First Family Vacation to Galveston

On Sunday, we hopped on the company plane, flew to Houston, and drove to Galveston for our first ever family vacation. It was an exhausting trip, but we survived, and the boys had a great time!

Photos from Our Trip

First Flights for Jonathan

We intentionally picked a short, wide-open flight for Jonathan’s first. That way if it didn’t go well, we wouldn’t bother as many people, and it would be over quicker. DAL-HOU is nearly as short as we could get, about 40-45 minutes in the air. After much debate over whether to bring their carseats onboard or to check them, we chose to check them. The boys had their own seats and sat very nicely after getting buckled in. I sat with Brenden on the way down and Jonathan on the way back, letting them watch part of a movie on my new iPad with kid-sized headphones. Jenny had their bag with a portable DVD player, paper, stickers, and other goodies to keep them entertained. Jonathan was a bit nervous at first, especially during takeoff, but didn’t seem bothered by the pressure in his ears. Later he said his favorite part was flying through the clouds. Brenden handled it like a veteran flyer.

Rental Car / Test Drive

We’d rented a standard mid-size car at Hobby. I was pleasantly surprised when they offered a Mazda5 SUV-minivan-crossover thing at no extra charge. We’ve been thinking about replacing our Grand Caravan with a Mazda5 in a couple of years, so this gave us the chance to test-drive it. As expected, it’s a cross between my Honda Fit and a minivan – sliding side doors, slightly longer and more spacious with an extra row of seats or storage in back, good gas mileage, and very comfortable. My only real complaint was the stereo, which needed more bass. I need to be able to crank Baby Got Back with feeling, and the Mazda5 just wasn’t up for it. That’s probably fixable, though. Brenden liked the vehicle so much that he wanted to take it home.

Ferry and Beach

We rode the free ferry across the bay. It was the boys’ first trip on a ferry, and a friend had told Jenny it was a great way to see dolphins. And the friend was right. The bay is teeming with dolphins. We probably saw a few dozen. Each sighting was brief, so watching for them required a level of patience that the boys didn’t quite have yet. But they did see a few and got really excited.

Then we played on the beach for a while, their first trip to the beach. Lots of firsts on this trip! We went to Stewart Beach, a family-friendly public beach across Seawall Blvd. from our hotel. The beach was free, but parking was $8. I’ll be honest. I’ve been to some amazing beaches (Ambergris Caye in Belize, Orient Beach in St. Martin, Panama City Beach in Florida, several in Hawaii, etc.), but this wasn’t one of them. Some of the other beaches in Galveston are probably nicer, like the ones I remember from childhood trips to the island. However, this year at Stewart Beach, the water was muddy, the sand was dirty, and the beach workers’ only concern seemed to be managing the rental chairs and umbrellas. But it was cheap, close to the hotel, and had sand, sea, and freshwater showers. More importantly, the boys had a blast digging in the sand, playing in the water, chasing seagulls, and just running around carefree. Brenden played Godzilla with any sandcastle that we built and immediately demolished it. None survived long enough to get a picture.

Rainforest Cafe

Grapevine Mills Mall features a Rainforest Cafe that I’ve seen numerous times but never patronized. Since we were on vacation with the boys, we gave it a try and were pleasantly surprised. Yes, it’s a bit expensive, but the food was MUCH better than I’d heard. My macadamia-encrusted tilapia tasted fantastic, as did Jenny’s bacon-wrapped shrimp. The theming is Disney-level, with animatronic elephants, gorillas, and anacondas plus simulated thunderstorms and authentic-looking rainforest trees. Our server was obviously comfortable with children and provided excellent service. After a bit of debate, we chose to try the Volcano, a ridiculously huge and amazing dessert that probably contains as many calories as I burned in Hotter’N Hell on Saturday. We ate all of it but one piece of chocolate cake.

On the drive to Rainforest, I was shocked to discover that a longtime Galveston landmark had been torn down. The Flagship Hotel, formerly one of the only hotels in the world to be built on a pier, had been demolished and replaced with a small, questionably named amusement park called Pleasure Pier. Apparently, the hotel took major damage from Hurricane Ike in 2008.


We stayed at the Best Western Plus on the east end of the island. It’s nothing fancy, just clean and cheap with decent free breakfast and a beach across the street. They let us check in early, which was very helpful. The toughest thing about the hotel was sleeping with the boys. This time we wore them out during the day, put them in separate beds while we got ready and checking our mail/Facebook/Twitter/etc., and waited for them to fall asleep. Once they did, Jenny moved Brenden into bed with Jonathan. It worked great until about 4:30am. One of them woke up and woke the other one up, and after that they were done. Jenny and Brenden swapped places. Finally, after some talking and tossing and turning, everyone went back to sleep.

Overall, it was a great trip. We learned some valuable lessons that we hope to apply for the Disney trip in January. Unfortunately, Jenny and I started off exhausted after Hotter’N Hell on Saturday morning and insufficient sleep the night before, so we weren’t in the best of moods until we got home Monday and napped for a while. The boys were tired as well after playing all day Sunday without a nap and then lack of sleep Sunday night. But instead of being grumpy like I was, they simply chose not to obey and seemed to have a flawless ability to push our buttons at the worst possible time. So the trip stressed Jenny and me out significantly, but the boys had a wonderful time, which is the most important thing. They already want to go back.


I am tired of getting ripped off.

Over the last six months, several people have tried to defraud or steal from me.

Credit Card Fraud

I got my first credit card at age 18. Despite running as many purchases as possible through my cards, including countless online transactions, I never had someone compromise my credit card until last year. I guess I was due. On two different occasions, someone somehow got my credit card number and started running up charges. In November, someone spent maybe $200 at a Speedway gas station in Illinois. (Using a stolen credit card number to buy gas? Really? Why not something fun like an Apple store?) Then in December, someone in Tokyo ran up several charges totaling several hundred dollars at a gas station (gas again – what gives?) plus some other businesses I couldn’t figure out.

I caught the charges quickly thanks to I use its iPhone app to check my credit card balances at least once a day, enabling me to know my balance and see what charges appear. Each time I found something fraudulent, I called Chase, and they took care of it. The first incident was extremely easy. The Tokyo incident took at least three phone calls and was much more frustrating, but I think everything is wrapped up now.

Any informed borrower is simply less vulnerable to fraud and abuse. — Alan Greenspan

I have no idea how the thieves got my numbers. I only enter my credit card numbers at reputable, secure sites. I don’t fall for phishing emails. Apparently, thieves sometimes use cameras or special equipment to snag numbers at gas station pumps, so maybe that’s what happened. I doubt I’ll ever know. But I’m thankful that Chase dismissed the charges instead of making me eat them.

Texting Fraud

One October day while I was sleeping after work, I was rudely awoken by a strange text. It looked like spam and said something like, “You have been signed up for LongLifeLoveTips for only $9.99/month. Text STOP to cancel.” Half-awake, I was afraid to respond to a spam text, thinking my response would only confirm that the spammer had found a legitimate mobile phone number. I ignore spam emails for the same reason, so I figured it worked the same way.

Then I got my AT&T bill and saw that my friends at LongLifeLoveTips really had charged me $9.99.

Foolishly, I ignored that charge as well and hoped they would just go away. I was wrong. Then I got another text from them in November saying that my subscription had been renewed for another $9.99. I was especially upset because I hadn’t gotten a single Long Life Love Tip. (Is that a fortune? Sex advice? Health tips? Lottery numbers? Digits for someone who wants a date?) This time I texted back with STOP and got a reply saying my “subscription” would be canceled.

Finally, I got it through my thick skull that I needed to overcome my reluctance to complain to customer service people and actually contact AT&T. Naturally, I took the easy road and emailed them through their website. (I also figured out who was behind the scam and sent them a strongly worded email. I’m sure they repented immediately.)

Emailing AT&T actually worked. They responded within a day and put a credit on my bill the next month for both charges.

Auto Shop Fraud

Recently my car told me it was time to change the oil. Instead of standard service intervals, my Honda Fit (and many other Honda models) has a Maintenance Minder system that monitors the condition of my oil and keeps track of its remaining useful life. Once it gets down to 15 percent, I get a warning light. Cool, eh? It usually works out to around 7500 miles.

Rather fail with honor than succeed by fraud. — Sophocles

I went to the local City Garage, which has treated us well in the past with no upselling pressure. This time the manager was there instead of the guy we normally talk to. She tells me my oil is very dirty and a quart low and recommends an engine oil flush. Never mind that I just checked the oil a week or so ago and its level was fine. I’ve never found the oil below full in 5.5 years of ownership. The color was brown when I checked it, but I would hardly call it “very dirty”. But the flush sounded like a good idea since I was approaching 70,000 miles and had never done it before. (turns out that was a foolish decision that did nothing but add $20 to my bill)

It got better after that. She asked (accusingly?) whether I’d gotten my oil changed somewhere else since I came in last. My windshield sticker said I was a few thousand miles overdue. I said no, I followed the manufacturer’s recommendations and the Maintenance Minder. She explained that the Maintenance Minder was set up for standard conditions rather than severe conditions, and that around here I should use the severe maintenance schedule due to my short trips and our “extreme heat and cold”. Yes, she actually referred to extreme cold in Dallas, where we haven’t dropped below 25 all winter and probably wouldn’t. We argued about it briefly, with me explaining that my driving pattern matched the normal schedule. She obviously wasn’t convinced but wisely decided not to press the matter too much.

The kicker was the air filter. The technician working my car brought my air filter in, and the manager said it looked dirty and recommended changing it. The filter is 5 months old. I replaced it in August 2011, according to the record I checked when I got home. I told her I thought I had changed it pretty recently. At that point she looked closer at it and then explained to the technician that she could still see through the filter, so it was okay.


So we’re now in the market for yet another oil change shop. I could avoid getting ripped off by doing it myself, but I just don’t enjoy working on cars. Maybe I’ll try Christian Brothers and see if they live up to their name. Do you recommend anyone?

Online Defensive Driving

Partly because I’m a nerd and mostly because I like to save money, I am taking a defensive driving course online through So far it’s not too bad! It uses streaming video and does a good job of mixing up the content to keep it interesting. The course only takes 6 hours, and that includes mandatory 12-minute breaks. For $25 and a few hours of my time, I can save up to 10 percent on my auto insurance for the next three years. Plus I’ll be a better driver, at least in theory. I’ve actually learned a few things, and most of the other info is simply a good reminder.

A New Ride

We are back to being a two-car family with the addition of a 2005 Dodge Grand Caravan SXT.

I really like this minivan. Yes, it’s a minivan, and some people who don’t have kids like to make fun of them. But for a family with two or more kids, I think a minivan is the most useful vehicle one could get. That’s why they’re so popular! We’ll use the van to haul the kids around and the Fit to commute to work and school.

The Caravan, which Brenden tentatively named “Larry” after the Veggie Tales cucumber (I don’t know), seats seven. The boys ride in the second row bucket seats, and we’ll normally keep the third row down flat to provide a huge amount of cargo room for strollers, diaper bags, and the other stuff we need to haul around. It drives well, is in really good shape, and is a nice blue-green color that we haven’t seen on many vehicles. Its stereo has more bass than the Fit’s, so I was pumping some Snoop on the way home from the dealer. (I should have rolled the windows down and leaned the seat back)

We got it from Huggins Mitsubishi and actually had a really pleasant experience – low pressure, fair pricing, and a good sales guy named Tim Kellar. We had Christian Brothers Automotive inspect it prior to purchase, and they couldn’t find a thing wrong with it. We’re very happy!


A few months after Jenny started staying home with Brenden and I was still working nights, we realized something: we could live comfortably with only one car. I take it to work while she and Brenden (we hope!) are sleeping. I come home in the morning to sleep, and Jenny has access to the car during the day. After thinking and praying about the situation for a while, we sold Jenny’s CR-V yesterday to CarMax. I must admit I was a little sad, which is silly, but I guess that happens when you name your cars. We kept the Fit since it’s newer and gets much better gas mileage. Selling the SUV will lead to occasional inconvenience but should work fine the vast majority of the time. It will save us a bit of money each year in registration and insurance. We also have some exciting plans for the proceeds.

The CarMax experience was pleasant. All the people treated me well. Step One was a free appraisal, which took 30-45 minutes. They gave me a written offer good for 7 days. Step Two was accepting their offer and transferring the title, which took about the same amount of time. My only disappointment was that they didn’t pay me nearly as much as I’d hoped for the car. I guess that’s the price we pay for the ability to walk into a store and sell a car on the spot. We probably could have gotten more on eBay, Craiglist, or a SWA bulletin board. But we wanted to get the job done quickly, and CarMax made that possible.

Update: I just checked the sale prices for used CR-Vs on the CarMax website. They got a really, really good deal. Don’t ever sell to CarMax unless you’re really, really in a hurry.

Car Repairs

This week we are attempting to fix minor problems with both of our cars. My car has a mysterious water leak. When left out or driven in rain for long periods, water often collects under the driver’s side floormat. After putting up with it for some time, I finally decided to take it to the dealer before the warranty expired. After keeping it for two days, they figured out that water is collecting inside the door and spilling over the speaker into the floor. Unfortunately, the technician at John Eagle and the Honda corporate tech support people are baffled. I finally got my car back last night with the water drained out but no solution yet.

I hope we’ll have better luck with Jenny’s car. Some time ago her windshield took a nasty hit from a rock, leaving a pretty big star crack. A windshield company is coming out Friday afternoon to replace it.