Friday, July 24, 2015

One final night in Memphis

After three great nights in New Orleans, it was time to leave The Big Easy and head back north. With a 12-hour drive back home, it had been an easy decision to plan one more night in Memphis on the trip back to Illinois. This time, however, I upgraded our Memphis hotel accommodations to the Sheraton Memphis Downtown after getting a pretty good rate on Hotwire.

We got to Memphis in the early evening and, after checking in at the hotel and dumping off our luggage, proceeded to Beale Street. Thank goodness my kids got to experience the real Beale Street this time as it was a Friday night. We ate a the Tin Roof, which apparently was a Hard Rock Café in a previous life. It was kind of fun eating there as the entertainment for the night was a country music singer -- not exactly the Memphis jazz experience one would expect. And ... my family is not exactly a country music family! The food was great, however, and of course, so was the beer.

The atmosphere on Beale Street that night was what I have always experienced in the past. I'm glad my kids got to experience it, as well as some of the fun places on Beale Street like Tater Red's Lucky Mojos -- a cool souvenir and voodoo shop. It was a fun night for the family.

The next morning we checked out of our hotel and headed to one of my favorite barbecue places in town -- Tom's Barbecue and Deli. The food was pretty good, but not the totally excellent experience like I had the last time I was there. And actually, despite have barbecue at many places in Memphis, my all-time barbecue place is actually located in the southwest Chicago suburbs!

We finally got on the road for the last leg of our trip and would up back home in the early evening.

With our kids getting older and knowing that the day will soon be coming when our two oldest likely move out of the area, Mrs. lightning had suggested that we take what might be the last family vacation with all of us going. Whether it is or not, it was a great time for all. The trip, along with the shared experience of having our family dog put to sleep a few days before the trip, seemed to deepen those important family bonds. And really, when you come down to it for most people, shouldn't that be about the most important thing?

Sunday, July 19, 2015

New Orleans 2015 Road Trip


A little jazz as you read if you please ...
 
After a night in Memphis (previous post), on Tuesday morning it was time for the family to head back into the van for another 400-mile trip further south to New Orleans. I made hotel reservations at a place that was highly rated at TripAdvisor.com.
I wanted the family to get a feel for what it would be like to really live in the French Quarter. The Inn on Ursulines did not disappoint. It was really more of a bed and breakfast type place without the breakfast. And best of all, it was located right near the quiet end of Bourbon Street. Time from the inn to Bourbon Street -- about 30 seconds!
We were there for three nights and focused most of our time in the French Quarter. None of us had been to New Orleans before, and now that we are home, I can truly say that we had an excellent time!
 
Some of the things we did included: Having beignets and coffee au lait at Café du Monde...
 
 
 
Visiting historic buildings like the Cathedral - Basilica of St. Louis King of France...
 
 
Sampling some of the night life on Bourbon Street, including (as suggested by PPP) the Hand Grenade -- "New Orleans' Most Powerful Drink..."
 

And taking a swap tour in nearby Slidell -- featuring alligators and feral hogs...



And of course, eating! Aside from Café du Monde, French Quarter restaurants we ate at included ...

Deanie's Seafood -- we loved everything there including Stuffed Flounder, Stuffed Crab, Barbecue Shrimp Pasta, Shrimp Po-Boy and Softshell Crab Po-Boy. Not exactly cheap, but excellent fresh seafood.

The Praline Connection -- great cajun-creole soul food including Fried Chicken Wings, Jambalaya, Shrimp Po-Boy, Aligator Po-Boy, Collard Greens and Cabbage Greens. Tasty!

Louisiana Pizza Kitchen -- pretty good pizza, salads and soup. My son ordered the special -- Lamb Meatballs -- which were supposed to be served on a "bed of cucumbers." His meal turned out to be three dinky meatballs, each on a slice of cucumber. Bed of cucumbers? This is the one place where I would not return. The food was okay, service was meh and we paid way too much for what we got.

Jimmy J's Café --  Excellent food including Eggplant Sandwich, Chicken & Andouille Gumbo, Philly Cheese Steak and Fried Shrimp and Oyster Po-Boy. Excellent value!

Central Grocery --  No way would I visit New Orleans without getting a Muffuletta, so I went to the place that is acknowledged as the creator of the sandwich. It was very good and reasonably priced (for the French Quarter, of course!).

The family (minus Mrs. lightning) decided to visit the Museum of Death. Based on Yelp ratings, which were all over the board, I was not sure if this place would be any good. The kids absolutely loved it and I thought it was pretty good. There were interesting things like a John Wayne Gacy painting and letters from several famous killers. Pictures of Sharon Tate and Nicole Simpson were unreal. This is not a place to go if gory stuff makes you squeamish. The best part was that we were the last visitors of the day and the guy running the museum spoke with us for about 20 minutes.

And of course, how could I possibly pass up playing poker at Harrah's New Orleans when I could walk to it from my room? This poker room doesn't seem to have much buzz, and I can understand why. A floor person wasn't sure of the rules of a promotion. There seemed to be a pervasive negative atmosphere, including some negative comments I heard from players and dealers. It seemed like several people were not afraid to voice their displeasure at how the room was run. I did get in three sessions here while my family was crashed, sleeping or doing other things. I made a profit in two of the three sessions and was headed for a winning third session when chasers and variance bit me in the butt, changing a nice win into a nominal loss. I did enjoy playing here, though, and certainly would again.

Outside of the swamp tour, we did not attempt to leave the French Quarter as there was so much to see and do. While my kids expressed a wish that we would be staying for longer than three nights, I was pretty sure that the long drives and being away from home for almost a week would take its toll on them. I do know, however, that we all loved New Orleans and would come back in a second if the opportunity presents itself. If (When) my wife and I return, we will fly instead and work on visiting other New Orleans restaurants and areas of interest.

We loved walking around New Orleans and were pleased with how polite everyone was. We only ran into one rude person just as we were leaving. Since neither my wife nor I are foodies, we were not concerned with eating at any of the high-end restaurants. However, even with going to moderately priced restaurants in the French Quarter, we did not have one bad meal. I am not a big drinker and did not consume a whole lot of alcohol on Bourbon Street, but the sleazy, party atmosphere was interesting and fun. The temperature was really hot, which we expected since we went in July, but as long as we stayed hydrated and occasionally stopped in air conditioned places, we were fine. All in all, it was a wonderful trip!

Next post: One more stop in Memphis on the way home.


Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Walking in Memphis

The great lighting36 family vacation began on Monday morning with a 400 mile drive to Memphis. We were able to actually get in where we wanted at lunch -- Lambert's Café in Sikeston, MO -- the "Home of the throwed rolls." At Lambert's, they toss these huge rolls to anyone who wants them. Some of the throws are underhand lobs, but some are arching throws across the restaurant. It is a really fun place to eat.

We were all pretty tired when we got to Memphis and the kids declined to go to the National Civil Rights Museum at that time. It looks like we will do it on Saturday on the return trip.

We stayed at a relatively dumpy (but inexpensive) Sleep Inn that I had stayed at several times. Popular opinion was that we should not stay there on the return trip. Instead we will stay at the Sheraton Memphis Downtown, which will certainly be more popular with the kids.

After resting at the hotel, we ate at a lightning36 favorite place: Corky's Bar-B-Q. As always, Corky's did not disappoint. The kids loved it.

We went to Beale Street and were surprised to see that it was ... almost deserted! I have been to Beale Street several times and had never seen it quite like that. Our plan is to come back on Friday night. I am sure it will be much different then.
The lightning36 younger crew
 
After getting some shut eye, we loaded up the van and began on the next leg of our trip: the 400 mile drive to New Orleans.

Next post: The Big Easy

Monday, July 13, 2015

Chicago ... Memphis ... New Orleans

The lightning36 Summer Vacation Tour 2015 continued yesterday with a trip to Chicago and Wrigley Field to see the White Sox take on the Cubs. On my trip up to the Chicago suburbs on Saturday, however, I was FORCED .. yes forced .. to stop at Harrah's Joliet and play a few hours of poker. Harrah's Joliet has been a great place for me in 2015 and did not let me down. I doubled up and headed out.

Sunday was a beautiful day in Chicago. The temperature during the game was around 75 degree and there was a nice little wind blowing. Unfortunately, the Cubs beat the White Sox 3-1, which greatly pleased thundering36, a die-hard Cubs fan. I am sure he enjoyed sitting at the game a little more than I did today.

Oh -- and just for good measure -- a picture of the Willis (Sears)Tower, the second tallest building in the United States at 108 stories and 1,451 feet.
Next stops: Memphis (Monday - Tuesday); New Orleans (Tuesday - Friday); back to Memphis (Friday - Saturday); and home (Saturday).

Thursday, July 09, 2015

Dog Day Afternoon

Today was certainly a bittersweet day as my family got together to have one last fun afternoon together with our pet dog, Ginger. Tomorrow, unfortunately, we will all meet at the vet's office to be with Ginger when she is put to sleep.

Over the course of this blog, Ginger has been mentioned a few times and even had her picture posted. Where did it all begin?

Back in about 1990, my wife and I moved to another city as I was able to find a new job with more security and better pay. We had been married two years and did not have any kids, so a companion was needed. We bought a beagle mix and named him Granville -- after former Chicago Bulls center Granville Waiters. Granville was a great dog. If only I had a movie of me chasing him in circles inside our rental house -- me running full steam ahead and Granville just barely keeping ahead of me, his paws slipping and sliding on part of the linoleum floor.

Skip ahead several years and two kids later. Granville was not happy in being replaced from top underling position in the family pack. He growled at our young kids. We even took him to an animal behaviorist to see if we could get things right. Unfortunately, the expert told us that there were no guarantees and implicitly recommended that we get rid of Granville. We were fortunate in finding what seemed to be the perfect situation for him. An older gentleman who lived in the country had recently lost his wife and dog. His sons saw our ad and contacted us. We gave Granville to the gentleman. Unfortunately, my wife misunderstood how I wanted to say goodbye and had the sons leave with Granville before I returned from the grocery store. I was devastated.

We visited Granville once several weeks later. He seemed to be happy living in the country and frankly did not even seem to recognize me. Ah well.

We went several years without a dog (apparently I said "no" every time I was asked), and then about 13 years ago it just seemed like the right time to get a puppy. We picked up Ginger from the local Humane Society. I had actually wanted a different dog from the litter, but Ginger won my wife's heart and was selected instead. That turned out to be a great choice, as Ginger, over the course of her lifetime, proved to be the sweetest dog ever. Everyone who ever came to our house loved her.
Aside from being sweet, Ginger was also sneaky, which actually, I admired. She was not allowed on the couch and loveseat in our family room. Little did I know that my wife and kids would have her on the loveseat when I wasn't home. When Ginger heard the sound of my car when I got home from work, she bolted off the loveseat and went to the door to greet me. I was none the wiser for several years. At night, she would sneak on the loveseat. If for some reason I had to go downstairs in the middle of the night, she would hear me coming, get off the loveseat, and slink away while looking at me as I rushed down the stairs. Her guilty looks led me to feel the loveseat. Hmmm ... warm.

As Ginger got older, we noticed some changes in her. Instead of loving to take walks, she started turning around and returning for home after waking only a block or so. She was losing gobs of hair and drinking tons of water. Several trips, tests, and lots of money later, she was diagnosed with Canine Cushing's disease which, in a sense, prematurely ages dogs. With special vet prescribed (of course) food and several medications, she lived with it for several years. However, things recently took a downswing. The arthritis in her hips got so bad that she didn't want to go outside anymore because of few steps she would need to go up and down to get outside and return. Her hind legs were not cooperating and she couldn't walk most of the time. She had a few seizures. Her appetite decreased and she lost weight. She startled at many sounds and basically was spending her time sleeping and moving from one spot on the carpet to her cool mat. It became pretty obvious what we needed to do.

Our vet thought that Ginger had Cushing's for three years, but Ginger actually had it more like 5 1/2. The vet said she was surprised that Ginger lasted so well so long. But she agreed -- it was time. We are taking her in tomorrow to be put to sleep. It will be heartbreaking for the family.

This afternoon, however, we had a little party with her. We took plenty of pictures, including an updated one of Ginger and the kids.
Ginger was not very cooperative in posing for pictures. However, she did like some of the treats she got, especially a couple of McDoubles and her all-time favorite, deli salami.

It has been said that dogs live just long enough to break your heart. I know that tomorrow will be a cryfest as many tears have already been shed. Once we get past that -- and I do not know how long that will take -- I am sure that we will all be thankful that we were fortunate to have this wonderful pet in our lives -- a regular member of the family that was loved so much and brought so much happiness to us over the years.

“Dogs have given us their absolute all. We are the center of their universe. We are the focus of their love and faith and trust. They serve us in return for scraps. It is without a doubt the best deal man has ever made. ”     
          -- Roger A. Caras

"The heart was made to be broken."
          -- Oscar Wilde

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Review #2: Anime Midwest 2015 -- by Elizabeth

Hello! This is lightning’s daughter’s friend, Elizabeth, and I’ll be talking about my experience of Anime Midwest 2015. This was my very first convention, so my perspective is probably a little bit different from Erin’s. All the same, it was an amazing three days, and I had a lot of fun! So without further ado, here’s how my days went:

Friday, July 3rd

The first day of the convention. The entrance hall was absolutely packed with people getting their tickets for most of the day. It was really amazing. I was overwhelmed at first, as I’ve never seen such a concentration of sheer energy and excitement in one place before!
After getting my press pass, I wandered around the vendor floor for a little while. I got some Pokémon pins for my roommate and myself, and a really interesting comic book created by one of the art vendors (Sire, by Alexis Royce).

From 2:00 to 3:00, I was at a panel for my favorite video game series, Legend of Zelda. The panel mostly seemed to be tossing opinions back and forth about bosses, dungeons, and items, but it was interesting to hear the different points of view. After that, I spent more time wandering around and taking in the sights, and meeting some of Erin's other friends. Then we went to Denny’s for a late dinner, which I really needed.

Saturday, July 4th

Since Erin was going to be in a panel that morning, I woke up around the same time she did. I was tired from the previous day, so by the time I was ready to be out and about, she was already gone. I was less overwhelmed, however, and I took a lot of pictures of cosplayers and funny goings-on.
I didn’t go to any panels, but I did hang out at consweet (the place with free ramen, rice and Mountain Dew) for awhile, and poked around the vendor stalls. They had some fun number games, where you paid and the number you got determined what sort of mystery bag of merchandise you got. I also entered a raffle, but didn’t win. I also went to the arcade later that day, and had a lot of fun hanging out there and playing games.
I got tired again after a while, so I went back to the hotel room. We walked to the McDonalds later for dinner, and while the walk was long and a little unsettling, the food was great and affordable!

Sunday, July 5th

I decided to sleep in until 10:00, which was a good decision considering how worn out I’d been the previous day. After getting ready for the day and packing up my things for checkout, I headed out for the vendor floor again for some last-minute souvenir shopping.

Between 12:00 and 1:00, I was at a panel hosted by Samurai Dan, and got to see a 300-year-old sword and a 700-year-old sword! I also got a video on how to tell the difference between a decorative sword and an actual weapon. After that, I went to consweet for a snack before heading to the entrance hall to leave around 3:00.
The trip back took a few hours, so I spent the time switching between mentally reviewing all the events of the past few days and getting some much-needed naps.

All in all, the whole experience was amazing, and I’d say that my first convention was a complete success! I had a lot of fun, and I’m very grateful that I was invited to attend!

Review #1: Anime Midwest 2015 -- by Erin

Hello blog readers - this is Erin! I'm now back from Anime Midwest 2015, and I'm more than pleased to say that this year's convention was definitely the best one I've been to! So much happened in the span of just three days, and I wouldn't trade it for the world.

First of all, this is not the only blog post about the con -- a friend of mine, Elizabeth, helped with the press coverage, and she will be adding her own blog post from her perspective! But for now, here's what happened to me in a brief overview:

FRIDAY (July 3rd)
I started the day by meeting up with some of my friends from Con Alt Delete (see last year's post) at consweet, where there was free ramen, rice, and soda. We talked for quite some time about all sorts of things, and just generally enjoyed each other's company. Naturally, I also got many pictures of other cosplayers.

At the vendor's stalls, I bought a small stuffed bird and a pin of a character from one of my favorite video games. As I was in the area, I also met up with a voice actor (Chuck Huber) from a TV show that I adore (Yu Yu Hakusho, for those who might be familiar with it) and got a signed piece of fanart! I was so nervous, but it was amazing to get to see him.
From 3pm-4pm, I was at a photo shoot for the anime Attack on Titan. Plenty of shenanigans happened. Unfortunately, I haven't found any photos that feature myself yet, since I was mostly behind the camera for the photo shoot. And after I was done with the photo shoot, I got recruited to substitute for another person in a panel presentation on Saturday morning! Obviously, I accepted the offer.

At night time, I went to a Cards Against Humanity panel... and won exactly one point. Oops! Afterwards, everyone went to Denny's for a late night meal. It was delicious, considering I didn't eat much during the day (I was too excited!)

SATURDAY (July 4th)

I woke up at approximately 9:30 am to get ready for the panel (10:30-12). I was incredibly nervous to participate, but it was much less stressful once I was actually there. I met a lot of people and got to make a lot of jokes while I was at it. I even made a few friends!

Later, I went back to consweet to talk to my friends again. Again, it was lovely, and I'm glad I had the opportunity to talk to them. When I went to the vendor's stalls again, I bought something I had been meaning to for quite a while -- a penguin kigurumi! For those who don't know, a kigurumi is basically a full-body pajama set with a hood, usually in the form of some sort of animal.
Later that day, I took a brief nap, and then went off to McDonald's with a friend. The walk was incredibly long, and it was a bit scary to be there alone, but it was good food nonetheless. And cheap, too!
 
SUNDAY (July 5th)

The 5th was relatively uneventful. I didn't go to any panels, and I mostly talked to my friends. But it was still a good day, even though we were on a time limit. I dressed up as Sollux Captor once again for Sunday, and I talked to quite a few people who also cosplayed from the same webcomic.

I felt somewhat bittersweet when I left the convention center, knowing that it would be a while before I could return. The experience was too good, and I enjoyed every minute of it. I managed to take one last selfie in the car before we left.
After we left the convention, we took the long drive back home, and stopped by the Cracker Barrel for a brief dinner. We didn't arrive home until about 7:30 or thereabouts, and when we returned, I immediately set to taking all of the pictures and putting them on my own blog (which will not be disclosed). I managed to find a lot more of the people that I took photos with there.
 
Anime Midwest 2016 is another year away, and it's a shame that I have to wait so long to go there again. But distance makes the heart grow fonder, as they say. The opportunity was marvelous, and I'm so glad I got to experience everything.
   
See you around!

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Struggling with Letting Go

Dealing with negative things in life is never easy. I have found, however, that having negative experiences sometimes prepares you to handle other difficult tasks. At least that was the lesson I learned several years ago from my pastor, Fr. Tony Trosley.

I was at a very difficult time in my life, struggling with a personal situation that was tearing me apart inside. It may sound kind of funny, but being a professional counselor, I choose NOT to see a counselor when faced with some struggle in my life. Instead, being Roman Catholic, I seek out a priest. The combination of counseling and religion has been most effective in helping me deal with my struggles.

Anyway, in trying to discern some meaning from the horrible thing that was happening in my life, Fr. Trosley speculated that perhaps God was preparing me -- toughening me up, getting me equipped and ready -- to handle a bigger challenge in my life.

I was able to get past the situation in my life, but not without much pain, reflection, prayer and sometimes just driving in my car, blasting out a particular favorite CD, and screaming my head off. But I made it.

Shortly thereafter, I was confronted with two extreme challenges in my life: coping with the sickness and subsequent death of my best buddy at work, Norm, and dealing with the death of my father. Although living with my dad's death was certainly hurtful and traumatic, there was a sense of toughness and calm that I can only attribute to Fr. Trosley and his wise speculation. I like to think that this God that we speculate about, argue about, sometimes kill about, took a few minutes out of his busy schedule to show a little mercy and guidance to this humble guy who was faced with some terrible realities.

I hadn't thought about this much recently until the convergence of a few things hit me like a brick tonight. After going to Anime Midwest, I stopped at the hospital to see my mother. Her health has been up and down as she struggles toward her 90th birthday in October. My brother, thundering36, who has been struggling to take care of her, has had to deal with the difficult decision of when to begin our mom in hospice care. It is difficult because of the ups and downs. Regardless of exactly when it will come, we know that day is fast approaching.

At my home, we are struggling with whether or not to put our long-time family dog, Ginger, to sleep. Ginger has been suffering from Canine Cushings Disease for several years. Lately, however, she has been dealing with other medical issues. Tonight when we came home from the Chicago area, it seemed like, as we had been thinking about, it might be time to let Ginger go. We will be talking with our family vet tomorrow.

While looking up information on the internet and shedding a few tears, I was struck by the notion that I am about to go through a situation similar to the one I mentioned earlier. Is the loss of a long-time cherished family pet the event designed by God to prepare me to handle the loss of my mother?

The life may seem good on the outside -- poker, vacations, a nice job and great family. On the inside, however, the heart is breaking.