A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…

I didn’t know it at the time, but I fell in love for the first time when I was almost six.

Given the time, the obvious answer to the with whom question would be Jaclyn Smith, but it wasn’t the Charlie’s Angel star. I was so enamoured with the beautiful brunette when I was younger that I ripped out a magazine ad of hers and hid it under my pillow when I had my tonsils out. In this case, the answer isn’t actually a person, but a film franchise that changed my life.

Star Wars debuted 40 years ago today. I didn’t see it on opening day, but I did see it about a week later. It was Dad and I, sitting in a theatre with a bunch of other people who had no idea how badly their minds were about to be blown. I still remember how I reacted to this scene, right at the beginning of the film:

When I saw the nose of that Star Destroyer, followed by the rest of the behemoth filling the screen, my jaw dropped. It’s a little known fact that I was the inspiration for the shocked face emoji. I remember sitting there completely enthralled with the larger than life characters on the screen. The cool robots, the really bad bad guy, the cool guy with the furry sidekick and the awesome ship and, of course, the pretty girl with the cinnamon buns on her head.

I remember giggling the first time I heard the Cantina Band, being stressed out when Luke was dragged underwater in the trash compactor, being so upset when Obi-Wan met his fate, and a huge sense of relief when the good guys blew up the Death Star.

 

To say Star Wars has had an influence over my life would be a huge understatement. It provided the basis for a grade school nickname (Stewbacca if you’re scoring at home). Whenever I’m in a car when it’s snowing, I imagine the jump to hyperspace. The notification on my phone is the whooshing of a lightsaber. Most awesomely, however, was when Becky and I entered the reception at our wedding with a lightsaber ablaze to the Imperial March…and it was Becky’s idea!

I’ve had the distinct pleasure of meeting three members of the iconic cast and chatted briefly with a fourth. I snapped a quick pic and exchanged pleasantries with Peter Mayhew at a convention, the same con where I met the most notorious bounty hunter in the galaxy. Jeremy Bulloch, the man in the Boba Fett armour, spent close to half an hour chatting with us about everything under the twin suns of Tatooine before signing a photo of he and Darth Vader. I was a little concerned, because in the photo he informed me that I was next. Gulp!

A few years later, I was lucky enough to come face to face with David Prowse, the man who brought Darth Vader himself to life. I had him sign the other half of the photo with Boba Fett, and the picture sits in a place of honour in our living room. That photo is one of two pieces of nerd minutiae that I’d grab in case of fire. The other is also a signed picture, on that is absolutely irreplaceable. A year after meeting the Dark Lord, we met his daughter, the aforementioned pretty girl, the incomparable Carrie Fisher.

I’ve told the story before, so apologies for making you sit through it again. It was a few weeks before our wedding, and my back was a disaster. I had sciatica, and every step around the Metro Toronto Convention Centre was more painful than the next. I got a photo signed and before I left, Carrie asked me if I would like a blessing. I had two immediate thoughts: how do I say no to Princess Leia and what the hell am I getting myself into? I agreed. Carrie then dabbed her finger into a small jar of glitter, said “from this day forward, your life will be better!” then dabbed me between the eyes. The next morning, I woke up with what felt like a brand new back. Princess Leia cured my sciatica. Without Star Wars, who knows what shape my back would be in!

I’ve ragged on George Lucas in the past for “ruining my childhood” but without his vision and liberal ripping off of Jack Kirby, we wouldn’t have the greatest series in movie history (don’t @ me, Godfather or Lord of the Rings fans). Thanks to the late great Ralph McQuarrie for his amazing designs, and to John Williams for the iconic theme song.

Happy 40th, Star Wars. Thanks for everything!

Cruise Virgin Confessions #3: St. Thomas, San Juan and Hail to the King

Day four (already!) brought us to the beautiful island of St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands. As we approached the port, we were treated to some absolutely breathtaking views of the harbour and the homes that dotted the hills around it. It was a living, breathing episode of Caribbean Life, as seen below:

When we finally pulled into port, the first thing that greeted us was a giant Senor Frog’s. I had a feeling a few cruisers would make their way into that fine establishment, but Becky and I weren’t going to be two of them. Not content to stay on the ship or fight with the crowds at the wildly popular Magens Bay beach, we opted instead to book a shore excursion.

Becky and I, along with dozens of our new friends, boarded another ship…a Kon Tiki party boat….that’s it up there. We were immediately greeted with music from the onboard steel band, and were treated to a wonderful tour of Charlotte Amalie Harbour. Among the sites we saw from the ship included Blackbeard’s Castle, Bluebeard’s Castle and the Governor’s Mansion, which was nestled in the mountainside.

From there, our ship brought us to Honeymoon Beach, where we spent the next 90 minutes enjoying the majestic waters and the sweltering heat. The sun and sand were wonderful, but maybe a tad behind the awesomeness of Half Moon Cay. Maybe I’m splitting hairs, or grains of sand in this case, but I heard that the weather back home was horrific at the time so I’m going to quit my complaining now!

On the return trip back to the Glory, our tour guide had another perk for us: the Kon Tiki had a glass bottom, and we parked over a coral reef for a few minutes, which was pretty cool. What was less cool, especially for people who had been in the sun and may or may not have been drinking, was his ecological lecture about how humans are evil and stuff. Okay, it might not have been that bad, but it felt kind of out of place and people really weren’t paying attention to him…they were paying more attention to the bar at the stern (look at me using nautical terms again!)

Following a conga line and limbo contest, we returned to port and boarded the ship, where we had time to freshen up for dinner. Before dinner, however, there was something else I had to do. Something I’d been waiting all cruise for.

We ventured up to deck five and made our way into the sports bar for sports trivia. Anyone who knows me knows I might know a fact or two about a sport or two. However, tragedy hit right before the contest, as I bent my thumbnail back on a barstool and broke it. I was undaunted. If Kurt Angle could win an Olympic gold medal with a broken neck, I could certainly try to win sports trivia with a broken thumb…nail.

You get three guesses as to what happened next and the first two don’t count. I won. I got 11/15 (some of the questions were pretty hard) but it was more than enough to win a medal. Finally…validation for years of spouting useless stats and facts! *struts* We went for dinner, me with my medal around my neck because of course I’d do that, and then off to the casino. After a bit more donating, it was time for the Love and Marriage Show with our Cruise Director, Eric.

The Love and Marriage Show is like The Newlywed Game: three couples head up on stage and answer an list of embarrassing questions. The three couples picked were kids married that very day on the ship, a couple married 25 years and a pair named Jack and Pat, celebrating 57 years together. For the next 45 minutes or so, the delightful couples answered everything asked of them, often with hilarious results.

We made our way to deck nine, where Rogue One was being shown on the big screen. Normally, I wouldn’t have issue with a Star Wars movie being broadcast, but we were two days away from Star Wars Day (May the Fourth Be With You!) and it kinda irked me that nobody thought to hold Rogue One for two more days. Oh well, can’t win them all.

The next morning, we arrived in San Juan, Puerto Rico. I was looking forward to this stop most of all, as we’d be visiting the Fort of San Cristobal. More on that in a bit. We met up with our tour guide, Miguel, who sounded like he just arrived on the island from New York City. He was fantastic…very informative, brought us to many shaded areas for brief respites and he demonstrated his remarkable cat herding ability on several occasions if we strayed from the pack. He was also a Mets fan…yes I asked.

San Juan was hot that day…almost oppressively so. Our tour was scheduled for over three hours, and at this point I actually began to question our sanity. What were we thinking? Miguel took us through the streets of Old San Juan, letting us take in all the different forms of architecture and then brought us to this rather unique attraction:

The Pigeon Park was home to hundreds of pigeons, and they were decidedly unafraid of humans. I’m not a giant fan of birds (ironic since my baseball team is the Cardinals) but this was neat. From there, the tour continued through city streets, through the Maritime Museum and eventually to the Fort of San Cristobal.

As mentioned above, I was really looking forward to this stop. Why this place of all places I can hear you asking? Because in season two of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., they filmed a pivotal scene at the Fort, which is part of the National Parks Service in the US.

Here’s a still from that episode, and my photo is below:

The Fort was incredible. Just knowing that I was surrounded by something that old and that rich in history, coupled with the fact that one of my favourite shows was shot there, made me geek out like crazy. After we found our way to Walgreens to get a drink and some Bonine (remember the seasickness? Not an issue with this stuff) we went back to the ship and readied ourselves for dinner…and more sports trivia.

Yeah, I won again. This time with a score of 19 out of 20. The only one I got wrong was a question about jogging, which as everyone knows is a forte and great love of mine. I was awarded a second medal and a coveted Ship on a Stick for my efforts. Score!

After more delicious food and more donating (they freaking loved me!) we began to unwind and prepare for our final port of call, Grand Turk. More on that in part four!

Looking California but feeling Minnesota

I was scrolling through Facebook this morning when my friend Dave’s icon popped up on the corner of my phone. Beside it was a message I had no chance to prepare for:

Chris Cornell has died.

The news understandably hit me like a ton of bricks. Chris and his band Soundgarden were a key component to the soundtrack of my college years and beyond. From the opening riff of Jesus Christ Pose to the first time I heard this incredible singer’s voice, I was hooked.

I had the pleasure, a distinct one at that, to see Soundgarden live in the summer of 1994. They were co-headliners with Nine Inch Nails at a show that, for all intents and purposes was a mini festival. Marilyn Manson, the vastly underrated Pop Will Eat Itself and others were also on the bill, but it was two bands at the top of the imaginary marquee that I wanted to see.

As you’d expect, the show was off the charts amazing. I just looked up the setlist, and holy shit what a list it was. They started with the aforementioned JCP and rocked out balls to the wall for close to two hours.

Soundgarden was a band that seemingly all of my friends and I could agree was awesome. Chris and his band impacted a lot of us then kids who have spent over a quarter century with their music. I can think of a few occasions where I was having my ass handed to me by writer’s block and a little Soundgarden in the ears served as the perfect tonic.

Making this all the harder for me to deal with today is the date. Today, May 18, is the anniversary of Ian Curtis from Joy Division’s passing. He died by hanging, just like Chris did. Just like Robin Williams.

It’s hard to know what’s happening with people. Whether they’re thriving, struggling or simply existing. I remember how hopeless I felt when I heard the news of Robin’s passing, how I wished someone could have been there for him, to sense what he was going through. Today, I wish the same for Chris’s family, band mates and loved ones.

Do me a favour today. Hug someone you love. If you can’t physically wrap your arms around them then call, text or message them and tell them you love them. Tell them that if they need you, you’ll be there. Tell them how important they are. Because you never know when they, or you, won’t be here.

You’ll be glad you did.

Rest well, Chris. Say hi to Kurt, Layne and Andrew for us all.

Cruise Virgin Confessions #2: Half Moon Cay and Lost at Sea

And we’re back!

When we last left our intrepid heroes, we were wrapping up day one on the Carnival Glory. Day two promised a new country to visit, and we were super excited to get there. The country in question was The Bahamas, best known for giving the world Sidney Poitier, Roxie Roker and a metric ton of others who have a home there for tax purposes.

For us, the allure was Half Moon Cay, a private island also known as Little San Salvador Island (the things you learn from Google!) Here’s the view of our ship from the beach:

So having not set foot on a beach in almost six years, this was going to be interesting. How were my toes going to react to sand? How was I going to get in and out of that damn chaise lounge? The answers were amazingly and easily. Everything about HMC was spectacular! The sand was unlike any I’ve ever set foot in, and the water…wowza!

What? Everyone else does it? *cackles*

Anyway, we were on the island for a few hours and it was utter bliss. The ability to just sit and do nothing for hours while basking under the Caribbean sun was sooooooo great and something I didn’t know I needed until I actually did it. I couldn’t get over the colour of the water…look at how many shades of blue are in it:

We made our way back to the ship and went for dinner. We were joined at our table by a super nice couple from Maine. They’re dog people, so we got along famously…and no, I don’t mean they were a canine-human hybrid, though that might have made them even cooler. Dinner was chicken and it was good…not as good as the steak but good nevertheless.

After I donated a little more at the casino, we walked around the ship and made our way back to our stateroom, where the plan was to watch Elementary and then go for pizza. Seems we forgot to lock our door, because someone fitting the description of the Sandman broke in and dropped sand on our eyelids. We came to around 11:40 (we were tired from the sun…yeah, that’s it!). Undaunted, we ventured upstairs to the Lido deck, renamed by many as the Eato deck, and got our pizza. Holy nom was it delish!

 

The following day was spent at sea. A day with no stops means it’s time for formalities mealwise. We went to brunch in our fancy platinum dining room and we ate a little differently from how we normally do. Becky had Cheerio-encrusted French Toast. This is what that looked like:

dav

On the other side of the table, I had….I had….oh man I’m actually admitting to this…macaroni and cheese with steak.

Go ahead and judge me. I’ll wait.

Are ya done? Sure took your sweet time, didn’t you? 😉 Anyway, after breakfast, I went back to the stateroom because I wasn’t feeling fantastic. We met up with some people from the Cruise Critic website and returned to the stateroom, where I basically passed out. I felt like I was hit by a bus, or more accurately a cruise ship. The seas were rough, like the opening of Gilligan’s Island rough, and I got a wicked bout of seasickness.

In hindsight, I should have expected this. My lovely wife bought us sea bands to wear on the cruise, and I removed mine on Saturday night. “I feel fantastic!” I said. “I don’t need these!” I said. Idiot! I wound up sleeping most of the afternoon, but felt SO much better when I came to. We got gussied up for dinner and met our Maine pals again. Dinner was spaghetti carbonara and it was ridiculously good. Exactly what I needed after feeling like crud.

We were going to the Amor Cubano show but with the seas being so rough, the show was postponed until later in the week. We wound our way to the casino, where the gentleman next to us won two grand on a penny slot machine. It took everything we had not to rub him for luck! Turns out Becky didn’t need it, as she won some money as I continued my benevolent donating to the ship. I didn’t even get a tax receipt for it!

That’s it for days two and three. Next up: St. Thomas, San Juan and Hail to the King.

Cruise Virgin Confessions #1: We’re doing what now?

(Now that I’ve been back on terra firma for a few days, I’ve managed to get my thoughts composed in a hopefully coherent order. This is part one of my cruise review…hope you all dig it!)

So, we went on vacation. While that statement might not sound like a big deal, for Becky and I it was huge. The last time we went anywhere was an overnight trip to Buffalo in a blizzard before we opened the shop, so this was long overdue.

The question was simple: where are we going? In her previous life, Becky was a big fan of cruising, something this land lubber hadn’t partaken in. Becky went into research mode and found a perfect one for us to go on and went and booked it with her fingers crossed. Having never been on a cruise before, my darling wife was worried that I might hate it, and that I’d be stuck floating on a misery barge for a week with no choice but to wait it out.

The itinerary sounded awesome: leave from Miami, hit four ports, have two sea days and then return to back to Miami a week later. Awesome, right? I was going to more than double the number of countries I’ve set foot in on one trip…score! Now we just had to wait for departure day.

And wait.

And wait.

And wait.

We booked the trip over a year in advance, and it made the 400+ day wait nearly unbearable.

Finally, the day arrived…or should I say the ass crack of morning arrived. We booked an early flight (7am-ish) and woke up to make the long drive to the airport at 2am. I had no idea there was a 2am anymore. WHY DOES NOBODY TELL ME THINGS? Erm, sorry…I’m back.

We arrived at Pearson and breezed through everything…easiest security check ever. We boarded the plane and then heard something nobody who’s been waiting years for a vacation wants to hear…

The sound of an air gun under the plane.

Turns out we had a problem with the fuel indicator or something, which I’m pretty sure is an important piece of technology. So there we sat on the runway, playing the waiting game…and we all know the waiting game sucks and Hungry Hungry Hippos should be played in its stead. After about an hour, we were airborne!

After a relatively uneventful flight, we arrived in Ft. Lauderdale. I’ve been to Florida twice, but never as far south as Lauderdale or Miami…that all changed with this trip. Our hotel was literally a five minute walk to the American Airlines Arena, home of the Miami Heat (it’s me…like I’m not going to geek out over a sports arena).

A good night’s sleep later (remember the 2am part?) and we were ready to board the ship. The ship in question was the Carnival Glory…this little beauty below.

We again breezed through security and as we stepped from the gangway onto Deck 3, I realized it was finally happening. Becky looked at me and asked me how I was doing, and I answered the absolutely only way I could have…

As we made our way into the main part of the ship, my head was on a swivel. Everything was so shiny! I wanted to go everywhere and look at everything but I knew that there would be time for all of that. We proceeded to buy our drink package and then go get some lunch, which consisted of the best damn hamburger I’ve ever had.

The ship came equipped with a Guy Fieri’s burger joint on board, and holy moley it was amazing! Behold this beast in all its artery-clogging goodness:

And yes, there is lettuce on my burger…stop looking at me like that! Anyway. One of the things I’ve heard most about cruise ships is how utterly amazing the food is, and after all that buildup, I’m happy to say I wasn’t disappointed.

We went to the Platinum dining room for dinner (yeah we fancy!) and were taken care of by an amazing crew of servers. The steak (the first of a few this trip because vacation!) was sublime and rest of the meal was pretty damn spiffy as well.

After dinner, we donated to the casino and then went to the Welcome Show, where we got our first glimpse at our Cruise Director, Eric. My lone experience with a cruise director came in the form of Julie McCoy on The Love Boat (was anyone expecting a Lauren Tewes shoutout?). Eric was simply sensational. His personality was infectious, his jokes funny and his presence commanding. He asked us to come up with a nickname for him, which I did immediately. More on that later.

So there’s Day One on the ship. Next up: Half Moon Cay and Lost at Sea

It’s Opening Day!

Today is one of my favourite days of the year. Not specifically April 2, but what comes with it this year…the season premiere of Call The Midwife.

Erm, well, that’s awesome too, but I actually meant to say Opening Day for Major League Baseball! As you know, or should know by now, I love me some baseball. The St. Louis Cardinals are my favourite team on the planet, in any team, in any sport…and it’s not close. Every year, I head into Opening Day thinking my Redbirds have a chance, but this year, I’m a little less optimistic.

You see, my Cards play in the same division as the New Evil Empire, the defending champion Chicago Cubs. Yes, they’re the best team in baseball. Yes, they deserved to win last year. No, I didn’t like it a damn bit. I’d be an absolute fool to bet against the Cubbies this year, like I did last year when I picked the Blue Jays to win it all. I have a bit of a horrible track record in guessing at baseball: my previous picks to win it all were the Cardinals in 2014 (Nope…Giants), Dodgers in 2015 (uh uh…the Royals) and we’ve covered last year’s gaffe.

So am I going to do the smart thing and pick the Cubs and be done with it?

As a Cardinals fan, I simply can’t pick them to win it all. I just can’t…it goes against everything I believe in. That said, I still see them playing deep into October. Here, for the record, are my picks for the 2017 season. Remember, no wagering!

American League East
Boston Red Sox
Toronto Blue Jays – W
Baltimore Orioles
New York Yankees
Tampa Bay Rays

American League Central
Cleveland Indians
Detroit Tigers
Minnesota Twins
Kansas City Royals
Chicago White Sox

American League West
Houston Astros
Seattle Mariners – W
Texas Rangers
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Oakland A’s

National League East
Washington Nationals
New York Mets- W
Miami Marlins
Atlanta Braves
Philadelphia Phillies

National League Central
Chicago Cubs
St. Louis Cardinals
Pittsburgh Pirates
Milwaukee Brewers
Cincinnati Reds

National League West
Los Angeles Dodgers
San Francisco Giants – W
Arizona Diamondbacks
Colorado Rockies
San Diego Padres

Wild Card Round
Toronto over Seattle
New York Mets over San Francisco

Division Series
Cleveland over Toronto
Houston over Boston
Chicago over New York
Los Angeles over Washington

Championship Series
Houston over Cleveland
Los Angeles over Chicago

World Series
Los Angeles over Houston

So there we have it. I’m going with the Dodgers to win it all for the second time in three years. Yeah, I know, it didn’t work so well the first time, but nothing ventured, right?

Enjoy the season and may your team be amazing…except the Cubs. May they go 0-162. Jerks.

Ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-ma-mad-madness 2017

To say that the opening four days of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament are four of my favourite days of the year would not be much of a stretch.

My first real taste of the tournament came in 1983, when I saw a frantic man looking for someone to hug at the end of the title game. That man was Jim Valvano, the late coach of the North Carolina State Wolfpack, who moments earlier, stunned the heavily-favoured Houston Cougars to win the title.

I’ve been hooked since. That fall, I bought my first season preview issue. I became a junkie, and college basketball was my crack. I started reading about the teams from the past. Like Oscar Robertson’s Cincinnati Bearcats. Like Texas Western (now UTEP), the 1966 champs and the team behind the movie Glory Road. Like the epic Michigan State-Indiana State game from 1979 that pitted Magic Johnson and Larry Bird against each other for the first time.

The beauty of the tourney was, at the time, that it started during March Break. I seldom did much over that week away from school, and having the tourney on all day was a blast. Back in 1991, I was working and was unable to get the time off to watch the games. (yes, I thought about using vacation days to watch hoops…are you getting how big a deal this is for me?) One of my co-workers brought in a little tv for me to have on during the afternoon, but that was quickly kiboshed by the boss. However, I had little to do that day save for some clerical stuff, so I was able to do my filing in front of a tv in another part of the building.

Watching Villanova stun mighty Georgetown was incredible (and I remember wondering aloud at the time if the Wildcats were EVER going to shoot the ball…it was the last game before the shot clock was introduced into the college game).

I remember watching Keith Smart hit the winning shot against Syracuse in 87 (damn his oily hide!). I remember watching Tyus Edney run right through the Missouri defense and score the winning lay-up to help propel UCLA to the ’94 championship.

I remember watching as Steve Nash and his Santa Clara Broncos stunned Arizona, a 15 seed over a two. Or witnessing the rise of Gonzaga from a school with a cool name that nobody had ever heard of to a national power. Or Christian Laettner hitting his miracle shot against Kentucky. Or Chris Webber calling a timeout he didn’t have. Or Bryce Drew hitting a three at the buzzer for Valparaiso against Ole Miss. Or seeing Danny Manning, one of my all-time fave players, lead his Kansas Jayhawks over Oklahoma in 1988.

I have especially fond memories of the 2000 tournament. My beloved Michigan State Spartans won the whole ball of wax, making me absolutely unbearable to be around for about a week. If anyone remembers how I was after the St. Louis Cardinals won the 2006 and 2011 World Series, you’ll know how I was in April 2000.

My bracket this year has Villanova, Gonzaga, Louisville and UCLA in the Final Four, with Nova over UCLA in the title game. My entire bracket can be found here if you’re at all interested.

Bring on the madness!!