My 21st trip to New Orleans (and 9th Mardi Gras) began early Thursday morning when I helped 3 children get ready for school and dropped them off when the school doors opened at 7:10am (their mother was in Savannah); then I was off to the airport. We landed, and I caught my colleague’s panel on strategic use of media for high profile personal injury cases.  An hour later, we were at Company Burger, site of the infamous “shooting egg” incident last year that ruined my favorite corduroy sportcoat, but sometimes, one has to take calculated risks in life, and these burgers are quite awesome.

After lunch, the weather was so nice that several of us decided to enjoy the outdoor pool for a while, something I’ve never done in February in New Orleans.  I had a Cuban cigar my friend Angela procured for Mike and me recently, and I figured this was a great time to enjoy it.  Dinner was at Shaya, the 2016 James Beard Awards’ “best new restaurant in America,” and boy howdy, it did NOT disappoint.  We loved it.  We’d set this reservation in September when my friend from the Air Force, Lauren, was in Atlanta for a conference; she and her husband came with us, along with two Atlanta lawyer friends who’d been at our conference.

That night we explored the Quarter and some of our usual haunts on Bourbon Street; I sang at Cat’s Meow, because I can’t come to New Orleans and NOT sing on stage at Cat’s Meow.

Friday, we ate at Cochon Butcher, where the pork flows like wine, and the decor is all Star Wars. We then explored more of the Quarter with Lauren and her krewe before meeting up with Amy, who came in for the weekend like last year.

That night, the conference had an event upstairs at Galatoire’s that included a balcony party and throws, followed by an excellent dinner downstairs.  Then we went back out, but this time ventured to the end of Bourbon to Frenchmen Street and the Spotted Cat for live music.

We visited a new place (for us) – the Gold Mine – toward the end of the night for some dance music a block or so off Bourbon.

Saturday morning, I woke up and declared, “This is one of my favorite days of the year:  the Saturday before Mardi Gras.”  I dressed for the warm weather and the occasion.

We walked to the Garden District, stopped at HiVolt Coffee, and then had lunch at the famous Commander’s Palace, which was every bit as amazing as they say it is.

Full as ticks, we walked to St Charles to watch the Krewe of Tucks parade before sitting in Igor’s a while and then working our way back to Cochon Butcher for a light dinner before returning to the room to don our “last evening before Mardi Gras” garb (read:  sparkles on pants; sparkles on coats) before catching Endymion on Canal.

Most places in the Quarter were crowded, but we found some empty bar stools at the Chart Room and made friends with a couple from San Diego and a guy dressed like Harry from “Dumb and Dumber,” because dressing well is part of what makes Mardi Gras grand.

We returned to the Gold Mine, sampled the flaming Dr Pepper shots, had pizza at Dante’s, and hit the Cat’s Meow again before turning in late.

The next morning, I flew home to 3 excited children who filled our “Mardi Gras tree” with a full bag of throws.

Sometimes folks ask me, “Don’t you get tired of going to New Orleans for Mardi Gras?  Think you should take a year or two off perhaps?”  And I say, “Do you get tired of happiness?  Don’t you think you should take a year or two off from friendship”?  And then they shut up and walk away slowly.

No, I will never get tired of Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

 

During one of the keynotes at this year’s Dad 2.0, the speaker quoted Mark Twain:
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.

We were beginning our Sunday morning hike along the Pacific Ocean at Torrey Pines State Nature Reserve when our guide mentioned that we may be able to see whales just 3-4 “waves back” from the shore.  “Is that why San Diego means ‘Whale’s Vagina’?” I asked.  He couldn’t respond.

That’s how my 4-day weekend in San Diego concluded.

The trip started when I deboarded the plane Thursday morning  in my “Mary Go Round” pants and hopped in a car with Carter, John, Aaron, and MJ to see the sea lions in La Jolla Cove.  I was meandering down the sidewalk, happily sipping my water and enjoying the cool ocean mist when two strange women with iphones asked to photograph my backside for a “friend who just wrote a book about Our Lady of Guadalupe,” so I let them.  And then Aaron captured the moment himself.

After lunch near the sea lions, we went to the Hyatt Regency La Jolla, got registered, and spent several hours at Drift, the hotel bar/restaurant.

The conference began the next morning, and we heard the first-person account of making a 2-week-long trip hidden in a container on a ship from west Africa to the U.S. to escape persecution and start a new life (a trip he had to make twice, as the first time resulted in deportation, so it was actually 4 weeks hidden in a locked container on a ship).

Then, the sessions started.  This year’s programming was different in a few ways.  There were more talks led by one person, instead of panels.  I didn’t see any “live bloggers” in the sessions (which I used to think was an odd practice, but after being one for several years, I liked knowing I could get CliffsNotes from sessions I couldn’t see while sitting in one scheduled simultaneously), which made deciding what to attend or not attend a struggle.  The ones I chose were good, but I didn’t seem to have as many takeaways as I have had in the past.  That could be a change in programming, or could have very well been because…well, the days leading up to this trip were hard.

Two friends died just before I left for San Diego.  One was a friend from home who was a couple years younger than me, worked with my younger brother, and appears to have taken his own life.  The other was a few years older than me and was part of a small group of 8 I was in through our church; we’d met weekly for about 2 years, up until a year or so ago.  He got cancer and quickly died from it.

Neither was anyone I talked to frequently or recently, but knowing they were gone upset me a good bit. I looked at Dad 2.0 2017 as a way to get away from things, which is probably why I awoke at 4am on the day of the flight.  It wasn’t a great mindset for trying to learn or engage.

At the end of the first day, we had an outstanding steak dinner hosted by the good folks at Kia, whom I’ve enjoyed getting to know over the years (and whose cars I’ve gotten to know on our various road trips).   Then, there was a “Dad Voices” event in which folks read a meaningful blog post out loud to a room full of their peers.  It last 3.5 hours and was a powerful experience to both reader and audience, as nearly every reader picked a very personal and emotional topic to cover in his post.  I read a story I wrote in 2008 about my last night at work as the rat at Chuck E Cheese restaurant, when I squeezed a kid’s hand so tightly that he cried.

The next day, I’d planned to get up and join everyone for a run in our new athletic gear from Russell Athletic, but it was raining out, and my head hurt, so I loaded a plate full of eggs and bacon and sat near the folks who’d run instead.

We attended more sessions, and the Hadrian’s Wall walkers got to go on stage during an announcement about the new Camp Kesem chapter we helped fund, and after lunch, Lance, Kevin, and I decided to take the Kia Niro on a test drive across the bridge to Coronado Island.

I did more riding than driving, but the car was quite nice, as was the company.

I attended Carter’s session in which people got angry at each other over political differences and then heard the closing keynote which inspired me to want to do more traveling and exploring (I’ve since bought 7 plane tickets!). That night, a bunch of us stayed up til 3am in the outdoor courtyard by a fire pit. I think I insulted Dave with my incredulous reaction to his academic credentials (but when your blog has the word “idiot” in it, should you really be surprised?).

Sunday morning, it was time to pack up, hike along the Pacific, and fly east.

In retrospect, my favorite moments from this year’s Summit were at meals and gatherings around the fire pit, sharing stories and laughs.  There were fewer shenanigans this year, but there was more listening. And if travel is fatal to bigotry and narrow-mindedness, how much more is travel, followed by civil conversation with folks whose backgrounds and viewpoints vary from yours?

Next year’s Summit is in New Orleans, and is during my Reserves weekend, but I bought a ticket anyway.  Just to make sure I’m adequately familiar with the city, I’m going next week for my 9th Mardi Gras.  I’ll be sure and report my objective findings soon.

My bride convinced me to register as a potential chaperone for our 5th grader’s field trip a few months ago, and I forgot about it, because she said lots of folks register for this privilege, but what I shouldn’t have forgotten is that I’m really lucky and win stuff from drawings all the time, so when I found out I was going, I had much to shift in my work schedule to make it happen.  But, on Wednesday morning at 545am, we arrived at her school to board the buses headed southeast.

Tybee is a barrier island just east of Savannah and south of Hilton Head. We stayed at a 4-H center that was like a campground, but on a marsh.  There were cabins that resembled little open bay barracks, but we chaperones had a separate room with our own bathroom (but still had a bunk bed to share–I got the bottom one).

During the day, we learned about marsh ecology, beach ecology, invertebrates, and orienteering.  At night, we returned to the beach for a guided walk that included gazing at myriad stars, hearing stories about pirates, and spending time silently listening to the waves scooting toward us.

We also visited Fort Pulaski and toured its grounds, which was great, except for the continuous whining from one boy about how badly he had to pee (once his eyes were full of tears, and he was lying on his side like a fetus from the pain in his bladder, I reluctantly agreed to escort him to the visitor center restrooms after a “Didn’t you hear the guide tell everyone to use the restroom before we left?” admonition).

After our muddy marsh walk, I decided that the brown leather Columbia hiking boots I bought with my dad during a trip home to Nashville shortly after college graduation should stay with the camp for future use by marsh walkers.  It was a somewhat hard decision, as I’m a sentimental kinda guy, but the boots were nasty, and I didn’t want to clean them up to put them back in my suitcase.  Also, I bought new waterproof Merrells last spring for our Hadrian’s Wall walk and really don’t like duplicity in my wardrobe (our closet’s not that big).  I bid them farewell and smiled at the thought that they’d live on to protect future hikers from sticky black marsh mud and that, maybe, just maybe, they’d be there for my feet if I come back with my 2nd grade boy in 3 years).

On the bus ride home (like the bus ride there), I got to sit with my 5th grader, which was going to be 4 hours of bonding and creating memories we’d cherish for the rest of our lives when I pictured this trip in my head, but instead it was 4+ hours of watching movies at about 130 decibels as I tried to focus on the emails I needed to respond to via my ipad.  When I got home, I immediately ordered wireless, noise cancelling Bose headphones that I will never ever leave home without, ever.

Despite the loud bus rides and the unruly cabin full of 10-year-old boys my co-chaperone and I had to try and quiet each night (I was “good cop”), I loved going on this trip.  I love that I have enough control over my schedule to leave for 3 days during the work week.  I love how sweet, kind, considerate, and innocent most of these little 5th graders are in their last year of elementary school, and how much fun it was to watch them get excited about coastal biology and ecology.  I love exploring a new part of the state I’ve called home since 1997 and learning how diverse its topography can be.  I loved all the free coffee.

When people ask when was the happiest time of my life, I never hesitate before saying 5th through 7th grades, but getting to experience this time with our children as they enter this same time frame is pretty close to being as good.  I can’t wait for the next few months and years.