The Secret Garden – Revealed

Oh. Shit. Now, I remember.

I am not hallucinating. I do not have a Secret Santa who thinks I’m worthy of a $200 present. My sister-in-law was not just denying sending us a hydroponic garden to drive my wife crazy. It wasn’t even a gift at all – it just arrived around Christmas.

So, I did not drunk-order another indoor garden. However, I did kinda order it. Well, I applied for it, and then forgot about it. If it weren’t for a rather cryptic email I received this afternoon, I never would have remembered applying for it, because I had assumed I didn’t really meet the criteria.

This is a good lesson for businesses in how leaving tracks with customers is important because in this case, THERE WEREN’T ANY. I was convinced that this was a truly remarkable screw-up (wrong machine, wrong address) by a Chinese company pretending to sell stuff on Amazon. It wasn’t. It is part of a non-documented, well-hidden program from the City of Dallas.

Our tax dollars at work.

Here is how I finally remembered that I had signed up for the City’s program for indoor gardens, before I had ever seen the Amazon ad for the AeroGarden we got my Mom (I think).

I received an email today from City Hall, which states:

Hello,

Thank you for your interest in receiving an in-home garden kit! 

The gardens have already started shipping and you will be receiving your kit via contactless mail delivery. December is a high peak season for shipping so please be patient and allow up to four weeks for delivery from the vendor. The City does not have the ability to track packages for you.

This program is part of a pilot that addresses short term food needs for COVID as well as potential long term food access. You may be contacted to learn more about your experience using these in home kits and your health. We are excited to learn more from you about the idea of helping people grow food indoors.

Happy holidays and happy gardening!

That’s it. No signature. No links to rules and regulations. Nothing to sign to acknowledge receipt.

So, apparently, the city is sending out free hydroponic gardens. Then, I vaguely remembered signing up for a city program for in-home gardening, because it sounded interesting. I just couldn’t find any receipts. I searched every email account I have, I wandered through my Chrome history, I drove my wife partially insane asking her questions, but there was no record of me ever having ordered anything from the city or applied for a indoor garden program.

This would explain how Click and Grow got my name, address and cell phone and thought it was drop-shipped — and why Amazon had no records of it.

Off to Dr. Google.

This took much longer than it should have, but as I said, the City doesn’t seem to have any record of it, even though it’s a city program. I tried every search term I thought made sense and several that didn’t and finally found a link to a image on one of the city council member’s pages (ironically, not my city council member.)

Now, I remember, still vaguely. At the time, I didn’t really think I was a “vulnerable population” member, but I am currently unemployed and I am over 60, so who knows what the criteria was? For one thing, you had to have Internet access, since I saw it online somewhere.

I remember that I figured I would fill out the initial form, look at the paperwork that inevitably followed, and determine if I was really eligible. If not, maybe I would just buy one of the gardens, because they sound cool.

That’s how government programs work, right?

Not this one. I filled out the SurveyMonkey form (which is now closed, so don’t bother), and it just accepted the input and said, “Thank you” (I think – again, there’s no record.) I think you can have SurveyMonkey send a receipt or a copy of the form – or you can choose not to bother anyone with a paper trail.

Note the description in the image – “nine plants.” Note the photo (which when Googled returns “Click and Grow Smart Garden 9 – White”.)

Mystery solved.

We’re growing lettuce that we bought with our tax dollars.

Now, I just have to figure out where I saw the invitation in the first place. That’s for another day. I did close out my ticket with Click and Grow support trying to find the origin of the package.

Our Government Lettuce

The Secret Garden – A Christmas Mystery

We have a Christmas mystery, one that is nice to have, but perplexing nonetheless.

First of all, I will admit that I never know what to get my family for Christmas. Well, that’s not completely true – I will regularly buy my grandkids something I want to play with so when we visit, I have toys ready to go for me, unless they’ve been broken or lost in the meantime.

For the past few years, gifts haven’t been a major issue, because we’ve been traveling over Christmas. So, while we might still exchange gifts in person with our local family, but it was short and sweet, i.e. I cannot guarantee the amount of thought that went into the choices, and the gift exchange was way before or way after the actual date. However, this year, we’re staying home, which means we needed gifts for my Mom and my little brother. My little brother and I usually just promise to take each other to dinner, and then forget about it, which is equal value for both of us. My Mom has so much stuff in her condo that she is regifting things to me every time I visit her. Also, my brother knows her personal shopper at Neiman Marcus and I don’t, so he has the upper hand on Mom gifts.

However, this year, inspiration struck for both of them. In other words, a couple of online ads actually worked. I got an email from an unnamed company with something that my brother will appreciate, if not enjoy. (I would mention specifically what I got my brother, because it is extremely cool and very expensive [as far as he knows], but he hasn’t see the gift yet. I’m pretty sure Mom doesn’t read my blog – or know what a blog is, so I can talk about her gift.)

One day while I was flailing around for something to get Mom (OK, one day while I was wasting time online), I saw an ad on Facebook for an AeroGarden, a hydroponic indoor garden “system” for growing plants – mainly small vegetables, herbs and flowers.

Side issue: yes, I know, you can grow pot in them, but that’s not legal in a lot of areas. I’ve known this since two of my fraternity brothers were growing pot in an aquarium turned “herb garden” in our dorm in the early 80s. They thought they were extremely clever and would never be detected until the rather elderly maid told them, “Your marijuana plants need watering.”

Sorry for the interruption, I just like that story.

Much like the Instant Pot (a pressure cooker) and the Ninja Foodi Grill (a convection oven), the AeroGarden provides function that could probably be found for less, but it would not be nearly as cool, because it is a sexy-looking package with one rockin’ name.

Anyway, the smallest AeroGarden – a Sprout – that holds three plants was on sale for $59 which is within reason for a temporarily unemployed person. (Sprout. It’s so freakin’ cute.)

So, we ordered a AeroGarden Sprout with a Salad Greens kit for Mom. Done. Finished with shopping.

Truth be told, I had a ulterior motive for ordering my Mom a AeroGarden. I wanted one. So, I sold my wife on the benefits for Mom (cribbed from the AeroGarden website and their constant marketing emails) until she started coming up with her own benefits, and then she discovered that there was an AeroGarden Sprout that came with an herb kit. These were the same herbs she grows in planters on our patio, but it’s getting colder now, so she had dug them up a couple weeks ago.

I said, “Gee, Sweetie, you could grow your basil indoors year-round!”

Sold. (Heh heh heh.)

I was given permission to order another AeroGarden Sprout for us, with the herbs kit. It arrived on November thirtieth, and I planted it the same day, so it’s been growing for just over three weeks. Left-to-right, parsley, dill, and basil (amazingly, Parsley, Dill and Basil were my ex-wife’s divorce attorneys.)

Our first AeroGarden. Parsley, Dill and Basil after just over three weeks of growth.

Then, my wife started thinking (which is never good for my wallet), “Hey, maybe the grandkids would like one of these! They all love tomatoes. Do they have one that will grow tomatoes?”

I’m still trying to get her to stop saying “One that grows (x)” – it’s a garden. It’s just water instead of dirt. It grows whatever you plant in it. There isn’t a specialized one for tomatoes or herbs or pot (not that people would grow pot in one.)

Now, we had already purchased Christmas gifts for all three grandkids and their parents, so I was going to hold off until the next gift occasion – like Arbor Day, but it’s $59, so why not? I ordered one for the kids and requested the tomato kit. Well, I ordered a slightly larger one for the kids, because the Sprouts were sold out. So, they’re getting a Harvest. A Harvest holds six plants instead of three.

I was in a panic when I ordered it because AeroGarden was rapidly selling out of all the entry level models. I’m not really sure when it went from “an extra gift” to “has to be there for Christmas”, but so it goes. I found the Harvest model on Amazon, but I managed to not pay attention while ordering and selected some fake seller in China as a supplier, so that order never arrived. Now, I had disappointed the grandkids by not getting them something they didn’t know about that wasn’t their actual Christmas gift. (AeroGarden still had none in stock. Apparently, those online ads really work.)

I canceled the Chinese order, got a refund from Amazon, and ordered another on Amazon from Amazon, because the AeroGarden site was still sold out. It was $50 more, but it will probably get there. (It shipped while I was writing this.) Today, AeroGarden now has that model back in stock for $50 less. Have I mentioned I hate Christmas?

Where was I going with this?

To summarize, we have an AeroGarden Sprout with dill, parsley and basil which has been planted since November thirtieth and is doing quite well (see photo above). We have an AeroGarden Harvest that is waiting for its tomato kit to arrive (see below), so we have a field waiting to be sown.

There’s another Sprout in a box, wrapped for Mom that will be opened on Christmas, which hopefully has the Salad kit included. If not, I’m sure she’ll plant whatever is in the box, or we can give her one of the extra tomato kits (see below).

There’s (allegedly) an AeroGarden Harvest on a slow boat from China for the kids that had the order officially canceled but may still arrive someday. There’s another Harvest shipping directly from Amazon to the kids, which will arrive after Christmas, but we had already bought their Christmas presents before the whole indoor gardening thing started, so it doesn’t matter – although they already have received their tomato kit. (Christmas Miracle Update: The Harvest arrived on Christmas Eve morning.)

That’s a lot of gardens, but then my wife decided she would really like to grow tomatoes, so I ordered another AeroGarden Harvest for us, since the Sprouts were still sold out. It arrived with the salad greens kit instead of the tomato kit I specified. Oops. Easy solution – I just ordered a tomato kit from Amazon. After a day or two, Amazon said they couldn’t deliver it, so I canceled that order and ordered one direct from AeroGarden. That one shipped.

Then, I got an email from AeroGarden apologizing for the problems with my order and letting me know the tomato kit was being shipped immediately.

Now, I’m not sure if AeroGarden is apologizing for sending the wrong kit with the Harvest, or apologizing for Amazon not being able to fulfill the tomato kit order to make up for the wrong kit they had shipped, since the order number they mentioned was for the free replacement tomato kit. So, I may be getting two tomato kits. I’m a bit afraid that if we get two $15 tomato kits, my wife will want to purchase another $150 Harvest so we can plant both immediately. Of course, the Harvest is $99 today, so she would remind me that we would be saving money. Somehow.

So, we’re basically farmers at this point, and there were enough orders to enough places that eventually some confusion was bound to occur.

To quote Alice’s Restaurant Massacree and the great Arlo Guthrie, “That’s not what I came to tell you about.

In the midst of starting gardens all across America, I got a notice from UPS that they were going to deliver a package from a company in New Jersey. I didn’t recognize the company name, but this happens often, because my wife’s deliveries show up on my UPS MyChoice account. However, “New Jersey” could also mean our self-appointed favorite niece (I’m not taking sides until all the gifts arrive) sent us something. I looked up the company, and it was a drop-shipper that does distribution and deliveries for other companies, so that meant it could be from anyone, so I just waited it out.

Then, the package arrived. It was addressed to me. It had my cell phone number as a contact number on the label. That’s all that was on the label. So, we opened it to see if there was a card. There was no card.

Inside the rather large box was a Click and Grow Smart Garden 9 and a lettuce seed kit. After some research, I determined that Click and Grow is basically an Eastern European-invented version of an AeroGarden. In other words, it’s another hydroponic indoor garden system with a seed kit. That’s it. No card, no insert, no bill.

Where the hell did this come from?

That was not a very charitable thought, especially given the time of year. So, I apologized to the Lord for the uncharitable thought, and rephrased it.

Who the hell sent us this?

Now, there is a relatively long list of suspects for sending us unlabeled gifts, especially on my wife’s side of the family. People order items online, change the shipping address, and forget to mark “gift” or there’s no gift option available. It happened to us with some presents which may not have been opened yet (but rare and highly expensive) that we sent our nieces and nephews this year, so we sent some frantic texts to cover it and tell them the gifts were not wrapped (and get credit for the gifts). However, when I determined from Click and Grow website that a Smart Garden 9 was approximately $200, the list shortened significantly. I’m not saying my friends and family are cheap, I’m just saying I know how much they value me in their lives.

My first thought (which almost caused a stroke) was that the fake Chinese company from Amazon that was currently failing to deliver the kids’ AeroGarden Harvest had managed to send the wrong brand of hydroponic garden to the wrong house. After I managed to get my blood pressure down to a level where I could read my computer screen, I checked the order status at Amazon, and at that point (this was before I canceled it), it was still showing as “ready to ship”, and the order was addressed to my son’s house.

Hmm.

So, if it wasn’t a mistake, how did it get here? Whoever sent it knows my name, address and cell phone number (all on the shipping label.) So, it was probably sent on purpose by someone that knows me fairly well.

Did I drunk order it? If so, why didn’t I drunk order another AeroGarden? Wait. We have InstaCart – why didn’t I drunk order more liquor? When was the last time I was drunk enough to shop online?

I had to Google Click and Grow since I had never heard of the company. (We’re an AeroGarden family.) Once I found them, I asked to reset my password on the site. The site had no record of any of my email addresses. So, if I drunk ordered it, I didn’t order it directly from them. Hmm.

If drunk ordered anything, it would probably be from Amazon, who knows my credit card, bank account, blood type, wife’s ring size, dogs’ names and favorite treats and who knows what else. Therefore, it would be in my Amazon orders list. So, I scrolled and scrolled (and scrolled) and never found anything. I even searched for “Click and Grow”. Nothing. Hmm.

I still don’t know in which order that the two companies (AeroGarden and Click and Grow) were founded and started shipping, so I’m not sure which is a knock-off of the other. But the AeroGarden looks more polished and obviously has a better marketing team, so I thought, “Who would send me a knock-off of something I already have?”

However, nobody really knew we had one. So, then it was, “Who would assume I would like something like this?”

Then, more depressingly, “Who would spend $200 on me that doesn’t live in my house?”

This basically lead to a list of all of the eccentrics we know. Crazy people are all around us, in and out of our families. Eccentrics are the specific crazy people that will buy you $200 Christmas presents. Eccentrics are the crazy people that you like. Time to visit the eccentrics list.

Two of the members of our eccentric list will be here on Christmas Day, unless my wife is sick, which is her usual condition during the holidays. While a hydroponic garden would have been out of character for my little brother, he has moments of whimsy, so he remained on the suspect list. The other is my Mom, and the chances of her getting us the same thing (from a different company) as we got her were fairly slim, even though hilarious, especially since I do all of her online ordering. I didn’t have an email from her asking me to send myself a hydroponic garden, so she was probably off the list.

Nonetheless, I checked with both of them. Neither claimed credit. (Well, my brother instantly claimed credit, but slipped when I asked him to identify exactly what he had given us. As I had to remind my wife, you never ask, “Hey, did you send us a $200 hydroponic garden?”, you ask, “Hey, did you send us something expensive, and if so, what was it?”)

The next two on the list are friends that live in New Mexico (together), and we had talked to them and showed them the AeroGarden Sprout (with buds – not those types of buds) before the mystery Smart Garden 9 had even shipped (according to UPS), so they were some of the few people who knew we already had one. It’s not out of character for them, but we had already received something from them for Christmas, and they probably wouldn’t give us something we had. Plus, they said it wasn’t them. Suspects cleared.

Next was my sister-in-law up North who is allergic to the Internet (and most things invented after 1950), and she would have had to call my wife to do the online ordering for her, which would have spoiled the surprise. Plus, she has a real farm, so a countertop garden would have seemed silly to her. Also, she had sent us something already. She didn’t know anything about it, but has found the daily phone reports of this investigation highly amusing. She will never read this, because it is on the Internet.

Next was my other sister-in-law who loves the Internet, but had already given us gifts. She said it wasn’t from her. I assume she will buy one soon, especially if our herb crops come in, and my wife starts gushing about it.

So, my wife posted the question to her Facebook friends and acquaintances, where many of my wife’s friends immediately took credit, but none could identify what they had actually given us. Nice try, Brooklyn.

At this point, I decided to track it down from the shipping information.

We called the shipper in New Jersey, whose phone forwarded us to their office in California – which is closer to China, in case it really was the wrong product to the wrong address. They couldn’t help.

I emailed the Click and Grow company and had a lovely week-long email chat with their support team, trying to explain why I had no idea why one of their products had managed to get to my house, but that I was pleased to have it. They requested a picture of the box and serial number, and a picture of the UPS label.

After a couple of days, they gave up and said it looked to them like it had been ordered from Amazon and drop-shipped, so it wasn’t in their system.

So, my wife called Amazon where the operator seemed fixated on solving the problem of an “unwanted package.” She did not grasp the concept of “unexpected.” Apparently, Amazon employees do not receive gifts. She finally checked the UPS tracking number, couldn’t find it in their system, and concluded it was not from Amazon. I am still not sure how a package that was traveling around just before Christmas was not from Amazon.

Finally, my wife called UPS whose automated system helpfully told her the package was delivered on the seventeenth. Thank you, logistics experts. She finally forced the system to route her to a human (sic) who managed to not understand the question, and then dropped the line. Well, hung up on her, since the call routed to their survey robot (bad move).

UPS then called back hours later and gave my wife the reference numbers for the shipment. These were the numbers from the label that was on the package. One of them is coincidentally my cell phone number. This was a Double Jeopardy answer for “What is less than useless?”

During the search for the gift-giver, another seed kit arrived for the Click and Grow, so whomever sent the garden decided we should not just grow lettuces. Either that, or the sender told someone else, “Hey, if you don’t know what to get them, send a seed kit. I sent them a Click and Grow.” This seed kit will be planted after the two that arrived with the garden have been grown, so about the time we go on our next cruise in 2022. I’m a bit concerned another garden arrival may be imminent.

The Back Forty: our AeroGarden Harvest, waiting for tomatoes. Our Mystery Click and Grow Smart Garden 9, growing lettuces: Green Sorrel, Romaine, and Arugula.

I’m breathlessly waiting for the mail to arrive today. Merry Christmas!

Christmas at Home

We’ll be at home for Christmas this year, for the first time since 2007. (Technically, we were home on Christmas in 2013, but we were gone the week before.)

Fleeing for Christmas started in 2008. In 2008, my sister-in-law passed away in January, and my mother-in-law passed away in June. It was a bad year. My wife didn’t want to be home at Christmas and her brother didn’t want to be home at Christmas, either. He had a timeshare in Orlando and was taking his kids, so he invited us to go along.

Here’s the thing about Orlando – I hate Orlando. I have no love at all for Disney (never understood the attraction), and I don’t particularly like a cold swamp in December. Also, I was at IBM at the time, working for Lotus, so I was going to be in Orlando three or four weeks later for Lotusphere. Lotusphere was scheduled in Orlando in January because the weather is generally miserable, so the hotels are cheaper. So, I was not looking forward to Orlando in December.

We went. It was a nice time, in spite of the fact everyone was basically in mourning. The parks were freezing but seeing European tourists turning blue in short shorts and t-shirts who believed the “weather is always beautiful in Florida” marketing mantra was fairly amusing. We did get to see Blue Man Group – and I never realized the irony until I wrote this.

After we got home, all was quiet for a few months, and then my wife declared she didn’t just want to be home last Christmas, she didn’t want to be home at Christmas forevermore. So, I didn’t even think about “this will be expensive”, I thought, “How do I prevent ever spending Christmas in Orlando again?”

The answer: find something else to do that will be so enticing that she won’t think freezing in Florida is a good idea, even if it is with family.

That’s why in 2009, we took our first cruise. One Sunday, I Googled cruise lines, and sent information requests to all the major ones – Norwegian, Carnival, Royal Caribbean. I got emails from Carnival and Royal. Norwegian called me ten minutes later. We have a winner.

Maricela introduced herself as “my” cruise consultant and asked what I was looking for as a cruise. I said I wanted to cruise out of Galveston. She said, “We sail from New Orleans.” I found it difficult to argue with that. It’s pretty much the same port, except for the State and location, and New Orleans being almost twice as far away by car (I wanted to drive to Galveston.)

We booked the Norwegian Spirit out of New Orleans for a seven-day cruise. It was an interesting start – we got our sea legs easily, but we tended to miss dinner every night because we would get back from an excursion, decide to take a “quick nap” and wake up at 10pm. I’m not sure what was on that first cruise that made us so sleepy, but it was amazing. Somewhere along the way, I had a strange feeling I didn’t recognize. Later, I realized I was relaxed.

That started our cruising adventures that are documented here. I can help you book your cruises now, as I’m a travel advisor.

That brings us to 2020. This was not a good year to be a cruising fan. This was not a good year to be a travel advisor.

So, we’re home for Christmas. We’re having family over which will make Mom happy because when my Dad died, she refused to leave home for Christmas, even though we invited her along with us (that was the year we sailed early.) Hopefully, nobody in the family will die from having Christmas at home in 2020.

I didn’t think staying home for Christmas would have a major effect, except for being cold in Dallas instead of warm in the Caribbean. However, I’ve noticed I am getting crankier than usual (my wife may disagree), and I am certainly not relaxed.

We don’t have a cruise booked until October 2022. This is very distressing to me. We have had three cruises in a year a couple of the past years.

So, Christmas at home. For the first time in 13 years or so. Unemployed. With family. With a wife who will spend more on food for four than a cruise would have cost. I’m pretty sure this is how alcoholics get their start.

Merry Christmas!

Recurring Nightmares

I just woke up from a brief nap. We had fairly broken sleep last night because Katie probably has a urinary tract infection, so she was visiting the yard every couple of hours.

I woke up because I was having a nightmare. I was lost on my unicycle in my parents’ old neighborhood, which isn’t that far from here. I lived there for over ten years, and it’s not that large, so I’m not really sure how I was lost.

That’s when I realized I have been having the same recurring nightmares lately. I’m lost in a neighborhood that resembles one where I had my old paper route, or I’m lost in a neighborhood that resembles where my parents used to live. Sometimes, it has combinations of both with parts of Plano added for extra terror.

There are a few other constants in the dreams – I’m lost, I’m on foot or on a unicycle, there are rarely other people around. When I wake up, I’m still trying to find my way home.

The only true constant is I am always approached and befriended by dogs, usually three white ones, a large one that looks like a poodle, a medium-sized one that looks like a Lhasa Apso, and a small mutt.

I’m sure the white is symbolic. The sizes are just from reading Goldilocks too many times as a child. I have no idea where the unicycle popped up. I’m pretty sure my foot surgeon would frown on a unicycle since I broke my foot walking.

As to the causes. maybe it’s depression from 2020. Maybe it’s stress from being unemployed again. Maybe it’s from sleeping too much with a dog smashed against me.

However, I prefer to think it’s a reminder for everyone – dogs are often your only true friends, and dogs will love you even if you’ve lost your way.

So, a gentle reminder, especially at the holidays: pets are not good gifts. Pets are a gift that come with instant responsibilities, and long-term commitments. Don’t give a gift that brings happiness on Christmas and is in the shelter by Easter.

Most importantly, if you have a pet, love your pet. They love you, no matter what.

And stay off your unicycle. You don’t want to get lost.

Annus Horribilis

In the Caribbean, this has been a horrible year. I know, because I’m scheduled to go there at Christmas. My wife and I have our annual cruise scheduled, in spite of the fact I’m still looking for a job, because we just need to get out of town for the holidays.

This year, there was a particularly nice cruise available on the Norwegian Jade, a ship we have sailed before and enjoyed. It’s ten days, so a good length of time away. It wasn’t that expensive, compared to other years. It was also calling on a number of ports that we had never visited before. So, with all the stresses of not working, I was looking forward to a cruise.

Then Irma. Then Maria.

Here’s our cruise plan, as of the original booking. All the red ports are currently closed. We should know in a couple of weeks where we’re actually going to sail, but as all the cruise lines have the same problem, and all of them will have a multitude of ships in Florida for the winter, it’s going to get interesting. The scheduling of multiple ships of multiple sizes (which limits which ports can be visited) with random cruise lengths to the same area of the sea will be challenging, to say the least.

This is not a complaint letter about our cruise being changed, although you can find plenty of those around. Our itinerary will change, we know that, whatever. It’s hardly Norwegian’s fault that two of the worst storms in history tracked almost exactly over their planned Christmas cruise.

That said, we learned a couple of bizarre things while watching Mother Nature destroy our vacation plans. One, many people care more about their vacations than other people. When Norwegian announced all their Eastern Caribbean cruises were suddenly sailing Western Caribbean routes until at least the end of November, people complained. Complained.

There are people living in the islands who depend on tourism who now won’t get tourists because the port has been destroyed, and by the way, their house is gone, and you’re whining that your vacation was ruined? Get a grip, people.

It was particularly painful for us, because we’ve been to some of the islands and we know some of the people. I fed birds in St Thomas. I haven’t heard how the resort made out. We made our own perfume at Tijon in Saint Martin. The store remains, the owner’s house is gone.

We support a dog rescue on Saint Martin. We donated what we could to their campaign to build a shelter last year. The shelter is gone now. It took a couple of days for someone to locate the founder of the organization because the power was out, nobody could get to her house, and she had refused to leave the dogs. Even though we haven’t met in person, it was freaking us out that nobody knew if she was OK.

So, having to go to the Western Caribbean instead of the Eastern Caribbean is not really a problem. Trust me.

I was very pleased to see multiple cruise lines donate ships, crew and time to get supplies to the islands and get stranded people off of them. I was horrified by some of the comments of passengers diverted by a hurricane to Cozumel. (“It’s humid here!”) Honestly, I would be freaking out if I was working (and paying a dog sitter) and suddenly had my vacation extended by an unknown amount of time, but I would like to think I could handle it more gracefully. It’s a freaking hurricane. It’s not really under the cruise line’s control. Have a margarita. Chill out.

We also learned that the islands don’t seem to exist in much of the US media’s eyes. At best, they’re flyover country – a large number of independent entities that are all just lumped together. Storms generate in the Atlantic, pass over the Lesser Antilles and then go towards Miami. There are over thirty islands. It’s not one clump. Some were hit, some were grazed, some were missed. The distinctions are important and it is newsworthy for each individual island. The Weather Channel seems to dwell mostly on what might or will happen instead of what has just happened.  CNN did a better job of reporting results, but if you’re all about weather, why aren’t you covering where the weather just occurred? Personally, I don’t really care right now if Miami is going to get hit in four days if someone I care about is getting hit at the moment.

(I also learned that you can find information, you just need to find the official channels or newspapers on the web. However, when their power goes out, the news gets spotty.)

Also, the US Virgin Islands are part of the US. The name should be a major clue. Newspeople don’t seem to know this. These people are your fellow citizens. (Here’s where to donate.) The same applies for Puerto Rico. I’m really appalled by the lack of coverage or concern because everyone was looking down the calendar at Florida.

I’m actually appalled by the media not covering more of the islands at all, even the ones not directly tied to the US. The Caribbean is a major tourist destination. There are expats living all over them. There are cruise ships steaming towards them, filled with drunk Americans. There are people spending their vacation money, planning to visit in the next few months. It does matter.

The Caribbean should be more important to us.

The islands will rebuild. They always do. However, a lot of what they need is imported (expensive), so it will take time. Months. Maybe years. Support them. If the ports aren’t open, I’m pretty sure you can still transfer funds. Donate, people.

I personally don’t mind visiting an island that’s half recovered, just to spend some money there and help the recovery by having some fun. I hope more people think that way. From what I’ve seen online, there are some who agree with me.

“It’s not like at home” is one of the great reasons to travel. I hope we all remember that.

Oh, and if you’ve been thinking about adopting a dog, I can help set you up. You just have to wait until they can arrange the flights, assuming the airport is open.

Holidazed

This is specifically written to make me feel better, because I’m about to have my annual panic attack. Read this, and you will probably understand why. This is all just self-reflection, and not designed to insult or offend anyone who may be mentioned or thinks they may be mentioned. So, apologies in advance, just in case.

I hate the holidays. I will admit that. I used to deny it, but even I realize I really dislike this time of year. This has been true for so long that my first wife warned my second wife about it while we were still dating, and I’ve been married to my second wife for fifteen years. I was never sure why, but I’m pretty sure I know now. I’m beginning to recognize some of the annual patterns, and they may have something to do with how I feel.

First of all, for anyone that is even tangentially connected to a sales organization, Christmas is really the end of  fourth quarter and the end of the year – when the sales guys are either going to make their quotas or not. Not making end of the year quota is bad, since reviews are coming up, and you’re about to get a number between 1 and 4 attached to you that is not a ranking (Really. No, it’s really not. It’s just everyone with low numbers is better than people with high numbers. But it’s not a ranking.) So, if you’re a technical resource like me in a sales organization, you can get called into anything that resembles a sales opportunity no matter how hopeless – and the hopelessness will be matched by the desperation of the salesperson. Unfortunately, their bonuses are riding on my performance, so they will expect me to work 80-hour weeks. I don’t get a sales bonus, and I know desperation when I smell it. Usually, once it is apparent that the sale is completely lost, someone will start suggesting that a visit on-site would save the day. The site will be in a remote area, prone to being snowed in, with crappy air service. The only customers available will have no purchasing authority.

I will begin crying at stupid things, especially commercials, starting at Thanksgiving. It may be that I’m really sentimental, it may be the crushing disappointment of never getting a pony for Christmas, it may be the realization that my extended family will probably never get together for an event again – no matter how much we talk about it, or it may just be I gave up drinking too soon in life. So, please just ignore me if I’m crying. It’s probably not you, and it will be over soon.

I will have my annual theological issues with the commercialization of Christmas. These feelings start at the Fourth of July when the first decorations go up. This then leads me to the realization that I’m quite possibly a really, really bad Catholic. However, I’m not especially welcome in the Church since I’m divorced and remarried. Or maybe I am welcome. It depends on whom you ask, and what you mean by “welcome”. Also, I have a fundamental issue with the Church hierarchy who lately seem much more interested in being popular with people and fixing global warming than actually saving souls, which I thought was their job. I understand politicians pandering to the masses, but the Church should be keeping people on the straight and narrow. So, trying to be religious this time of year is very difficult for me. The Catholic Church is a lot like most big corporations – there’s somebody in charge somewhere that has a vision of what should happen, but they keep hiring incompetents to implement the vision.

The Spousal Unit does not want to be home on Christmas. This has been true since her Mom passed away seven years ago. That’s fine, I can live with that. So, logically, we have to go somewhere. In 2009, for lack of better ideas, we went on a cruise, and survived – actually, it was fun. So, now, we take a cruise over Christmas. Interesting point – Christmas Week is the second most expensive week to cruise in the entire year (only New Year’s is worse, and one year, we had both holidays in one cruise.) So, as with anything you have been paying for since at least February, the expectations are high. Anything with high expectations is pretty much doomed, at least on some level, because the expectations amplify minimal imperfections – for some hilarious examples, just read the CruiseCritic website. Also, since the cruise and accouterments (airfare, hotels, excursions, drinks, souvenirs, pet sitters, new clothes, camera gear, insurance)  cost quite a bit of money, anything that can threaten it (work, injuries, pet issues, family issues, travel issues, possible divorce) is made that much worse.

Since we’re gone for Christmas, my family will want to have a Christmas gathering (much like the one the Spousal Unit is avoiding) some time before we leave, since nobody in my family wants to go on the cruise with us – the Parental Unit wants to stay home just as much as the Spousal Unit wants to leave. So, Christmas will be between the 12th and the 23rd and then again on the 25th. If the Spousal Unit’s family ever figures this out, I could end up with three Christmases a year, which is more than my son had as a child of divorce.

Now, ket’s look at what always seems to occur within a few days of Christmas, usually a week or so before – i. e. when I’m trying to close out work projects and get out of town for vacation. When most of this happened this week, I realized it was time to document it.

Some time during the week before we leave:

  • One of our dogs will have a minor to major medical issue. (This actually happens before most vacations in addition to Christmas.) This week, Ripley spent an $845 day at the veterinarian’s. So much for my bar tab on the ship. (On this day in 2011, Bubba crossed the bridge, so I am very glad Ripley is home in one piece, but I wish we didn’t have to spend almost a grand to find out he’s old and temperamental.)
  • The Spousal Unit or I (maybe both) will have a very painful, short-term medical issue that has the potential to derail the entire vacation. Last year, the Spousal Unit had stress-induced vertigo the night before we left that was so bad, I moved our flight eight hours later to give her time to recover (and pack). This year, I managed to slip on a pee puddle in a dark hallway and sprain my ankle. (Yes, pee puddle. The dogs don’t always wait until they’re outside.) I’ve almost finished limping.
  • Someone in the family will start a very distracting project that will then keep the Spousal Unit very distracted until the absolute last minute – to the point where I assume I will be sailing naked, and even though nobody said the project was actually her problem or that it had to be done before Christmas. My Parental Unit will have house repairs or insurance paperwork. Someone somewhere will be ill. Someone needs desperate pet advice, whether they know it or not. My sister-in-law will have some of the carpet in her house replaced. One of the dogs will have a new medication, which requires a sixteen-hour rewrite of the ten-page pet manual for the pet sitter. Something. (One year, it was an actual death, so carpets aren’t so bad.)
  • There will be a major crisis at work. I will be one of three candidates in the Universe that can solve this issue, even if it is not in my job description, my department or even my field of expertise. I will be the only one of the three available. It will blow over eventually, but it may be January before it’s fully resolved. Usually, because of the way annual budgets and finances are designed at work (“Fall Plan” starts in May and ends in February, if you’re lucky), there will be a wee question of whether I will have a job when I return. One year, I had a paper for a conference rejected and found out about it on the ship. So it goes. Then, they said, “No. You have to rewrite it. By Monday.” I redid the paper from my Spousal Unit’s aunt’s house via a T-Mobile hotspot we bought at Home Depot. (She didn’t have Internet access, but she did have a fax machine.)
  • The pet injury and family projects will be the number one, single most critical issues for the Spousal Unit, which make my work problems seem trivial in comparison to her, even if my work crisis is helping management figure out how best to phase out my own job. Having to hear about a Chihuahua’s possible ingrown toenail or how difficult it can be to choose tile while I’m trying to find an extra half million dollars somewhere or I’m patiently explaining for the third time why if a job is necessary in December, it’s probably still necessary in January tends to be slightly annoying. Possibly stressful. Just saying. Maybe it’s just me.
  • I will be told by at least one manager to “forget about work and enjoy your vacation.” I know this is a trap, because I just spent a week trying to figure out where to cut the budget. So, $250 for Internet access on the ship, and I need to watch my email.

On Christmas Day itself, I will not realize it’s Christmas, because we’ve already had the celebrations, I’m still stressed from work, and I will probably be snorkeling. On the bright side, there will probably be rum.

Some years, the calendar is particularly cruel, and I will have work days between the end of the cruise and the end of the year. That’s the case this year.

I don’t really know why I hate the holidays.

Holidaze

The end of another year. Christmas. Hanukkah. Year-end close at the office. Budget deadlines for next year at the office. Family in town. Leaving for vacation.

Stress.

Wow. There is approximately 43% more crap going on right now that I can process.

I was promoted to manager this year. This is the major reason I haven’t posted in a while – I’ve been too busy trying to identify and put out fires. I got promoted just in time for all the budgeting and arguing for next year. What fun it is! I don’t understand the numbers yet, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have to defend them. It’s also the time of year that you get questions which demonstrate nobody is actually reading the contracts they are signing. This scares me. I read them and I correct the typos, because I assume my job is on the line. If that is a bad assumption, that is what is wrong with the company.

The other thing wrong with the company is that everyone expects 24×7 access to everyone else and instantaneous replies to requests, no matter how trivial – even though manager’s training specifically tells you not to do that. So, while on vacation, I’ll still be checking email at cruise line Internet prices. If my Internet bill is higher than my bar tab (again), it’s not a great vacation. It’s an office with sand and rum. At least there’s rum.

It’s funny – when I made the vacation plans, being out for two weeks was going to have very little consequence, since not much was going on in my old department at this time of year. Apparently, now the world will end prematurely if all my emails aren’t answered quickly and completely.

One of my goals before I die is to teach the people above me that not every problem is a severity one problem. This may be an impossible task.

My son is a PhD now. His family all came down for graduation, so the three grandkids are in residence. Every time my wife and I try to corral the two boys – even without watching their baby sister – I have more and more doubt on the sanity of people my age trying to have kids. We’re watching the kids because their parents are tired – and they’re in their twenties. There’s a reason old folks don’t have kids – kids are active and inquisitive and fearless. Sure, it sounds like good exercise, but a heart attack really doesn’t help you lose much weight, unless you count only getting fed what fits down a tube while you’re in the ICU.

At least we now know that nothing in our house or my Mom’s house is actually child-proof. Oops. On the other hand, I’ve virtually given up drinking Diet Dr Pepper at home, because I can’t get into the cabinet where the soda is kept. I guess I’ll have to get one of the grandkids to open it for me before they leave.

It’s sad that I have to stop and think if sending a “Merry Christmas” note to my team is going to offend anyone. It’s Christmas, whether you celebrate it or not. There are enough people who either are Christian or believe in the secular values of Christmas, that companies close for the day. It’s Christmas vacation whether you honor the day or not. It’s still vodka, even if you don’t drink. Call Christmas vacation what it is.

One more meeting to go.

Christmas Newsletter 2013

Editor’s Note: The physical Christmas cards are a wee bit late this year. We plead vacation. Every year, my wife demands a Christmas newsletter, because all our friends have one, and every year, I realize I just don’t have the energy or creativity to do one. So, I’ve decided to let the pets take turns. This year, Rocky the Chihuahua drew the short straw. However, he seems to think it’s a privilege, so it may become his job permanently.

Feliz Navidad!

Hola, everybody!
RockyMy name is Rockford J Gilhooly, and you can call me “Rocky.” I am the newest member of the Gilhooly clan, Galemeadow chapter, and my very wise Cocker Spaniel brother Murphy told me that the new guy receives the honor of writing the family Christmas newsletter. He was giggling after he told me that, but I’m not sure why. Dad told me I wasn’t supposed to make the newsletter all about me, so I guess I will talk about some of the other people around here, too. It’s just I’m the most important.

I have never actually been in a family where the pets write the newsletter, but I heard that Murphy’s newsletter was much better received than Dad’s.

So, this is the 2013 (semi-) annual Christmas newsletter, but the story actually begins on April 30, 2012. That morning, Mom was at the vet with one of the other guys when a lady carried me in. I had been hit by a car, and both my back legs were broken. The lady was very nice, but she technically was not a Good Samaritan, since she didn’t pay for my operation. Sparky’s Pals (and some of their very generous donors) did, and Dad took the corporate checkbook away from Mom after that. I had a femoral head ostecotemy on both legs. Dad said that my surgeon, Dr. Mountain, removed the heads of each femur and that scar tissue (hopefully) would grow up and replace the joint. (I don’t know what’s he’s talking about, either, and they’re my legs.) Dr. Mountain thought one leg would heal well enough to let me walk. He wasn’t sure about the other one.

Well, I can run and jump and climb on Mom’s head when she’s sitting in her chair or lying in bed, and I even climbed over a baby gate to say “Hola” to Uncle Stephen one day, so I guess the operation worked! Mom and Dad tried very hard to find a family that would adopt me, but eventually, I wore Mom down, so I’m staying here, with the rest of the PsychoPuppies. Dad said even if I left, I would still be here because I shed. Ha ha. So, now, I get to write the newsletter! (Dad said they named me “Rocky” since I fought a Cadillac and almost won. I don’t know what that means.)

Enough about me. For now. Let’s get on to the other news, even though there isn’t much happy to report this year.

Dad said this was probably the first Christmas newsletter that has an obituary section, but some years are like that. He said if I knew basic Latin, 2013 would be Annus horribilis. I think he was just trying to remind you, my dear readers, that he and Uncle Stephen went to prep school.

Mom’s Aunt Lucy Veccia died in December, 2012, just before Mom and Dad left on their annual vacation. They were with her the night before she passed away. On the day Aunt Lucy passed away, Mom found out that she had been appointed the executor of her estate, and she’s hoping to have all the paperwork done before the end of the year. Aunt Lucy would have liked me, because she was a dog person. Dad said her dog was named Rags. Mom and Dad created a memorial website for her at www.lucyveccia.com for her family and friends to visit.

My grandpa, John Vincent Gilhooly, died in February 2013. Mom and Dad had dinner with him the night before he passed away, so the last thing Mom did was feed him (the Italian way) and the last thing Dad did was get him a drink (the Irish way.) If I had been there, I would have climbed on his head (the Chihuahua way.) I never got to meet Grandpa, which is sad, because he would have loved me, even though he wasn’t a dog person. Everyone is a Chihuahua person! You can visit his memorial website at www.johnvgilhooly.com for more about him, including the obituaries and eulogies. Mom said that most of the people in the Church laughed during Dad’s eulogy, but they were supposed to laugh, so it was OK. I’m not sure Dad understands funerals very well. (Grandma is just glad Dad didn’t refer to all the priests and deacons as “Men In Black.”)

While Mom was starting to work on Aunt Lucy’s estate, her cousin Donna (one of the beneficiaries) passed away, so Mom got to help deal with that estate, too. So, there were three deaths in the family in about six weeks, and that was just the start of the year. Do not make Mom your executor, unless you want a very cranky one.

To summarize 2013: Mom spent all year doing estate paperwork, Dad spent all year at the office with three new managers in three months, and I spent all year working on the newsletter. I think I did the best job, don’t you?

Sparky’s Pals was pretty quiet this year, except for their stellar failed adoption of me, which started last year. Mom and Dad are hoping to get the school programs going again next year, estate paperwork willing. In the meantime, Dad did manage to get KNON to play public service announcements for Sparky’s Pals, so if they’re not in schools, at least they’re on the radio.

KNON was nice enough to play the PSAs because Dad is President of the radio station! It’s actually a non-profit, community station, and if you’re not in Dallas, you can listen online at http://www.knon.org. Dad said to remind you that you can donate online, as well. They say if you don’t like the station, just wait and they will change it for you, which is true, since most programs are only two or three hours long and then the format changes.

Dad was also Principal for a Day this year! He got to shadow the principal at Dan D Rogers Elementary school, visit all the classes, do the daily announcements, and sing “Happy Birthday” to one of the students. (Dad thinks this may have been hazing.) He also did Sparky’s Pals presentations to two of the grades so he managed to tie most of his volunteer work together. (He went back to the school for their career day and talked about IBM and KNON, so he covered everything he does at the school.) He did not take me, which was unfortunate, since I am a very good enforcer.

Mom and Dad took their annual Christmas cruise a week early this year, so they were home for Christmas. They had also taken an earlier cruise this year, in April, across the Atlantic, on the inaugural cruise of the Norwegian Breakaway. They sailed from Southampton to New York. Dad said it was on his bucket list. Mom’s friends reminded her it was about the same time of year and route as the Titanic. Luckily, they made it home. Mom said they had a cabin with a butler. She’s mad Dad won’t get her a house with a butler. I’m mad that they didn’t bring me anything. I was hoping for some British treats, even if I had to eat them on the wrong side of the couch.

Christmas this year is at Grandma Gilhooly’s house – I’ve already been there, and it’s a nice place, but there are too many closed doors – and there will be a lot of people there! J. R. and Ginger and Caleb and Carson (and a new granddaughter on the way – news if you’re not on Facebook) will be coming down for Christmas, so they will be in Dallas for almost two weeks. (Did I mention J. R. is now teaching in Ohio? No? Are you not on Facebook? J. R. is now an Instructor in Theology at Cedarville University, so the Grand Prairie gang moved from Grand Prairie to Cedarville, Ohio for the start of the school year earlier this year. Mom and Grandma are waiting for Ginger to freeze so they will move home, but considering the Icepocalypse Dallas just had, Ohio may actually be warmer.)

It will be nice to see such a large group, because it’s more likely there will be leftovers for me! I am going to start whining extra early, so Mom will take me along. I am very good at parties, and Dad said if Caleb and Carson are there, most of the doors will end up open, anyway.

Mom and Dad both said 2014 is bound to be a better year than this one, and Mom is going to kiss a stingray for good luck while she’s on vacation. This annoys me greatly, since she doesn’t like doggie kisses (they’re the best!) but she’ll kiss a big, flat fish? I don’t understand her sometimes. There is probably rum involved. (Update: Mom’s stingray trip got canceled, but she still won’t kiss me. Species predjudice, I guess.)

That must be all that’s important this year, because Murphy said the newsletter had to be three pages or less or people stopped reading it.

I’m Rocky, and I approved this newsletter.

All Hallows’ Eve

I hate Halloween. It’s a stupid holiday. Technically, it’s not a holiday, because I had to go to work today. It is also a holiday of strife in my household, because my wife likes Halloween.

The difference may be that she was allowed to go trick or treating when she was growing up. I was not. My parents were convinced I would be poisoned by the same people whose houses I was in every other afternoon. It’s also possible they didn’t want to reciprocate. To add insult to injury, my mother discovered she was hypoglycemic in the midst of my candy-eating years, so I got carob instead. Carob looks like chocolate. So does dog poop. I think I would rather have dog-poop-covered raisins, because then I would know why they tasted bad. If my parents had just given out carob raisins, nobody would have bothered us the next year. Our house may have been papered or burned, however.

By the time I escaped my parents’ house, I was too old to beg for candy door-to-door, and people don’t like others begging for alcohol, unless you’re on a date.

There have been some years where children are being bused in from other neighborhoods to beg for candy. My wife does not mind, because she is a Democrat. Share the wealth. I am a Libertarian. Get your own damn candy, and I won’t stand in your way.

So, I do not enjoy Halloween. At least tomorrow we can celebrate dead people.

New Year’s Cruise

Just back from a week’s cruise on the NCL Pearl, a Christmas to New Year’s cruise. We visited Great Stirrup Cay, Jamaica, Grand Cayman and Cozumel. The Spousal Unit discovered she loves snorkeling. I discovered a Nikon CoolPix AW100 is a kick-ass point’n’shoot camera. Nobody got sunburned. We took my son and daughter-in-law, and we’re all still speaking to each other.

We were told this cruise is one of the most expensive cruises of the year – not because of Christmas but because of New Year’s Eve. People apparently really like to sail on New Year’s Eve.

Strangely, every New Year’s Eve, I’m reminded how arbitrary the choice of the date is. December used to be the tenth month (“decem”, a distant memory from my Latin class), not the end of the year, and there is no seasonal, solar or lunar reason for January first to start a new year, as far as I know.

However, January first does start the year, for whatever reason. Suddenly, at midnight last night, a ship full of people who had ranged from isolationist to surly became friendly. Every bloody one of them said “Happy New Year!”, even the ones who wouldn’t say “Hello” as they passed you in the hall an hour earlier.

Maybe it was the turning of the clock. Maybe it was the hope of a new beginning, no matter how arbitrary. Perhaps, it was just the accomplishment of getting free booze from a cruise line (and the champagne was nice). For a few short moments, we were all friends.

New Year’s Eve celebrations always seemed rather silly to me – you get as drunk as possible up to the actual minute, but that’s all there is – when the clock rolls from 11:59pm to midnight, you’re done. Plus, since it’s purely a timing issue, you can’t move to another part of the ship for a better view.

So, the Captain counted down the seconds, the previous year ended, and that was that. Then, the realization that it was after midnight, you were drunk, and your bags had to be packed and outside your stateroom by 1:00am kicked in. After that, the truly unlucky realized their spouse had decided 7:45am was a reasonable time to disembark.

People did not look as haggard as I expected this morning, as they left the ship with six hours or less of sleep, but Lord, they didn’t look pleased.

I really feel sorry for the crew who got to manage a midnight mob of merriment, herd people back to cabins, and then spend the morning preparing for the passengers due to start boarding by noon. I have a feeling there was more puke to clean than usual.

I’m glad we wanted a cruise to get out of the house for Christmas and to visit ports we hadn’t seen yet, because I don’t understand paying that much money specifically to hear ten seconds counted down in a Norwegian accent.

I much prefer a cruise where all the  people are out-going all week, and not just storing all their happiness for a ten-second countdown on the last night.

It was a strange trip. People were very insular. Part of that may have been an “English as a Second Language” issue, as there seemed to be a higher percentage of passengers from outside the US than on previous cruises. Also, there were huge family  groups onboard – not just Mom, Dad and the kids, but Mom, Dad, kids, grandparents, cousins and more. Those two conditions gave the trip a completely different vibe than previous “mostly American, small families, couples, singles” cruises we’ve had before.

Fourteen people signed up for a Cruise Critic Meet ‘n’ Greet, which was a pretty low number. Two showed up, besides us and the kids. As the officers arrived, I was beginning to fear they would out-number us. So, there was no real passenger participation, which was a change from last year, where we were above 50% attendance or more, and had forty sign up. It was sad, because we made friends at the meeting last year and hung out with them the rest of the cruise. This was a ship full of individual groups, where in the past, we had made some friends relatively quickly. On this cruise, people had so many built-in friends, they either refused to make new ones, or just didn’t feel the need.

A bad cruise is still better than a week at work, and this was not a bad cruise. It was just disconcerting that it was so different from the previous ones.

If you check the calendar, I think it will be a while until Christmas falls on Sunday, the day many cruises from Miami begin. So, maybe next year, people won’t wait until the last night to acknowledge there are other families onboard.

If nothing else, 2011 has been defeated. Happy New Year!