Highlights from the US Open

Over the weekend I flew to New York with my mom and aunt to see some of the world’s greats play in the U.S. Open. As expected, we had a blast. Here are some of the highlights:

Players Seen in Action: Roger Federer twice, Djokovic, Roddick (the day after he announced his retirement after this tournament), both Williams sisters, Sharapova, Murray, Azarenka, Vinci, Cilic, Nishikori, Stephens, Ivanovic, Tomic, Isner, Huber, Raymond, Blake, Kerber, Verdasco, and more.

Favorite Match: Sloane Stephens vs. Ana Ivanovic on Arthur Ashe Saturday night. Not only did this match feature two of my favorite players on the women’s side, but it also provided one of the most dramatic and entertaining matches we saw all week. Although I sided with nearly everyone there in pulling for the young American, Ivanovic was simply too tough and experienced that evening. We couldn’t be mad at Ana, though. She’s too nice and very gracious in victory, with sincerely kind words for Stephens. She also spent a surprising amount of time signing autographs after her win and finally had to be ushered off the court by a tournament handler.

Second Favorite Match: Andy Roddick vs. Bernard Tomic Friday night on Ashe. As you tennis fans know, the last few years have been hard on Andy. He hasn’t been able to play on the same level that carried him to a U.S. Open title and the #1 ranking, and his decline has frustrated him greatly. After he announced his plan to retire after this tournament, Friday’s match took on a whole new level of significance. We could have seen his final professional match. Fortunately for everyone except Bernard Tomic, Roddick played outstanding tennis that night and blew Tomic off the court with a fantastic serve, strong and gutsy groundstrokes, and great touch at the net. Normally, blowouts aren’t as exciting to watch as competitive matches, but in this case, we loved getting to see Roddick return to his old form and the clear joy that the match was giving him.

Non-Player Celebrity Sightings:

  • Ralph Macchio, sitting in a suite Saturday night in Ashe
  • Keith Urban and Nicole Kidman, sitting in the first row court side. Urban seemed happy to be spotted by the cameraman and played along, even planting a big kiss on Kidman. She seemed embarassed by all the attention. I wonder if celebrities prefer the high-end seats largely because the people in those areas know not to bother them. Macchio didn’t seem thrilled about being spotted by the camera, either.
  • John McEnroe, Mary Carillo, Justin Gimelstob, Martina Navratilova, Jim Courier, and Brad Gilbert, all in the broadcast booth except for McEnroe, who was heading there in a hurry and trying not to be noticed.

Pleasant Surprises:

  • Execucar, a prearranged car service that drove us from LaGuardia to the hotel and back. It was a bit more expensive than a regular cab or Super Shuttle, but it was much nicer and more convenient. Our driver met us at baggage claim (a bit late, but at least we weren’t waiting outside in the heat at the taxi stand) and led us to a sweet black Escalade. I felt like Ludacris only whiter and less talented. On the way back, our driver showed up early and drove us in a nice black Suburban. All payment including tip was done in advance, so we didn’t need to worry about fumbling with cash while lugging bags around. I’m definitely spoiled now.
  • Wingate Midtown Manhattan, a tall and skinny hotel just a few blocks from Times Square and Penn Station. Although expensive like all hotels in the area, it offered a fantastic location, a nice room, free hot breakfast, and good staff.
  • Long Island Rail Road, an alternative to the subway that provides the best way to get from Manhattan to the tennis center. It’s a bit more expensive than the subway, which meant most of the riders were tennis fans, and it felt very safe and ran on time.
  • Court 17, a new showcase court that the USTA added this year. With a capacity of 2800, it’s big enough for fairly popular matches but still keeps the fans close to the action. It features the Hawkeye call-review system, beautiful design, and a nice video board.

Flying American: Overall, flying American Airlines was a good experience despite its current financial troubles. Nearly everyone was pleasant and helpful, the planes were comfortable and clean, and our outbound flight left on time. The onboard wifi worked pretty well and offered a nice flight tracker, but I only used the free features since I didn’t want to play $15.95 for full access.

Our only problem came on the way home. Just after starting our takeoff roll, the crew noticed a problem with one of the engines and aborted the takeoff, which damaged the nosewheel tires. Maintenance decided to change the tires and then test the engines, which meant a 60-90 minute delay or so on the tarmac followed by deplaning for the engine test. In all, we left about 3:00-3:30 late. However, the crew took very good care of us during the tarmac delay (food and water around 60 minutes after we initially pushed) and gave us frequent, detailed updates so we would know what was happening.

Travel Buddies: As expected, my mom and aunt made great travel buddies. We got along well, respected each other’s goals for the trip, made plans but remained flexible, split up when necessary, shared some good talks and good laughs, and managed not to get into too much trouble.

Except for the flight delay coming home, it was a very smooth and enjoyable trip that we’ll all remember for years to come.

Want to see pictures? Sure, you do! Here you go.

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.

The Good Times Are Not Over Yet

The coming weeks are full of excitement in the Box house. I work two more shifts, and then I’m off for almost two weeks via trades and vacation. So we’re going to live it up. Here are some of the highlights:

  1. Hotter’N Hell 50 – It’s finally here! Jenny and I are heading to Wichita Falls Friday afternoon and having dinner with some of my cousins. Then we’ll get up early Saturday morning with Chuck and Jeff for the Hotter’N Hell race. Our 27-mile Goatneck warm-up race last month went great. Due to various issues, I haven’t been able to do any rides longer than 35 miles, but Jenny has done 40, and I’m confident we can finish the 50-miler on Saturday. We launch at 7:05am and hope to finish by 10:30am, averaging 15-16 mph.
  2. Beach Trip? – This is still in the discussion stage, but we might try an overnight trip to the beach with the boys on Sunday to somewhere on the Texas Gulf Coast, probably Galveston. This trip has two main purposes – 1) a test flight with both the boys in their car seats to prep for Disney World, and 2) to let them experience the ocean for the first time. The flights to Hobby are so open that we could each have our own row, the hotels are cheap, and the beaches shouldn’t be crowded.
  3. Back to School – The boys are off school this week, and they return next Tuesday. Jonathan is getting new teachers, but Brenden will keep the same one he had this summer. I guess technically Brenden will be in pre-K? Jenny starts her final prereq for nursing school on Monday, a microbiology class with lab that she’s really excited about. Like before, she’ll be in class Monday and Wednesday nights. In a related note, both boys will get promoted to new classrooms at church as well. Jonathan moves from the blue hall to the green hall. Brenden moves from the green hall to Zone Jr. Weird!
  4. US Open Trip – My mom, aunt Kathy, and I are flying to New York a week from Thursday for the US Open Tennis Championships. We have tickets for three night sessions and two day sessions, which should consist of second- and third-round action. Mom and I went to the Open in 2006 and had a blast even though the entire second day got rained out. Kathy is a big tennis fan like us, and we are thrilled at the chance to return for this year’s tournament. I hope to catch Clijsters, Sharapova, Djokovic, and Federer, among others. I also hope to sneak in a morning run in Mecca, aka Central Park (we’re staying just to the south), with the countless other runners and cyclists who work out there. Many thanks to my loving and patient wife Jenny for watching the hooligans for the weekend while I go play! (don’t feel too badly for her – I’m making it up to her in November when she goes to Vegas on a girls’ trip)
  5. Refocus on Running – After the bike race, I’ll need to shift my focus back toward running as I prepare for my next footrace, the Whispering Pines 25k trail run at Tyler State Park. It’s been difficult to run much this summer due to the heat, a whiny hip flexor, and most of all my cycling for Hotter’N Hell. But I just did an eight-miler on Friday with no pain anywhere, so I have hope. The temperature is dropping. My hip is growing stronger and tougher. If I can increase my long run by about 1 mile per week between now and October 13, I should be ready to rock.

Going to the Lodge

After hearing good reviews from other parents, Jenny and I took the boys to Great Wolf Lodge Tuesday night. Great Wolf is a family-oriented resort in Grapevine that features a large indoor water park along with other water activities and entertainment for the kids.

Pictures from Great Wolf Lodge

Overall, it was a pretty good experience. Most importantly, the boys had an absolute blast! We spent a couple of hours in the indoor water park on Tuesday afternoon and a couple more Wednesday morning before we left. It was definitely the highlight of the trip. Brenden was barely tall enough to ride some of the larger slides with a parent, so Jenny and I took turns watching each boy to allow both of us to ride with him and to play with Jonathan in the toddler area. The park offers a variety of slides, pools, and activities for all ages, and I loved not having to worry about the sun while we played. Plus the larger slides were fun for us, comparable to ones you’d find at Hurricane Harbor or Hawaiian Falls.

This was the boys’ first stay in a hotel. As expected, this new experience proved to be a bit of a challenge for us, although they really enjoyed it. First, we had to convince them to be quiet in the room and especially in the hallway to avoid disturbing the other guests. Good manners are easy to forget in the excitement of a new adventure. Next, we had to get them to sleep in a hotel room when they normally sleep alone in their own rooms. Our original plan of putting them in the same bed lasted about five minutes, during which a very tired but overstimulated Jonathan talked Brenden’s ear off and wouldn’t stop messing with him. So I switched places with Brenden and pretended to sleep while Jonathan patted my shoulder and kept saying, “Wake up, Daddy, wake up!” I finally dozed off and promptly proceeded to wake Jonathan up with my snoring, which Jenny fixed quickly by waking me up. Throughout the rest of the night, Brenden woke Jenny up every few hours to tell her something (for example, “Did you hear that, Mommy? That was me tooting!”), while Jonathan woke me up periodically by tossing and turning and poking me in the butt with his feet. It was not a restful night, but the boys got a decent amount of sleep.

Here are my impressions of Great Wolf:


  • Indoor Water Park – As I said above, the indoor water park was lots of fun, clean, and included activities for all ages. Guests can use it from 1:00pm on the day of checkin and the entire day of checkout, which is a very nice perk.
  • Staff – The resort caters to families with kids, so the staff are generally very nice and helpful and know how to work with kids. Our server at dinner brought the boys free wolf ear headbands and patiently waited while Brenden talked to her and tried to decide which color headband he wanted. The lifeguards paid attention and seemed to care about their responsibilities.
  • Wristbands – Instead of a room key you must guard while swimming, each guest gets an electronic wristband that serves as a room key, allows you to charge purchases to your room, and provides access to the water park.


  • Room – We got an entry-level room that Great Wolf calls a family suite. It had two comfortable queen beds, sofa, fridge, microwave, coffee maker, and a nice view of the Gaylord Texan and parts of Grapevine. It was a nice room, but not as upscale as the price would suggest (see below).
  • Entertainment – In addition to all the pools, Great Wolf also offers an arcade, an interactive fantasy game call MagiQuest, a girl-themed spa for children, costumed characters, and story time at 8:00 and 9:00pm. The boys liked story time pretty well, although the little animatronic show before the actual story time could be improved.


  • Prices – Everything at Great Wolf is expensive and seems overpriced to me. Everything. I got a small discount for being an airline employee, but even the basic room is really expensive ($200+/night), and any of the special rooms with bunk beds or separate bedrooms can run $250-500/night. Yes, it’s a nice room, but I can get a nicer room at a nearby hotel for significantly less. Management seems to think the water park justifies a huge premium. They add a resort fee to cover in-room coffee, wireless internet, etc. even though the wifi service was intermittent in our room. Food is very expensive for what you get as well. The MagiQuest game, while it looks fun, runs $30 or more per person.
  • Food – We ate two meals plus a separate dessert at the resort, and overall we felt the food was decent but overpriced. My Philly cheesesteak had maybe 2-3 ounces of actual steak. Jonathan’s mac and cheese was great, but kid’s meals at the grill were $8.00. I don’t want to pay $8.00 for a meal that my kid might or might not actually eat. My cupcake, while pretty, was topped with a huge glob of the sickly sweet icing they use for Baskin-Robbins clown cones, a bit too much even for me. The breakfast buffet offered a pretty good selection but was poorly organized and charged separately for juice and soda, which seemed pretty cheap given the high price of the buffet. We decided to eat off-site for lunch.

Did we enjoy our stay? Yes. The boys really enjoyed the visit, which was the goal. Will we go back? Maybe. Most likely, we’ll go back next just for the MagiQuest game rather than an overnight stay. A hotel guest wristband is only required for the water park, not for general access to the hotel during the day. We didn’t try MagiQuest this time because the boys were too young, but Jenny and I think it sounds fun. Maybe we’ll try it as a family in a few years.

Bottom line, if you have kids who would enjoy a nice indoor waterpark and don’t mind dropping lots of cash on an adventure for them, Great Wolf might be a good choice for you. If you’re looking for a good value on a really nice room for a relaxing, romantic getaway, go across the street to Gaylord Texan or Embassy Suites.

Random Observations from This Weekend

For Jenny’s birthday weekend, we stayed at a hotel in Addison, enjoyed some great food, slept a lot, and enjoyed getting to talk for long periods. Here are a few observations/factoids/highlights/whatevers:

  1. Tokyo One makes really, really good sushi. It’s a sushi buffet in Addison. Although a bit expensive for dinner, the service is good and the quality and variety of the buffet are outstanding. On their website, you can print a coupon for 10 percent off and a free piece of birthday cake if you eat there within a week of your birthday.
  2. At Tokyo One, I tried several new and weird items: blue marlin (very tender and mild in flavor, although I’m not sure whether it’s a very sustainable food source), jellyfish (looks like grilled onions, tastes like generic seafood when doused in soy sauce like this was), lychee (a strange, brown, tropical fruit with hairlike projections on the outside and sweet white meat inside), and luo han guo or monkfruit (a light brown tropical fruit with sweet white meat inside much like lychee). I seem to have outgrown the picky phase from my younger years in which I would only eat toast and french fries.
  3. Marriott beds are very, very comfortable, almost Tempur-Pedic comfy. Overall, we were very impressed with the Marriott and would stay there again.
  4. I still think it’s cheap and lame to charge hotel guests to park at your hotel. I understand charging non-guests, especially in an urban environment with lots of business people and limited parking spaces, but a parking spot should be included in the price of my room. Both the Marriott and the Anatole charge for parking. The Omni Mandalay in Irving, however, does not.
  5. I continue to be amazed that guys in the men’s locker room at King Spa feel the need to cover their bits with a towel when they walk around, as if their bits are somehow different or special compared to ours. One guy used his hand. Really, dude? That’s what toddlers do when they have to pee.
  6. I saw a guy with a black tramp stamp. Is that weird, or is it just me?
  7. Male…um…grooming habits vary widely from man to man.
  8. I performed a simple heart rate experiment in the spa area. The main hot tubs were 106-108 degrees. The steam room was about 118, the dry sauna maybe 170. While my resting heart rate stays around 60, it rose to maybe 100 or more in those hot areas as my body tried to cool off. Then, after a few minutes in the 65-degree cold plunge, it dropped to around 50 as my body tried to preserve its heat.
  9. We had breakfast Sunday morning at Einstein Brothers, one of our favorite breakfast places. A man and his sevenish-year-old son were in line ahead of us. First, the dad yelled at him not to touch anything. Next, he criticized him in front of the cashier for putting his pants on backwards, something about being “incapable of seeing the tag in the back”. Finally, they sat down and ate breakfast together. I chose to sit on the other side of the room so I didn’t hear any more, snap, and go off on the guy. I’m not sure they said a word to each other as they ate. As a father myself, I certainly understand getting frustrated and impatient with one’s children and being less kind at times than one should, but tearing a kid down constantly doesn’t do either of you a bit of good.
  10. We walked into 300, an upscale bowling alley (ever heard of that?) in Addison. The furnishings are plush, the menu offers a much broader variety of food and drinks than a typical bowling alley, and giant screens above the pins were showing a Beyonce video and the Final Four game. We would’ve stayed for dinner and a couple of games, but it was really loud and ruined our Zen from King Spa. Maybe some other time. It would be fun with a group of friends.
  11. BJ’s Brewhouse makes a tasty berry cider, great crispy fries, and a really good club sandwich.

Real Tickets

I haven’t bought a real airline ticket since 1997. The few times I flew on real plane tickets after high school, I received them as a gift. I’m not sure I flew at all in college, and then I went to work for an airline. On Southwest, my dependents and I can fly standby. It’s an awesome perk, but each year our flights get fuller, making it harder and more stressful to find open seats. Each flight we try to take is a gamble. Sometimes we make our intended flight. Sometimes we get bumped. Sometimes one of us gets on while the other stays behind. That’s part of the reason we normally vacation in October when the traffic drops a bit.

Flying home from Fort Lauderdale with Jenny last month made me realize that it was time to find a new travel solution. We barely made it on both our flights. Jenny got the last available passenger seat. I rode on the flight attendant jumpseat for one leg and the cockpit jumpseat for the other. It worked this time, but soon we plan to start flying places with the boys. After about two seconds of discussion, we decided that sitting around an airport with the boys praying for four open seats wasn’t the right formula for a relaxing vacation.

It’s a little crazy, perhaps hard to believe, and I resisted for a long time, but I’m ready to take the plunge. Are you ready? I just want to make sure you’re ready! Here it is…

I opened a Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards account and got a Visa that earns Rapid Rewards points.

OK, maybe that’s not exactly earth-shattering news. Many of you already have plenty of frequent flyer miles or points, which is awesome. But I’m new to the idea of actually being an airline customer, especially on my own airline. I set up my account on Southwest.com, checked my points balance (250 points already just for opening the account!), and used my new card to book a room for New Year’s Eve. Turns out that our website has some nice features.

If I run enough of our expenses through the card, we should be able to buy at least two or three round-trip tickets for our first big family vacation, possible four. Then we’ll have actual confirmed seats. That might sound stupid, but believe me, you guys who normally get real tickets are living large. We look forward to joining you.

And as of October 2014, most of the Wright Amendment restrictions on Love Field will be lifted, freeing us to fly nonstop to Orlando or Baltimore or Vegas or Denver.

Sniff, sniff…I smell points somewhere. Better go hunt them down…