Look, No Wires! On Finding My Perfect Bluetooth Headset

(Note: Link added to post)
Ever since I heard of the concept, I wanted a pair of headphones that required no physical connection to a device to work. No more entanglements, premature shorts, and most useful of all, increased flexibility when exercising and the like. The only problem? And this might be just me, but perhaps other blind folks agree: bluetooth headphones can be difficult to power on and off accessibly. At least, if you haven’t located a pair built just so.

My first set of bluetooth headphones were a Christmas gift to me in 2016. Uproar Wireless, I’m uncertain of the exact model number as I don’t think it listed in the bluetooth connection as most current models do. They were fairly small and the pads fit well, meaning that I didn’t feel like they would come off easily due to repeated entrance and removal from my backpack. They lacked the flexible speaker though, so that putting them into more confined spaces was difficult.

The real issue though was the power button. I could get the unit to power up and connect to my iPhone, but when I attempted to turn it off, the headphones would call my wife as I held the button down. At 6:30 in the morning. Obviously this was a no-go. The odd thing to me was that this behavior was not entirely consistent, and sometimes the headphones would indeed shut down as I had hoped, emitting a series of descending beeps.

This inability to predict what would happen, as well as the fact that the headphones lacked enough volume to allow me to hear in louder places such as our employee break room, caused me to shelve those and return to my old, wired set. I continued to use these as they slowly deteriorated, now to the point that I basically have to put the raggedy speakers that have no padding, and in which only one still kind of works, against my head.

About a month ago though, someone on my Facebook page spoke of a feature in the latest iOS called Live Listen that turns the iPhone into an FM system with a pair of bluetooth headphones. This means, I suppose, that I can have sound beamed into my hearing aid if I wanted to, say, listen to someone speaking in a larger room. I still haven’t actually tried this feature, but I intend to look it up and see if I can discern it.

Before that can happen though, I must track down a workable headset. So I dare to venture back into this, and on recommendation from a Twitter follower, I acquire the MPOW H5 Noise Canceling variety. These do have considerable volume, and an impressive amount of bass. They make music and other programming sound fantastic. They even have those flexible speakers, as well as the option to connect via the headphone jack. But when listening via Bluetooth, they would beep anytime I interacted with VoiceOver or even pressed the volume up-down switch. While mildly annoying, this was tolerable.

The power button, however, is what really dissuaded me from using them. Though it audibly says “Power Off” when the button is held, sometimes twice, for four seconds, my wife says a green light continues to shine. And sure enough, when I go to try and connect them the next day the 30-hour battery is drained and I must resort to a hard connection. This leads me to one conclusion, I need something with a switch I can flip bon or off.

My wife sets off on a search to find such a device, carefully combing Amazon reviews to see if mention of an on/off switch is made. Finally, she locates the Plantronics Backbeat Go 600 Noise-Isolating Headphones. I’ve only had them a couple of days, but they seem to be just what the doctor ordered. When I push the switch up, they say “Power on, Battery High, Phone 1 connected”. If I continue to push the switch, it becomes something of a rocker. I imagine that is how you can switch between multiple, connected devices. I wonder if any other, lower-priced, headphones allow for this kind of thing. (I just can’t bring myself to spend 300 bucks on a set, not yet at least). Anyhow, these headphones also allow for a wired connection if you choose, and say they can remain charged for up to 18 hours. Mine still report that the battery is high so we shall see how long they last. There is also a long button that, when pressed, reports the status again.

They don’t have the bass of the MPOW, but this is ok as I discovered an AppleVis podcast (AppleVis is a site for blind people that helps us with all things Apple) that shows me how to use the iPhone’s equalizer. With this, I can set it to “Small Speaker” to make music sound good in my headphones, or “Spoken Word” to improve the quality of audiobooks. I have found that this works wonderfully with my new set, and am finally able to truly enjoy bluetooth connectivity. I thought I would post about them, just in case any of you were pining for something similar, (i.e.) ones that do not require holding down a button and hoping.

Bienvenido a Miami 3: Do You Know What Today Is?

And today’s soundtrack is obvious, as far as I can tell just about the only of its kind. A nice, smooth jam clocking in at over 7 minutes to get your head in the right place for chillin’!

Anniversary: Tony Toni TonÉ (Youtube)

That’s right, it’s our anniversary. And unbeknownst to us, instead of being stuck inside with gloomy weather as we’d thought, the South Florida sunshine is about to make a glorious appearance. This means we will get to truly enjoy our special, shared holiday.

Sun, January 27

I lie awake, with thoughts of how much getting this braille display fixed would cost me, and more worrisome how I would fair without it bouncing around my head. I finally have enough time to truly browse Miami radio, and decide that the better iPhone app for this purpose is OOTunes, as it truly emulates terrestrial radio. But as is always the problem in this room, my proximity to her awakens her soon after I begin, so I abandon the browsing in favor of conversation.

Anxious to see if I can determine what has happened to my display, I ask her if she can help me locate and remove the battery, as many of my Twitter followers have indicated might be the problem. Only I am unable to find a battery port on the Brailliant BI 40, I suppose because it is entirely sealed in the unit. In a move based on hope, I give up and jus try turning it on. And what do you know, it works! This is why the prior day’s quip about someone perhaps wanting me to disconnect for a while and truly be present with my wife. In any event, I am hugely relieved. One cell, or at least one of its dots, does seem to have been casualty to whatever occurred last night, making repairs imminent.

We shower, then proceed to dress for the upper 50’s with rain that we are expecting. But when we step outdoors, the sun hits us in all the right spots and a nice, ocean breeze caresses our skin. “Ah, this is what I paid for!” I say, graciously taking it in.

“Indeed,” she replies. “We’ll come back to the room after eating to dress down a bit before heading to the beach.”

IHOP is not too bad on this morning, so I sit and have my old man breakfast again, feeling content. I am hungrier this morning, as our last full meal had been around 4 the previous day. Conversation flows as smoothly as my lemonade iced tea, and I am glad that, at least to my telling these new hearing aids are easing my comfort level in such social environments.

Swinging by a beach storm we acquire a nice, large beach towel that we will put in the sand. I try to wear my flip flops down as we walk from the room, but they velcro and I can’t get the material to fit snugly enough. So I just opt for my regular shoes until we get down there, as I will go barefoot in the sand anyway.

One thing I wanted to do is dip my toes in the Straits of Florida to see if that water would be as warm as a bath tub. The answer? No! I suppose you have to go a bit farther down for that. While that initial cold is shocking, I am able to withstand a few washes by the waves that, today, sound more like what I am used to as the waters are churned up.

The most fun part comes though when we return to the towel. She lies down, and I back up against my backpack. “Why don’t you lay down, see how differently it feels?” she says. So, using my backpack as a pillow, I stretch out. It does feel different, as if I”m on a deserted island somewhere. I am afraid to drift off entirely out here though, because what if sand drifts into my mouth? Or one of those loud seagulls swoops down and snatches me up. Ok, I have a vivid imagination. But, yeah.

After nearly an hour and a half, we finally fold the towel and make our way back to the room, where I promptly go to sleep in the bed. She allows me to remain in this state for another couple hours, before concluding that we should eat before the rains come.

We were to locate a fancy restaurant so we could get all cleaned up and put on a suit and dress to celebrate the occasion. But she said, and I agreed, that the atmosphere of the day just didn’t fit this vibe. So we just walk down to the nearby Burgerfi and have one of their delicious burgers with even better hand-cut fries. It is a good thing we make this choice, as some fierce storms roll in just after we complete another Publix run and scramble back into the room.

And that is about all that happens on this low-key day. She wraps it up by reading me a beautiful note that she has written using the letters of LOVE as an acronym. And we bed down relatively early for our early AM wake-up call to head to Key West!

Bienvenido a Miami 2: Little Havana and Biscayne (Sat)

And we’ll start this post with the second song played on our citywide tour:
Havana, Camila Cabello (Youtube

Any trip to Miami is likely not complete without a visit to Little Havana, the section of the city most dominated by Cuban first and second-generation residents. We have therefore booked a bus tour that will take us to this area, as well as to a party spot along Biscayne Bay with food, music, and the damp smell of nearby water.

Saturday, January 26

The bed feels delicious, and the sleep I experience is unlike any I’ve had in months. So I have to fight hard to the surface as the 9:00 alarm rings. And, it’s rather cold outside of the cover. Miami residents, it turns out, know little or nothing about heating. I do take a little time to listen to Miami radio, as I had also done last night, but because we are pretty much forced to remain close to each other and I don’t wish to wake my wife too early, I do not avow myself in this practice for too long.

The air outside is cold too, as we again stroll to IHOP. Today I select generally lighter fare: 2 eggs, scrambled with cheese; sausages, and grits. I soon learn that this is known as the 55 and over senior meal. Ha ha. I also discover that they have lemonade iced tea, which I enjoy on subsequent visits as well.

Once we finish, we make a quick swing by the room to complete getting ready, then I bring up Uber to take us to 305 Lincoln Road, the location from which the tour bus will collect us. We are due to leave at 1:30, and it is only just after 12:25, so she decides to have a look around. WE enter a large, two-level clothing store and make our way up an escalator. As we prepare to squeeze down one of the narrow aisles, I manage to bang my head on a protruding shelf. It hurts, but fortunately no long-term damage is done. There is little else to do in here, so we make our way outside to await the bus so that we can hopefully secure good seats.

This bus exudes such strong exhaust that my head immediately begins to hurt. Even inside of the vehicle, the odor is almost asphyxiating. I can’t help but wonder how old it is. Unfortunately, I in my infinite wisdom have forgotten my Braille display back at the room, so I am unable to trace the tour via GPS as we move along. Therefore I can only recall bits and pieces.

The two songs I’ve already added to entries, and of course a fast-paced one from Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine are played through the tinny-sounding PA, I guess to get us all in the mood. As this happens, a woman narrates the sights both in English and Spanish, (as near as I can tell this is true of most Miami tours, and it sounds like it takes skill. We pass quite a few mansions, most notably that of Giani Versace. The beach itself of course consists mostly of hotels, condos, and very nice houses. Then we hop onto a causeway and head into the city, where we are told that approximately 5.7 million people now reside in Miami, the only U.S. city sounded by a woman; Julia Tuttle. I look at the Wikipedia article later, and it says that Tuttle was from Cleveland originally. Interesting story there, I’m sure.

My favorite part of the tour is disembarking at a Cuban cigar store I think on Southwest 8th Street. “We’re gonna smell like these cigars,” I quip. I’m guessing that location, smack in the middle of Little Havana, gets a lot of business from those tour buses.

After a little more showing off of the downtown area and Biscayne Bay, we get off again at an outdoor restaurant called Largos located at 401 Biscayne Boulevard. This is where the bus tour ends, and those who are going to board a boat to tour the bay are able to do so. We opt not to go on the second portion, but do enjoy burgers at this place while sitting in the somewhat cool but manageable 60 degree day. I order a delicious Bleu Cheese sandwich, and their fries hit the spot also. Music blares, and partying commences. It feels like one might imagine Miami would feel.

We have to wait for a bus to return us to our initial pick-up spot, missing the 4:30 to finish eating and catching the 5:30. Until then though, we walk around a bit and she sees American Airlines Arena, where the Miami Heat (NBA) play. I note the slightly mildewy smell of the bay, and have fun listening to people cavort about the city.

Back at the Lincoln Road location, our first Uber flies by without stopping or even really seeing us. The woman who does collect us seems not to speak English, which is ok as the info is already in GPS. We arrive at the hotel, and I discover that said forgotten Braille display is throwing something of a fit, as it comes on, connects to my phone, but does not punch up the dots as it should. Later we determine that it wants me to pay attention to my wife and put down the tech, which I had vowed to do after a quick check! While she was otherwise occupied. But perhaps someone doesn’t believe me. Other than watching some movie as I laid back and drifted in and out, and slopping down Friday’s strawberry cheesecake gotten from Las Vegas restaurant, not much else happened. I listen to a little NPR, decide the news is too much to take in while on my dream vacation, and call it a night.

Bienvenido a Miami 1: We Love Our Horns! (Fri)

With the appropriate soundtrack, of course: Will Smith, Miami

Who in January would not opt for a little sun and sand to take the winter blues away? For such an excursion, little to no excuse is needed. But my wife and I have one, and will for all time, as our wedding anniversary is on the 27th of this month. So I booked the flight and hotel some 83 days prior and waited with anticipation, and mounting dread as our government went through its perturbations, to set off for the deliciously warm locale of Miami, Florida.

Friday, 1/25

2:30 Am rolls in, and as a kid would on Christmas, I finally give up on sleep and head to my writing and reading room that we call a “man cave” to make time go a little more quickly. At 4:30, after a final check of baggage to ensure that I am bringing everything along that I wanted, I book the Lyft ride and we head over to Raleigh-Durham International Airport (RDU).

We sail through security with relative ease, being helped by workers in order to speed things up a bit. I keep beeping as I am forced to disassemble my electronic assemblage and my new belt with its big shiny buckle. That done, we grab the overpriced bottles of water past the checkpoint, because they know they can get you as you aren’t able to bring water through, and sit at our gate to await a 7:04 AM departure.

No other issues occur, and we board and take our seats only three rows up from the restroom. American Airlines charges extra for every row beyond 21, so I end up taking those far back seats. They also have very little legroom, as compared to our usual experience aboard JetBlue. The flight does touch down in Miami on time though, so I guess I can give them credit for that.

As we scurry through the relatively larger airport, I call for an Uber and there is some confusion as we discover that we need to be in arrivals and are in departures. The driver kindly waits the 7 minutes or so it takes us to make our way through the elevator and outside, we throw our things in back, and settle in for the long ride to Miami Beach. At least it is longer than it probably has to be as he opts to take a street-level route instead of the highway. She says we pass through a dilapidated section of the city with interesting graffiti that she decides not to comment on. Then we bounce onto the Bay Causeway and finally arrive at our destination, the M Boutique Hotel.

I am initially alarmed, because there is a gate into which we must enter a code and no one answers the phone when I call inside for assistance. The email had given me this code, but it had also stated that we would not need it until 3 PM. As far as I can tell, the code remains active at all times. Once I recited it to her though, she was able to successfully enter it into the keypad.

We enter a small, clean-smelling lobby where a French-speaking receptionist awaits. This is the first clue to the unusual atmosphere we are about to encounter. There are only 11 rooms in the entire building; 5 on the lower floor and 6 on the upper. Inside of the room, the sink has a faucet that is strangely canted and drains into a bowl placed in a metal frame. The shower comes straight down like rain. The room itself only contains two stools for sitting at the kitchenette table, but the bed is one of the more comfortable I’ve experienced at a hotel. As she says though, this is a room for couples, definitely not a business-type establishment. I love it’s location within easy walking distance of the beach, bus line, and several restaurants.

Once inside of the building at 11 or so, we are told that we will not be able to check in until 1. So we drop our luggage and head over to the nearby IHOP, reasoning that eating breakfast at a chain is ok as it’s well, breakfast. As we walk along the streets, the origin of my subject line becomes unavoidable: those folks honk at any and everything without provocation! Their leaning on the horn was at least on par with, if not exceeding, that I experienced when visiting Manhattan. It must be a pastime, an ingrained part of the culture.

The restaurant is absolutely packed, as it will be for the majority of our trip. Today I settle on a build-your-own-omelette with sausage and American cheese, and some hash brown. The orange juice is a bit pulpy, but tolerable, I guess.

After filling our bellies, we still have a little time to kill so we make our way down to the water. We quickly discover that there is nowhere to walk along the shore without falling in, as the sand slopes down to the sea. So we plop right in that sand and enjoy the stiff breeze and abundant sunshine. She says the water is a blue-green there, more beautiful than she has ever seen. I note how the waves sound a lot gentler, as if someone is flinging the water around. It’s as I’ve heard when listening to anything that takes place in the tropics. So pleasant and relaxing.

And speaking of relaxing, we are finally given access to our room where we crash on the bed for a couple blissful hours. Half of a vacation is enjoying the ability to sleep at will anyway, right. As I slip under, I can’t help but marvel at how incredibly different this feels, very much as if I have traveled to another country and not just a new American city.

Once we resurface shortly before 5, we determine that it is time for dinner. For this, we head to our pre-selected choice of Las Vegas Cuban cuisine. I select Pollo de Milanesa, a delicious chicken filet topped with Spanish Marinara sauce, ham, and melted mozzarella. Fries on the side, but a Cuban pineapple beverage that we both like. She has a fish platter of unknown type that she also enjoys. We hav the restaurant nearly to ourselves, though there is a steady stream of people picking up to-go orders. We surmise that Miami must be more attuned to a later eating schedule, which is fine because it creates the kind of quiet atmosphere we most favor.

We wrap up the day by venturing into their Publix, a grocery store and liquor store in one. The groceries are accessed on the second floor so we take an elevator up, a fairly unusual concept. She says that if you have a lot of items in your art and don’t wish to wheel them onto the elevator, there is an escalator that will take them down below for you to grab when you arrive. We only get a few snacks and more water.

And that wraps up the first day. Clearly, this expansive trip will take at least a couple more entries for me to get it all in. More soon.

A Little More of the Juice: My Acquisition of the Apple Watch Series 4

I must admit when first I heard of Apple developing a watch, I wondered what good it could do me. Attached to the iPhone? Most of what one would do with it run basically by the larger device? And running one a few hundred dollars? Probably little more than a fashion item.

And from what I hear of the first two series of these items at least, they were basically that. Someone let me try his watch once, and I found I could barely hear VoiceOver (the talking software included on nearly all modern Apple devices) and what I perceived sounded scratchy at best. So I had no pressing desire to invest in this product.

But times change. Get it? Time? A watch? I know I know, that’s bad. And given that my cell phone company allows me to get one and attach payments to my bill, paying it off over time, I finally decided that the time was right. What! I can do that if I want.

So shortly after the new year began, I put in my order. On taking it out of the box and attaching its sport band, I was immediately underwhelmed by this accessory until, at least I think, I finally figured out how one is to wear it. Now it’s a lot more comfortable and no longer gets in my way as I conduct daily tasks and move around at work.

With the watch itself, I was pretty tempted to send it back after that bumpy first day. I couldn’t figure out how to get it to stop telling me time at wrong intervals (had to turn off the annoying raise-to-wake feature), and I initially struggled with the concept of setting everything via the iPhone.

I also had a hard time, and kind of still do really, getting it to reliably vibrate to tell me time instead of talking. One of the primary reasons I opted for this thing is so that I might check time during the night without having to put in my aids, tap the iPhone’s home button, and hope that it doesn’t speak so loudly that it wakes my wife up. Not being able to easily check the time actually makes the night feel a lot longer, and having to go through too many exercises to do so wakes me up to the point that sleep can not be easily re-obtained. Anyway on making the watch vibrate, I’ve discovered that I can get it to more consistently do so if I double tap it with some aggression, rather than sort of soft tapping. I wish they hadn’t used the double tap gesture as one’s means of activating this feature, since it is also commonly used to work with VoiceOver.

That minor flaw aside, I have come to like the watch in the end. This is because of its many health-related features. For example, it gives me percentages on my move, stand, and exercise goals throughout the day, easily allowing me to see when I need to be more active. It also tells me to “stand” at 10 minutes to every hour. My wife and I joke that this would be more effective if paired with a mild electric shock. Oh yeah! I’m standing up now.

The watch also has a pretty cool app called, boringly perhaps, “Breathe” that prompts you to breathe in and out in tune with taps on your wrist and measure the effect it has on your heart rate, as a proxy for relaxation. I’ve found this to be particularly useful to deploy at work, as I can do so relatively silently when between assignments, and it helps me feel a lot less stressed. I’m hoping that will prove good for my blood pressure in the long run as well.

Those are just some of the practical ways I have found the watch to be beneficial to me. It also helps me when reserving Uber/Lyft rides, as I no longer have to hold the phone or extract it to see notifications on the status of my ride, making it possible to schedule them as I sprint out of my workplace and get into position. I also like the easy weather-check feature on the Nike Watch face, as well as the fact that I can actually check email and other incoming notifications considerably faster with it than I can on the phone. Finally, it’s just easier to check the time either with the “aggressive” double tap method already mentioned, or a single tap to the face to have the hours and minutes (with seconds in the Classic watch face which can really be pretty cool) spoken.

No this thing isn’t perfect, but from what I have seen the Series 4 is a lot better than any other version thus far. And I got the one with the 44MM screen; I don’t know if that really makes a difference but the VoiceOver sound, while not very loud, is a lot clearer and generally discernible for me in quieter settings. I know about and definitely considered some of the blindness-specific smart watch solutions, but am finding that the Apple Watch actually works fairly well for me. Especially if you can get it via your phone company, I would recommend it.

What I Read In 2018: A Review

Yes, I know we’re already nearly 3 weeks into 2019, but finding the energy to sort through my previous year’s book choices had thus far eluded me. Why is this? In short because I consumed more content on this go-round than ever before, putting in a crazy cram session at the end to complete 60 books for the first time. How some of you reach 70, 100, and beyond will probably always remain a mystery to me, as I was pretty sapped after just those. I guess it’s because of the way I tend to read, being more of a savorer than a speedster. But to each his or her own, as long as the books bring enjoyment.

And I can say I still found a lot of that in my selections. All told, I read 50 works of fiction, including 18 contemporary, six historical, twelve psychological, and fourteen sci-fi/fantasy. I also took in ten nonfiction books: five of them to do with travel and five memoirs. The latter category has become more interesting to me lately, as many tend to narrate their own these days. And speaking of narration, 43 off my reads were as audiobooks, which I would surmise is also a record.

With that breakdown in mind, I thought I would give you my top five works of fiction and my top three nonfiction pieces. I’ve been trying to read more of the last, but I guess I still tend to lean toward escaping reality when possible.

Wings Unseen, Becca Gomez Farrell

My first book of 2018, I particularly liked this by an author who had met me via Twitter a few years ago after having promoted my blog to someone else. It’s an epic fantasy adventure full of travel, royalty, tests of loyalty, and a fight against some rather scary-sounding insects. The depth of description in her cities was something I’ve rarely encountered, and truly made the story come to life.

Alone, Brett Archibald

This is a story about a guy who fell overboard into the Indian Ocean after becoming ill on bad food and tossing it into the sea. He was forced to survive in the waves with frightening sea life for almost a month, losing nearly all of his weight in the process. It documents the beginning of this process, tales from his friends as they related them to him later, and other things. I think I finished it in three days.

Children of Blood and Bone, Tomi Adeyemi

Ok this one made everyone’s list I’m sure. Another fantasy, it takes place in a Nigeria-like country and involves magic, a gladiator-style battle, treks through the wild with mysterious animals, and royalty dethroned. I wasn’t sure if I would like this one, but was hooked as soon as I started; being so unable to sleep in anticipation of reading more tat I got up around 2 on a workday to complete it.

The Story of Arthur Truluv, Elizabeth Berg

A quiet story, this work spoke to the peace of growing old with someone, and the challenge of accepting that person’s passing. Arthur, in an unnamed but large urban area, still hops on the bus to visit his wife’s grave and have lunch with her every day, in all kinds of weather. He befriends a lonely teen, and along with some of the other elderly neighborhood residents helps her turn her life around. Read by Berg herself, it is at times humorous and slightly sad. But I was touched.

Ruthless River, Holly Fitzgerald

Similar to alone but different, Fitzgerald writes about she and her husband eating lost after an ill-conceived rafting trip down an Amazon tributary, the Rio Madre de Dios. Their honeymoon across South America was supposed to come to a spectacular end, but it almost cost them their lives as they were forced into a tight spot from which the raft could not be moved by an unexpected thunderstorm. Food nearly ran out as well as hope, until… well you’ll just have to read. I don’t know why I just have a thing for these kinds of stories, but they definitely made up a significant chunk of last year’s reading.

Fruit of the Drunken Tree, Ingrid Rojas Contreras

A slightly compressed history of Columbia’s dark days in the late 90’s and early 00’s, as seen through the Santiagos, a rich family in Bogota, and the the Sanchez’s, a family that produced Petrona, one of the Santiagos’ cleaners. We see the rise of Pablo Escobar and what he did to his opponents, as well as the events that led many to become refugees at the height of militant groups like the FARC. This is a good read for anyone who wishes to understand why so many in that part of the world are scrambling to try and enter the US, and is thus a good contemporary consumption as well.

This Burns My Heart, Samuel parker

Another that sheds light on a different culture, this book takes place in Korea a few years after the Korean War. A young woman there, Soo-ja, struggles to deal with a marriage that was largely forced upon her and cope with lost dreams. We see this within the context of Korea itself as its identity)ies) were shaped by forced within and without. It was also vivid, giving a real sense of what it felt like to walk the streets of large city and small town alike in the mid to late Sixties over there.

Educated, Tara Westover

Another that nearly everyone read, my wife and I enjoyed sharing this, as well as something like four others over the course of that year. And this title in particular gave lots to talk about. Westover explores what her life was like in rural, deeply devout Mormon Idaho; living largely off the educational and cultural grid of the U.S. Estrangements from violent family members, entry into and excelling in the college system, and learning to cope in the wider world made up the story’s breadth. On the whole I found it enjoyable, if disturbing.

And that’s a relatively small subset of what I read. I think it gives a fairly accurate sense of the diversity of titles I navigated. If you want to see my full list as it unfurls, as was the case last year, follow me on Twitter and watch for my book tweets in which I state the book number, tag the author if he or she is on there, and give a short description of the book’s contents. I really need to do more writing in 2019, but till then, here’s to plenty of happy reading in all of our futures!

Christmas at Myrtle Beach: Joining a New Family Tradition Part II

Ever since my first lonely Christmas in 2003, I have felt a bit out of touch with this holiday. Not in the truest sense of its meaning, of course, but in that it had mostly no longer corresponded with family and the giving and receiving of gifts. As I drew closer to my now wife, this orientation of mine caused perhaps the biggest stumbling block in our budding relationship in 2016. It was a point made to me then, and after that and on all subsequent Christmas occasions I’ve been working to regain that holiday spirit in full. The way their family does it certainly helps, and probably no more so than this year in that idyllic beach setting.

The Gift Exchange

After making our slightly groggy way from the bed following a long conversation with our friend the night before (I did not even manage to read any this morning which made me fear not completing the 60-book challenge I had created for myself), we headed downstairs to take advantage of the hotel’s complimentary breakfast. I only really wanted some of the scrambled eggs, which, as I figured, were not particularly good. But, they did enough to keep me going till the next, major, meal. I was surprised by how many others were there

A short while later, it was time for us to head for her mom and dad’s room for the fun. We had already gotten each other’s stuff: I a nice Samsonite bag for her (because we love traveling) and she a fresh and clean black suit for me (because I need more stuff to dress in). From her great family, I got an Uber gift card (yay free rides!) and an Amazon card (yay a free… whatever else I want!) Haha. I also received a new belt, a light but soft jacket that will be good for dry but slightly warmer days; and a wireless charging station. All very practical things that I can really use, probably especially on our upcoming anniversary trip to Miami. I enjoyed listening to my nephew and niece romping around with their new toys, one of the coolest being a remote-control car that could roll on the wall. The little kid in me would have loved that toy. Finally, well in truth before I opened the gifts, I sucked down an delicious piece of homemade chocolate cake.

The Walk of Torture

And that cake was cooked just a few short minutes later. That lack of sleep really catching up with me, I thought I was going to grab a little shut-eye before heading to Medieval Times. But my wonderful wife had other plans. She apparently usually takes a six-mile or so walk up and down the beach on Christmas morning that had mostly been done alone. But this time, I got to be included. I actually mostly enjoyed it, and it sure showed me how much I need to work out. We headed South at a brisk pace along the sliding sand, strutting all the way to the pier that contains the Myrtle Beach Sky wheel. The weather was fantastic again, and the wind and sun felt good on my face. However, I probably was not necessarily breathing as well as I should have, and not maintaining the best posture. So by about halfway through, I was gasping and wondering if my legs would give out.

We opted to head back to the hotel on the street/pavement side, thinking it might be easier. I am not sure if it was easier, or if I would have just been turned into a sweaty pile of goo in any event. We crossed about 10 streets and passed mostly closed businesses, and I tried thoughts, magic, anything to will that hotel to come toward me! By the time we reached the lobby, I just about literally had to be dragged in. The walk took about 75 minutes in total, and all I could do was drain a bottle of water and collapse into bed. WHEW!

The Final, Food-filled Show

I had to get going about two hours later, at around 4 PM, so we could head to the Medieval Times Dinner and Tournament Restaurant. Built like a castle with a wooden bridge spanning a fake mote, this arena hosts knights on horses who fight for the title of the Queen’s Champion. The sow’s essence had recently changed, perhaps becoming less complicated. They use fake swords and jousts, and I”m told act somewhat badly in falling off of the horse, but the joy of it is mostly in cheering wildly for your color-coded knight. We were the blue and Whites, and we happened to win! There were seven sides in all. They also released a live falcon for the falconry exhibit, and everyone was required to stay still as he soared overhead lest an accidental attack be launched. A little unnerving, and especially to our niece I’m told, as her eyes widened in an “I don’t know about this” manner.

This stuff was fairly visual, and my enjoyment mostly came from feeling like I was at a sporting event. The real deal for me though was the food. Served through the course of the show, we received a bowl of tomato bisque soup that we slurped down (no silverware as that didn’t exist in medieval times and outer bowls), a half a delicious herb-seasoned chicken, half a potato, and pound cake for dessert. We were given Pepsi to consume, and I somehow doubt that existed then either. But then most of what had been portrayed had been either. Only a few of these facilities are open, mainly in major cities. So it’s pretty cool to have one in Myrtle.

As soon as we returned to the hotel, we went back to my old friend’s room for a round 2. Her husband went to get more wine, since that seemed to be a particularly strong point for us. The talk between the couples went o merrily for almost another 2 and a half hours, before we finally retired.

And that was my trip to Myrtle Beach. I am definitely looking forward to several more years of enjoyment in these new (to me) traditions as they become established ones, however that will look.

Christmas At Myrtle Beach: Joining a New Family Tradition Part I

Do you think that spending Christmas at a South Carolina beach is strange? Because before i did sio, I had. But then again, our warming climate, sometimes even exceeding 70 degrees this time of year, it actually felt great. And the hotels cost next to nothing.

My wife had been telling me for years about this thing her family (usually her three sisters, mom, dad, brother-in-law, and their kids) do when they make their way down to Myrtle for three days to lounge, exchange gifts, and have dinner at Medieval Times. Ideally, I will get to all of these within this post. But if it goes on too long, I’ll get to part II.

The First Chill Day Together

After spending a great day in Lumberton North Carolina with friends and attending church there on Sunday, we decided it made the most sense to continue down to the beach and check into our room, this despite everyone else moving their booking day to Monday. Or perhaps because of it, as who turns down a chance for a nice day with just each other.

Another fallacy that makes most of us think going down there is strange at this time of year is that one must spend most beach time in the ocean. On Sunday, we didn’t even take a walk down there. We took a nice meal at the Olive Garden, where I had my usual spaghetti with meat sauce and two sausages, along with their flavorful salad and a decadent brownie lasagna. She got the Chicken Alfredo and lemon cream cake. The rest of the night, after a fairly tiring travel day, was given over to relaxation: reading, watching TV, and collapsing at 10:30. And it is rather fortunate that we did, because this is about all the “quiet” we had.

Christmas Eve Coincidences

Monday rolled in and we out of bed by 8:30. I had actually risen earlier to do yet more reading, basically my last of the trip, then did a little radio station browsing as usual. and finally down to Hot Stacks, of which I think there are only a few in the fairly immediate area, and a tradition along with the aforementioned restaurant whenever she and I visit this gaudy tourist town. The breeze we felt on stepping from the vehicle in front of our hotel made it seem that ocean strolling might be a bad idea, however when we opted to brave it anyway we found that there was less breeze than perceive bed, and walking in the sun felt great. We headed north for approximately 1.2 miles then turned back, encountering more people than I had expected. Apparently, visiting the beach on Christmas is not just not strange but actually quite popular. There are some drawbacks though, most notably the lax housekeeping. All their very limited staff had done was to dump our trash and removed the used towels, without even supplying us with new ones. We pointed this out to the receptionist, she apologized, and all that was done to fix it was another stack being slapped on the room’s desk. So we basically didn’t even bother with trying to get service on Christmas.

The other side of service issues is that, we assume, people are grouped into a small area of the hotel. So for instance, our room was only two doors down from one of her sisters, and even cooler, our childhood friend whom we knew would be coming happened not only to have booked into our hotel, but was housed in one of the large apartment-sized rooms in the other tower, but right next to her parents. This made late-night conversation with our friend after Han ginghams with the family very easy.

But before I go there, I should note where we chose to eat. Finding a Christmas Eve restaurant that stays open after 6 was more difficult than I had thought. Initially, we had planned to go to Magnolia Cafe on 26th Street, which was practically right next door to the Carolinian Resort where we were housed on Ocean Boulevard, but they were about to close and we didn’t wish to scrape the bottom of the buffet barrel. After some frantic searching we settled on Paula Deen’s Family Kitchen. I think there are even fewer of these locations, and not surprisingly, most are in the South. And oh, man! That food was insane. The meals are served family-style, meaning that three meats and four sided are chosen by the table and served in bowls, from which each person fixes a plate by rotating a Lazy Susanb turntable. We had meatloaf, fried chicken, pot roast, Mac and cheese, yams, cream corn rice I think, and some other vegetable I cannot recall. I had meatloaf, Mac and cheese, and cream corn. And believe you me that was enough! I was so full I was nearly bent double. This with one of those ridiculous cheesy biscuits, sweet tea, and a dessert of Vanilla pudding was still nearly too much. The food was delicious but it is not a meal I would eat too often.

We wrapped up the evening by chatting with our friend and her husband for nearly 3 hours. It was nice to connect with another couple and expand our perspectives a bit. We also expanded our knowledge of wine, as a couple of different kinds were tried and much fun was had in so doing. And yes, this will be continued in Part II.

A Fun Evening in DownTown Raleigh: The Ringers and Morgan Street

Interesting subcultures exists all around us, of which we can remain blissfully unaware. Such was my inclination when it came to the musicianship, dedication, and teamwork involved in playing handbells. That’s right, handbells.

Hav you heard of a group called the Raleigh Ringers? Am I the only one who hadn’t? According to their website, linked above, they started in Raleigh in 1990 and in addition to playing all over the world, they educate people in the area on the art of handbell ringing. They have also created several albums and had some of their traditional Raleigh concerts aired on public television.

My wife, ink searching for something holiday-themed to do in the area, came across this group and remember viewing them on PBS at some point, so she decided she would go. On top of that, we would make it a family outing by inviting her mother, whom is a big Raleigh Ringers fan; her sister, and father to join us on Saturday the 16th at the Meymandi Concert Hall downtown. I was just curious to see what this would sound like.

The show began at approximately 3 PM, with the venue at about 75% of capacity on a moderately cool and foggy day. The sounds were amazing, but probably because I am listening through hearing aids that alter them anyway it was something of a challenge for me to tell which songs they were playing. Well that and of course some of the songs I just plain didn’t know anyway. I still enjoyed the rhythm of the bells, even learning that there were big, bass bells as well.

From what I’m told, the visual aspect was pretty amazing too. They have to quickly pick out the correct bells for a sound, sometimes striking them with a mallet and other times making it ring through some other means. There were approximately 12 Ringers, split roughly between men and women. I think one of the most complex tunes they played was their take on the Twelve Days of Christmas, during which they had to keep count of each additional piece and use indicators so that the audience would be aware of the numbers that were about to play. It all sounded rather impressive.

My wife and her sister joked that I slept for much of the show, but oh ok I did fade out a little in spots. I’m pretty sure that I heard the entire thing though. I imagine that some of my disconnect occurred precisely because I was unable to take in the visual content. I did enjoy the comedic elements though, such as the hand clappers (hand clappers?) who would clap on cue during some of the performances, and the part where Mr. Grinch comes on stage to steal Christmas. It was, on the whole, a fairly entertaining show.

Afterwards, we opted to do what any urban planner must surely hope we would: go out for dinner at Raleigh’s relatively new Morgan Street Food Hall. This food court, a la Boston’s Quincy Market and Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal, serves as a surprisingly popular gathering spot already after its four-month existence. Perhaps too popular, as parking and seating are extremely limited. On the latter, once we collected our meals, I a “fish and chips”, my wife a shrimp and fish and chips, and her mom and sister something similar, we spent almost 5 minutes searching for a table. Ultimately, we chose stools lining a ledge, until her sister somehow commandeered enough space at a table for us all. This table obviously made for better communication as we could sit across from each other rather than in a line.

The food was good I suppose. I liked the seasoning on the fries, a slightly sweeter rather than salty variety. I had been given many of them, since fish and shrimp stocks were running low. The fish was less desirable to me, because it had bones in it. I find it hard to really dig in when I must cautiously consume my food so I don’t end up sucking down foreign objects. I will try something different on my return to this location.

My wife says this place works best for couples and not as well for families because of the difficulties in finding group seating. And we all agreed that it is a good step in Raleigh’s urbanization, but that it will be better once the city has more parking decks downtown and/or a more robust public transportation option such as light rail.

We hope to take these kinds of outings more often, as there is much to see. I encourage you to make a go at being a tourist in your own town as well. Have you gone to any holiday shows this year?

Reflections: On Grad School a Year Later and Job Days No. 6

Am I the only one who is still too addicted to the Facebook Memories section? I keep saying every year that I will stop looking, because I already hav. But as I’ve noted before, we humans, or at least this human, has a real thing for nostalgia; pondering where this life has come from and to where it is going.

To that end, when I saw the note from Facebook that I had graduated from Queens a year ago (it went official on December 15 but who’s counting) I laughed because I had recently asked some of my former classmates to complete a questionnaire where they could note their thoughts as well. I have included their responses, as well as my own, in a table pasted below. Three of the five persons whose information I still had chose to respond, so while small, it does give a good sample of the various takeaways from this experience. I have anonymized them and numbered them where they appeared alphabetically in my responders, which is why you see Student 1, Student 3, Student 5. Check it out.

Question me Student 1 Student 3 Student 5
Reason for attending grad school (personal statement stuff) Perhaps obtain freelance work that might lead to employment at NPR; broaden skills Potential job promotion, (director or VP) Increase marketability in comm field; become journalist/radio host; understand how people communicate in workplace Passionate about learning,; increase marketability, hadn’t decided on career as was right out of undergrad
Have any of the goals been accomplished a year out? No; better skills, but a need to maintain them; probably NPR goals have changed No, not with company long enough, but hopeful No, though attending program broadened general competencies and helped build portfolio; hopes to create opportunities out of rejection Yes, though hoping to connect current political advocacy with communication in next role
Difference in online versus on-ground learning? If so, how. Went to both, more tenuous friendships/networking because haven’t met, though some ties do exist No significant difference, allows flexibility, requires motivation Appreciated flexibility, but lack of networking and inability to take advantage of on-campus opportunities due to out-of-sate location Went to both, difference was need to schedule out adequate time to learn the material when not attending a class
Is current employment related to the degree? No Not entirely, as primary work is in graphic design. Does help in marketing, though No Yes, but could be an even better fit
Would you recommend the degree to others? How might they enhance opportunities while therein? Yes; take advantage of career center at least in improving resue/persuing internships, connect with profs Yes, a Master’s can separate one from other candidates; find and think about how to apply it directly to job Yes; Take advantage of chances to learn platforms/technology well Yes, but develop clear plan for utilizing it after. Still working on this

So, as you can see many of us feel that while our exact aims have yet to be achieved, both the experience was with it and it will certainly help us going forward. I do know that one can never be too tech savvy these days. As quickly as this stuff changes, it’s probably already a little different even from what we learned. That speaks to the need to keep working on skill sets and mindsets as we learn to fully compete in this new, heck really kind of overwhelming job market. Because whether we like it or not, much of our interaction will be at least partly online, and thus requires a slightly different way of thinking in order to persevere.

In thinking of all this, I realized I hadn’t done my usual Job Days post since returning to LCI (They’re no longer calling it LC Industries because that title makes less sense when offering tech services which they hope to do soon) earlier this year. Truthfully, my current “job” is harder to nail down than ever. Whereas I pretty much lived in light sticks, (See Job Days No. 5), I now do anything from PML’s (I don’t even know what those are except that I stick a pen through them) to packaging flatware, to, most recently, medical kitting. This last features an assembly line where we put together different kinds of bag (IFAK as I always hear her say, I’m guessing that means International First-Aid Kit?) at a relatively high speed. I also have packed tourniquets (who knows if I’m spelling that right), and other small bags containing medical products. I suppose this is the most important thing I’ve done in there, as this stuff is used to save lives in Iraq and other places where US troops are active. We also provide material to refugees in Syria.

< [>If O do remain at LCI over tie, I am looking forward to taking what I learned in graduate school in to training there and perhaps doing some kind of ciustomer services work. But other than that, I might really like to get back onto a college campus and maybe be employed in a disability Services office. Many possible doors are opening as 2018 winds down, so who knows.

In closing, I want to thank those who took the time to participate in my little survey. It certainly helps me think about what I gained from grad school attendance and how it might benefit me going forward. I hope it has done the same for you, and look forward to great things for us all.