Here are the things we’ve been doing since we went to Europe in April.
July 26: Night of the Food Gun
In a terrible convergence of gluttony and bravery, a bunch of friends set aside a night to attempt a couple local food challenges.
Johnny and Jessica first tried to conquer “The Stellanator,” a gigantic burger from Stella’s in Bellevue. Six burger patties, 12 strips of bacon, six eggs, a giant mount of peanut butter, jalapenos, plus a huge basket of fries. In 45 minutes or less. Neither was successful. Both lived to regret it.
After Bellevue, our caravan converged on eCreamery, a little Midtown ice cream shop for the “Dundee Dozen.” 20 minutes to eat 12 scoops of ice cream. Four challengers, including myself, and only Matthew was victorious. (He pounded it, too. Set the record by finishing in just under 10 minutes.) Quentin came close. Erin and I couldn’t beat the brain freezes. I ate about eight scoops before the time ran out.
Here’s the before-and-after:
And the champion:
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Aug. 25-26: South Dakota
We don’t get up to Milbank often enough to see Grandpa. And we really should. All he did this time was beat us at frisbee golf and play the drums in the band at his own 90th birthday party.
Sept. 1: Meghan and Jay’s wedding in Kansas City
Sept. 27-30: Ryder Cup in Chicago
A year ago, I put my name in the lottery for tickets to the Ryder Cup at Medinah. I’d never seen PGA golf before in person, and one of the coolest events of the year was being played in Chicago. Couldn’t pass that up. Plus, there’s no way I’d get picked in that lottery: 100,000 tickets for like a billion fans. Promptly forgot about it.
Email comes in one day: “Congrats, we picked your name. Tickets are $700 each. You have to buy four of them. And you have to decide this week.”
“Uh, sure I’ll buy,” I thought. “I can always sell them on eBay later.”
In four homes across Omaha and Sioux Falls a similar scenario plays out: Husband slinks into the room, kisses wife on cheek and asks permission to leave her for a week to spend money on hot dogs and beer while yelling at foreigners and wearing an American flag cape. Wife furrows brow, says “you owe me,” and approves the junket.
Fast forward to September. After we rolled into Chicago, spent way too much time finding our hotel (Thanks, Siri!) and made it inside the gate, we found ourselves at the 18th green of Medinah Country Club.
Grabbed a couple beers just in time to see Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley stroll up the fairway during their Thursday practice round. Pretty sweet introduction to pro golf.
The rest of the weekend was a spectacular blur of disappointment and triumph. Thanks a lot, Ian Poulter.
For a long time I was convinced that the in-person golf experience couldn’t rival watching a big tournament on TV. There’s a lot of sitting and waiting, very little actual golf being seen. And the viewing angles aren’t quite as good.
But there’s an energy you don’t get from TV. And obviously the Ryder Cup amplified that by a significant amount. The other thing you don’t see in your living room is the elevation change across the course — TV flattens it out.
And it’s not everyday you’re five feet from Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy.
The scene at the first tee on Saturday, just before Bubba Watson teed off was closer to a football game than a typical golf tournament.
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Oct. 16: World Cup qualifier – U.S.A. vs. Guatemala in Kansas City
Another sporting adventure. First time seeing the national team. First time riding on a charter bus full of fans. First time at LiveStrong Park in Kansas City. First time waving an American flag from the middle of an impromptu Guatemalan band.
U.S. wins 3-1 to advance in World Cup qualifying and I’ve found my new favorite sporting venue.
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Salt Lake City trip to see Zach and Kate
Hiking, eating, drinking and exploring SLC. So fun.
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Oct. 26, 27: Bought a new car
We’ve been on the hunt for awhile. Gone through three other “favorite vehicles” before we settled on this one. And as we were driving up one canyon or another in Salt Lake City, the right car finally showed up in the AutoTrader search.
Stephanie spent the next week calling the dealer (in Chicago) to get everything in order. We wanted to sell our Mazda first. Dealer wouldn’t hold our new car. So, we skipped our Halloween party and spent the night in Davenport on Friday night, then drove the rest of the way to Chi Town to pick it up on Saturday. Drove right back home that night.
Time for a roof-project status update.
Last time I checked in, Quentin and I had just finished tearing all the shingles off and making a huge mess in the yard. (Lesson 1: Get a dumpster.) That was three weeks ago today. Here’s what happened since:
Day 2: Decide the old plywood wasn’t worth saving. Install new plywood.
There was plenty of decent wood left on the roof, and plenty of stuff that you could probably punch through with your fist. So, we decided to do it right — take it all off and replace it.
Nine sheets of plywood, transported in the rent-by-the-hour Lowe’s pickup truck.
By the end of the afternoon on Sunday, Dad and I had the roof recovered.
Day 4: Trip to the mini-dump and tar paper.
Loaded a truck full of the old shingles and plywood. Paid $20 to unload it in a warehouse and watch a gigantic front loader smash it to pieces. Well worth it.
You’ll notice I skipped Day 3. That’s because I really didn’t do any work that day. Dad did it all.
After we got the roof recovered that first Sunday, it rained. And after the rain, the plywood (the new stuff) warped and bubbled in a couple places and needed to be replaced, two days after installation. Dad did all that work himself — buying, transporting, lifting, nailing — and did it in the near-dark after he got off work over the course of a couple evenings. He also spent time putting in a pair of jacks under the sagging south side of the garage, where the extension (to allow longer cars to fit into the garage) was pulling the entire structure off-kilter.
So, if you see Dad anytime soon and he’s holding his back or slumped over exhausted, know that I’m to blame. Working on projects at my house is like a part-time job for him.
Day 5: Shingles. Another trip to Lowe’s to get the truck. Lots of nailing and a couple bruised thumbs. One side of the garage is nearly done. We’ll finish up this weekend. Or we’ll be hit by a blizzard and finish it in the spring.
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UPDATE: It’s done! Having a third set of hands (Stephanie’s dad) sped up the process on Saturday evening, and we finished up on Sunday afternoon.
No more rain inside the garage. On to the next thing.
Started a new project this weekend.
Our garage roof has been slowly disintegrating for months, covered in shingles that have probably celebrated the same number of birthdays as we have.
Quentin brought over a tray of tools. Out came the ladder and up we went.
Couple hours later, we had a bare roof and a giant pile of shingles in the yard.
And, hey, no crippling falls!
Tomorrow’s tasks: new plywood panels and the weatherproof layer.
We got to our hotel in Athens on Wednesday evening just as the sun was going down.
The first thing you notice about the city is how nice the people are. After a couple days in Madrid, we were resigned to the “Europeans are rude to American tourists” problem. Athens turned that notion on its head. People were kind, caring and helpful. Dare I call their friendliness “Midwestern”?
The second thing you notice about Athens is the grime. The place could use a little TLC. It’s easy to understand how a city could come to be this way — the government’s broke and there’s large-scale protests going on at city hall. But you just get the feeling that the center of the city near the Acropolis, just blocks from a major international tourist destination, hadn’t seen a street sweeper or cleaning crew in a decade. Hard to imagine.
With only 24 hours in town, of course we had to trek up the Acropolis. It’s like a big state park. Pay 12 bucks and stroll around until you get tired. It’s quite the hike up the hill, and the views of the surrounding valley are almost as good as seeing the Parthenon itself.
The Parthenon is thousands of years old, and they’re doing an impressive restoration of many of the columns, which keeps parts of the building shrouded in scaffolding. As the pillars chip away, workers are creating small marble inserts that fill the cracks exactly. Would make for a fascinating episode of one of those “how they do it” TV shows.
It’s hard to believe just how much Athens sprawls out in every direction.
And there are tons of motorcycles in Athens. Just don’t open your car door too quick.
After Athens, we flew to Santorini, the true destination of our vacation. (Our trip planning began with a look at the white buildings perched on steep cliffs. “Let’s go there.”)
Santorini’s a tiny little island — about five miles tall by a couple wide — which is the remnant of a massive volcano that has twice (as recently as the 1950s) completely destroyed all of the civilized parts of the island. Before we left for Europe, concerned relatives mentioned the danger of going to Athens, where anarchy and tear gas would surely pose problems. I think we faced significantly more danger on Santorini. More on that in a minute.
You land on a runway that seems like it’s half as long as the island, then take a taxi through tiny towns at breakneck speed until you’re at the top of the hill. And then you walk around for 30 minutes trying to figure out which steps + door + narrow path combination leads to your hotel, getting more and more crabby, tired and frustrated until you see this:
April was a good and bad time to visit Santorini. Good because it’s too early for most other tourists, so the place is silent. Nobody around except the woman at the front desk and the guy who got a workout bringing food and poppy-seed margaritas to our room. But it’s not quite hot enough during the day to swim.
That worked out just fine, though. Having a couple days to do nothing but sit around and read magazines was pretty glorious, minus the sunburn. And with giant metropolis explorations on either end of the vacation, the small-town feel of Santorini was a welcome respite from the noise.
Once the New Yorkers were all read and the sudokus were all finished, we actually left the resort. Locals say it’s a short walk down the hill from our hotel to the town of Fira.
About halfway down, we decided that the “short walk” was really a ploy to keep the local car rental businesses prosperous. All of the Smart cars were gone, so we found a place that rented four-wheelers. 24 hours for 10 bucks. No helmets required. Just get on and go. Previous experience? A form of identification? Psssh. Who needs ’em? (Remember, the Greeks are super friendly.)
It was a fabulous, if dangerous, way to explore the island, which was just small enough that we could ride from one end to another on a couple gallons of gas.
On the northern tip of the island was Oia, with an upscale shopping area and lots of little restaurants with outdoor seating to watch the famous sunset. It was a couple miles from our resort on winding roads high above the water below. Beautiful.
The trip back from Oia was either “soooo fun” or treacherous, depending on which of us you ask.
Imagine those winding roads, high above the water below. IN THE DARK. WITH NO HELMETS. And, since this is a regular road, like with real cars and trucks, our little 100cc engine couldn’t quite muster enough power to lead the way home. Remember that scene from “Dumb and Dumber” where they’re riding the scooter in the mountains with a long line of cars behind since no one can pass? Yep, that was us.
The next day we made a stop at a little seaside town known for its black-sand beach. All of the locals were just arriving for the summer, so the town was filled with the sound of saws and drills as everyone fixed up their patios and awnings.
After we returned the four-wheeler (and climbed back up the hill to the hotel), we made the short, steep walk/climb to the top of Skaros, the site of an ancient castle that fell into the ocean during an earthquake. Scared of heights? Stay far away from Skaros.
With that, we’re almost two-thirds of the way through the trip. Next top: Paris.
You may have heard we went to Europe. But you haven’t seen many of the photos. So here we go.
Motivated by pictures of white buildings on impossibly high cliffs, we set our sites on Greece a couple years ago. It finally worked out this spring, so we headed east, in search of warm weather and relaxation. We ended up with nearly the perfect vacation — urban adventure sandwiched around a relaxing long weekend sitting by the pool sipping cold drinks.
We didn’t check any bags, just had carry-ons. And we didn’t take a camera besides my iPhone.
First stop: Madrid.
We navigated the trains without major incident and emerged from the tunnel in Puerta del Sol, an old town square in central Madrid. Our hotel is nearly visible in this picture, just past the green scaffolding. The square was a ring of restaurants and street performers and little cafes that sold jamon.
Lots and lots of jamon. Pigs were hanging everywhere in Madrid. Drying in the air. Just waiting for you to order a sandwich. Those sandwiches are the pride of Madrid, I think.
This guy hadn’t ever heard of The World-Herald.
On the first day in Madrid, we walked everywhere. (Later in the trip we figured we walked more than six miles most days.) On our second day, we got smart (or was it tired?) and hopped on a double-decker tour bus. Instant upgrade. It’s kind of an embarassingly touristy thing to do, but when you’re only in town for a couple days, it’s hard to beat. Tons of history, see the whole city, no walking, no cab/subway fares.
That’s Plaza Mayor. Giant central square surrounded by an old palace.
The Royal Palace. Open to tourists unless famous diplomats are in town talking about the debt crisis. This is as close as we got.
National Library. (Or maybe it’s a museum now?) Lots of statues of old dudes. Look close for the “300.” It was their anniversary.
A bank. Or maybe a government office.
Apartments. Not quite 24th and Leavenworth.
Bonus points for the tour bus because it’s in English. Or you can tell yourself you’re cultured and listen to it in Portuguese.
Santiago Bernabeu, the famous soccer home of Real Madrid
As we were leaving our hotel on Tuesday, the man at the desk asked us if we were football fans.
Sure, I said.
“Are you guys interested in tickets to the Real Madrid match tomorrow?”
Real just happened to be playing in the second leg of the Champions League semifinals the next day. Home game against Bayern Munich. One of the most important matches in Europe this year. And he’s offering tickets. AND WE’RE LEAVING TOWN. Epic fail.
We walked out the door into a sea of Munich fans who had taken over Puerta del Sol near our hotel in anticipation of the match. Horns blaring. Chanting. Heckling. At this point, kickoff was still more than 24 hours away, but it’s as if the Germans had flown all the way to Madrid and organized a pep rally outside our hotel door just to rub in the fact that we couldn’t go.
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What else? We hung out with our friend Laura both nights. She’s teaching English to little kids and enjoys wine about as much as we do, which made for great fun.
We ate meatballs and tiny burgers with her over sangria as she explained the difficulties of teaching adjectives to rowdy fifth graders.
One night we ended up at a hip little hot dog place after listening to a Spanish lounge singer belting out American classics at a packed little bar. And then we found Iowa.
Not pictured: Stephanie swinging from that scaffolding near our hotel. And then falling.
Next stop (and next blog post): Greece!
I built the patio during the hottest days of the summer, so it’s only fitting that another home project be completed with snow on the ground.
Thanks to about a million hours of work by my dad, we’re finally ready to get a garage door opener installed this week. Here’s what we did:
1) Drilled a hole in the house and ran wiring under the patio steps to the garage. (This was earlier in the summer.)
2) Called the electrician, who connected the line inside the house and installed a new circuit breaker box in the garage.
3) Removed the old garage support beams and added new ones, five inches higher — for proper garage-door-chain clearance.
4) Ran wire and conduit around the garage, so there’d be plenty of plugs and lighting options.
In true Dad Vankat fashion, all of these steps were completed with the highest quality materials and workmanship. Where I was willing to cut corners to save time (and prevent frostbite), he insisted on sanded boards and smoothly filed metal edges.
And of course he was right. It’s a project to be proud of.
Here’s the unveiling:
Editor’s note: In the video, the light stays on for a couple seconds, then goes dark. It must be said that this is due entirely to a faulty bulb, and is in no way a reflection of Dad’s contractor skills. The garage is sturdier and warmer thanks to his tireless efforts. I’m pretty sure I could live out there if Stephanie ever got tired of me.
The kitchen sink stopped draining two weeks ago. Just all of the sudden.
There had been occasional backups before — a nasty backwash from the dishwasher, or maybe the full basin took longer to drain somedays — but the water always went away after awhile.
Not this time. A giant pool of stale pasta water.
After a couple nights of me trying to clean it out with the pipe snake, and dry heaving under the sink because of the smell, we called a plumber.
The guy came over, took a look, and brought out the heavy-duty tools. He did his thing for about an hour without any luck.
Definitely not a clog, he said, but he’d have to come back to the house another day. He didn’t have the company pipe camera to see what was really the problem, but he also didn’t hesitate to speculate that we had a broken pipe under the basement floor. Would probably cost us a COUPLE THOUSAND DOLLARS to dig up the concrete and run a new pipe to the drain in the laundry room. Oh, and that’ll be $240 for today’s visit.
At this point, we’re terrified. No solution and a giant repair bill looming. Time for a second opinion. But first, an angry phone call.
Stephanie tore into the Aksarben Plumbing people on the phone, arguing that we weren’t paying for their unsuccessful unclogging. They got the message — refunded the all the money (even the fee for the service call) and agreed not to send their guy back with his camera for a second look. (Poor fella wouldn’t have stood a chance after Stephanie had already wasted all of a Friday afternoon with him.)
Next up: Aspen Plumbing, on a recommendation from Steph’s uncle. Their guy drove over the same day, on his own time, and gave us some super-poison-acid stuff to try on the clog. If that didn’t work, we were supposed to call another of his guys to come fix it.
Two days later, the Aspen guy is standing in the kitchen, laughing at the idea that a pipe might be broken in the basement. No way, it’s a clog, he said. After an hour of work, he busted through and we had a fully operational sink once again.
And the guy charged us 85 bucks. Bravo, Aspen Plumbing — cheaper AND better.
Plus, I really wasn’t in the mood to dig up the basement.
Brought back from a months-long blogging hiatus by an email trick? Well, you gotta start somewhere.
Just learned that you can append your Gmail address with a plus sign or a period and some text to create your own external filter of sorts.
An example probably makes this easier.
In effect, “firstname.lastname@example.org” is the same as “email@example.com”, which is the same as “firstname.lastname@example.org”. The email all goes to the same place. The sweet part is, you can use these “separate” email accounts to register for things online, then route the incoming mail based on the address to which it was sent.
Another side effect: Multiple twitter accounts!
Twitter only allows you to sign up for one account per email address. That’s fine. Most people don’t need more than that. But for people interested in additional identities (say, in the newsroom, where we manage multiple multi-user accounts) it was always hard to remember which email address was tied to which account. Not any more.
Granted, this was an extremely nerdy problem. But it’s still a problem.
It’s been awhile since anyone has seen the progress in the back yard. So here we go.
Last time I shared photos (in November), I had just finished the bottom level and cut blocks to go around the edges. Needed some finishing touches this spring, but it was basically ready to go.
But I wasn’t quite satisfied. Seemed weird that we had a first-class patio, but just a crappy old concrete sidewalk leading up to it.
It needed a set of matching stone steps as an entry way. And while we’re at it, might as well redo the wooden steps down from the deck, which were entirely too steep and narrow.
Get the shovels back out!
Six weeks of occasional work later. It’s getting close. But I always say that.
Planning for two steps. Using stakes for depth measurements.
Broke up the concrete sidewalk with a borrowed sledgehammer. Dug out the area for the new steps. Then remembered another outdoor project we had planned: Run electricity to the garage for lights and a garage-door opener.
So, we dug out a big trench, and ran electrical conduit and wires from the house to the garage. I got to drill a hole in the side of the house! Sweetness.
Rental drill. Giant bit.
My well-dressed helper.
View from the inside. We’re through!
The nearly finished product.
Connecting to the garage.
So now, a simple call to the electrician will give us beautiful lights, power-tool hookups and an easy escape for the vehicle from inclement weather in the garage. Can’t wait.
(Oh man, that’s reminds me of another blog post I forgot to write: We got rid of one of our cars! Stephanie’s working from home a lot more now, so we sold the Jetta to save on gas and insurance. So far, we’re loving it.)
But anyway, back to the patio …
Dammit, I thought I was done having piles of blocks and sand in my driveway!
Filling it up. Rounded corners for added degree of difficulty.
Side view. Also notice that the wooden deck steps are gone. Makes for a dangerous trip to the grill, which is on the patio below.
Top steps finished.
Just gotta add the blocks for the step down onto the patio.
And there’s finally a project deadline. Stephanie’s hosting a bridal shower for Natalie on August 13. Patio will be done. Steps will be done. And we’re hoping the next step of the backyard overhaul is also complete: new fence!
More on that later.