Spare Us the Asparagus

This year, my wife and I made a surprise trip to New England so that I could accept an award from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists in Manchester, NH. I suspected that the prize would probably involve a lamp shaped like a body part, but I was incredibly honored to be recognized by this great organization. My wife and I immediately jumped at an excuse to escape from our usual exhilarating activities like de-pooping litter boxes, scraping toxic sludge out of rain gutters and serving as our daughters’ personal Uber drivers.

When we arrived at Boston’s Logan International Airport and collected our baggage, our first stop was the car rental center, where we picked up a cute, little Ford Fiesta. The charm quickly wore off, though, when we climbed in and were almost overcome with a pungent aroma. Being the litter box connoisseurs that we are, we immediately recognized the stench of cat urine. Oh, well, at least we felt at home.

Speaking of urinous odors, we noticed while driving through New England that asparagus is a big deal here. There were roadside farm stands featuring asparagus, asparagus festivals, and even a dairy selling asparagus ice cream. Now, I like asparagus as much as the next guy. I consider it the Don King of vegetables, and to me, it tastes like the love child of an English pea and a green bean. But asparagus ice cream? Clearly, these people need to experience the wholesome, natural bounty of my native Texas–like corn dogs and Frito pie.

While resisting this obvious example of collusion between Russia and the asparagus industry to convince me to eat healthy green vegetables, we decided to use the opportunity of being in New England to visit a few historical sites, like the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, Massachusetts. As a literature nerd and educator, I considered it quite a treat to visit the home of this iconic American poet whose works have been inspiring teachers and anesthetizing their students for decades. We even saw Emily Dickinson’s chamber pot in her bedroom, where she presumably wrote many of her 1,800 poems. Ok, it probably wasn’t her actual chamber pot and probably didn’t inspire her to write “There came a wind like a bugle,” but one can dream.

Next on our itinerary was a visit to the Robert Frost Stone House Museum in Shaftsbury, Vermont, where Frost wrote one of my all-time favorites, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” It’s a poem about a creepy trespassing guy who repeats himself a lot and has a talking horse–according to an analysis by one of my more insightful students. Our journey through the beautiful Green Mountains was breathtaking and rather treacherous, with road signs warning about falling boulders, moose crossings, and overzealous maple syrup vendors. Although we didn’t see a single jaywalking moose or tumbling boulder, we did pass about 800 guys on Harley-Davidson midlife crisiscycles. (They were probably headed to an asparagus festival.)

At Robert Frost’s home, since rampaging moose and killer boulders aren’t terrifying enough, the museum director engaged us in a sparkling and educational chat about ticks and Lyme disease. She even showed us some tick specimens in a jar on display near the gift shop. I’m not sure what disease carrying parasites have to do with Robert Frost, but from this point on, I’m afraid the two will be forever linked in my mind–apologies to the Frost family.

When the night of the banquet arrived, I was nervous but proud to be in the company of folks who actually make a living with their writing skills, instead of just dribbling silly thoughts around to the embarrassment of friends and family. We were served a medley of baked salmon and–surprise–asparagus. (I was a little disappointed that moose wasn’t on the menu.) The keynote speaker of the night was Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Maureen Dowd, who offered a funny but blistering critique of Donald Trump. With an audience of media professionals, delivering this speech was like offering an array of catnip-laden fidget spinners to a clutter of adolescent felines.

Before we left the gathering to pack for home, my wife and I were actually able to meet Ms. Dowd and, since we are from Texas, visit with her about the Bush family, with whom she actually has a cordial relationship. She seems to get a kick out of having been nicknamed “The Cobra” by President George W. Bush, and she has repeatedly asked his father to take another skydive–with her. Chatting with Maureen Dowd was truly a fitting end to a great trip. I only wish I’d been quicker on my feet and asked for her thoughts on ticks and Lyme disease.

Maureen Dowd


Out of My Shell at South Padre

I’ve always loved turtles. When I was a little boy, I had turtle figurines, turtle posters, turtle toys, and even a turtle ashtray. (I have since quit smoking.) Every spring, my dad would take me to Caddo Lake to rescue hatchling red-eared sliders from being squashed on the roads as they crossed over headed to the water. It was kind of like collecting Easter eggs, salmonella and all.

I’m not sure where my enthusiasm for turtles comes from. Maybe I consider them kindred spirits of sorts. They’re unathletic, they kind of have a dad bod, they seem to prefer avoiding conflict, and they have that annoying flaccid skin under their chin that makes their neck look like a distended tube sock (ok, maybe that’s just mine). So when my family and I were on vacation at South Padre Island recently, I jumped at the chance to witness a release of newly hatched Kemp’s ridley sea turtles by Sea Turtle, Inc., an organization devoted to the conservation of all marine turtle species–and to the sleep deprivation of turtle-crazed tourists.

The public viewings of baby turtle releases are announced at 6:00 AM on Facebook, Twitter and (for those living in a 1980’s time warp) an answering machine recording at the Sea Turtle, Inc. Hatchling Hotline. In order for the release to take place, the turtles must hatch within an hour of the release time, so there is always a possibility that the release won’t happen as expected. On the first morning of our vacation, this is exactly what happened. After being awakened at 5:55 AM by my alarm playing Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me” and frantically calling Sea Turtle, Inc. repeatedly, only to hear a busy signal, I resorted to Facebook and received the dreaded news.

Apparently, the anticipated baby turtles had all heard there was a midnight madness sale on algae and hatched in the wee hours of the morning. When I saw the Facebook post announcing that there would not be a daybreak release, it was as if Chick-fil-A had discontinued the chicken biscuit and replaced Diet Dr. Pepper with something unspeakable like Mr. Pibb just as I arrived at the drive thru on my way to work. This experience was especially painful, not only because I feared that I might have missed my only chance to witness a hatchling release, but because for me, getting up at 6:00 AM for no good reason is akin to having a colonoscopy performed by a charging rhinoceros.

Fortunately, the announcement also indicated that another release was possible the next morning, which meant that I would be going for a personal record of two consecutive 6:00 AM wake-ups during a vacation–not something to be proud of, in my opinion. After spending the rest of the day distracting ourselves on the beach and, due to some expired sunscreen, broiling ourselves until we looked like a family of giant pepperonis, we went to bed and waited.

Sure enough, the early morning announcement came that there would, indeed, be a release, so we peeled our sunburned skin from the sheets like Fruit Roll-Ups and scrambled out of the condo to the car for the short drive to the release point. When we arrived, we joined about 100 other bleary-eyed folks on the shore and watched while the Sea Turtle, Inc. staff brought out two large Styrofoam ice chests. For a moment, I was hopeful they might serve us all breakfast, but soon I realized that the containers were brimming with baby turtles. A staff member even brought one of the hatchlings around so that everyone in the crowd could get a close-up look. From the “Awww’s” coming from the audience, you would have thought that we were gazing upon an especially cute human infant, rather than a freshly hatched reptile that resembled a charcoal briquette with flippers. I have to admit that they were pretty adorable as they scampered toward the shoreline, probably trying to get away from my morning breath.

When the last little turtle plopped into the glistening waves, a cheer erupted from the crowd, and I actually had tears in my eyes from the beauty of the experience–and the searing pain of my sunburned belly button. I later learned that of the thousands of baby Kemp’s ridley turtles released by Sea Turtle, Inc. each year, only around one percent survive to be old enough to shave. Virtually every marine predator has a taste for baby sea turtles (apparently, they are the bacon of the ocean), and without help from organizations like Sea Turtle, Inc., far fewer would make it.

So if you’re ever in South Padre Island during the summer, I strongly recommend that you take the drastic step of getting up early at least once for this amazing event. Just be sure to have a Tic Tac first.


Climbing The Joshua Tree

For my forty-seventh birthday this year, my wife proposed that we get tickets for the 2017 U2 “Joshua Tree” concert in Arlington, Texas. Apparently, Bono needed to purchase another Irish castle for his total real estate holdings to qualify as a new continent, so he and his band decided to embark on a multi-city tour on which they would play every track from their 1987 hit album. I actually thought this was a really sweet gesture on the part of my wife, although I suspect she was trying to pre-empt my suggesting that at our age, we should just celebrate with a 4:00 p.m. supper at Luby’s cafeteria¬¬–followed by a nap. She also may have done it out of pity, considering that instead of aging into the rugged appearance of a Robert Redford or Clint Eastwood, the older I get, the more I look like Angela Lansbury–only more matronly.

On our drive to Arlington, I passed the time by engaging in a Facebook argument with a friend about whether U2 or Fleetwood Mac is the better band (because everyone knows that Facebook is the ideal forum for conflict resolution). He remarked that all U2 songs are the same with their “twanga, twanga, twanga, twanga” riffs (those are technical musical terms) and Bono’s refusal to take off his dilation sunglasses. I replied that Stevie Nicks sings like she has a mouthful of landscaping mulch.

Our intellectual debate ended when my wife and I entered the cavernous AT&T Stadium and immediately joined one of several massive lines for our obligatory concert t-shirts, which haven’t changed much since my high school days with their paper-thin fabric that inevitably transforms into a sausage casing after the first wash. Thank goodness they were only $40 each!

After about twenty minutes of waiting, we had almost reached the register when the rather surly sales associate sharply announced that we (and the 200 people behind us) weren’t actually in a line. Well, I wasn’t about to stand for this injustice, so I did what any self-respecting husband would do–nudged my wife forward so she could explain that there was going to be a riot if this horde of middle-aged fans was prevented from trying to recapture their youth with an overpriced souvenir that is destined to have its sleeves cut off. Luckily Mrs. Grouchybloomers (the sales associate, not my wife-of course) listened to reason and allowed us to waste our hard-earned money on a couple of garments that we would probably be using to clean our toilet seats in a month.
We then began our ascent up approximately 26 escalators to find our seats, located just below the stratosphere. We knew we were in for a hike when an usher issued us anti-gravity boots and our own Sherpa.

Once we had set up base camp near the roof of the stadium, the concert began with the opening act, The Lumineers. I had never heard of The Lumineers, and I’m still not sure how to pronounce their name, but I did appreciate their folk-rock style. I even recognized a few of their songs from Dick’s Sporting Goods, Blue Moon Beer, and Bing commercials. (It’s refreshing to see a band that hasn’t sold out to capitalism.)

When U2 took the stage, the crowd went wild, and although I knew all of the songs, I needed the Hubble telescope to determine whether the miniature figures on the stage were actually Bono and the boys, or a pack of trained labradoodles. To further complicate our view, the couple seated directly in front of us occasionally stood up and danced around. (Apparently they forgot they were in the section for borderline fans who only stand up and dance around if they have to go to the bathroom really badly.)

About halfway through U2’s set, the dry, thin air at our elevation began to take its toll, and my wife and I grew desperate for something to drink. Luckily, we were able to avoid using our rappelling gear to go down to the concession stand when a drink vendor appeared in our section. He was selling some kind of semi-frozen liquid that tasted like a Nyquil Slurpee, but we didn’t care at that point. It was cold, refreshing, and almost made us feel like dancing along with the overeager couple in front of us–almost.

Other than the altitude sickness, I have to admit that attending the concert was a great birthday gift, and seeing a legendary band I enjoyed in my teen years really took me back to those simpler days when my main concern was whether or not I could get away with using my mom’s makeup to disguise my zits. (I now use my wife’s.) We even made plans to attend another concert featuring Styx and REO Speedwagon–after an early supper at Luby’s and a good nap.


O Say Can You Uber

In my last two columns, I’ve described my experiences on a surprise trip my family took to Virginia when my daughter’s equestrian team earned a trip to the National Hunt Seat Finals. I’m still not exactly sure what “Hunt Seat” has to do with anything other than the fact that I spend a lot of time hunting something to eat and sitting until I have fossilized buttocks.  

After the competition, we were able to wrap up our trip with some time in Washington, DC. This also gave my wife and me a chance to familiarize ourselves with Uber–because putting your safety in the hands of your iPhone and a complete stranger seems to be the preferred mode of cosmopolitan travel these days. 

Since we were with a large group, we needed several Ubers, which also meant that my wife and I would need separate Uber accounts on our iPhones. As we prepared to embark on an evening outing to the National Mall, my wife and I looked like a couple of hamsters trying to decipher blueprints for a nuclear reactor as we struggled to download the Uber app on our phones and create individual accounts.  Somehow we wound up with the same credit card numbers, probably because of our deep psychological bond (except when I would rather stay home and devour our pets than accompany her to Olive Garden), and we weren’t able to order more than one vehicle.  Most of our group was already happily Ubering at this point, and I could actually hear my middle daughter’s eyes rolling behind us before she came to our rescue with her technological expertise.  (She then immediately made us reservations for a nursing home.)

With the mysteries of Uber solved, we were on our way, and along with experiencing the incredible convenience of Uber, we also learned that to qualify as an Uber driver in DC, you have to speak a language unknown to planet Earth, chain-smoke Swisher Sweets, and cover up the odor by marinating yourself in Drakkar Noir cologne. In other words, it’s like being driven around by a typical teenaged American male.

The National Mall at night was breathtaking, and we were able to visit several monuments and war memorials. The only drawback was that we were constantly in danger of being trampled to death by throngs of touring junior high students making bodily noises and trying to grab each other’s extremities.  I can’t criticize too much, though, since I, too, participated in a D.C. trip when I was in junior high, and while I don’t remember much about what I saw, I can still play the National Anthem with my armpits.

On our second day in DC, we visited the museums in the Smithsonian Institution. Our first stop was the American History Museum, where we spent the first hour in the museum café because our Uber driver didn’t pass a Chick Fil A on the way. (Clearly he wasn’t a Christian.)  On exhibit, we saw important artifacts from America’s storied past, like the original Bert and Ernie Muppets (which made me cry a little), Archie Bunker’s Chair, and some hair from George Washington’s shower drain.

Once we had absorbed all of the American history we could stand and I had extracted my middle daughter from the gift shop, we headed next door to the Natural History Museum. I explained to my daughters that this museum is a lot like a zoo, except almost all of the animals are dead. 

After looking at a few dried up giant squids and some dinosaur poop, the girls were ready for the main attraction–the Butterfly Pavilion. This exhibit involves paying for the privilege to stroll through a giant toaster oven full of butterflies that refuse to land on you for a decent photo.  You are also told to be careful not to step on the butterflies that are sitting on the floor laughing at you for paying actual money to go in there. Once we were completely drenched in sweat and gasping for breath from dehydration, the butterfly TSA stopped us at the exit and required us to do a set of burpee pushups to loosen any butterflies who were trying to the escape the heat by stowing away in our body cavities.  On our way out of the museum, we passed an exhibit of mummies, which I now suspect are just former tourists who lingered too long in the Butterfly Pavilion.

Looking back, I have to admit that the trip to Virginia and DC was an unforgettable adventure (which can mean lots of things), and it gave us some time to bond as a family. We explored our nation’s history, gazed upon beautiful landscapes, witnessed thrilling athletic competition, and only took each other to the brink of insanity once or twice.  I’m even considering a part-time job as an Uber driver­­­­–as soon as I get all of these butterflies out of my pants.




A Horse! A Horse! My Burrito for a Horse!

In my last blog, I recounted the events leading up to my eldest daughter’s I.E.A. Hunt Seat National Finals equestrian competition in Lexington, Virginia. (I’ve been told that I.E.A stands for “Interscholastic Equestrian Association,” but I think it really means “Incredibly Expensive Activity.”) While in Virginia, we had already experienced history to its fullest with a day-trip to Thomas Jefferson’s beloved Monticello, which featured a special private room that allowed him to retreat from his family so he could write constitutions and watch SportsCenter in peace.

When the morning for my daughter’s competition finally arrived, we entered the vast coliseum at the Virginia Horse Center, and I was amazed at the pristine condition of the facility. The dozens of horse show venues I had visited before this one had all been festooned with manure and other horse by-products. This time, though, the only smell I could detect was from the little café near the arena that was preparing breakfast burritos.

Unable to resist the chance to do something other than sit and pluck my nose hairs while waiting for my daughter’s forty-five second ride that wouldn’t take place for several hours, I took my other two daughters to the café. The breakfast burrito I ordered was roughly the size of a MINI Cooper, and it was bursting with eggs, sausage, and peppers.  (Speaking of bursting, my wife, kids, and the other spectators at the show sitting within a fifty yard radius of me probably wish I had stuck with Cheerios.)

On our stroll from the café back to the coliseum, it began to rain, and I discovered why there was no sign (or smell) of horse droppings in the actual arena. The horses were apparently trained to relieve themselves just outside along the shortcut we were taking–and in intervals that made them practically impossible to avoid. As a result, we had to sprint through the downpour dodging puddles and piles of horse briquettes like a bunch of drunk lemurs playing hopscotch. (Yes, I’ve been to the zoo far too many times­–and I think I’ve actually witnessed this.)  When we arrived back at the coliseum, we all looked (and smelled) like we had just escaped from Shawshank Prison through the plumbing, and there were no towels of any kind to be found in the facility.  Luckily, the Virginia Horse Center was willing to put us on a financing plan to reimburse them for exhausting their entire stockpile of toilet paper.

When it finally came time for my daughter to ride, I assumed my usual position in my seat with my head between my knees trying to avoid a reunion with my burrito. It’s not necessarily the likelihood that she’ll be bucked off and ruin her expensive orthodontic work, or that she might not win, that makes me nervous.  What I really fear is that she’ll be disappointed or upset with her performance, and for me, trying to comfort my eldest (and most dramatic) daughter when she is heartbroken is like watching all of the parental Disney character death scenes simultaneously and on a constant loop.  When she’s upset after a ride, I always try to cheer her up by suggesting that the horse might have had gas (possibly from an enormous breakfast burrito) or stayed up too late watching cat videos on YouTube, which usually only serves to prove that she can sob and roll her eyes simultaneously.

Luckily, her ride at the finals went well, and her team finished in fourth place nationally, which pretty much dashed my hopes that she might turn in her reins and take up scrapbooking.

To celebrate, we took her and her teammates to the local Dover Saddlery, which is conveniently located next door to the Horse Center. In case you aren’t aware, Dover Saddlery is Mecca for horse people, and my eldest daughter considers it compulsory that when we visit one, we purchase some kind of overpriced horse-related merchandise. From sweat scrapers to sheath cleaners (don’t ask), Dover Saddlery has everything for the horse lover in your life who wants to ruin your finances.  They even have special underwear for horseback riding! (I still haven’t figured out where the tail goes.)

With this once-in-a-lifetime (I hoped) experience at the National Finals behind us, we headed to Washington, D.C. for the final leg (I hoped) of our adventure. It was a chance to spend a few hours in our nation’s capital before our flight home, and my family was determined to make the most of it, even if getting there meant riding together for over three hours in an enclosed vehicle with me and my breakfast burrito.



Toto, I have a feeling we’re not . . . . Never mind.

These days, I find myself regularly traveling to exotic destinations like Krum, Texas, and Haughton, Louisiana, to watch my eldest and most expensive daughter compete in equestrian competitions. How she developed her mania for horses is a mystery to my wife and me. Neither of us have a background in rural livestock, and my past experience with horses mainly involved riding the coin-operated carousel at the entrance to Walmart–and that was a full month ago.

Horse shows are typically all-weekend affairs during which my daughter actually sits atop a horse for approximately forty-five seconds. The other 8 to16 hours of my time is usually spent trying to find something to eat and locating the men’s room.  If I’m lucky, I might also find an old phone book to read.

Recently, we had to travel to Bucyrus, Kansas, for one of these events, which took us from East Texas up along the Indian Nation Turnpike through Oklahoma. We drove past towns like Hoot Owl, Big Cabin, Bushy Head, and Big Tussle.  (Obviously, these communities are named after professional wrestlers.)  For some reason, I imagined that I might see evidence of Native American culture throughout our journey.  Instead, the most interesting sight I witnessed, other than a couple of bored-looking llamas, was a pontoon boat covered in mildew and being pulled by a John Deere tractor.  Besides being disappointed that I didn’t see a single Native American on the Turnpike, I also found myself paying a toll every one-hundred feet, apparently to help Oklahoma buy more llamas–and tollbooths.

We did experience some excitement at a roadside gas station in the Creek Nation. Upon entering the bathroom, I noticed a warning sign indicating that any damage to the restroom would be considered a federal crime.  Although I knew those convenience store egg rolls I had in Hugo could cause me trouble later, I had no idea that they might put me at risk of federal prosecution!

When we finally arrived at the horse show in Kansas, I naturally headed for the bathroom and immediately recognized the main feature of the Kansas landscape–wind, and since we were at a horse show full of animals that aren’t housebroken, it was as if the entire state needed a massive dose of Gas-X. Like all horse shows, this one featured a small selection of portable toilets (two, to be precise) for about 900 people, and the one I chose appeared to have hosted a mud wrestling match earlier in the day. Despite their filth, these were fairly modern porta potties, and after about my third visit, I discovered that the sink was actually a urinal!

During one of these pit stops, gale force winds began jostling the potty from side to side, and I turned my attention from the architectural advances of outdoor commodes to avoiding a swan dive into the blue water. This was no small feat as I was attempting to maintain my balance while clenching some new Thinsulate gloves in my armpits. (In case you wondered, each horse show is intentionally scheduled to coincide with the next polar vortex.)  Although I did manage to stay dry, my armpits proved less coordinated than I had hoped, and the unthinkable happened to one of my gloves.  I then did the unthinkable and pretended I was retrieving the One Ring from the lava in Mt. Doom.  Of course, I spent the rest of the horse show proudly wearing my toxic glove and threatening to touch my wife with it. (Hey, I wiped it off a little, first!)

After surviving Hurricane Johnny, I managed to find a seat in the one area of the horse show venue that didn’t include a foot of manure, and as a bonus, it was near the snack area. I was hungry, and I was hoping to sink my teeth into a burger, hot dog, or something else to get my mind off of the smell.  Imagine my shock when I approached the counter and realized that the snack bar special of the day was pasta salad!  Really?  Was the intention of the show organizers to starve all of the dads into submission so that they would resign themselves to spending a fortune every other weekend on an activity specifically designed for teenage girls to live beyond their parents’ means?  Unable to bring myself to face a paper plate full of disappointment, I bought a king size bag of Cheetos and went, dejectedly, back to my seat.  It was only after eating the entire bag and sticking my finger in my mouth to lick off the magical Cheeto dust that I realized I had forgotten to take off the glove.

In the end, the horse show was a rousing success for my daughter and her teammates. They won reserve champion, and I couldn’t have been prouder.  It was in the midst of my rejoicing that my wife reminded me that the victory meant the team would advance to yet another competition in the next couple of weeks.  As she patted me on the back, she promised to pack me some Cheetos, pasta salad, and my favorite phone book.


Pass the Rice-a-Roni

Recently, I had the opportunity to take a grant-funded trip to an educator’s conference in San Francisco, California. Usually when I attend a teacher’s conference, I’m lucky if I make it to a locale where dipping snuff and pecan logs aren’t the bedrocks of the local economy. But this time, I’d be visiting the home of the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, and, most importantly, Rice-a-Roni!

My initial impression of San Francisco, though, didn’t quite live up to my expectations. Upon arrival, I wasn’t greeted by a single 49er cheerleader offering me a heaping bowl of “The San Francisco Treat.” Instead, I was astonished at the vast numbers of apparently homeless people I saw shuffling up and down the sidewalks. Many were hunched over with expressions of despair and hopelessness, and some of them were clearly mentally ill. When I asked the Uber driver about these folks, he assured me that they were just other teachers headed to the conference.

The conference hotel was immense, and the entire population of the city seemed to be in line to check in. It was worse than the checkout at Walmart on Christmas Eve – or a Monday. A hotel porter was rewarding our patience by force-feeding us squares of Ghirardelli’s chocolate while we waited. Apparently, Ghirardelli’s is the only candy allowed in the city limits. (In times of drought, I think they melt it down and use it for tap water.) I didn’t have the heart to tell the porter that I’d just as soon have a Snickers, but that’s what happens to your tastes when you constantly raid your kids’ six-month-old Halloween treats and blame it on your wife.

Speaking of eating, I have to say that the most disappointing aspect of my visit were my restaurant choices. Every meal I had in San Francisco was in a perfect geometric shape, was garnished with lawn clippings and could be eaten in one bite. It was like being served a miniature sculpture in the postmodern style. Now don’t get me wrong; I like art as much as the next victim of starvation, but it’s hard to dip the Mona Lisa in hot sauce (and I was almost as thrilled about it as she looks). No wonder everyone in California looks like they’re either training for a triathlon or preparing to audition for the starring role in the remake of “Gandhi.” Most restaurants did serve complimentary sourdough bread and butter, but what they call bread at these establishments could double for small shot put filled with rubber. As a result, I usually only managed to eat three baskets, or so. At one point I grew desperate enough to ask the hotel concierge for directions to the nearest catfish buffet. (I’m hoping that the Hilton Corporation will eventually lift the restraining order.)

The highlight of the trip was a short post-conference ferry cruise on San Francisco Bay to see the famous Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island-because who doesn’t long to enjoy relaxing views of sites associated with numerous suicides and brutal incarcerations? On the way out of Pier 39, we passed a massive colony of sea lions sunning themselves on docks. They looked fat and happy, and I wondered where they had found something decent to eat. Out on the water, the views of the city and the famous landmarks were impressive. I only wish that the frigid temperatures combined with the winds weren’t making my face and lips feel like I had just made out with a belt sander. For some reason, I had the idea that “sunny California” was full of blonde girls on the beach in bikinis. With the weather in San Francisco, though, the closest I came to seeing this was a particularly svelte sea lion in the process of molting.

Overall, I must admit that I truly appreciated experiencing a new city and gaining some valuable professional development. The time spent embarrassing my colleagues and challenging my culinary boundaries was enriching and fun. I’m still disappointed that I didn’t see a single grain of Rice-a-Roni on my trip, but I know that every time I have a serving back home in East Texas, I’ll be enjoying memories of “The City by the Bay,” even if I do have a pecan log for dessert.

San Fran