Friday, January 29, 2016

Another Plan Is Shredded

Over the course of Thursday I was put upon by several "well wishers" getting hysterical over the weather situation, all urging me begin our trip on Thursday evening instead of Friday morning.

Naturally I ignored this unseemly panic, putting it down to colonial lack of fortitude and storm panic1. After a few hours of this I took a look at a few weather websites, just out of interest you understand, and decided that despite my natural tendency of being a center of calm in a maelstrom of panic perhaps I was erring on the side of stiff-upper-lippedness and that an early start would indeed be wise, given the Armageddon levels of snow, ice, sleet, frogs and boils predicted to land on our route south. I called Mrs Stevie and informed her of my decision.

"Thank god you've finally seen sense" she snapped.

So when I got home, naturally events took a turn for the truly naff. First I had to walk the Stevieling through starting the snowblower, resetting the breakers, shutting down the water supply and phoning the furnace repair guy when the heating decides to perform its yearly act of sepuku2.

Then I had to deal with that ruddy cabinet. Two of the clips that supported the collapsed shelf had sheared, leaving their mounting pins embedded in the little holes in the cabinet sides. These had to be dug out with a variety of sharp pointy things before I could begin repairs. The Stevieling had scored some new clips with which to repair the collapsed shelf. However, they had oversize pegs so I had to drill out the mounting holes in the cabinet. My drill's battery was, as always, flat, so I had to spend twenty minutes charging it before repairs could commence.

By the time I was done with that I needed a shower, and then I had to pack so it was about 9 pm before we were rolling. I was desperately trying to get some sleep, but Mrs Stevie kept up a barrage of questions until we reached New Jersey, when I snarled at her to stop. The deal was she would drive the first few hours and I would sleep, then we would trade off, but she was cheating.

And it was hell. We traded off in Virginia and I drove through North Carolina, at the far southern edge of which our halfway hotel was waiting for us. Sometime around 5:30 am I was only holding it together with the thought that I only had twenty more minutes of driving to do. Then I realized that I was reading the GPS display incorrectly and in fact there was an hour and twenty minutes to go. I admit morale slumped for a second, but I used all my inner reserves and pulled myself from the pit of desperation.

"Stop that moaning and sobbing!" snarled Mrs Stevie. "I'm trying to sleep! How can I do that if you keep howling "Why me?" every ten seconds?"

We reached the hotel3 around 7:30 am, and were able to get our room so we could sleep away the day. Fortunately there was no-one in it, so the threat of having to find somewhere else to slump until the 4 pm check-in time was abated. The news from New York by then was dire and we took shameful advantage of everyone's sympathy for our driving ordeal by snow.

Mrs Stevie was upset that our room was at the rear of the hotel (where we knew security Klieg Light illumination fallout and idling tractor-trailer noise could be intolerable during the night), but I reassured her that we'd be all right as the room faced away from the offending truck park. As we pulled the covers up to our chins a truck drove up the side road and executed an emergency stop, dumping the contents of the compressed air reservoir in a percussive explosion of sound. To judge by the noise the shifting load made he was hauling scrap bells and cymbals. I cringed and prepared for maximum rage venting but she was already fast asleep. I decided to follow suit.

Four hours left me awake but exhausted. I dared not sleep longer for fear of not being able to sleep that night, and then being dog-tired for the next leg of the drive. We got up and went out for lunch, then frittered away the day exploring Lumberton and its surroundings before turning in again.

We woke to find it was snowing. We checked out of the hotel and had a leisurely breakfast, and were on the road again by 10 am, rather later than we usually set out. By then the snow had stopped, leaving the place looking like it had been frosted lightly with sugar. So much for the Great Lumberton Blizzard of '16.

Light traffic meant that we made good time, arriving at our destination, Orlando, around 5:30 pm. There was the usual back and forth in which timeshare people attempt to get us to sign up for a sales presentation4 and we turn them down, and we were finally allowed to go to our villa, unpack and collapse into bed again.

Sunday dawned and we were woken by Mrs Stevie's cell phone. A call from her mother to inform us that her father had died.

My Father-in-Law had suffered an abrupt and severe dip into dementia some months ago. He lost much of his vocabulary and often did not recognize people he'd known for years. He wasn't violent, but he also wasn't the man who had been flabbergasted when I told him I intended to marry his daughter and hoped he'd give us his blessing. That man had left the theater a while back. Sometimes he'd be more lucid than others, but the truth is the road he was on was a cruel one with no good ending. I may be being callous here but I think he was lucky. He died peacefully in his sleep the day before his 86th birthday. He raised three children and had four grand children. I could wish for such a good end.

His will called for his body to be donated to medical science, and my Mother-in-Law had been expecting the event for some time so there was no need nor desire on her part for us to return to New York. So we didn't, which shocked my mother when I called her with the news. As I explained to her the roads wouldn't be clear for days (the road outside Chateau Stevie had yet to be plowed) and we weren't needed.

What I didn't say was that Mrs Stevie is the first-in-line go-to person for all such emergencies in that family, and that part of the purpose of driving to Florida was to give the other in-town sib, Bil-the-Elder, the chance to step up for a bit, which to his credit he did in a heartbeat. In truth I think his father's death hit Bil-the-Elder the hardest.

He and my mother-in-law did call us as we sat at dinner on Tuesday evening, to find out how to spell 'Czechoslovakia' - which was a bit odd given that they have access to a computer with just as much ease as I did at that time. We gave them the answer, which was required for The Mrs Steviedad's death certificate, after firing up our portable hotspot and doing a Google search5 because of my many accomplishments, the spelling of Czechoslovakia was not counted among them6. Apparently, Mrs Stevie's grandmother had been born in Hungary, like her Grandfather, but a change in national borders had moved her into a much more perplexingly spelled homeland (that no longer exists because of another re-arranging of map borders).

And so the vacation we have been looking forward to for almost a year has been nobbled by bad weather causing us to have to drive through the night, leaving us hobbling about half dead from lack of sleep for days afterward, and the expected, long-overdue, humane yet ill-timed passing of my Father-in-Law, which has naturally left Mrs Stevie feeling both sad at her loss, conflicted over the mercy the death has been for her father (and, by extension, everyone who had feelings for him), and guilt-ridden over her not being there when it happened. Her grieving will be a long process. Mine was short and unexpectedly intense, occurring while Mrs Stevie was taking communion.

We had decided to visit the church for the morning service after she got the news on Sunday. Though I don't have any belief in God or an afterlife, I'm not an evangelical atheist and Mrs Stevie is devout and needed the comfort the service and speaking to a pastor would bring. I normally only attend church at Christmas, for the carol singing. Naturally, I do not take communion.

It was as everyone else was involved in the ritual and looking the other way I was suddenly overcome with a profound sadness, and began crying silently. It was a surprise. My Father-in-Law and I haven't really done much deep bonding since I married his daughter; indeed, we developed a healthy disrespect for each other (for much the same reasons it turns out). Luckily I was able to pull myself together before any Lutherans noticed and attempted "fellowshipping".

And so the holiday began, with me agreeing to two days in Universal Studios in exchange for no other theme parking at all. Monday and Tuesday were forecast to be the only warm, rain-free days before Friday so that's when we went.

Mrs Stevie was anxious to show me the Hogwartz Express ride that links the two Harry Potter themed parts of the parks, but to do that we had to buy a so-called "park-hopper" ticket for me (Mrs Stevie already had a one year pass with some time left on it that would work for her). These are attractively priced at slightly less than a Lear Jet, and so it came to pass that on Monday I was led sobbing, clutching a smouldering wallet and wailing "Why me?" into Universal Studios, Mrs Stevie Alone knows what sub-title, and we made our way to Diagon Alley, which I hadn't seen on account of it not being built the last time I could be persuaded to set foot in a Universal theme park.

I have to say that Universal had finally got the bit between their teeth with the Harry Potter thing, realizing that what Potter-Heads want is not a bunch of roller-coasters dressed up as dragons or griffins and given some daft Harry Potteresque name. No, what these fans want is the opportunity to buy Harry Potter themed memorabilia.

Now in the first Harry Potter themed attraction, Hogsmeade village, there is the admittedly jaw-droppingly accurate rendition of Hogwatrz, which houses a fine simulator ride that allows the riders to feel like they are riding along with the Quiddich-crazed broom-mounted actors. It is, when all is said and done, not bad at all, even for someone who has never read the books and had to be forced to go to the films7. The stuff inside to stop those on the hours-long lines from going mad and rioting is of an excellently high quality too. A credit to the engineers and artists involved.

There is, however, a serious lack of expensive theme-bling purchasing places, the market being mostly served by "Olivander's Wand Shoppe", which attempts to make up the difference by selling resin cast wands for about 50 bux8. You can find Hogwartz shirts, ties, scarves and hats in the Gifte Shoppe that terminates the ride inside Hogwartz9, but that's about it really.

But in Diagon Alley all this has been redressed with not only another Olivander's Wand Shoppe and the inevitable post-Gringotts Bank ride gift shoppe, but also a shoppe that sells everything from the Gift Shoppes attached to the rides and caps and gowns for each of the Hogwatrz Houses and hats of the sort sported by the various teachers that have graced the place. Here we start seeing the proper amount of cosplay leverage being applied.

Another innovation, retrofitted rather half-heartedly to Hogsmeade after being included in the newer Diagon Alley, is the interactive shoppe windowe displayes activated by waving specially-fitted wands in a variety of magical-seeming and Potteresque ways. Each such display is indicated by a brass plaque in the sidewalk containing the particular gesture and "magic" phrase to be uttered in order to make whatever it is do whatever it does. A window display can be made to glisten with lights, rain can be made to fall outside the public conveniences, and so forth. Some of the ideas were quite clever. Some not so much.

We had lunch in "The Leaky Cauldron" in which the food was not very outrageously priced and was of a gratifyingly high quality. Should I ever be back in that park again, I'll be lunching in The Leaky Cauldron and if you are in the park you should too. The food was all of a distinctly English feel - Bangers and Mash, Steak and Lamb stew with Guinness, a huge ploughman's platter. I had the bangers and mash and apart from the fact that it came with a helping of disturbingly healthy steamed vegetables it tasted authentic to me.

After lunch we partook of a number of rides, including the simulator thing built into Gringotts Bank, which was okay, waited in vain for the dragon perched on the bank's roof to breathe fire and went home groaning about ankles and backache.

The next day we attempted to ride the Despicable Me ride. This ride either has hours-long lines or is broken every time we have been in it's vicinity, but today we were goo to go with "only" a forty minute wait. Yazoo!

I should point out that the Despicable Me movies are a guilty pleasure for me. I love them. They are for me what Marks Brothers movies are for others. Visual candy of an irresistible type.

Within forty minutes we were standing next to the doors to the ride. Then came a twenty minute improvised quiz given by the attendants, which largely fell flat on account of the audience being about 90% Brazilians. Since there was no bilingual English/Portuguese presentation provided, this, while merely horrible for us English speakers must have edged into intolerable. I pondered aloud; "I think the ride is broken".

"The ride is broken" came the announcement. "Go away, come back later".

Naturally this produced the most incandescent rage in Mrs Stevie who demanded to know why we should get on line and queue for hours again. She was immediately offered express passes allowing us to cut the lines, but her rage was not abated, even after we rode The Mummy (an excellent ride by the way) with no wait at all. We wandered over to The Simpsons simulator ride (ex-Back To The Future, same motions but different 3D movie playing as they happen) but were told it was down all day for maintenance.

Flames shot out of Mrs Stevie's ears at this news.

I stood well back, then hustled her to the Hogwatrz Quidditch Nonsense, which for a mercy was not only working, it had no lines whatsoever. A ride on that calmed her frazzled nerves and soothed her temper and I suggested we get lunch, which we did in The Three Broomsticks, the other Harry Potter themed restaurant. And the food was not bad at all, though not as stellar as we'd had in The Leaky Cauldron the day before. This restaurant had food more tailored toward an American palette albeit with an overriding "English" feel. Spare ribs and chicken with chips rather than bangers and mash.

We wandered out and rode the train back to Diagon Alley and watched the children having fun. We strolled into the Olivander's Wand ten minute participation theater thingy, in which children get to re-enact the wand-buying process from the first Harry Potter movie aided by actors and special effects. If you have kids or have had them, you'll get this thing. If not, not so much. We were in there with only one other family, so the boy and girl got to do the magic wand waving and were the stars of a small show. Mrs Stevie was smiling sadly at the end, and I realized once we were out of there that we were both intensely missing the young Stevieling, who lived for this sort of manufactured magical experience and brought a massive buy-in with her.

Mrs Stevie was looking about with such a lost expression on her face that nothing would do but that I march her into the gown store to get properly attired and thence to Olivanders to acquire a Shoppe Dysplae Actyvatione Wande. There we selected a suitable model from the bewildering collection of differently shaped wands.

And so it was that I got to walk around aimlessly watching the properly robed Mrs Stevie behave like a big kid, waving her wand at various books and scrolls and posters and I don't know what-all else, bringing thunder and rain or a disconcerting blast of frigid air here, animating a large poster depicting a skeleton or making the quidditch ball set levitate there. Brass frogs were made to spit water, fairytale books were made to open and reveal telescoping 3D tableaux, and a bunch of singing shrunken heads were magically silenced. My legs hurt as they always do when I have to walk slowly or stand about for long periods10 but for once it was worth it to see Mrs Stevie enjoying herself without recourse to lethally strong coffee.

And to top it off the dragon perched on the roof of the bank was breathing fire very impressively every five minutes or so.

And I have to say that the set dressing involved in the Harry Potter parts of the park is of exceptional quality. They've gone all-out to make it as believable as it could be, given that the premise is so darn silly. Dumbledore lectures people in line, the newspapers on the walls can be read and the pictures in them are animated. The paintings on the wall all address the people in line and argue with each other, and although that trick is Old Hat - I first saw this sort of thing in the Disney Haunted House ride - it is all very convincing.

I was completely worn out by the time we decided to try and ride that Despicable Me thing again, and the line for the train back to the other park was long and involved long flights of stairs. Luckily, one of the staff saw us and, probably taken in by Mrs Stevie's costumed elegance and smiling face11 and perhaps by my moans of distress, offered to move us up to the platform in the lift provided for people with strollers, wheelchairs or scooters12. This was good on two levels. A) No stairs and 2) We jumped about two hundred people in line.

So a word about the Hogwartz Express. You board it on the Despicable Me/Men-in-Black/Simpsons side at Kings Cross station, and a Pepper's Ghost arrangement means that as you step under an arch you seem to pass through a brick wall just as they did in one of those movies. The trick here is to play to the crowds and mug for the people who can actually see the magic happening. My favorite way of wowing the crowd is to walk backwards, giving a jaunty wave. The cries of amazement from the onlookers are a nice reward for one's theatricality, and help mask the cries of alarm of those children one steps on because one can't see them.

The ride itself is a rather fine mock-up of an old Great Western 'Castle Class' locomotive Hogwartz Castle and some corridor coaches. The passengers are boarded eight to a compartment and when the train sets out a very convincing series of scenes is shown through the window of London and the Hogwartz environs while the frosted glass between the corridor and the passengers is used to show a shadow show telling a story involving Harry, Ron and Hermione. You get a different show depending on which direction you are traveling. It is all rather clever.

And we got to ride the Despicable Me 3D ride, which was working and was fun13 and is recommended to anyone who enjoys the movies. Like everything else in both the parks, the ride is too short for the wait normally involved, but that is now the norm. Only you can tell if any theme park experience is worth however long the lines are. I draw the line14 at an hour.


That was our theme park quota for this visit. It was all gravy from then on, with much lazing around and some quality kissy-face predicted on account of all the robe and wand buying that had gone before. What could go wrong?

The Stevieling called two days later to tell me the furnace had shut down.

I told her to deploy a small electric heater and to call our go-to guy. Who didn't respond to several calls, so we looked up other options. One of those did respond and said they'd send someone around at three.

At two thirty, the Stevieling called to say she'd blown a breaker by running the heater on the same ciruit as the microwave, then making some sort of melty-cheesy thing. I never was clear on the details, but decided after three or four minutes of confusing cell phone mediated back-and-forth that the recipe involved was non-germane and did the dja-dja-dja-dja-dja Grimace Chant and the Wavy Hand Jive of Let's Forget This Bit And Move On. Naturally, although I had walked her through the process of resetting the breakers before I left, I had to do it all over again over the phone because she was so nervous she had forgotten everything we spoke about.

At three the furnace repair guy showed up and I got a call so he could explain his theory, which was "the pilot light has gone out and I'll charge 149 bux to relight it".

I said "Fine, but you should know that this furnace has had this problem many times before, and every time the pilot has shut down because of a failed thermocouple".

He opined that it might be the case, but he felt that the wind might have just blown out the pilot.

I said "Fine. But in the last twelve years this furnace has had eight thermocouple failures. I'm told by the guys that have serviced the furnace that this particular model is known for eating thermocouples. This was not mentioned by the people who sold it to me of course. So, for my own peace of mind would you please fit a new thermocouple before you re-light the pilot?"

He waffled for a bit, made some comment about the position of the pilot and thermocouple and agreed to add a new thermocouple to the bill, which he'd have to call home for the cost to install. He then pointed out that there might be more things hiding behind a failed thermocouple that could not be detected until the thermocouple had been replaced. I told him I understood that, mentally preparing myself for job escalation and bill inflation

Long story short he replaced the thermocouple, everything started working, and I was another 400 bux light in the purse. I got this news as we drove to dinner, which was marred for some fellow diners by the toxic stench coming off my credit card and the litany of class two Words of Power I occasionally snarled to no-one in particular.

And tomorrow we drive home. What new ambushes does life have in store for us?

  1. The ailment that causes people to run to the supermarket and buy up all the toilet paper upon being informed that rain is expected
  2. Which, as it happens, was Thursday morning around 8 am
  3. In Lumberton, North Carolina
  4. These are actually getting annoying. It used to be "Are you interested in Theme Park tickets?" and we'd say "No" and that was that. Now they won't give us the parking pass until the power sell has been attempted. Only when I said "I'm sorry ma'am, but we've had about five hours sleep in the last thirty six and my temper isn't what it might be as a result" that we were given the vital document and allowed to go on our way
  5. We not having had the perspicacity to carry a Websters Dictionary with us at all times
  6. Curiously, I now find I can spell Czechoslovakia with relative ease, but have forgotten how to operate a slide rule. This Means Something
  7. What Mrs Stevie calls a "sour-faced curmudgeon"
  8. Which isn't bad if you are a Harry Potter cosplayer I suppose. Serious money changes hands in the Star Trek cosplay hobby
  9. All rides in Universal Studios exit through a gift shop
  10. The front of my thighs go numb, but first they hurt like hell. This started in the late 80s. I've had tests, but no diagnosis
  11. And the fact we are obviously seniors by our matching silver hair
  12. The electric sort
  13. Though not as much fun as it would have been eight hours earlier
  14. Ahahahahaha!

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