival is held in the Inner Harbor, Baltimore (founded 1729). The August festival is held in the National Harbor (founded 2008), which is slowly becoming a place to enjoy an evening by the water with some quality food.

The end-of-summer festival has morning and evening sessions that run from 11am -3 pm and 5pm -9pm. You buy a ticket and get an all-you-care-to-taste experience, including more than 50 craft brews, live music and thousands of chairs, tables and mallets for you to get cracking. Did I mention there will be crabs to eat?

The festival steams more than 60,000 crabs. So let’s do some crab math.

There are 6 dozen large male crabs to a bushel (large basket), 72 crabs, which means the festival will go through 833 bushels. You need 12 crabs to create a pound of meat so that means you have 5,000 pounds of crab meat, or the potential to make 10,000 crab cakes.  You get 36 teaspoons in a can of Old Bay, a necessity of any crab cake recipe, and you use only 1 tsp per cake.  So that’s a minimum of 277 cans of Old Bay seasoning.

You still have time to head over to National Harbor on Sunday, August 23rd if you live in the DC area.  The website says they are sold out, but I spoke to the promoter and he said they have plenty of tickets left for purchase at the door. The best advice would be to bookmark the festival page in you browser and keep checking back so you can make a weekend of it in Baltimore or National Harbor next year.


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