Thursday, January 31, 2013

Local fright-seeing

My job has taken me all over Houston these past couple of days, and I thought I'd take you on a little fright-seeing, I mean sight-seeing, tour of some of the stuff I have encountered.

Sometimes I use a dash cam to record what I see as I'm traveling around, and I've made a number of historical posts based on that very revealing little tool.  But a dash cam is characterized by a very inconvenient limitation: the technology at my price point is still very crude.  The resolution is not sufficient for capturing vital details. 

And sometimes I need absolute proof of details, such as license plate numbers.  I used to also keep a pad of paper and pencil on the center console of my vehicle.  When I would see something really atrocious, I would grope for the pencil and scribble down the license plate number without taking my eyes off the road, and also any other details such as name of the company if the roadway incident involved a commercial vehicle. 

But even this additional measure hasn't proven to be sufficient for my purposes.  Case in point.  One day a few years ago, I saw a big rig driving very dangerously in Pasadena - so dangerously that it blew my mind.  I wrote down as many details as I could, and then I pulled into a parking lot and called the company whose name was painted on the truck cab.  As I was describing what I had witnessed, the company representative on the phone became increasingly frightened.  I finished my story by saying, "I'm just relating these things to you so that you can discipline your driver."  The panicked person at the other end then replied, "But you don't understand:  we don't have any assets anywhere in the state of Texas.  What you saw was someone who had counterfeited a truck to make it look like one of ours, and God only knows what illegal cargo they hauled through Pasadena today."

There's some merit to all that rhetoric that comes out of Homeland Security, eh? (See also local resources here).  Ordinary citizens really are in the best position to spot what's wrong out there in our daily world.  I'm not talking about paranoia - I'm talking about being in a situation where you know there's something wrong, such as the incident described above. 

Given that it was their corporate identity that was infringed upon, I left that company to pursue this truck-spoofing issue with the authorities, but at that point I resolved to do a better job of capturing the details of what I see as I'm out there on the road.  Much of the time, I now travel with my DSLR right in my lap.   I can't take my eyes off the road, but I can raise the camera up much the same as I would lift up a can of soda, and I can just start taking pictures blindly when I see something interesting or dangerous.  If I simply take many, many pictures, one or two are bound to come out clearly. 

So let's focus on a phenomenon that I encountered yesterday afternoon.  This next series of photos shows one example of a disturbing trend I've noticed lately on the freeways: Truck drivers intentionally frightening motorists for sport

The usual disclaimers apply:  As with everything else I write on this blog, what I'm presenting here are my opinions as to what transpired in this event.  I saw things happening that involved me, and I interpreted those events within the context that made maximum sense to me.  I intentionally took pictures to document what I observed, but I'm not a police officer and no crime has been proven to have been committed here.  Other people might look at these same events and photos and reach different conclusions. 
The driver of this truck drew the focus of my attention because he literally and intentionally forced me out of my lane with his hyper-aggressive driving (in my opinion).  This is not the first time I have seen this occur.  What they do is "gun" their engines and run up behind you as if they were going to ram you.  At the last second, they slam on their brakes to avoid a collision, but even then, they often tailgate at absurdly close range. 

This is what I observed this trucker initially doing to me (I could not take pics of that part because he was behind me).  He forced me to take evasive action.  But after I had vacated this lane, I followed him, because I knew without question that he would proceed to inflict the same dangerous game upon another chosen motorist.

IH-45 SB inside Houston's Loop 610, 20130130 2:30 PM.
Where he had a bit of straightaway at his disposal, he was driving like a bat out of hell, so there was some lag time for me to catch up with him and his next chosen victim. 
Sure enough, he got onto the back of yet another unsuspecting target, in this case, a little passenger vehicle painted bright colors to represent a commercial company.  Do you see how severely he is tailgating that vehicle right in front of him?  In some moments, I saw that there was barely a car length between them, with both traveling at 65 mph.

IH-45 SB near the Wayside exit, obviously.
Here's another shot as we were approaching the South Loop.  Now you can get a clearer peek at the car in front of him that he had targeted (in my opinion).  Do you see how his brake lights are illuminated here?  That's because he was in the process of feigning the ramming of that little commercial vehicle (in my opinion).
Close-up screengrab from the photo above.  Don't simply accept my opinion.  See the lack of separation between these two vehicles.  See these other vehicles in the same field of view with appropriate high-speed separation among them.  See the brake lights illuminated on the truck.  Draw your own conclusions about what was going on here. 

Finally the little commercial vehicle in front of him had had enough, and he gunned his own engine to put space between the two of them, jumping into my lane to evade this trucker, the very same evasive manoeuvre that I myself had been forced to take only minutes before. 

Minutes before I fell back to his flank and took this photo series, that is.  This is just so incredibly wrong.  We should not be forced to take flee like this for no reason other than we just happen to have been a random sport target for some sonofabitch trucker (as I interpret it).   
As I was watching this whole spectacle unfold, I wondered what in the hell could motivate any trucker to risk his life, risk other innocent drivers' lives, and risk his own livelihood for the sake of this dangerous entertainment (as I personally interpret it). 

It wasn't until I got home and examined these photos blindly taken that I began to formulate a theory.  This guy is from Laredo (a fact I did not realize at the time because I was watching the road, not my camera).  Even if someone were to report his dangerous driving to the authorities, by the time word gets out, he's probably long gone from our freeways.  I'm wondering if he's thinking he's simply unaccountable, above the law, when he's having fun at our collective expense way up here in good ol' Houston, Texas. 

But guess what, Jorge?  You, too, live in the Information Age.  The good people of this world may not be able to pin any specific incident such as this on you, but sooner or later, you will get your just deserts

And now I will do what I have done at previous times:  I will take this material and forward it to the law enforcement agencies that might have an interest in it.  Occasionally in the past, very interesting developments have occurred after I have done that kind of thing. But I won't go into those details here. 

Monday, January 28, 2013

My true cauli-ing

After this recent post, I bet you folks thought I had said all there was to say about cruciferous vegetables.  But you should know me better than that.  In fact, this may become my biggest cruciferous post of all time, because on Sunday afternoon, it was time to bring three more of my babies in from the not-so-cold. 
Thing 1.
Note my black rubber boot for scale, which isn't standing out very well against the rich, dark soil of our six-foot stock tank (and of course, after reading this other recent graphic post, you now know the rrrrest of the story about why I'm so obsessed with growing our edibles above ground level).

Those shoots in the shadowy foreground are Texas 1015 onions, which haven't done well for me these past two winters.  They should be much bigger than this by now.  Most of them didn't survive the abnormal hot weather we had in late fall, but obviously, my caulis were more successful.  I have a friend in rural Galveston County who gave me some composted horse manure this year (composted, not fresh).  It seemed to serve the caulis very well. 
Thing 2 is shown a bit out of focus here, but you can see that it's a purple cauliflower, probably a Graffiti variety (I forgot to ask Tabatha for the name).  The purple color  is reported to have certain nutritional properties of added benefit. 
Thing 3 was the coy one of the bunch.  I love how those leaves furl around the cauli head.  My wax myrtles are a bit too close to this, our four-foot stock tank, and probably reduce the sun it gets by one or two hours a day, resulting in this tank yielding slightly smaller vegetable sizes. 
I wanted a pic for posterity, so here's a pose in the style of Farmer Jane.  As in, Plain Jane. 
But of course, my loving husband took these photographs, and he had a somewhat different style of pose in mind.  What shall we call these??  Cauli-knockers?  Cauli-cans?  (If you would like to try on additional slangs for size, check out this humorous page... "Danny DeVitos"?  Really?!?).

And forget about DDDD - this would be more like an O-cup.  O as in, OMG!

O, come on!  Just because I'm four days older than the dirt I grow my caulis in... this doesn't mean I can't have a little fun with them.  Especially goofing around with my husband, who likes side angle views the best.  Trust me on this one - the joviality factor in my marriage bodes well for your property values. 

Incidentally, that cauli-can in the foreground has more of a sun-tan than the other one.  Commercial growers will wrap their heads to prevent this yellowing which, if memory serves me, derives from Vitamin A production.  Consumers who don't know any better prefer not to see yellowed caulis.  I prefer to let the Vitamin A develop naturally.
Once the boobies... I mean, the babies were brought in from the not-so-cold, it was time to cook 'em. I gave more than half of this mammary-lode... I mean, mother-lode to two sets of my Asian neighbors whose cooking skills far outstrip mine.  But my husband and daughter are both garlic fiends, so I also had to whip up a good feed of baked cauli, which generally happens like this:
First you cut the caulis into floret pieces, and grease a baking dish.  I mixed a bit of Graffiti and plain white cauli just for visual interest.
Did I mention about the garlic fiends?  OMG.  And I have to smell the breath of both of them for about two days after these feasts.  Ugh. 
So you mix about 3 tablespoons of olive oil and those minced garlic cloves together with the florets in a zipper bag.  I also throw some Reggiano in there, although you'll find that Internet recipes generally recommend that it be added as a garnish during the last five or ten minutes of baking.  But I like it baked in, so I add most of it at the beginning. 
Mix thoroughly inside the sack. 
Dump into the greased glass casserole dish.  I find I have to spatula out the zipper bag and dump that garlic-and-oil residue on top because half of it sticks to the inside of the bag. 

Also add salt and pepper to taste before placing the dish into the oven. 
400 degrees and 25 minutes later, this is the result.  Nice and crispy around the edges.  My husband and daughter gobbled all this up and then screamed for more, which I'll have to supply at tomorrow's dinner. 
As we were sitting down gorging ourselves on baked garlic-cauli overload, there came a knock at our door.  "That would be the curry," my husband declared.  "Oh hell no," I replied.  "There's no way she got it done that fast."  But indeed, our neighbor - she had gotten it done that fast.  This is a cauliflower and ground beef number that is TO DIE FOR, I tell you.  Better than any restaurant in Houston, and Houston has some really fine Indian cuisine.  I will definitely be learning how to make this one. 

And now you know my true gardening motivation, eh?  Grow massive organic vegetables, gift many of them to neighbors, and watch what happens next.  The results never fail to astonish. 

And you thought life in the suburbs was boring and predictable.  But behold, I have had my muffins and have eaten them, too!

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Longhorn overdue

I have to admit that, several years back when I first heard about the Butler Longhorn Museum, League City's very own museum devoted to cattle, my response was, "Do what?!  They made an entire museum about what?!"  I realized that Texas longhorns have a place in history, but a museum?  I enjoy history, but so narrowly focussed? 

And then the other bizarre part of our personal story with respect to it: despite having lived on Coryell Street during the house search that eventually led us to build in Centerpointe, we never saw the inside of the museum prior to yesterday. 
Curiosity at 1220 Coryell Street: one of my own art shots from 2009, an eerie view of a museum shrouded in fog, a museum that mostly seemed to be shrouded in mystery.  It wasn't open to the public in those years when we lived within spittin' distance of it. Or it was open for a time, but only for a few hours each week.  Or nobody really knew if it was open or whether it would be open in the future.  The whole thing was very complicated. 
  Even as of January 2013 on one of their webpages, it still says "the Museum is currently available by appointment for tours".  In fact, that longer  seems to be the case, as it's contradicted by another webpage from which the screengrab above was taken. They do seem to have regular public hours now. At least for the moment.  But you should confirm this before you go. 
The whole thing was very complicated because of the tortuous circumstances surrounding the birth of the museum, a dysfunctional process involving funding uncertainty, the previous curator's contentious resignation, and at least one lawsuit (one or more of those links may be paywalled). 
But here's the bottom line on ButlerThis place is so worth it.  It's not just about cattle.  It's about the history of Texas itself. 
And it's about our local history.  Believe it or not, we actually have a local history.  Not just in the "Ye Olde Touriste Trappe" sense whereby a few lame facts are hyped for the purposes of drawing admission fees to some display.  No.  All this stuff is actually worth knowing about.   It's interesting. 
The cattle were merely the four-footed vehicle through which a big part of our unique history was realized. 
There's a retail goods consumer outlet, and I forget which one, that used to have as their TV commercial slogan a statement along the lines of, "Once you go, you get it."  Same idea applies to this museum. 
Here's the ultimate endorsement for Butler Longhorn Museum:  My teenager loved it.  Really enjoyed our visit yesterday.  This is the same kid who usually has to be disengaged from Facebook and Angry Birds using nothing short of a stick of dynamite. 
These are just a couple of crappy cell phone pics that I'm adding to this post (I did look around first, and I saw no signs prohibiting crappy cell phone photography).  My pics don't do the museum justice.  The whole place is very artistic and creatively put together. 
Life is short, and nonprofit institutions exist in a tenuous and often fleeting relationship with the balance of our socioeconomic reality.  Go and see the Butler Longhorn Museum - you won't regret your admission fees.  And keep your ear to the ground for special events that get scheduled there, because the current museum Director is reportedly trying to put an emphasis on that kind of value-added public involvement.  The museum's online calendar is not necessarily being updated regularly, but there are often announcements in the local news media (plus the occasional bandit sign). 
And in my case, as Arnie once famously said, "I'll be back." 

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Fence futility

These homeowners must be wondering if they have been cursed by God.
Centerpointe Drive on the first curve northeastbound from Calder.
For the life of us, my daughter and I couldn't really understand how this happened, other than to acknowledge that it did not appear to be intentional.  There's a crushed utility marker out of photo view, suggesting an object went flying through the fence from the Centerpointe Drive side.   But it must not have been a very large object, because there were no deep tire tracks in the grass, and the shrubbery in front of the fence did not appear to be damaged.  So the whole "whodunit" is kind of ambiguous on this one. 

But this is the very same location where a crash in mid-2010 impacted multiple residential yards.
From the neighborhood newsletter at the time.
Anyway, for whatever reason, once again it appears these folks will be getting yet another new fence installed, before this replacement fence even had a chance to weather.
We lived on the outside of a street curve in one of my previous residences, and I swore I'd never do it again.  We had two people wreck into our yard inside of the three years that I lived there.  One of them was a teenager who lost his license for a number of years for reckless driving (the police calculated that he was doing upwards of 70 mph in a 25 mph zone).  That's reckless driving, not wreckless driving. 

Monday, January 21, 2013

Red bowl surprise

Small Centerpointe backyard plus medium dog equals large headache where dog waste is concerned. 

Sometimes you'll see these kitschy little warnings installed on residents' front lawns. As if they do any good.
You know that I have an obsession with thinking outside the box, right?  Well, this time, I've chosen to think outside the bag.
These bags. 
Screengrabbed from this URL.
Let me explain through the usual logical strategy of presenting the starting conditions, describing the dilemma that those conditions generate, and neatly resolving the predicament via description of the creative solution. 
The waste management deal that was struck in our home was as follows:  The child wanted our family to get a dog - she was the sole driver behind that decision.  Therefore, the child has certain inalienable responsibilities with respect to that dog.  One of those responsibilities involves picking up dog poop on a daily basis, operative word being daily
This deal is non-negotiable, but there are two practical challenges associated with it:
  1. The child cannot always fulfill this responsibility in a timely manner.  With school and other activities, there may be a significant lag time between the initial depositing and subsequent responsible remediation of said waste.  Meanwhile, life goes on, and Mama is frequently working in the back yard.  You've no doubt heard the expression, "If Mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy"?  Well, if Mama steps in dog doo as she's doing her yard work, the situation morphs into the ultimate scenario in which there ain't nobody happy in this house.  Happiness becomes a distant memory at that point.
  2. Children have eagle eyes in all situations except those in which they would rather not participate.  There have been too many times when the child has, indeed, fulfilled her daily responsibility, except she "missed one".  One in which Mama then proceeded to step.  Cue the widespread unhappiness.
So basically, we needed a workaround to these practical challenges, and this is what I came up with.
With a nod to general industry safety protocols and the OSHA Lockout-Tagout (LO-TO) standard in particular, I obtained this collection of fire-engine-red plastic bowls from Walmart.  They were about one dollar apiece.

LO-TO was designed for the control of hazardous energy.  The only real difference here is that I am controlling hazardous matter.  The principles are similar: identification and isolation prior to resolution of the maintenance demands that triggered the need for the procedure. 
Our dog delights in distributing a dung diaspora.  She isn't content to simply create her own cohesive daily pile.  Instead, she constantly turns around to inspect each nugget as it is produced, as if each and every fecal commodity were a new and unprecedented phenomenon (Do all dogs do this?  Or just our brain-damaged one?).  This quickly results in comprehensive coverage of our small back yard. 

You may find this paragraph above to be TMI, but my point is to illustrate the breadth and depth of this unhappiness-producing phenomenon.  If we were dealing with discrete daily piles, there wouldn't be as much step-on risk and as much urgent inspiration for a procedural work-around.  But our situation is not like that.  Not at all.   
So whenever I spot the offending hazardous material, I simply toss a bright red plastic bowl over the top of it until my child is available to do the collecting.  This procedure neatly resolves the two predicaments described above:
  1. It effectively isolates real-time waste from Mama's feet, and
  2. It removes all reasonable possibility that the child can legitimately claim an "Oops, I missed one".  Each and every one of them gets flagged with their own special Red Alerts - there's no way they can be overlooked. 
Of course, for every such instance of thinking outside the box or bag, someone will inevitably misinterpret the intent.  In our case, I was completely mortified to discover that our non-English-speaking lawn crew apparently deduced that we must be preserving dog waste for some special family ritual or something. 
I kid you not:
On those days when the lawn crew makes it to the lawn in advance of my child, they have this tendency to use the bowls to scoop the nuggets, then depositing the collection safely up against the slab so that they can continue with their mowing.  The first time I saw this, I wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry. 
As for the child, well, I assure you that she doesn't appreciate this procedure nearly as much as Mama does.  At one point, she began grumbling that the only way she can stomach this undelectable responsibility was to visualize that, one day, she's going to lift one of those bowls and discover a gold coin rather than a brown nugget.  I responded that this was unlikely...
...but not impossible.

Seriously, if you're into the whole maternal revenge thing and/or if your child is particularly defiant about fulfilling this kind of responsibility, you could modify the procedure slightly to encompass a unique allowance delivery mechanism.  Now that's what I call a new take on an old shell game!  Just be sure that you bleach the magic bowl that will cover the bill instead of the bullet. 

Saturday, January 19, 2013


Every once in a while, I write a blog post simply because my curiosity drove me to look something up, and therefore I might as well share it. 

There's a story in GDN (paywalled) this morning about the recomissioning of the PH Robinson (PHR) power plant (no Wiki entry on that one), which has alternately been described as being in Dickinson, Texas City, San Leon, and Bacliff (it is probably best described legally as being within the Texas City ETJ, and best described geographically as being in Bacliff). 
It's that massive white blob toward photo left, roughly centered vertically, adjacent to FM 146, and connected to Dickinson Bay and Galveston Bay by those long cooling water canals.  The canal exit at Galveston Bay is referred to as "The Spillway" and while the plant was operational, it was (past tense?) an excellent fishing location because the local fish liked to congregate around the warm outflow.   An entire local micro-economy developed around the place. 

Those of us who lived in the San Leon area more than twenty years ago have fond memories of the steam units occasionally popping a relief valve, resulting in explosions that could wake the dead. 

Screengrabbed from Googlemaps.  There's a wonderful low-altitude aerial photo of the plant here
What none of the news clips explain, however, is why this thing is being rebuilt only months after the last of it was blown up.
The actual implosion occurs around the 1:17 mark in this video.

Originally I had assumed that it was one of the older fuel oil plants that had been taken out of service due to the rising cost of liquid hydrocarbon fuels and resulting financial inefficiency.  But apparently it was always a natural gas-fired plant

One can only assume that the equipment was past its useful lifespan, but it sure would be nice to see a little more in-depth reporting on that kind of thing.  Like, yes, we blew up a natural gas power plant so that we could build a natural gas power plant, but we needed to do that for Reason X. 

Anyway, this puts to bed the speculation that the property will be developed into a high-end residential community.  I wonder will the new generation of local residents get as much midnight enjoyment out of teeth-rattling relief valve blows as we old timers did?  Or probably by this time they have sophisticated technology to prevent that kind of thing. 

Friday, January 18, 2013

You da bombus

Actually, you not da Bombus, which is the bumble bee genus.  As near as I can tell, you da Apis - one of the honey bee genera, although I have no clue which one(s). 

I'm no expert on insects, but they're probably European, and I don't know how extensively our little Centerpointe friends have been Africanized (as this TM article notes, all wild North American honeybees have been Africanized by this point - the only question is degree).  But here for your viewing pleasure is seventeen seconds of backyard Hell-on-wings (if you turn up the volume on your computer, you'll find that it sounds as formidable as it looks):

It's cruciferous vegetable season, and I showed a pic in a recent post of some nascent broccoli.  I also grow cauliflower, including this 5.5-pound behemoth that I harvested a few days ago:
Don't be fooled by that demure presentation - there's a monster lurking under there (my foot for scale).  I grew this in one of my stock tanks

Incidentally, do you know why cauliflower produces such a remarkable collection of leaves?  It's because the leaves supply the energy to the plant.  They are the solar cells.  And if you're a plant intent on creating a 5.5 pound yield, you need to gather a lot of solar energy to get the job done.

That, and cruciferous vegetables are colder-weather plants.  They grow in our area when the sun angle is lower and the energy is correspondingly weaker. 
I see a curry just waiting to happen.  Although this home-grown organic tastes so good, it's wonderful simply baked to a light golden brown in garlic and olive oil. 
But anyway, I don't harvest all of my cruciferous yield.  I allow some of it to bolt, because the flowers are pretty and I figure the bees need something to forage.   It is the middle of winter, after all.  It's not like there's a single other flower out there for me to look at, or a single other thing out there for the bees to eat. 

But then what happens??  Well, those ten thousand visiting bees also realize that there's not a single other thing out there for them to eat.  And they get very, very unhappy about anything that they perceive might be a threat to their precious bolted cruciferous.  I have never been stung or attacked, but they will aggressively shoo me away from the feeding frenzy.  It's obvious from their hairy little body language that they will not tolerate any interference.

I don't know whether I should be worried or not.  Last summer, there were those stories about people getting attacked in central Texas.  There's this story of a case in Pflugerville, this one in Cleburne.  Africanized bees actually reached us about two decades ago...
GCDN frontpage from July 24, 1993. 
The resolution is too low for me to read it, and the archive URL wants six bucks for it, so that's out of the question. 
...but I don't know of any stories about local attacks.  Well, there is this one about a man in Freeport, just 60 miles from here.  I'm not sure what the common threads are in these attack stories, but they sure don't seem to like lawnmowers.  That much is obvious. 

I dunno.  I will say this: after a few successive years of gardening, what I'm finding about our Centerpointe bees is that their behavior is heavily influenced by the season.  Right now, they are ten thousand junkyard dogs on wings, ready and willing to pick a fight.  Come springtime when everything is in bloom and there is no more food pressure, they will be positively stupid with passivity, assuming they follow previous trends.  I have chopped down whole plants laden with bees in the springtime, and they simply do not care.  They just follow the plant all the way to the ground and keep happily foraging, with me stomping to and fro directly above them. 

Somewhere in our neighborhood, there's probably a hive with a great deal of honey.  But I'll leave that to its rightful owners, and I will continue to knock wood about never having been stung.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Cruise control

Our extended family has taken two 7-day New Year’s cruises in rapid annual succession out of Galveston (last year and this year).  While this is not the style of vacation preferred by my outdoorsy husband and I, cruising can be a convenient option for large groups like ours, which is characterized by a seven-decade age spread. 
There are a number of websites in which a person can become mired in the minutiae of cruise reviews and details.  Cruise Critic has reportedly risen to the top as a source for information exchange, but it's commercial, so beware (to my way of thinking, the user review boards are the most valuable part, but I don't know if they are culled in any way). 

Rather than analyze our two cruises to death, I thought I’d pass along some general observations and humorous anecdotal lessons learned.  
Bottom line in case you want to skip all these words and maybe skip the pictures, too:  If you are an active person more concerned with the quality of the cultural experience than with endless food bingeing, self-indulgent trinket-buying, and mindless passive entertainment, pick your cruise based on the ports of call that it visits, rather than based on the identity of the cruise line or the ship.  And plan your excursions in advance with the assistance of independent reviews.  If instead you are into the whole cruise drinking and gambling and sunbathing entertainment mentality, I don’t have any advice for you, because I have no experience with those facets of it. 
OK - now for the longer version, with slide show.

Our first trip was on the Carnival Magic, and it was scheduled only a couple of months after Magic first moved to Galveston, so both the ship and its crew seemed very fresh to us.  This is a pic of the Magic moored in Galveston last week.  We found that both the food and the food service were better on the Magic, which surprised us because Carnival has a reputation of being a low-rent district (and in fact the stateroom charges were significantly lower than Royal Caribbean’s (RC’s) corresponding charges).
Our second trip was on RC’s Mariner of the Seas, here shown moored off the coast of Belize a few days ago.  I took this pic from a tender, but more on that further down in this post. 

Carnival’s check-in process was an absolute nightmare, in my opinion.  There was no place to wait indoors, so we stood outside in line for almost two hours before even making it to the security screeners in the Port of Galveston Terminal 1 building.  It was so cold outside that the terminal staff had to pull families with babies and senior citizens out of the line and cut them in front, because the very old and the very young simply couldn’t bear the cold for that long. 

RC’s check-in process in Terminal 2 was much more humane, with easy access to a climate-controlled interior waiting area with comfortable seating.  When you’re wrangling five children, these things are important.  However, RC’s check-out process was an absolute nightmare (in my opinion).  It took 1.5 hours of shuffling through the line simply to progress from our stateroom to the US Customs desk in the terminal.  Whereas checking out of the Magic had been comparatively easy. 
Sorry if font size and spacing issues are manifesting - that's Blogger's fault.
Here’s a pic of Magic’s central entertainment deck, shown at night, obviously.  I found the design to be sleek and less cluttered than its RC counterpart. 
Here is Mariner’s entertainment deck, which I found to be more claustrophobic.  There wasn’t as much open space here for little kids to bounce around like they must do.  Mariner seemed to have less of a family emphasis (that flying saucer looking thing with all the windows above the deck is reserved for the consumption of alcohol).  However, Mariner did have more swimming pools than Magic, I think. 
Boarding and security processes aside, getting to the embarkation entails a mere 30 minute drive down the freeway for us!  And a cruise ship offers a great vantage point for gawking at Galveston.
Galveston Ship Channel.  I began my latest career phase on this waterway twenty years ago, so I am fond of its unique industrial beauty. 
Seeing Galveston Island for the first time in the rear view mirror… wow.  It seems so much more fragile and vulnerable than it does when one’s feet are planted on the ground of it.  It’s just a tiny wisp of sand barely clinging to the rim of a vast and temperamental body of water. 
Our Magic cruise last year visited three destinations on the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico:  Costa Maya, Cozumel, and Progreso.  I don’t recommend this sequence because the activity options for  two of those ports of call are so limited (in my opinion). 
This is the stunning view upon approaching Costa Maya, but guess what?

There’s basically no walking access to anything outside of the Carnival-owned pier and trinket area.  You are not permitted to set a toe on the beach shown above because those surrounding areas are private property.  You can wander into the little town on the other side of the cruise wall, but there’s not much there.
With relatively little easily-accessible activity to choose from at this location, we splurged and enrolled three of our older kids in this dolphin encounter, which turned out to be a better quality experience than we expected.  These dolphins seemed genuinely happy and well cared for, believe it or not.  But note that there were two cruise ships docked on the same day in what is really just a small commercialized area.  It was terribly congested. 
Progreso is mostly an industrial port accessible by a long man-made dike which extends to the mainland (analogous to the Texas City Dike).  The only way out of there is by motor vehicle.  This is a pic of the port at night.  Once again, I have a professional fondness for industrial ports, but I don’t necessarily wish to be looking at one from my cruise ship balcony. 
From Progreso, we did a cruise-sponsored excursion to the Mayan ruins at Uxmal, which was definitely worth it.  But holy crap, it was a long drive.  Doesn’t look that way on this map, but it was grueling.
I don’t know what any of the other regional Mayan ruins are like, but the UNESCO World Heritage site Uxmal is wonderful.  Worth the discomfort of a local bus for a few hours (has there ever been any such thing as a decent Mexican bus?!).  Nota bene:  The prices in the Uxmal visitors’ center gift shop are in pesos, not dollars, and there are some really good deals to be had in there.  Actual arts and crafts, not just tourist trinkets and mass-produced junk. 
Cozumel is a must-do for all western Caribbean cruises, apparently.  They all seem to stop there, and both our Carnival and RC cruises did.  On our Magic trip, we did one of those two-reef snorkel excursions, which was good for kids with limited swimming abilities (the vendor provided floatation devices as well as other equipment).  The water is really this exact color, which is worth seeing just for the sake of seeing it…
… but otherwise, Cozumel is mostly a gigantic parking lot for cruise ships, in my opinion.  This year, there were two Carnival ships (one of the pair can’t be seen from this angle), two RC ships, including their monstrous-class vessel shown here as the filling in this cruise ship sandwich…
…and three or four more we couldn’t identify from a distance. Do the math on this one – that’s tens of thousands of cruisers all squeezed into this one small alcohol-ridden area at the same time – I personally see no sense in participating in the likes of that. If you don’t book a good excursion away from the crowds, you might not even want to bother disembarking at this port. 

Years ago, I traveled to Cozumel and at the recommendation of a close friend, spent the extra money to stay at the Presidente Intercontinental hotel. If I were doing a non-extended-family trip, that’s the only place to which I would return. Beautiful hotel, great service, private beach and extensive grounds, away from the crowd. I would rather go to a place like that one time than stay three times at some budget hotel swarming with party-pig tourists. When I was at the Presidente in 2000, they had guys with machine guns guarding the front entrance to it. And my child, at that time a toddler, had a section of the private beach to herself.

On our Mariner cruise into Cozumel, I booked a horseback riding excursion, but they moved it three hours earlier in the day without making the change clear, and as a result, we missed it. I confirmed multiple times with the sales agent that she booked the correct cruise, but she neglected to mention the rescheduling. They gave us a full refund because of the confusion that this caused, but we were still left without an excursion that day. Even if you go with a cruise-sponsored excursion, you can’t be too careful in booking these things because of the last-minute stuff that can pop up, I have learned. 
  Whereas the Carnival cruise went to Mexico only, the RC cruise went to three different countries.
Our first Mariner port of call was the island of Roatan, off the coast of Honduras.  We started with a self-guided tour through the poverty-ridden local town.  There were numerous vendors all selling tourist trinkets and I was almost unsuccessful in locating the only thing I intend to buy: authentic arts and crafts made by individuals to whom a fair sum of money returns (to the extent that I can verify this in a third-world country).  I don't feel compelled to single-handedly save the world, but I believe that Fair Trade commerce is mutually beneficial
Well, I did buy this mass-produced little turned wooden container from an old woman in the street.  It was not an authentic handicraft, but she seemed to be working hard and asked for four dollars.  I gave her five. 
I did find what I went into the town to look for:  A Christian couple selling authentic local craftwork for which the money went back to the craftspeople, each of whom had a little shelf space in the tiny store.  I bought a hand-made bracelet for my daughter and a copy of this book, which I highly recommend.  It tells the real story of poverty on Roatan, with no Walt Disney ending to it.
See for additional merchandise and the stories behind these artists and this writer.
We booked a canopy tour excursion for seven of us through Caribe Sky, which did an excellent job.  It was my first time zip-lining and I did feel that their safety standards were good.  We had with us our three oldest children ranging from eight to fourteen years old, and I was not worried about them, even when they zipped alone.  This is one of their promotional photos which was on the photo CD that they sold us for ten bucks, which has to be the best price in the Caribbean (you don’t want to know what the Costa Maya dolphin encounter photo CD cost… well, maybe you do: I believe it was about $120, but the dolphin-kissing photos were really well-done). 
Caribe Sky had ten or twelve lines, the longest of which was almost two thousand feet.    I myself would be satisfied with a quiet observant walk through the jungle, but young people today always expect more whiz-bang in everything they do.  That’s the “new normal”, where the focus is on somewhat passive entertainment (strapped like a ham shank to a glorified clothesline??) rather than active interactional experience (walking under one’s own power, contacting, discovering).  This jungle looked beautiful but I was struck by the eerie silence of the entire place.  I heard only one bird in about three hours.  I don’t know why this was.  Was it the depth of the winter season?  Or have Roatan's poorest people eaten all the jungle creatures by now? 
Our next stop was Belize, which had to be reached by tender.  The security wall separating the city from the cruise pier was hilarious, with street vendors soliciting customers via the squeezing some message and/or body part through every available orifice, both above ground…
…and at ground level (this view being a view from outside the secure area as the peddler is petitioning from beneath the gate). 
We ventured outside the envelope of cruise-sponsored excursions and hired a randomly-encountered taxi vendor named Carlos Lopez to take ten of us on a tour of the city and then to a small private man-made beach / bar / gift shop area called Cucumber Beach (again, not my choice of venue, but we had small toddlers with us and they needed a small shallow area in which to splash).  We negotiated $80 for Mr. Lopez’s services and he required only $20 of it up front, which made us comfortable that we were not going to get stood up by him.  The beach itself cost about $10 for each adult to enter, less for each child. 
I felt quite comfortable with Mr. Lopez.  He was a good driver and an absolute walking encyclopedia of Belize’s history and culture.  He pointed out all sorts of features that I would never have noticed and told many stories with humor.  For me, that's what the experience of a place is all about.  Not going ashore and sipping a margarita in yet another mindless bar.  I want to learn something of the people and the place.  Otherwise, I’ve traveled all that way for nothing. 
Mr. Lopez asked us to recommend him on Cruise Critic, which I will.  Here’s another example of the internet connecting people and empowering individuals – cutting out the middle men, who almost always take the lion’s share of the money.   How many middle-class American families would jump off a cruise tender in Central America and put their lives in the hands of the first local van driver they encounter in the street?  Not many – it’s arguably not the safest course of action.  But if you can vet the guy on the internet, it’s a total game-changer. 

I noticed this curious sight:  there were many chickens running through the parking lot at Cucumber Beach, and they looked superbly healthy, like this rooster.  Seeing this, I ordered a chicken dish from the bar menu, and it was wonderful.  It did not taste like factory-farm-raised American chicken.  I wonder why?? 
Mennonites in Belize.  Reportedly, they have a corner on much of the local fruit and vegetable production. 
“Umma rat on you, hah hah!!!”  Isn’t this cool??  Who would have taken the time to selectively vandalize that government vehicle with such skill and cleverness??
I wouldn’t drink the water, but if you witness a street vendor wield a machete and slaughter a chilled coconut on your personal behalf, apparently it’s safe to drink that coconut milk.  At least eight of us did so (most of us without rum being added to ours), and nobody got sick afterward.  This vendor was a true man of the islands, making for a posed photo which is a real study in human contrasts, in more ways than one.
I bought three locally-made items in Belize.  The first was this beautiful tropical hardwood kitchen cutting board I got for $20.  You’ll note from the label that the description does not reflect a very sophisticated use of English.  This suggests to me that the item might be authentic, rather than made in China and passed off as local (although some stuff from China is similarly unsophisticated).  See how they named each species of wood at the bottom of the label?  Well, every cutting board on the sales shelf had a different sequence of wood types, and the makers had taken meticulous care to arrange each strip of labels to match the pieces – they were all different.  That, too, suggests local production to me. 
I also spent $10 on this little basket which was allegedly made by a Mayan womens’ cooperative…
… and $25 on this Mayan-inspired slate carving sold by a vendor who insisted on showing me both his driver’s license and his union card, to prove to me that he was the same guy who made it (it’s signed on the back).  You’ve learned something new today: one has to join a union in order to be an artist in Belize.  That fact alone is worth $25 in sympathy donation. 
Now, back to the RC Mariner of the Seas itself.
I did not partake of most onboard activities on either cruise ship, but because I like ice skating, we took in this ice dancing show on the Mariner, which was excellent…
…and then a few days later, something quite unprecedented happened: there were probably a dozen public ice skating sessions, of which I took our kids to three, but there was only one “advanced skating” session, where cruisers had to furnish their own skates (and skill).  And I was the only one who showed up for that, of the 3,600 or so cruisers on board.  So basically, I checked an item off my bucket list here but it was an item I hadn’t even put on my bucket list because it was out of reach:  Private ice.   By default, I was granted private ice for the first time in my life.  In the exact middle of the Gulf of Mexico, of all places. 
Flying in four-foot seas.  The rolling of the boat surprisingly did not present a balance problem (because of the ship’s large size, it doesn’t roll with nearly as much amplitude as the waves, but it’s still quite noticeable).  The rolling reminded me very much of skating over tidal ice heaves in the North Atlantic, a childhood story about as far removed from my life in Galveston County as anything ever could be.  I have only skated about a half-dozen times in the past forty years, but this is much like a yoga Warrior 3, except with forward motion. 
OK, now we need a few arty shots just to round things out before closing.

Sky as seen from the Belize tender.  OMG, crushing cruise crowds or not, this view simply never gets old.
Near sunset, with a Carnival ship just for scale.  Wow. 
Another sunset.
“Mommy, there’s something glittering,” my child said.  We know that our return sail is bringing us closer to Galveston when we start seeing these shining in the night. 
All the best in 2013!
Release of the balloons at midnight New Year’s Eve 2013, interior promenade of the Mariner.