Obviously, when you get invited to the Grammys, the most common question asked is “What are you going to wear?”

Fortunately, for me the invite clearly said “black tie” which simplified the decision to criteria and questions like does my tux still fit, do I wear a bow tie or a straight tie, and how do you tie a bow tie? All in all, pretty simple. In hindsight, I probably should have had some sort of pocket square because apparently pocket squares are a thing now.

I will say, I felt out of place on Friday and Saturday nights prior to the event. I wasn’t aware that dudes around events like this wear black suits out to dinner. Or at least they do in LA. I went with my Midwestern-chic jeans and sports coat look. Of course, my refusal to not wear blue jeans that are so dark they’re almost black made that look even more casual than usual.

Enough about me, what you’re really interested in is “what did Lindsay wear.” The invite suggested a short dress would be appropriate, she wasn’t so sure. I was fully prepared to purchase some sort of ridiculously priced dress that she would only wear once. That was before I learned about Lindsay’s plan.

Being know as an over-planner, I should have expected this. The first step to her plan was to find a short dress that could be worn as a back-up and contingency in the event the rest of her plan couldn’t be executed. She successfully found (a moderately priced, to my surprise) dress that fit well and looked great.

The second part of her plan was to see what Rent the Runway was all about. I had never heard of it but apparently it’s possible to rent designer dresses at a fraction of the price. I mean, if it’s good enough for the average groom at a wedding, why can’t a woman rent clothes to wear to fancy shindigs? I was intrigued, to say the least. The way it works is you basically pick your dress, pay anywhere from 5 – 15% of the retail price. You’re able to select two sizes, making up for the fact that you’re not able to try on the dress. They do, apparently, have people who have rented the dress send in pictures of them wearing the dress so you can see what it looks like on actual people as opposed to models on a website – I honestly think this feature sold Lindsay. You select whether you want it for 4 or 8 days, they mail them to you for free, and give you a prepaid bag to ship it back. It’s pretty much the same way Lindsay uses Zappos. Or as she would call it “easy peasy.”

There’s obviously still risk that the dress won’t work, but what the hell, she tried it anyway. Well, she actually rented two dresses (times the two sizes) just to hedge. And it’s good she did. The first one she tried on? I didn’t even get to see her in it. Apparently it was that bad. The second? Winner. Stunner. Showtime.

At the rate we go to these types of events (and by “these types of events” I don’t mean A-list awards shows but simply any event requiring me be in black tie), I’d absolutely encourage her to rent the runway again. Great value, super simple process – I mean as long as it fits.

 

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If you’re friends with me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, you probably noticed that the wife and I were fortunate enough to snag an invite to the Grammys in Los Angeles last weekend.

The short answer to the question posed in the title is:

“Because AEG (the company that owns and operates the Staples Center) wanted to build the Sprint Center in Kansas City on a site that was occupied by a branch of UMB Bank.”

The real answer is far more complicated than that, but at it’s root, that’s as far as I was able to trace the answer to that question (which was posed to be by a golfing buddy via text and probably many others when photos started popping up on social media). When the opportunity arose and the invite was received, I quickly scribbled “attend a major entertainment awards show” at the top of the bucket list and told Lindsay, “yeah, we need to do that.”

Obviously, it wasn’t that simple and that wasn’t quite my first reaction. My first reaction? “There’s no fucking way they’re going to let us do that.”

The “they” in question was our employer because the invite was received by a supplier contact that Lindsay works with. Neither of us had ever received this type of invitation in a professional setting and, in the sexy world of benefits outsourcing, had never really considered it much of a possibility. Literally, my experience in this type of situation was taking a computer based compliance training course once a year where they make it sound like if you accept more than a dinner from a third party, you’re looking at punishment that could lead up to and include termination of employment. And don’t even think about ordering dessert at that dinner.

In this situation Lindsay received a surprise email just over a month ago from a partner at the bank mentioned above, which has access to a suite at the Grammys based on a sponsorship deal in place with AEG. To her credit, she’s one that sees no harm in at least asking the question and approached her boss, whose reaction was “let’s give it a shot and see what they say.” Surprisingly, after meeting a few conditions, both general counsel and compliance gave the green light. I was stunned. Lindsay was giddy. We were going to the Grammys.

For those that know me, I’m not really a “Grammys” kind of guy. This became painfully obvious on the dance floor at the after-party. I’m pretty happy listening to Jack Johnson and any other acoustic singer/songwriter that either plays on his label or produces what Lindsay rightfully calls “surfer music.” Needless to say, I don’t think people really had me pegged (nor did I peg myself) as someone that would ever attend the event.

Now that the compliance issue was cleared, there was still the personal aspect. We’ve always been fortunate and have tremendous support from family and friends when we want to do things (like the time we wanted to go to Everest Base Camp for three weeks and somehow convinced our parents that they could each spend 10 days with their 14 month old granddaughter – but seriously, what grandparent wouldn’t do that if able, especially given how adorable our daughter is).

This time around, both sets of parents were traveling, Lindsay’s in Mexico and mine in Colorado. We were going to need to get creative. Thankfully, that’s where we’re fortunate to have family friends like Aunt Kiki. I’m pretty sure Aunt Kiki just really likes Lauren and pretty much just tolerates us (or at least me). Whatever. I’ll take. Even then, three nights is a lot to ask – especially outside the family – but thankfully Aunt Kiki (and husband) were up to the task. And I can’t thank them enough. Without a trusted family friend like her, this type of thing just wouldn’t be possible. I’m going to owe her for the foreseeable future (as she’ll rightfully remind me). I was hoping that the swag bag at the after-party would be repayment enough, but upon finding it stuffed with such glamorous swag as a Hello Kitty visor and sweat bands, I probably need to rethink that strategy. Regardless, it was worth it.

Now that the personal piece was taken care of, I stared to ask questions like, “if someone wanted to just go, how hard is it to get Grammy tickets?” I did a little research to see if one can even get tickets. Based on my internet and StubHub search, it looks pretty hard, which was somewhat surprising since it’s held at the Staples Center and 10,000 people attend. You’d think in this day and age, there would be a price for everything. I get the sense tickets are given to individuals in the industry and corporate sponsors and partners (how we were able to score an invite) and that those people pretty much use them. I did see a couple people outside trying to turn tickets (though those scalpers seemed to be in “buy” as opposed to “sell” mode, at least when we walked past).

I’m going to dedicate the next few posts (not sure yet how I’m going to break it out) on the experience. From the scene around LA Live (we were lucky enough to stay at the JW Marriott across the street from all the action) to the pre-party (where my closest brush with “celebrity” over the weekend was a shared elevator ride with Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper), to the event itself, to the after-parties, to how the heck Lindsay decided what to wear, to anything else that seems noteworthy from the experience.

All in all, pretty much a typical weekend for a middle-aged suburban married couple. But not really.

Of course, all of this wouldn’t have been possible without the invite from our hosts. A simple thank you does not suffice but I can’t really think of what might. Just know that it was greatly appreciated and you provided a once in a lifetime weekend. Simply incredible.

 

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There comes a time in each youngster’s life when her parents finally bite the bullet and take her to her first game. For us, that day was Saturday and that event was the Wisconsin/Northwestern football game in Evanston. Lindsay is a Wisconsin alum and Northwestern, in case you hadn’t heard, is Chicago’s Big Ten team (even though its own fans are routinely outnumbered in its own stadium). What better reason to make the trek to Evanston for Lauren’s first (semi) major sporting event?

My only issue with this plan was that I’ve been teaching (or training or brainwashing, depending on your perspective) Lauren to become an Iowa Hawkeye fan. At one point earlier this season Lindsay started to realize this and went full press with the Badgers. To counter this, I shared the basic fact that badgers are, in fact, mean animals. Lindsay was not impressed.

So there really was no plan. I hadn’t bought tickets, not wanting to commit ourselves in the event the three year old was uncooperative. I didn’t really even know where to park, with my last experience at a Northwestern game having taken place in 2008. The only thing we knew was that a former classmate of Lindsay’s was attending a tailgate “on the west side of the west parking lot at a Northwestern painted ambulance. Seemed like it would be easy enough to find.

Along the way, and it may have been because it was too early, there seemed to be far more scalpers looking to purchase than sell tickets. Not a great sign. As we approached the west lot, I decided to raise three fingers, the international sign for “I need three tickets.”

It took a few minutes but the first good Samaritan claiming to need tickets asked, under his breath, “How much you looking to spend? I’ve got them on the 30 or the 50.” This guy had no idea he was dealing with a former expat that had spent years haggling on the mean streets of Dilli Haat. My response, “Not sure – what’s it cost on the 30?”

“$75.” I knew it was too early to buy so offered him something that wouldn’t insult him (not sure why I was worried about insulting him, but as someone that’s negotiated foreign currency exchange rates on the black market in Kathmandu, it seemed like the stand up thing to do) – $50. He declined, and we politely went our separate ways. At least I had some idea the market.

A few minutes later, my three fingers still extended in the air as we searched for the purple ambulance, two women approached Lindsay and asked, “Do you need three tickets?” At first, I thought maybe it was the friends Lindsay had planned to meet (I had never met her friends and these women seemed similarly aged and were wearing Wisconsin gear). But no, they were simply friendly Wisconsin fans looking to unload the season tickets of their friends that were unable to attend. We started talking, quickly got to price, and there first offer was, “I don’t know, like $40.”

Sold!

We followed them back to their tailgate (their brother-in-law had the tickets – seriously, if they weren’t Wisconsin fans, it would have seemed like a pretty obvious scam of some sort) and quickly finished the transaction. Our only plan was to resume our search for the illusive purple ambulance, but before we could leave, we were being offered food and drinks. It seems like it would have been pretty rude to have simply purchased tickets and left without a beer. I’ll never root for the Badgers against Iowa, but this type of hospitality is tough to beat.

We never did get a chance to find that purple ambulance. We made some new friends, I think Lindsay even made some sort of connection with one of the sisters. The daughter was her usual charming self, making herself at home, picking at strangers’ food as only a three year old can.

As kickoff approached, we said good bye to our newest dearest friends and walked the 50 yards to the entrance. The seats? Surprisingly good. A little low (third row behind the bench) but on the 35 yard line. Bottom line, you could do a lot worse.

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The camera was on a dolly to follow the action else it may have been a little annoying.

We made it to halftime – about what we expected before our daughter lost interest. She watched a bit of the band, saw Bucky the Badger up close, seemed enthralled by Willie the Wildcat (I didn’t even know the Northwestern mascot had a name, but I guess it makes sense), and we made our way to the exit – well in front of the rush at the end of the game.

What did I learn at Lauren’s first game? A few things:

  • Even something as innocuous as buying football tickets on the street can lead to a little adventure
  • Northwestern is a great place for a first game – not too big, not too serious. It’s like Columbus except the exact opposite
  • If you spend too much time trying to brainwash your kid to be a Badger fan or a Hawkeye fan, she might just become a Northwestern fan

Will we be back? I think we will – based on the current Big Ten schedule, Iowa and Wisconsin alternate years in Evanston, so as long as there’s no realignment (which rarely, if ever, happens in college football), we may have a new annual tradition on our hands to see Chicago’s Big Ten Team, which is pretty much any team playing Northwestern in Evanston.

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The original travel plan for Moab this year was for Lindsay and I to fly to Salt Lake on Thursday night where our friends Judith and Glenn would be eagerly awaiting our arrival, having driven down from Calgary, for us to embark on the car ride to Moab the following morning after staying near the airport.

That plan changed somewhat when Lindsay learned of a client meeting she needed to attend the final afternoon of our planned trip. Not a big deal, we’d part ways at the airport, I’d go home to Chicago and she’d fly to Seattle for a client meeting and to scout for future houses. (Joking, joking – we’re not moving to Seattle, but if someone were to hypothetically get offered a job there, I’d hypothetically have our house packed in a weekend.) The plan changed again when Lindsay learned she needed to be in Houston for work the day we were flying to Salt Lake. Not a big deal, I’d keep my plan as is; she would add an early morning flight to Houston, work there, and meet me in Salt Lake.

While all of her work travel emerged, north of the border Glenn realized that they were looking at 18 hours each way to drive from Calgary. Thinking better of this idea, he booked a flight and rented a car.

Taking the most economical option (as is usually the case in the commoditized rental car industry), he elected to go with EZ Advantage Rent-a-Car. They offered an upgraded Toyota 4Runner for an additional $20 per day. He declined, seeing this as an unnecessarily large, gas guzzling vehicle, and instead took the Kia Sorrento originally assigned. Plus, that additional $20 per day could be used toward wine.

Unbeknownst to anyone, this was a mistake.

Based on the new and earlier flights recently booked by my travel mates, the final morning of the trip started at a nice and benign 4:03am departure from the hotel in Moab. We were all cheerful, some more cheerful than others with the discovery that Glenn’s phone was filled with 80’s sing-a-long music. Cheerful, that is, until the temperature gauge on the car started acting up. Thinking nothing was out of the ordinary – the car was still running fine. We continued. Somewhere between Provo and Salt Lake, Google maps directed us off the highway to get around an accident. That’s when the trouble started. Cars aren’t supposed to steam out of the hood. It quickly subsided so we went back on the highway, except the car didn’t want to accelerate. Trouble.

Glenn put the hazards on and took the first exit, hoping to find a gas station. With no gas station to be found we limped into an outlet mall parking lot right in front of a Columbia Sportswear store still hours from opening.

At this point, it was nearing 8:00am and Glenn and Judith had an international flight to catch at 10:00am. Let’s just say that EZ Advantage Rent-A-Car’s customer service center didn’t seem to match our sense and level of urgency. Our solution? Deserting the car in the Columbia parking lot with Uber to the rescue.

In the interim, Glenn was finally connected with someone at the car rental facility in Salt Lake City. By this time, they had little leverage. They could send a tow to pick up the car in the parking lot and we would drop off the key with the shuttle driver at the airport. There really was no other option, at least no other option that meant flights would still be made.

At this point, we had no idea what the cut-off was to check bags for an international flight, and honestly, knowing would have only added stress to the situation. How much stress we didn’t actually know until we got to the airport just in time for Judith and Glenn to hit the 75 minute cut off.

I’m not sure who’s at fault in this situation or if anyone is at fault in this situation. It’s been a long time since I’ve worried about a car overheating. So long, in fact, that it’s not something I remotely worry about. Maybe I should. Maybe Kias suck. Maybe EZ Advantage Rent-A-Car sucks. At the very least, their customer service sucks. Maybe we just got unlucky and shit happens.

What I do know is that Judith is a lot like my wife. Suffice to say, the good folks at EZ Advantage Rent-A-Car have no idea how lucky they are that our little contingency plan worked.

(Sorry for the lack of photographic evidence but the stress of the situation kept the camera phones in our pockets.)

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I first took Lindsay to Moab in 2008 for our fifth anniversary. After a few nights exploring the town and hiking in and around Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, we splurged and ended the trip at Sorrel River Ranch. Little did I know this would set two distinct parallel paths in-flight. First, and not surprisingly, Lindsay would determine that her “happy place” was this beautiful ranch on the banks of the Colorado River with views of red rock mesas. Second, and a complete surprise, I would become a runner.

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Typical sunrise view from Sorrel River Ranch

When we booked at Sorrel we had no idea that a half marathon, Moab’s “The Other Half,” ended at the ranch earlier in the day of our arrival. At breakfast the next morning, we noticed something about many of the other guests – they seemed fit, they seemed energized, and it was obvious they had accomplished something. At that breakfast Lindsay declared that she was going to take up running. Not only had she declared she was going to take up running, but she decided we needed to come back the next year and conquer “The Other Half.”

Nothing like jumping in slow.

But here’s the thing: with the right research and the right plan, we did it. I started by running a minute or two at a time with walk intervals in between, but by the time we returned to Moab in 2009 as registered entrants in the race, I had little doubt we’d both finish the race. And finish we did. Since then, I’d classify myself as a runner.

Fast forward seven years, three moves, and one child, and we got the itch. In need of a fall vacation and an excuse to work toward something, a destination half marathon was in order. And what better place than Lindsay’s happy place. Along for the ride this time were our trekking and adventure travel friends Judith and Glenn, the Sparlinskis.

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Judith and I at the start of the race

The thing I’ve learned about half marathons is that for me the satisfaction isn’t in finishing the race, it’s in the process and discipline required to finish the race. Barring an unforeseen injury, I know that if I do three short runs per week with a long run on the weekend of escalating length, that I can pretty much be ready for a half marathon in ten to twelve weeks.

This formula is especially important for The Other Half. Why? Because I know I’m not setting any personal records. Relatively speaking, the race takes place at altitude and has some strategically placed hills in the second half of the race. In fact, mile 8 is a hill. Why put myself through that? The race takes starts near mile marker 31 on Utah State Highway 128 at Dewey Bridge and ends at Sorrel River Ranch. If you’ve ever driven that stretch of road, you know the reason. The scenery.

From the start, you quickly enter a tight red rock canyon that winds down the Colorado River. Prior to the canyon opening up, you can see Fischer Towers, probably one of the more famous rock climbing playgrounds in the US and host to my favorite Citibank commercial. While the towers are a mile to the left of the road, they’re a marker that seems to get no closer for the middle third of the race. Ordinarily, this would be exceedingly frustrating. Except for the fact that, you’re surrounded by towering red rock features the entire time.

At some point during the race, you come out of the narrow canyon and into the wider valley home to both Fischer Towers and Sorrel Ranch. During this year’s race, I couldn’t help but smile. I honestly can’t remember the last time I physically smiled at something like this with no one there to share. And I didn’t care. I just smiled. With the exception of the couple dozen runners around me, it was a completely empty, silent pristine landscape (a pristine landscape that’s the obvious victim of millions of years of erosion but a pristine landscape nonetheless).

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Fisher Towers (from the trail at the towers, not the view from the race)

At this point I did something I’ve never done in a race (at least that didn’t involve a bathroom stop). I stopped. I pulled my iPhone from my arm and took a photo. As is the case with most long distance landscape photos, it’s not a great photo. In fact, it doesn’t come close to capturing the physical beauty. It does, however, trigger that smile on my face.

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Worse than I remember, what with the half man on the right and everything

At mile 11 I finally caught my friend Judith (who used the race as a training run and was only running the first 8+ miles (or 15k as she would say – Canadians and their logical metric system) and talked with her for a few seconds before continuing up one final hill. Thankfully, the course sets up as a downhill toward the end before entering the ranch property for what the welcoming sign said as “0.7 miles to go until beer.”

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Time to start doing pushups or cut back on the IPA

Even as I crossed the finish line, having spotted Lindsay in the crowd so I could actually smile for a photo during a race as opposed to a look of overwhelming pain, I couldn’t help but transport myself back to that silent smile in the middle of the race.

Then I decided to go ahead and have that beer.

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Mountain weather is unpredictable. As someone that considers himself not to be an idiot, I know this. However, given fairly constant temperatures the breadth of conditions experienced in my first three days hiking in the Canadian Rockies was nothing short of amazing. Either that, or maybe I am an idiot.

Joining my Dad and I on this year’s installment of the annual father/son trip that hasn’t quite been annual lately based on things like having a daughter and living abroad, was Lindsay and our friends Judith and Glenn. Judith and Glenn were there because we chose the locale of this year’s trip in a place where they had just purchased a beautiful new condo. When you mooch free lodging, it’s only appropriate to invite them along for the fun. Especially when they’re excellent hosts, local experts, and pretty much my favorite hiking and travel companions. Lindsay was there because, well, when you’re traveling with your favorite travel companions that you met while trekking with your wife, it would be a pretty shitty thing to not invite your wife.

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The Snow – Sunshine Meadows

After a late arrival in Calgary and a short drive to Canmore, our trusty guide for the week, Judith, knew it probably be best to keep the first day short and sweet. She had selected Sunshine Meadows, which is a short school bus trip up the ski-out of Sunshine Ski Resort in Banff National Park. Yes, rather than hike up the 1.5 – 2 hours to the top of the gondola, we elected to hop a ride on the bus. Would you expect anything less from a hiking crew that specializes in fully portered Himalayan trekking (aka princess camping, or as the kids are calling it these days, “glamping”).

When we arrived the night before, she had mentioned it had snowed and I figured it would be just a dusting; however, as we exited the bus, there was actual accumulation. It was only a few inches but the ski runs looked rather skiable. The hiking trails melted first, looking almost plowed.

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As promised, it was a short loop with minimal altitude gain. This was perfect for the first day as I realized I hadn’t laced up my hiking boots since walking into the village of Lukla at the end of Everest Base Camp in May 2014. After the short time, we had time for a lunch that was unintentionally timed perfectly to catch the bus back down. The picnic tables were covered still covered with enough snow that we made the call to make it easy and eat inside, but by the time we headed back, snow was starting to disappear from the paths.

Thankfully, this was a one-day thing. The forecast called for a week full of sun.

The Sun – Helen Lake

Since we left all the hiking planning to Judith with the basic criteria of: (1) pick your favorites and (2) try not to repeat stuff we’ve done before, the second day found us driving deeper into Banff National Park to the trailhead for Helen Lake. The hike itself was one I like. A moderate incline through the forest that tops out and gently ascends a meadow to a lake. This isn’t one of those aquamarine lakes you hear so much about in the Canadian Rockies, but it didn’t matter. The lake was just a destination. A nice quiet place to have lunch. The highlight of this trek was the views both up and down along the meadow ridge. The weather only helped. Crystal blue skies with spotty clouds. Absolutely perfect. It was exactly what the forecast had called for. Looking ahead to the rest of the week, which included one final hike with the others before the actual father/son portion of the trip began with a 3-night trip to Shadow Lake Lodge, we felt we were in for a treat.

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What we didn’t pay enough attention to on the way back down was the light haze we saw forming in the distance. We figured it was just a slight disturbance caused by the angle of the sun or something equally mundane. We couldn’t have been more wrong.

The Smoke – Burstell Pass

As you may be aware, forest fires cause smoke. That smoke needs to go somewhere. That somewhere is where the wind blows. When the fires are in Washington state and the wind blows from the southwest, apparently the smoke blows straight to the Canadian Rockies. Unfortunately, the fires were in Washington state and the wind was blowing from the southwest.

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What did this mean? Well, it meant that it pretty much smelled like a big forest fire and you couldn’t see mountains, unless you were pretty much right next to them. Burstell Pass never stood a chance. In fact, Lindsay rated it a “solid C.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement for one of Judith’s favorite hikes, not that there was anything that could be done about it.

Honestly, for being a complete smokeout that killed what was supposed to be a killer view from the pass, I kind of liked the hike. We crossed a stony wetland with multiple stream channels. On the way in, Judith and Glenn suggested we change into sandals as stepping in water would probably be necessary so we didn’t need to find the driest route. In reality, we probably didn’t need to change as the water didn’t get above where our shoes would have been. We planned to stick to our shoes and stay dry on our way out. However, the melting glacier had other plans and the water was noticeably higher when we approached on the way back.

Even the stream crossing wasn’t enough to budge Lindsay from her “average” grade. However, even she would have to admit, the conditions she experienced in her second visit to the Canadian Rockies were, well, unique. A day of snow, a day of sun, and a day of smoke.

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Other than the fact they’ve snookered me into believing $15 is more than a fair price for a six pack of Coors Light, I think I’ve finally figured out why I’ll never be a Disney guy: I have no desire to learn how to play their game.

In order to truly enjoy your time on property, you have to fully immerse yourself into carefully plotting your way around the park with fast passes and an app that may or may not work that tells you the line to a ride or a character has dipped and is now worth the wait. It just seems like a lot of work, especially since you’re already in a crowded, sweaty mess of people.

People think I’m a planner (at least when it comes to travel), so it might come as some surprise that I don’t want to play the Disney game. I’m all for planning a trip months in advance where I craft a plan for moving from city A to village B, but that’s kind of where my planning ends. I don’t overthink it and I don’t over-rotate. I’m at a stage in life where I like to know I have a place to stay but I don’t necessarily want to be tied down with a dinner reservation six months in advance.

At Disney? You need to tie yourself down with a dinner reservation six months in advance to get to the “right” character meal, else you risk being a negligent parent or, worse yet, end up eating with a B-lister like Winne the Pooh.

The whole experience creates a weird competition with yourself, where you’re scoring internal points based on what rides or experiences you can rack up. Very little seems spontaneous. It all just seems too…well, planned.

This weekend marks our second family Disney experience in a few short weeks. The first weekend was to make sure we took our daughter before we moved from Orlando (and I thus saved the $10k+ it would have cost later in life and can apply that to a more John-centric trip). We came back again because our daughter seemed to enjoy it well enough and what else were we going to do while our household goods make the trip up to Illinois? The answer to that question was actually a weekend at the Waldorf, but I was out-voted 2-1 for the Disney return.

For all the stress and planning it takes to make Disney enjoyable, my all-time favorite Disney memory was a morning a few weeks ago at the Contemporary. We had no idea the pool hadn’t opened but found it strange that no one was there. Just before 9am, a lifeguard approached our daughter, asking if she had any magic that might be able to open the pool. My daughter looked confused but the lifeguard soon brought out Mickey gloves and a Fantasia hat, asking her to put both on. Following instructions to spin in a circle three times and slap her hands on the pool deck, somehow my little L3 had started the water fountains and opened the pool.

Easily the coolest thing I’ve seen in my (limited) days at Disney. It just took being in the right place at the right time. No fast pass required.

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When you relocate and have a limited amount of time in the place you’re leaving, you invariably start to cram every open minute with some sort of “last” activity as you start to say your goodbyes. When moving from India, we traveled something like 5 out of the final 6 weekends. With the move from Orlando, we’ve filled weekends with family things: a trip to Disney, favorite restaurants, and time with neighbors. Easter Sunday marked the “final” trip to the beach.

Though we’ve only been to the beach a handful of times in the three years we’ve lived in Florida, it’s become a bit more regular and fun based on our two year old’s love of the water.

The closest beaches to our house are Cocoa and New Smyrna; however, those are either crowded or vehicle filled. Seriously. Vehicle filled. New Smyrna allows cars on the beach which makes it super handy to overpack and easily set up your gear. But what it possesses in convenience, it lacks in safety and general ambiance.

Fifteen minutes south of New Smyrna is a peaceful, protected place. A palace where you may need to carry your chairs a little further but can escape the crowds (small parking lots will do that) This place is Canaveral National Seashore.

Unfortunately, a higher than normal tide meant the water was “scary” (my daughter’s word, not mine) so in-water activities were somewhat limited. This was actually somewhat welcome as she typically recklessly runs for the water as soon as she senses she’s free on the beach. Not Sunday. Sunday she asked for my hand to walk her into the water up to her knees, her grip tightening as the water swelled around us. It’s selfish and perhaps a little sadistic that her fear makes me feel more needed, but when you have a confident and independent little two year old, that clutch is a welcome sign of trust. One of the most tangible signs you’re needed.

With the high and angry sea causing us to push our chairs nearly up against the dune, we sat. We enjoyed the view of the scary waves and watched our daughter industriously shovel sand into buckets, ask for water (you have to remember the water was scary so she outsourced her water fetching duties), and move and mix sand between buckets.

When the novelty of her busywork wore off, she left the safety of our setup and ventured south down the beach, not even turning to see if we’d follow. Eventually, as parents hoping that DCFS wasn’t hiding in the dunes, we knew we needed to do catch up. We did just that. After catching her and trying to get her to turn around, she grabbed both our hands and we continued to walk. Stretched in front of us was completely empty beach. Something you just don’t expect to find in Florida.

The only thing missing was a setting sun, but at 10:30am, that would have been asking a bit much. While this feeling probably should have occurred by this point, walking down that beach with the family felt like the beginning of the end of our time in Orlando, and we have a busy two weeks before we officially relocate. We’re trying hard to do as much as possible in that time and have no regrets. To me, that walk down the beach was the first of many farewells in front of me the next two weeks. With just my wife, my daughter, and an empty stretch of sand, it was the perfect first farewell.

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I’ve been skiing at Vail for around 30 years. Admittedly, this feat would be more impressive had I skied more than one to three days on average there per year. So while there are people that have forgotten more about Vail Mountain than I’ll ever know, with probably fifty or so days logged in my life, it’s safe to say I know more about the hill than the average American. Said another way, I consider myself knowledgable but in no way an expert. What follows is what a lowly flatlander has found a way to enjoy a day on one of the more diverse ski hills in the world.

Parking

If you’re not staying in Vail, you’re going to have to park someplace. Unlike most other resorts, Vail doesn’t have many (if any) free parking options. If you’re parking for free, it typically means the parking garages are full and it’s a long walk. You’d probably rather pay to park. In my experience, there are two pretty good options.

The luxury option is valet parking at Golden Peak. This costs $50 and involves the least walking. If you’re in a hurry and don’t mind the price, this is a great way to go.

My preferred parking option is the main village parking garage. Pretty good secret, huh? When you enter, slowly pass everyone that parks in the spots immediately after the gate and wind your way down to Level 1. Park as close to the village exit as possible. On this level, there are no stairs and you walk directly out to Vail Village, cross the covered bridge, and amble your way up the heated streets lined with shops and restaurants, and find your way to the base of the mountain.

Lift Tickets

Vail has a reputation as a playground of the rich and famous. As one might expect, that type of playground comes with a price tag. This year’s price? $145 per day if you walk up to the window to buy a ticket. Discount tickets can be tough to come by. My advice? If you’re going to ski enough days to make it worth its while, buy some sort of Epic Pass at www.snow.com. These types of passes can pay for themselves in as little as 4 days. You can even buy a pass that has unlimited skiing at the other Vail Resorts resorts (Keystone, Breckenridge, and Arapahoe Basin) where you can get 10-days (subject to blackouts over holidays) at Vail and Beaver Creek.

If you’re not going to be skiing enough to cover the cost of the pass, the next best thing is to ski with someone that does. For the past ten years, that’s been my Dad. This year, he was able to get me a ticket for $89. Not a bad deal.

If neither of those are options, just spend the $145. After all, you’re already at the mountain. What else are you going to find to do in Vail for less than $145 that day?

The Morning

There are obviously any number of ways to make your way around Vail and every day is different; however, what follows is the typical track of my family. Note, we’re all very good skiers but not extreme or backcountry in any way. We tend to stick to intermediate or expert groomers and throw in a few bumps here or there.

After taking the gondola to Mid-Vail and being deposited on the summit by the aptly named Mountaintop Express, find your way to one of the resort Sharpshooters and get a few pictures taken. It’s free, there’s no commitment, and if you have your social media sites set incorrectly, it’s the first of many updates that will be automatically blasted to your friends to let them know you’re skiing Vail and you’re not. There’s also a nice view of the Gore Range, which makes the photo opportunity worthwhile.

Finally, you’re ready for your first run of the day. The location? Northwoods. Northwoods is a section of the mountain with intermediate and expert slopes which are typically groomed at least every other day. There are some great steeps to get you warmed up. After two or three runs (or when the initial face you have to ski directly to the left of the top of the lift gets fully scraped up), it’s time to move on. The next stop? The back side.

Vail has spent the past 25 years expanding, first with a set of back bowls on the opposite side of the mountain and second with an area called Blue Sky Basin. If there’s fresh snow, it’s important to get to the backside as quickly as possible (i.e., skip Northwoods). However, if there’s fresh snow, it’s also likely that everyone and their mother is rushing over to the backside and there’s probably decent snow to be skied on the front side of the mountain. It’s pretty much the definition of a first world problem.

We typically will take Poppyfields down through China Bowl and don’t spend much time in the “old” back bowls. If the sky is clear and the snow is good, it can be the ultimate playground; however, my luck usually isn’t that good. Once down Poppyfields, follow the signs to Blue Sky Basin. I’d like to say Blue Sky Basin is new, but the reality is it’s already over 15 years old.

Big Rock Park is one of the better intermediate runs from the initial lift you take to get into Blue Sky, the #37. You can also ski the #38 but we typically make our way to the #39 and Grand Review and The Star.

(While all the ski lifts have both names and numbers, the number one way to out yourself as someone that prefers Aspen is to refer to a lift by its name. Locals use numbers. No exceptions.)

Once you’re done playing in Blue Sky Basin, it’s time to head back to the front side. For lunch. Take the #36 and hope it’s not windy. It’s one of the colder lifts when there’s wind. When at the top, rather than poling your way across the ridge like so many people do even though there are signs outlining what I’m about to tell you, take a quick run down Whiskey Jack and take the short #14 back to the top. From there, head to Two Elk Lodge.

Lunch

Somewhere around the time I was in junior high, ski resorts suddenly realized that it was possible to make decent food on the mountain rather than just serving steamed burgers and soggy fries. Two Elk Lodge was the first of its kind, at least the first I experienced. There are probably more cost effective places to grab lunch (the top level of the restaurant at Mid-Vail has great deals), if you’re only at Vail for a day and want a nice lunch without servers, Two Elk is the place to go.

It was originally built, burned down by eco-terrorists a couple years later, and re-erected in all it’s glory by Vail Resorts. There are any number of options to eat but I have only two recommendations: chili and a two elk bar. For chili, you actually have two options. Buffalo chili, which is like a traditional chili but served with buffalo meat instead of beer, or pork green chili. I love both. I love the pork green chili even more. Two Elk bars are pure mountain bliss. Nuts, coconut, chocolate, oats, and other things I’m sure. It’s not to be missed. I repeat: It’s not to be missed.

Somehow my little sister had the self restraint to eat a portion of her bar at lunch, a portion of her bar on the drive home, and somehow took the rest of it on the plane back to Milwaukee and enjoyed the rest when back home. Obviously, she texted as she was enjoying the last morsels, reveling in her good fortune. And good fortune it was. I was honestly jealous and I was still in the mountains skiing and she was back at work. That’s how good a Two Elk bar is.

Afternoon

While the Two Elk bar digests, we typically make our way back over to the front side. If the crowd at #11 isn’t bad, we might do a run or two back at Northwoods; if the crowd is building (it typically is), we head toward Game Creek Bowl. After a few runs in Game Creek, it’s typically time for, what my family affectionately calls, “Power Hour.” Like The Masters, Power Hour is a tradition like no other (at least in my house). It can last more than an hour and typically includes high speed and repetitive runs on the #2 chair. Avanti, Pickeroon, Lodgepole, Berries, Columbine. Avanti, Pickeroon, Lodgepole, Berries, Columbine. There are probably more exotic places on the mountain but there’s never a crowd and it’s a great way to shove a lot of skiing into not much time in the day. Prior to high speed quads, you’d be lucky to get 8 runs in a day. It’s not unheard of for us to squeeze 8 runs into an extended Power Hour. High speed quads are beautiful things.

Depending on snow conditions and energy levels, Lindsey’s (formerly International) into Pepe’s Face can make for a nice close to the day. If energy levels are lagging a little, just take the cat track down. There’s no shame in that at all.

While this “typical” track completely ignores the right half of the mountain (i.e., Lionshead and Eagle’s Nest). I’m sure there are people that swear by that part. They’re not wrong, it’s just different. The track I outlined also has some wiggle room to explore other parts of the mountain: #10 (Highline and Blue Ox), runs that go into Mid-Vail that can be good, short runs if #4 has small lines, and of course, Riva Ridge.

If for some reason I find myself away from #2 at Power Hour, Riva Ridge is a classic closing run on the mountain. It’s also a bit of a boxcar derby. There’s a portion of it called “Tourist Trap” for good reason. It can have a crowd.

The Walk Back

One of my favorite parts of the ski experience at Vail is the walk back through the village. There’s just something cool about walking back down the street with your skis on your shoulder that makes a perfect bookend to the Vail ski day.

Again, this isn’t the only way to experience Vail and certainly not the most adventurous or most local. However, it is a way to typically stay away from the crowds and ski as much vertical as possible while seeing as much of the mountain as possible.

If I could only ski one resort for the rest of my life, it would be Vail. It has something for everyone Some people stay away from Vail based on preconceived notions of what it stands for or have some problem with Vail Resorts (the company) for or think it’s simply too snooty. I’m glad they stay away. More mountain for me.

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I didn’t know it at the time, but when my wife and I decided to move from the Chicago area five years ago we had made a decision to lead the somewhat nomadic life of a corporate mercenary. The first move was exciting, an assignment near Delhi, India where we lead the rather comfortable, some might even say extravagant, life of dual employment visa carrying corporate expats. Shortly before repatriating and not feeling a strong desire to go back to our “old” life in Chicago, my wife accepted a position with the same company in Orlando, Florida. We knew next to nothing about living in Orlando but knew that it was different than Chicago. We needed different. Different was good.

A few days before Christmas this year my wife’s boss approached her with a new, expanded opportunity. An opportunity that would require another move. Back to Chicago.

Looking back, I can’t say that I actively hated Chicago. But I didn’t love it either. After all, how can you dislike a city that’s home to some of your best friends in the world that is also far closer to family? The problem I had with Chicago was that life just seemed more stressful than life needed to be: the number of people, the size of the highways that attempt to move the people, the bitter cold and dreariness of winter, the disfunction of the government, the blandness of the suburbs (I’m looking at you Schaumburg).

I think we both knew that Orlando wasn’t where we intended to be forever and that the next logical time to take stock of where we did intend to be was around the time our daughter started kindergarden. We didn’t know where we wanted to be but knew we wanted to be settled when she started school. She turns two in three weeks. While both my wife and I (as well as all four grandparents) think she’s pretty much a genius, it’s safe to say she’s still years away from school. This new opportunity was sooner than expected.

Following both a formal offer and some sleepless nights spent discussing what’s best for us and our daughter over both the short and long term, we made the much tougher decision than expected to move back to the greater Chicagoland area.

For the first time in my adult life, I’ll be searching for a place I plan to set down roots and find a place my daughter will consider her home. As someone whose parents still live in my childhood home, this is actually a bigger deal than you might expect. Of course, I wasn’t born yet when they purchased that house so I don’t think it was some sort of master plan, it was just the plan that worked.

Over the next few months, this blog will likely become a personal therapeutic outlet as I wrap my head around this latest adventure – both the decisions and planning as well as moving back to a place I didn’t really hate but couldn’t quite love.

Here’s what I can share for now:

  • My wife was in Chicago for work this week, met with a realtor, and with some degree of certainty I can say that for the first time ever we won’t be moving into a house that was visited on the first day of a house search.
  • I fully plan to set foot in whatever house we purchase before an offer is made and well before the day of closing.
  • I’ve learned that the Super Bowl marks the unofficial (it might even be official for all I know) beginning of the real estate listing year.
  • I have no intention of this move getting in the way of my planned ski season (heading to Summit County on Friday with the family, to Park City for a dudes’ trip in March).

Let the next adventure begin. Let the corporate mercenary life end. At least for now.

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