Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Aha Moments

A recurring thing in my life is to be napping or zoning out in a meeting or dreaming at night, and a great truth is revealed to me - I get a great revelation that solves some big problem or creates a new opportunity.   I come out of my reverie excited and vow to remember this very very important new information...   only to realize that as it dissolves back into the ether that it makes no sense.

I've been mystified by these false Aha moments, but I think I finally have an answer:  In my everyday life, I solve problems regularly - I have great ideas, insights present themselves.  To get there, I tap into a creative source, the same place I get music from - a creative reservoir - I think of it as "the blue", and when I'm well connected to it, it really helps me every day.

I think that the Blue is not a personal resource, but a shared one.  I think about how often that you hear that "I had a great idea, and it turns out some other guy started a company JUST before I did - dang it!" or how you might have an insight, and then see it as emerging in other posts on Facebook.  It feels like sometimes there's a lot of shared insight - and maybe it's just pattern recognition, or maybe it's insights from a shared place.

I'd like to believe that when I get a new idea from the Blue, it's on me to act on it, or it will pass along to someone else.  The Blue wants ideas out there, and if someone is just taking them but not acting on them, the blue moves them along.

So my working theory is that when I have these False Aha moments, it's actually because I'm idly dipping my mental toes into the Blue in a receptive state, and am overhearing someone else's aha.  But my brain tries to put it into the context of what I'm thinking about, and I get the benefit of Aha, but none of the relevance or meaning.  I'm overhearing an idea without context.

This one has been knocking in my brain for a week, and I just wanted to type it out.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Other Thoughts

Random thoughts from the NAMM floor: 

Some devices looked cool, but I was completely unable to figure out how they worked:  The Dave Smith TEMPEST drum machine, the Korg Electribe, the Elekton AnalogDrums - all tech that I think looks cool, but beyond hitting stop and start, couldn't work out how to change patterns, highlight instruments, change sounds..   it may just be something where the manual MUST be consulted, but I try to fancy myself a knowledgeable techie, and not to have ANY idea how to work these was a bit off putting (naturally it's their problem, not mine…. HA!)

There was a huge renaissance in modular synths, between Moog, Vermona, Buchla, Dave Smith (Again), Oberheim, Doepfer, and so many others.  Mini and maxi racks of modules with cables patched all over the place.  Most of the sounds coming from these areas were very beep-boop-bloop-skssssssshhhhh.  I walked up to one and started to play with it - and spent the better part of a minute trying to figure out how to get the wailing siren sound to stop going.  I took off the headphones and walked away - this is not anything I need to concern myself with.  I saw online that I had only just missed Martin Gore of Depeche Mode, who was apparently quite impressed with the same unit.  I am at peace with not knowing this technology.

Rows and rows of extremely high end microphones - my friend Steve had me put on headphones and insisted I sing a little into one of his favorite mics and hear how amazing it sounded.  It sounded like me singing badly in a noisy tradeshow, but I concede it represented that sound VERY ACCURATELY.

There were a thousand variations of a simple theme - a set of glowing pads you plug into your computer to make the drum sounds with your fingers.  I get it.  And nobody could explain why THEIR version was any better or worse than anyone else's.

There was an alternate keyboard called a "Seaboard" - it looks like a keyboard that has been pooped out - it is black, and squishy:  The idea is that you can change the sound by pressing into the soft key - adding a new layer of pressure sensitivity.  I played it briefly and ran screaming looking for Purell:  The thing belonged in a David Cronenberg movie and was PROFOUNDLY CREEPY.

Booth Babes seem to be on the wane, thankfully - I only saw them at 2 booths - one for a DJ lighting booth company, and one for a second-tier heavy metal guitar company (who proudly had Playboy Bunnies at the booth signing guitars, and a huge throng of iPhone wielding fans).  Mostly, it was guys who looked almost exactly like me, earnestly talking about their cool toys.  That's just nice. 

There was one booth of electric guitars that had a distinctively weathered look - they all looked like they had been buried for 50 years, dug up and just had the dirt blown off.  Post apocalyptic guitars - I actually really liked them. 

That's it for now…    

NAMM 2015 Part 2

Steve was on a plane to Asia, but I hooked up with his friend Jerry:  Jerry was an electrical engineer who designed data centers for hospitals back in the day - we chatted about several Houston-area clients we both knew - as well as an incredible keyboardist:  Steve had told me about him 20 years ago, and it was fun to finally meet him:  He now is a full time musician, playing piano on cruise ships and in lounges near his home - he relies on technology, but is very non-technical in his music - never wants to use a computer, just wants good keyboards that make good sounds with a minimum of fuss.  Steve has pressured him for years to get digital, but he's resisted.  Today at NAMM, his white whale was to scour the floor looking for SOMEONE who will make a specific type of floor pedal set so he can play baselines with his feet….  His specific requirements are actually pretty esoteric, and it was fun to watch him talk to the reps and get them to finally understand what and why….

For me, it was about revisiting my favorite booths and going deeper on a few things:  Here's what I loved today:

Of course I went back to the Prophet booth - and played those beautiful synths for quite a while.  I really connected with them, and if I can be said to have one gearlust thing, it's for the Prophet 12.  It's just amazing. 

Right next door was the Moog booth, and I had a chance to watch a legend:  Suzanne Ciani is a synth pioneer who helped create some of the first electronic product IDs - the singing coke bubbles, the beeping GE dishwasher ads:  She formed an ad agency, made a shedload of money in the 1980s, and then retired to do new age music…. But she's famous for her 1970s and 1980s appearances on Letterman and 321 Contact where she explained the coolness of synths….  She was at the Moog booth and did an impromptu concert on the giant modular synths.  I was thrilled.

Around the corner I found a booth by Modus:  This is a red haired synth freak named Paul Maddox who was a total PPG nut like I was, and built his own "versions" of the PPG in the dark days when Waldorf was not doing very well…. He got funding and has made his own beautiful synths called the Modulus 002 - his backer refers to it as "The Aston Martin of Synths" and it is just beautifully made, with a huge distinctive sound.  While I was there, the guys from Waldorf were there praising him for keeping the dream alive.  If I had a spare $5k, I wouldn't mind having that great synth but alas, priorities.  They were just so friendly and kind, I felt like staying there all afternoon.

Up in the Roland booth, I was paying more attention to their marketing - turns out they're making a BIG play at having their entry level electronic drum kits targeted at KIDS - the videos, and in the demo booths were 9-11 year olds hitting the skins.  It inspired me to make sure my kit at home is set up and ready for Isaac, since he said he wants to play.   I played with their other synths, and was just… meh….

I visited the "basement" which is where the smaller companies are, and chatted up French software makers, custom guitar guys, and appreciated the "fringes" of the music industry - these were guys trying to break in, and had good, boutique products. 

I wandered into the DJ and Lighting area - got my fill of smoke machine fog, but it was fun to see how much these little units can do now with lasers and LEDs - so much more flexible than the lights I used to run at the Rogue nightclub in Minneapolis in 1993…

Bottom line:  It was so much fun to be at the show, and I kept my gear lust in check - literally the only things I would have a hard time resisting were the Modulus and the Prophet.  And neither would ever leave my studio - they're as much art as instrument. 

I had a food truck lunch of SAUSAGES, and in the line chatted with two Taiwanese ladies who really wanted to work on their English - we had a fun talk about running, half marathons (proudly told them about Pamela's run), how cold MN can be, how Tokyo is so cool, but how Taiwan is cooler….  It was a fun way to pass the time in a very long line.

We left after 6 hours, and I got a short nap in - to recover from a horrible night where my neighbors literally did not go to sleep the entire night, and boy were they chatting and laughing.  I called the front desk 4 times on them - and was not very well rested.  But now I'm caught up, and need to consider what to do with my evening.  I might just go find an in-n-out burger and a movie theater, or just chill out - no big ambitions. 

And that's the update - I need to get to the airport by noon tomorrow, so I'm thinking of what I can do between now and then.  I may not have big plans. 

Thursday, January 22, 2015

NAMM 2015

Sometime long long ago (maybe 2001 or 2002) I was invited to a tradeshow for musical instrument manufacturers called NAMM.  This is a twice-a-year event, but the January show is well known as the time when every manufacturer shows off the newest coolest stuff.  And even in cases where the gear isn't particularly NEW, it's a place to see EVERYTHING that is out there. 

I was invited by my friend Steve.  I had met Steve back in 1992 when I was doing midi backing tracks for a living - Steve was a personal client who liked music by Phil Collins, Kenny Rogers, La Cage aux Follies, and John Denver.  I arranged 5 or 6 tracks for his live show (he sang and played guitar, my tracks did the drums, strings, bass, and everything else).  Steve and I decided we liked each other, and as we both moved forward in our lives (me moving into IT consulting, he moving into music tour management), we kept in touch with an annual call.

So in 2001 (or 2002) Steve called and said "hey, let's go to NAMM - I got us some badges".  The show's not open to the public, so you need to be sponsored - back then it was Taylor Guitars that had us as guests (Steve's a huge guitar nut, and had bought a dozen guitars from them over the years).  We only went for one day, but it was one of the most magical days of my geek life - I shot a hundred pictures, played with every single synch, chatted up the manufacturers, and generally had a wonderful time.  

Fast forward to 2015, and Steve called up last month - "I got passes, let's go to NAMM".  In the intervening years, I got higher up in consulting, and he moved into strangely stratospheric levels of the music business.  He had something to do with the Hologram Tupac Shakur (he claims he didn't do any of the design or creative, but he was brought in to land the project and get it working in time for the show at Coachella).  He got the passes, but could only spend one day - he's flying out in the evening to go to Kuala Lumpur to meet a new K-Pop sensation to prepare for their tour of the US.  This is how he rolls.

SO, Pamela and I talked it over, and I said YES, HELL YES I will go to gear Disneyland.  And it is Disneyland - it's in the Anaheim convention center right next to Disneyland.  I got a flight, a hotel, a car, and time off from building the new business....

I flew in late last night, got about 6 hours of sleep, and Steve picked me up bright and early (he was worried about parking, thought getting there 90 min before doors opened would be the smart move). We had a leisurely breakfast and hit the show floor.

It was just as crazy as I remembered it:  If anything it felt a little more hectic, but that may be 14 more years of age on my bones not tolerating the muss and fuss.  That said, Steve and I actually look almost identical to how we did back then - a little more gray, but we are essentially the exact same.  Same can't be said for some of the very strange and creepy big-hair rockers with conspicuous baldspots and obvious plastic surgery.  There was one guy who I swear looked exactly like my dad, but with a leather skull cap and floor length leather duster, trying out acoustic guitars.  (Dad, was that you?)

Steve loves gear even more than I do - with the added lust for very expensive acoustic guitars - he is clearly planning to buy a $12,000 Martin guitar sometime in the next month.  The way he was looking at that thing was flat out INDECENT.  But Steve is also a king schmoozed - he was making connections with the "artist relations" people at all of the manufacturers - the artists he work with will publically use gear, but we only ask for a discount - not freebies.  And of course he was whispering to me the whole time "Do you want one of those?  I could get you that for half off - just say the word".

I am really in a different place right now with gear:  I do acknowledge lustful thoughts, but now that I'm playing with bands, I have a much more realistic view of what I want vs what I need:  I may love that gorgeous keyboard, but I don't want to schlep it out to a gig.  That mixer looks nice, but hey, my band already has one, and if I bought one, I'd be the one responsible for bringing it and setting it up...   So while Steve is a wonderful devil on the shoulder, I've got a lot more realism about gear.  He also has roadies at his beck and call - his gear gets set up for him.  It'll be a few years before Isaac is ready to move my stuff for me. 

THAT all said, there were a few things that I loved, and here they are:

One of the first lust-worthy keyboards from the late 1970s was the Sequential Prophet 5 - Dave Smith designed it, and it was THE keyboard to have.  I never had one, but I respected them.  Well, Dave Smith has a big booth and a lot of very nice instruments - including the Tempest drum machine, the Prophet 12 and Pro-2 Synthesizers, and the new Prophet 6 all-analog.  I spent a LOT of time in that booth playing those things - they would incredible, and they FEEL like well crafted machines - made in the USA with heavy metal fittings and smooth turning knobs...  I am in love with these instruments...  but if I were to get one, it would never leave the house - this is for the studio only.

One of the big manufacturers, KORG, has taken a lot of chances in the past year, and have surpassed old peers Yamaha and Roland in their innovation.  I have a Korg KingKorg synthesizer which sounds great (not as great as a Prophet, truth be told), and I've enjoyed seeing what they're building.  WELL, they just rebuilt a classic synth from the 1970s called the ARP Odyssey - circuit for circuit - and I spent 15 minutes playing with it - it was really cool.

My go-to synths in the 1990s were from Waldorf:  Their founder, Stefan, was there at NAMM in a TINY booth - they've become more of a small boutique group now, but he was showing me his newest IPAD application, which replicates my favorite drum synth they built in 1989 called the Attack.  He took my info and wants me to help test it - so that will be very fun.

I know it sounds like all I like is the Retro, but in truth, it's more about having that immediate access to knobs and sliders and having tools to quickly shape the sound.  The fact that manufacturers are coming back around to that is what makes me so happy. 

There were more than a few "meh" moments:  Steve was talking non-stop about these in-ear molded earphones that people are using for stage monitoring - how the sound is just incredible.  We spent 30 minutes at a booth where he was just chatting them up about the tech, and I was pressured into trying on a pair - they plugged it into this proprietary $2500 iPod (with super duper converters or something) - I listened to a few songs while Steve kept on schmoozing.  The earphones are custom fitted and cost up to $2500 as well.  So I was listening to Steely Dan "Deacon Blues" on $5000 of equipment.  And to tell the truth, it sounded ok... but it did not actually blow my mind. 

I went up to see the Roland booth - I usually like their stuff, but was a bit put off by their new JD-Xi, which as far as I can see is EXACTLY the same thing as two other manufacturers have had out for 4 years (the Novation MiniNova and Korg MicroKorg) with a garish LED job - trailing not leading.  They had a new "flagship" synths on a pedestal (not functioning), and the one other piece of gear that looked promising was hooked up wrong and the keyboard didn't work, so I couldn't even try it. 

The most exciting thing at the Yamaha stand was their "40 years of Synths" museum section - which was basically the same as the "25 years of Synths" section they had last time I was at NAMM.  Their old gear is much cooler than anything they're doing now. 

After 6 hours of padding about, we were both tired, so we headed out and had dinner at Steve's all time favorite restaurant - the Chicken Dinner restaurant at Knott's Berry Farm.  Yep.  I had fried chicken, biscuits, and boysenberry pie.  He dropped me back at the hotel and hightailed it to the airport for 18 hours of flights (14 to Hong Kong, then 4 more to Kuala Lumpur).

I have another full day I can be there, and will be meeting one of Steve's other old friends there, to give him the lay of the land...   It will be another fun gear-filled day, and there are a whole lot more things I can't wait to see...   More as it happens!

There were a few  

Thursday, December 11, 2014

It's busy

In my new world, I now have 6 active email accounts:

- One for the work I'm doing in Care Transitions
- One for my work with the Evidence-Based Report Company
- One for my legacy work with Aspen
- One for my new Company
- One for my personal email
- One for notifications from sales places (Amazon, Apple, Etc)

It's crazy. I'm going to work to only work in one calendar at least. Now, they don't all have a lot of traffic (except my personal email and my legacy Aspen account which has been locked onto by spam-bots and gets about 75 trash messages a day). But it's still a lot to think about.

I'm in full ramp-up mode with the new business and it's exciting. I sat with one of my partners, Paul, earlier this week, and we talked about all of the opportunities we have cooking - we ran out of time before we got to the last of them. 2015 will be wild, but 2016 will be when I take over the world.

But it's not all about work: Life is busy otherwise too - the kids in full school mode, the holidays cooking up… My delightful in-laws just closed on a house and will be living just 8 minutes from us as soon as next week: I'm in mourning over losing my excuse for going to eat horrible Chicago hotdog food, but am very happy to have them nearby.

I'm taking a break from playing music with the band for December, but I did get the studio set back up (after being shoved to one end of the basement to allow access to the holiday decorations). Got it all back together last night and celebrated with an hour of playing.

Monday, December 08, 2014

A Perfectly Good Airplane

For the past year, I've been having forbidden thoughts about work - grumbling and dissatisfaction that I've needed to keep inside my brain and off the blog on the very off off off chance that someone from my company was going out to read it. I know that's a long shot - with very few updates in the past 2 years, this isn't exactly TMZ. But still, I didn't want to upset the apple cart.

I don't know when my work changed from fun to fun-but-tolerable to tolerable-with-mitigating-fun to tolerable. It was gradual, clearly. There were some frankly terrible times - my year in Cleveland was just horrible. But some very good times as well: I will recall my trips to Johnson City TN fondly for the pizza and BBQ, if not the client. But sometime just over a year ago, something clicked in my brain that said "move on".

I took some strong steps - I spent time with a career counselor (the wonderful George Dow) and he helped me figure out a few very important things: First, I am happiest in a small group where I can be a star. Second, I thrive in the informal and love to manage chaos. Third, structure and stability (in work) bore me and I look to leave. This mapped to my career, pointing to happy times (forming the DW team at Express) and grumpy times (being the director of that group and managing the team). It explained why I was growing unhappy at Aspen - we had grown to over 70 people, and needed to put management in place to enforce standards, build predictability, consistency. We weren't scrappy anymore, we were the leaders.

It also helped me work out what I would NOT do well at: For years I've watched ineffectual hospital IT leadership, and thought "I could do this better" - I've been entranced with the idea of taking what I know about all aspects of healthcare IT and bringing it to a hospital, having my coordinated vision leap them forward. With George's help, I realized this is a TERRIBLE idea - The dream of making change is fine, but to be an Executive in one of these places is fundamentally NOT a job I have the temperament for. I got no time for all of the budget, management, and minutae that make up 90% of the job, only to have that 10% where my vision could make a difference (assuming the rest of management would accept the vision).

I was forced to really think about what I'd really like to do, and the answer came back: Pretty much what I do already, but without any airplanes, and without the growing bureaucracy. But I challenged myself to add to the dream - If money was no object, what would I do? I'd design software to make patients and care givers lives a bit easier. I know there's not a lot of money in startups, but I got to thinking what if there was a way to combine my loves?

That's jumping ahead: A year ago, I started to realize I needed to move. So I started saving, and started networking, and began the long process of telegraphing my exit. I actually talked about this with my boss a year ago - told him the process I was going through, and let him know there was a good chance I'd be moving on. That was a risk, but a good one I think. Because I also wanted to make sure I did this whole thing ethically - I didn't want to leave anyone in the lurch or have to lie.

So I focused on building out a second layer below me - so that when I left, my managers would be able to take over. I reduced the number of projects I was directly engaged in. I made myself more unavailable outside of core hours… I started laying the groundwork for a world without Jimmy. It felt strange, but also liberating.

This was unbelievably stressful, by the way. There's a saying about skydiving: Who would jump from a perfectly good airplane? There's another, saltier anecdote from my past - in the 1990s slinging COBOL for a life insurance company, there was a chain smoking programmer named Eric: We were talking about the upcoming Y2K programming efforts, and he was amazed at the money that was on offer: "Hell, for that kind of money, I'd blow dogs". It's relevant to my story, because whatever frustrations I might have had, it could not have been denied that I was making GREAT money, and would be for the foreseeable future. Who would walk away from that?

In the stress, I grew to have some awareness of patterns in my own behavior - when stressed, I'd spend. When stressed, I'd get sarcastic. I wouldn't share my feelings, would keep a stiff upper lip and say "everything's fine". Earlier this year, we went to therapy to figure out that it wasn't all fine, and I started to get a grip on my reactions. It opened a floodgate to let us deal with years of poor communication and assumptions. I know that if we hadn't had our flashpoint and started seeking therapy, I could never have continued with my plans to move on with work - that would have been too much chaos for us to handle.

As an adjunct, we went to see Ruth Hayden, who is a regular guest on MPR, and she helped us identify money patterns we both have, and the historical and emotional roots in these behaviors. I spent a lot of time looking into the brain of me as a kid, and started to realize what was going on then, and how that behavior translated to a 47 year old man buying lego sets when he feels unstable. It was eye-opening.

SO - solid guidance - career counseling, personal counseling, money counseling… it all helped build a very strong foundation. I'm not 100% there yet, but I got to a point in mid-summer when I realized that even with the counseling, the job still needed to change - it was a major life stressor and dissatisfaction piece. Oh man did I want to just QUIT. But we worked together to sit tight and get plans together for the big move: Don't jump FROM, jump TO. The only problem was, there was a limit to how much TO I could build while still in the FROM.

In early Fall, the wheels started turning for my company to merge with another company. This would be my opportunity to get out with a payout, which could fund my next move. All the pieces started to come together: I knew what I wanted to do, I had some partners to do it with, I was in a better place with money and emotions, and most importantly, I had new tools for communicating with my love. We just needed to keep our heads down until the company sold, and then jump ship.

Ah, but remember that part about "Ethically?" In the process of joining the companies, I got to know the other company, and I came to realize that it would send a terrible message to have us merge and THEN have me leave. It would be better to have me leave BEFORE the merger for my own reasons, let them control the narrative, and then have it be old news when it came time to announce the merger to the whole team. I went to the owner and let him know my decision.

I'd love to say it all came together perfectly: In truth, there was a whole lot of ugliness in the merger process - and I don't think that the relationships between the partners of our old company will ever be mended. I will say that I am grateful to all of my partners for banding together to ensure I did get a payout (which was at risk for a time). It says something to me that the night of the merger, 4 weeks after I announced my resignation, the owner of the NEW company called me and sent me a bottle of champagne. I still haven't had a conversation with the old owners.

And now I'm 5 weeks into my new world. I have a new company name, I've been working on projects, but I've also NOT been full time billable - I wanted to give myself a little time to get things arranged. I have been networking with friends, seeking out some great new larger-scale opportunities, and I'm frankly amazed at the amount of interesting work that is out there: This is work that I could never have got at my old company - it's just a bit too far outside of the mission…

I have not had a single minute of regret in finally making the move - one of the first things I did was take George Dow out to lunch and bring him up to speed. We toasted our iced teas at a year well spent. It's been a ton of work.

My new company is called Covalent Health Solutions: In chemistry, Covalent Bonds are where atoms share electrons - strength through sharing and cooperation. It seems right as I set out to "do what I am good at doing" in a company that works the way I want it to work. The bonds are family, love, ethics, integrity, and joy.

Hopefully it won't be as long before another update - I'm not sitting on my thoughts anymore - I'm not afraid of any bosses finding out anything, I'm secure in my decisions and my plans for moving forward. I can share again.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Quincy Caesar and the Desolator

This one stuck with me for a couple of days: My family was in Portland visiting my friend Caesar Filori, in a very cool glass high-rise - he had a very swanky apartment and while it's sunny outside, there are windows tinted so it always looks like sunset. The apartment is not unlike Frasier Crane's one from the sitcom, with a conversation pit and a dining room table against a wall of windows.

Caesar has surgically altered his appearance to look like a 50-ish Quincy Jones, but it's still Caesar in there. He did it for the love of a woman, a 50+ old black woman with a shaved head and wearing a dashiki - she must be a poet or something. There are pictures throughout the apartment of the two of you - one him serenading her with a saxophone, another a close up of her smiling with him kissing the top of her bald head. Big silver hoop earrings.

After dinner he asks if we want to go on a cruise - I say "sure!" and he smiles and press a button on the dinner table: The entire apartment is jettisoned suddenly out the front glass, which retracts - and I realize the apartment is actually a vehicle - a huge vehicle.

Now, this vehicle is way too big for the roads, but fortunately there's a network of roller-coaster rails strung across the city, going over roads, sideways up buildings, looping around corners - the apartment is tearing ASS through town toward the river. I realize that there's a word for this sort of vehicle - it's a "desolator" - designed to move away from the storms and droughts that global warming is bringing - it's both a response to the crisis, and an accelerator.

The dream ends with you piloting the apartment onto a canal, deploying a hovercraft skirt, where it joins a procession of other desolators of varying sizes (Caesar's is one of the smaller ones), headed toward a futuristic silver city in the distance.

And that's where the dream ended.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Spring Break 2014: Update Five – A Day at Sea, Castaway Cay, and the trip home

Thursday:  Day at Sea

Well, Pirate night proved exhausting for Bella – while most of us woke up a little late, Miss Bella was zonked.  After all of the activity the night before, we decided to let her sleep in, and Pamela left her a series of post-it notes around the cabin to let her know where we were and what she could do with herself.  We took Isaac up to breakfast, and dropped him at the Oceaneers Club…

It sounds like we’re foisting him off every time I write that, but there are two key details:  First, it’s where he WANTS to be – he has been asking to be checked in non stop all trip, and Thursday at Sea we told him he could be at the club as much as he wanted to be…  which meant pretty much all day.  Second, the Club is really cool:  There are a lot of counselors in there, and they make sure the kids mix things up:  I’ve seen Isaac playing “gaga ball” – which is a catch-game on a touch-sensitive floor somehow…   Playing video games…  but also sitting with a counselor and 3 other kids playing Uno or Apples to Apples.  They make sure kids are engaged.  So it’s ALMOST like school.  So for those reasons, while it almost felt like cheating to drop him off, it was a wonderful thing for him.

Bella would go in there too, and she’d opt for the more guided art and cooking activities…   and she especially loved sitting with a counselor and helping younger kids with their projects.  She’s a great teacher’s helper, and she had that “serene” face on…  but she also had check-out privileges and went to some pin-trading events (swapping Disney lacquered pins with the crew!). 

So why were we so interested in getting Isaac checked in, and leaving Bella to her own devices?  We had another grown-up meal at Palo with the dashing Ian – BRUNCH.  It was a buffet plus prepared dishes:  Ian walked us through ALL of the offerings on the buffet, telling us what was special and what we could miss…   and the chef came out to talk to me about what had walnuts.  They were very concerned and wanted to make sure they wouldn’t kill me (I kept telling them it’s a MILD allergy, but you don’t mess with litigation).  We buffet'ed and had a few dishes prepared as well, and enjoyed the Prosecco too.  It was a wonderful two hours.

We hooked up with Isaac and Bella after our brunch and we had a pleasant light lunch (or more to the point, watched them eat) before teaming up to finish up the video mystery (Rizzo the Rat did it, but there are actually several endings possible) and started the “who kidnapped the Dalmatian puppies mystery” – spoiler alert, it wasn’t Cruella this time!  We didn’t get a chance to finish that mystery, because Isaac wanted to be back in the Oceaneer club, and Pamela and Bella wanted to go to a Towel folding class…  They learned how to do the Monkey on a hanger, the Elephant, and the Rabbit.  Isaac was excited to be at the Club because they had some interactive time with Crush the turtle from Nemo – talking to them.  Me?  I got a run in.

I got to take three 5k runs during the week – twice outdoors on the Deck 4 track, and once on a machine.  Thursday was a pretty choppy day on the seas, and Pamela spent a little time with her feet up waiting for the Dramamine to take hold.  It was way too windy on deck 4, so I tried the treadmill up on deck 11, and it felt like the elevation on the treadmill just kept randomly engaging – the bumpy sea added quite the element of surprise to what is usually a pretty predictable run.

Dinner was at Animators again – we TOTALLY lucked out by getting Animators three times in our trip – and this night we were greeted with a piece of paper asking us to draw a character:  At the end of the night, we were shown an animation showcase of our characters walking, jumping, and dancing around – it was completely amazing – and each area of the restaurant had their own set of drawings going – so somehow they scanned about 1000 of these things in and inserted them into a very cool template.  It was a pure delight to see.  While we ate (before the animation showcase) they showed footage of just about every single food-related moment in every Disney movie:  I know they could have just shown Ratatouille, but it was well represented. 

Would it shock you to hear that Isaac wanted to go back to Oceaneers after dinner?  Or that Pamela and Bella went to see yet another live show?  I took some quiet time in the 12th floor bar (big overstuffed leather chairs and couches looking out the stern of the ship) and enjoyed a Macallan 18 while blogging about Tuesday and Wednesday and letting myself relax.  I was supposed to get Isaac to bed around 830 so that we’d be well rested for Friday, but when I went to pick him up, I heard he was out on a Field Trip:  They brought him down to another theater (the ship is filled with them!) to an interactive show called Mirror Mirror, with a few of the Seven Dwarves and the Magic Mirror from Snow White – I peeked in and saw Isaac in the front row, on the edge of his seat with a huge smile on his face…  and I decided that we’d deal with Friday on Friday, and he needs to enjoy this. 

We all made it back to the room at almost the same time, shared stories about our evening, and got down to rest for a big day…  

Friday:  Castaway Cay

First, a correction to my last update – Apparently Cay is pronounced “Key” – so we went to Castaway Cay, not Castaway Key.  And not Quastaway Quay either.  (Seriously, Quay is pronounced Key too?  What’s UP with that?)

We woke up to find the boat executing a massive 3 point turn to BACK into the docking area for Castaway Cay – a Disney-managed island in the Bahamas.  The only people allowed here are Disney cruisers, and they get 2 visits a week, and the rest of the time to groom and clean.  The shops and food stands are run by the ship crew (Darma our server was flipping burgers).  5000 people descended on the area as it opened at 9, and stayed until the ship pulled away at 530. 

There are 2 major swimming beaches, a cool water slide complex, and a private “adults only” area with dining, bars, and beaches that we will need to take on faith “exists”.  We got off the boat by 10, found a shady spot on a beach (under a palm tree), and raced off to swim and play.  90 minutes later after a few rides down the water slide and a lot of splashing in the water, we went to the BBQ area for burgers, dogs, and tropical fruit (I ate a whole lot of fresh mango and papaya), then right back to the beach to build a sand version of our ship (no pictures on that – it was either our ship, or a hot dog).

I worked up a thirst and went to grab a beer from one of the many stands (also selling smoothies and girl-drinks), and discovered it was two-for-one.  Well, I did not need two, and Pamela didn’t want one, so I walked up the beach, found a guy with a red face and a friendly demeanor, and offered it to him.  He was genuinely appreciative, and I’m sure he’ll have a hell of a story for his twelve step group next week (“It was hot on the beach and this guy just GAVE it to me…”). 

Time flew by on that beach – we were shocked to find 5 hours had passed and it was time for our “schedule activity” – feeding and petting stingrays!  We were grouped around floating feeding platforms – the 70+ de-barbed stingrays in the lagoon knew to swim up for food, and we took turns with pieces of squid and shrimp, as these slimy cool creatures swam up and chomped the food one nipped my finger and it felt like a nutcracker - flat ridged "bars" instead of teeth - not painful at all.  We were encouraged to pet them (SOFT!), and they all had names (I think the guy was making them up on the spot, but he showed us identifying marks he uses to discern them).  We had a presentation on how they’re humanely captured – many rescued from nets and injured, and allowed to live here in a big group, with tourists annoying them only twice a week.  It seemed a good compromise for them – food and protection and healthcare.

After the feeding, we were given snorkels and invited to paddle around and watch them swim – and we saw the one visiting Barracuda – he doesn’t bother anyone and comes and goes as he pleases through the fence – as do the baby Rays who show up every few months.   Bella and I spent the full time allowed out there communing with the Rays.  Isaac was freaked out by them (and they are freaky), and spent his time on the beach making more castles, and Pamela enjoyed the petting/feeding, but didn’t feel like snorkeling, so we all had our own experience…

Castaway Cay was a well cultivated attraction to allow us to experience an island paradise while not worrying about where our wallets were – it’s as “real” as Epcot, but that’s not a bad thing – the water, sand, sun, and sea life were real, and so was our fun.  I loved it.  Isaac asked if we could just move there and send for the puppies.  I said I’d take it under consideration.  Also:  None of us got sunburnt.  Thank you Pamela for your diligent reminders about sunscreen…  we saw the benefits.

We joined the throng re-boarding the ship at 430 – wanted to be on well before they started nagging us – and got ready for dinner.  Enchanted Garden this time, good as always…  but we hightailed it out of there for the final events:  Isaac wanted one last toot at the Oceaneers, Bella and I wanted to see Captain America Winter Soldier, and Pamela wanted to pack without any of us getting underfoot.  It was a win-win-win situation.

At Oceaneers, they’ve had a game where a group of kids sits in front of a video wall, where Stitch (from Lilo and Stitch) is trying to escape a space prison – the kids shout directions and he goes where they tell him to:  Tonight, once he escaped, he came out in character and played with the kids with a dance party:  Isaac told me all about it – they took turns in the middle of the dance floor making up crazy dance moves for everyone else to try.  Isaac was absolutely thrilled with the activity, and it was a perfect ending to the week for him.

Bella and I grabbed perfect center seats and donned our 3d glasses for Captain America:  It was a great movie – but not one that Isaac would have liked – you sort of need the context of the first movie, and a bit of distrust in government for it to work.  Bella and I were elbowing eachother at cool parts and it was a great shared experience.  Also Black Widow is fantastic. 

We all converged back at the room to find Pamela had packed us up and Jong had taken our suitcases:  Alas, we had tried to make our clothing stretch just right, but we ran out of several key items – Pamela and Bella made an emergency run to the shops and came back with some socks, sweatpants and shirts to make sure we were all appropriately dressed in non-stinky clothes.  The kids were asleep by 11, and we were down by midnight, with the alarms set for an early wake-up.

Saturday – Time to go HOME:  

Woke up at 550 am (with my alarm having been ringing for 5 minutes and being well integrated into my dream – the sound of the alarm became the sound of the ship docking), for breakfast at 645 and disembarkation at 8am.  It was NOT an easy wake-up considering how late we stayed up, but we made it zombie-like through it all.  Darma was true to his word and showed a very sleepy Isaac how he did his disappearing crayon trick.  We got hugs from the staff, and we boarded the gangplank, I turned around and whispered “good bye” with a tear in my eye. 

Customs wasn’t a problem, and Ernest Borgnine picked us up at the door with our luggage.  His cheerful, braying voice was a bit hard to take with as sleepy as we all were, but it was nice not to have to be fighting crowds on a bus.  The Orlando airport was a zoo, and we passed several feral bands of spring break revelers, happy we weren’t any part of that.  We sat in the Delta Club – a quiet oasis where the kids were able to Netflix a bit (Bella had been jonesing for some Cake Boss).  The flight loaded and departed on-time, and we’re happily jetting home to 40-degree weather – not quite the 100 degree temperature delta I suffered in February coming home from the conference, but not pleasant….  We're coming home.

Additional Thoughts on the Trip:

First:  It was one of the best vacations we’ve taken in a long time:  It ranks right up with Boyds for magical “perfectness” and I’m sold on the Disney Cruise experience.

Second:  I know I’m writing about a lot of action, but it’s also important to note that there was a lot of downtime and independent time too – we all got a lot of time to unwind and do what we wanted to do:  Isaac wanted to play, and he played.  Bella wanted a lot of time with us, and we gave it to her.  Pamela and I wanted time to connect and be grown-ups together, and we got it. 

We wanted to have no stress, and we were largely successful.  I got a little nervous about Grand Cayman – going out into the real world…  and Isaac’s bedtime intensity was a bit much to handle sometimes…   but in all, the goal of a memorable, fun, relaxing trip was achieved. 

I’m grateful to Pamela for all the work she put into organizing this:  Her research, her work with Lorna Klefsaas our travel agent, and her commitment to packing the perfect suitcase really paid off.  I feel very lucky to have such a great partner, and such great kids to write about.  I’m grateful to have a good job that allows me to pay for a vacation like this, AND where the few times I tried to check in to work, I had my partners and bosses shut me down and tell me they have it under control and not to check in again OR ELSE. 

Here ends the trip blog, but if I remember any other details, I’ll be sure to post them.  Thanks for reading!