back from vacation. now i need a vacation.

We’re back from our trip to the South. Pictures and details later, but here’s a quick list of observations and such.


  • When you drive up the Eastern Seaboard, you have to just about take a mortgage out these days for tolls. Between the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, the NJ turnpike, and the George Washingtom bridge alone, I paid out enough in cash tolls to put about 300 extra miles worth of gas into the minivan.
  • I don’t know what goes on at 4am on a Sunday morning in and around NYC, but there must be some sort of local cop holiday or amnesty at that time. I got Fast & Furioused by dozens of cars, some of which were pretty high-dollar rides, and at least eight motorcycles. Three of those bikes passed me in the breakdown lane at triple-digit speeds. It appears that I-95 and the NJ turnpike are an informal racetrack in the wee hours of the Sunday morning.
  • New York City: your roads suck.
  • New Hampshire kids will physically start to melt when you take them on an hour-long walk of a Southern college campus in Southern spring weather.
  • Chik-Fil-A chicken biscuits are still pure crack.
  • A Dodge Grand Caravan is the best possible vehicle for 2,800-mile family trips short of a fully equipped rock star tour bus or RV. Three rows of seating, separated captain’s chairs for the kids with space to walk between, multiple outlets for recharging gadgets and plugging in coolers etc., lots of cargo space, seating for seven passengers…all in a stable ride that gets 26MPG on the highway.
  • iPods and iPads are lifesavers when traveling with kids.
  • Smartphones with 3G data access make trips vastly more survivable. You can look up real-time directions, phone numbers, and hotel information, email and message friends with updates from the road, post cutesy stuff on your TwitBooks, and generally stay connected to the world as you’re chugging down the road.
  • Delaware only seems small when you pass through its narrowest part on I-95. When you traverse it at its maximum north-south extension, it seems a lot bigger, especially when you’re going through half the state on state routes where the speed limit fluctuates between 55 and 40.
  • You don’t have to wonder whether you’ve crossed the Mason-Dixon line. Within a mile or so, you will see the first 100-foot vinyl cross by the side of the highway to let you know you’ve arrived in the South.
  • There are at least two dozen better names for the Mason-Dixon line. I suggest as alternatives “Sweet Tea Line”, “Waffle House Line”, and “Leave On Your Air Conditioning Or You Will Die Line”.
  • Don’t eat the country-fried chicken when you’re already feeling ooky from that GI bug the kids caught from their cousins a day into the trip.
  • When visiting relatives with kids, call ahead to make sure they don’t have GI bugs going around in the house.
  • When you pack clothes for the kids, don’t pack long-sleeved NH spring clothes for a southern spring climate unless you want to have to make a stop at a southern Wally World and spend $200 on shorts and t-shirts.

Other than the GI bug, which everyone but Robin was afflicted with for a day or so, the trip went fairly well. We got back half a day early because I elected to drive the return leg from southern VA to NH during the night in one go, so we had almost a whole extra day to decompress at the house yesterday. The kids are still asleep, doubtlessly happy to be back in their own beds. Or maybe they’re just tired from playing on the new playset that was installed in their absence as a surprise:


Today I have to pick up a new chicken condo at Home Despot, and then assemble the same. While I’m out, I’ll catch a matinee of that Avengionators flick everyone’s raving about. I’m fit and well-rested today–sleeping in one’s own bed after a week away is a pleasure that simply cannot be overrated.


vat is vay-cay-shun?

Looks like Team Munchkin Wrangler is going to go south for a family visit again. That means a 1,000-mile drive, which in turn means getting the Grand Marnier’s AC fixed. Right now, it’s not AC-ing due to a leak in the system somewhere. I am NOT going south of the Mason-Dixon in early May without some freon-cooled air at my disposal.

One of our friends is going to house-sit for us while we are gone, so the doggies have company, the chicks will be fed, and the Intertube spigot won’t rust shut from disuse. (Did I mention we’re getting chickens in April? Fresh eggs for all the Castle residents!) We are going to be gone for a week and a half, with a few days scheduled to recover from the vacation.

Anyhow, I have two items for you today, Internets. The first is for the east TN/western NC crowd: I’m thinking about getting a table at some eatery down in Knoxville for a little get-together. Anyone up for a meet-up of sorts? It would be in the first week of May. We will also be in the western NC area where Robin’s family lives, and I might be able to meet up in Asheville.

Second item: I know that there are quite a few car nuts among you. I need suggestions for a replacement for the Grand Marnier. It’s still doing fine, and will probably serve its function as kid hauler for a good while longer, but I want to get a few ideas for its eventual successor.

The criteria:

  • AWD or 4WD drivetrain.
  • Sufficient amount of cargo space (doesn’t have to beat the minivan, but should have ample space for five people plus luggage without feeling packed.) That means crossover, SUV, or really spacious wagon.
  • Decent gas mileage. The Grand Marnier gets 21 city/27 highway, and I’d like something that does as well or better, which may be a tall order to fill when coupled with AWD.
  • Price tag of under $30,000.

For reference, my current short list includes the Subaru Tribeca, VW Tiguan, and Jeep Compass. The Subie gets lousy gas mileage and is expensive, the Tiguan looks a bit small, and I am not sure about the build quality of current Jeep models. I love the Mazda5 concept, but that one isn’t available as an AWD. I’d like to get an AWD minivan, but the only option there is the Toyota Sienna AWD, which is north of thirty grand. in the end, I may just say “fuck it” and get a Subie Outback, but I wanted to make sure I don’t overlook any viable contenders.

So, anyone have any ideas for a new AWD family hauler that fits the bill?

2011 highland games, the condensed recap.

Team Munchkin Wrangler went to Lincoln, NH this weekend to attend the 2011 NH Scottish Highland Games. For those who have no idea what that is, the Highland Games are a loud celebration of All Things Scottish: caterwauling bagpipes, cask-strength single malt Scotch, men in wee skirts, and delicacies made from the animal parts most other cultures reject as unfit for human consumption.

We had tickets for the Laphroaig Scotch tasting, which was easily the highlight of my weekend, but all the other stuff was neat as well. Here are some snapshots:

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police Pipe & Drums, basically the varsity of bagpipe teams.

The White Mountains of New Hampshire, doing their best to approximate the Scottish Highlands, only with more trees and tax-free liquor.

The kids, doing their now-traditional annual ride up the mountain in the resort ski lift gondola.

Your humble correspondent (on the right) in a kilt. The tartan is MacMillan (ancient), and the kilt is a loaner. Next year, I’ll go to the ball in my own kilt, which will be the lovely New Hampshire state tartan.

That “Cask Strength” single malt is quite possibly one of the crowning achievements of human ingenuity.

When we got home earlier today, it was cool enough to fire up the pellet stove. The dogs are currently celebrating the recurring annual ritual of The Lighting Of The Warm Cozy Red Thing.

And just in case you’re still wondering what kind of stuff one watches at the Highland Games, here’s a brief iPhone video I took of the RCMP Pipes & Drums doing what they do.

on the road again, and (another) ode to the minivan.

Last Saturday, I drove for ten hours to deliver a dog down to southern Connecticut. Today, I get to do the drive again, to pick her up from her Week of Loooove.

Yes, I will have the kids with me.

Let’s just say that this week’s Dadcation (which will take place either Friday afternoon or Saturday morning) will be particularly well-deserved.

The Grand Marnier is now in its sixth year–we got in in December 2005. (Hey, I blogged about it back then…revered excrement, I’ve been doing this Interblogs thingie for a while, haven’t I?) In its five and a half years, it has been almost entirely trouble-free, which is undoubtedly attributable to the fact that we purchased the 70k miles extended warranty. Other than regular wear-and-tear items like brakes and such, it has needed no parts replaced other than a passenger side window motor (under warranty) and a tailgate latch pressure switch. Six months ago, it carried us all the way down to South Carolina in our Epic Family Vacation and Family Visit without a hiccup.

Now, a lot of guys knock minivans, but I wouldn’t want to make a trip of that length with anything but a Grand Caravan or similar vehicle. We had enough luggage for two adults and two kids, a ton of wedding and family presents, and provisions…and not only did everything fit into the cargo compartment behind the third row seat, but we still had the third row available for taking naps, changing diapers, and so on. We also had enough space to hang up the fancy wedding clothes in their garment bags so they’d arrive wrinkle-free. The sliding doors make it easy to load and unload little kids in crowded rest stop parking lots, and the seats are comfy and offer lots of leg space in every row, even for people who are six feet plus.

In everyday utility use, the folding seats are incredibly handy, because you can switch the seating configuration around as needed, turning the van from a seven-seat minibus into a two-seat cargo hauler “pickup with a roof” without ever having to take a seat out of the car. I’ve hauled bedroom furniture, bales of insulation, renovation debris, bookshelves, a dozen eight-foot 4x4s, and a hundred other items in that minivan without trouble. For sheer utility and flexibility, it’s handily the best vehicle I’ve ever owned.

The best part is that we made the last payment on it a few months ago. It’s still purring right along, and our intention is to drive it into the ground. At my current rate of mileage accumulation, I’ll probably have the Grand Caravan for another five years at least, by which time I probably won’t need a minivan anymore. But you know what? One of those Siennas with all-wheel drive would be a slick upgrade…and by that time, they’ll probably come with all kinds of Star Trek gadgets that will make the current models look like 1970s panel vans. With the way air travel is going, I foresee us driving everywhere we can, and the minivan is a long-range family cruiser without peer.

That doesn’t mean I don’t still want that Porsche 911, but there’s no law against having both…yet. <cue Rush’s “Red Barchetta”>

interblogs friends, typewriters, and moscow-on-the-charles.

Yesterday, I went down into Boston to meet up with local friends SCI-FI and Mrs. SCI-FI, and longtime reader and commenter Christina.  We had a two-hour lunch at Carrabba’s in Peabody, much fun was had, and I got to sign my first autograph.  (Christina had me sign her copy of Concealed Carry magazine, the one with me on the cover.  I told her to hang on to it, because it may be worth tens of dollars some day.)

I also got to visit with Tom Furrier at Cambridge Typewriter again.  I brought him my Royal Quiet Deluxe, and he installed a new platen on the spot in just ten minutes.  It’s in perfect shape, not a bit of rust or wear marks, and a fantastic little typer. I’ve heard people in the typosphere sing the praises of the Royal QDL, and if this model is a representative sample, the praise is well deserved.  (Typecast from the QDL forthcoming.)

This Quiet Deluxe was on of four machines I got at a garage sale last year for the princely sum of $30.  The other ones were an Olympia SM9 identical to the one I already have (just with Elite instead of Pica type), a Royal Custom III, and a Smith-Corona Sterling.  The QDL’s platen was shot–it wouldn’t even pull in a piece of paper.  For some reason, I thought the Sterling was in bad shape and broken, but it was just really filthy, and merely needed to have the space bar popped back onto the metal transfer bar underneath.  This morning, I sat down with some Clorox wipes and a wet dish rag, and it turned out there was actually a pretty nice Sterling underneath all the grime:

This one is from the very late 1950s or early 1960s, the very last Smith-Coronas with the “Super-5” body style. I oiled her a bit, popped in a new ribbon, and she’s running just fine.  No idea why I thought this thing was in bad shape.  At first, I thought I had bought one plastic 1970s typer, one duplicate of something I already owned, and two paperweights, but now they’re all in working condition.  Just the QDL alone would have been worth the $30.  The Sterling and SM9 are a bonus. I’m not so hot on all the plastic on the Royal Custom III, but it was a package deal.

Last night after I got back from MA, I put the kids to bed, and we had some of Robin’s stellar chicken bouillabaisse.  There may have been some Warcrafting and drinking going on as well.  Laundry lists of high-dollar sports cars in case of lottery win aside, my pleasures run on the simple side these days.

security kabuki, part the umpteenth.

There’s only one reason why the TSA is threatening to fine the guy who resisted both the full-body scanner and “alternative” patdown search in San Diego last weekend.  A terrorist intent on blowing up or hijacking a plane would not be deterred by the threat of civil suit and $11,000 fine.  Those punitive measures are purely designed to keep the rest of us looking down and shuffling through the line without defiance.  They’re pulling out all the stops on the resister to send a message to the rest of the traveling public:

Fail to comply without question, and we’ll ruin you.

We can’t have people questioning, resisting, or (worst of all) making the TSA look like the mouth-breathing goobers they are.  He showed them up, and they didn’t know how to handle it.  Now they’ll have to come down on him like a bag of anvils so others won’t consider doing the same.

TSA: Making Our Airports As Safe As Our Prisons.