East Coast College Tour

College Logos

Quick Itinerary: B.U. > Emerson > Harvard > Brown > Amherst > Wesleyan > Yale > Princeton > Columbia > NYU.

Literary note: Please note that I have deliberately inculcated this essay with logorrhea in an attempt to improve Diego’s vocabulary. Do not misconstrue this circumlocutory writing style as a reflection of my normal loquacious tendencies but rather a surreptitious attempt to improve Diego’s verbal score in the SAT. 🙂

This year, Diego’s one-week break did not coincide with any of Sophia’s three weeks off. So we decided to divide and conquer; I would take Diego to visit colleges back East and Marcella would take Sophia to Cabo the following week.

Spring Break began for Diego at 3:15 pm on Friday, March 28th. Six hours later, he and I were on a JetBlue redeye to Boston. Deprived of sleep, we overcame our physical lassitude after picking up our Dollar rental car and driving to downtown Boston. The weather was brumal and drizzly for most of our time in New England which Diego actually relished. In addition to visiting campuses, an open question was whether West Coast Diego could brook East Coast chill. I am comforted to discover that Diego did not inherit my anemic weather genes.

We couldn’t check into the Boston Park Plaza yet so we noshed bagel sandwiches at a neoteric bakery across the street from Boston University, MLK’s alma mater. After sauntering around campus, we enjoyed a quick jaunt at Fenway Park before valeting our car back at our hotel, which is only a few blocks west of Emerson College, our next stop.

Emerson’s tour began promptly at 10:00 am when three affable student guides greeted and escorted us around four dorms and buildings, all located on Boylston St. across from Boston Commons. Emerson is a college specializing in the performing arts, theater, and film. They housed impressive facilities but in the end, Diego did not feel that the quality of education or caliber of students were sufficiently rigorous. “Too Florence,” he dismissed, comparing Emerson to the HHS house known for its languid academic regimen.

Back at the hotel, we took a quick nap and then headed to Cambridge. The rain was falling heavier now and our Harvard tour was set to begin promptly at 3:00 pm. Impressively, our tour guide–a Latino guy from LA–wore only a thin jacket and a tee shirt while he recanted an hour’s worth of information and history of the Harvard campus. The lore and old brick buildings entranced Diego, who appreciated the rich history of our oldest university.

We concluded our Cambridge experience with an early dinner at Mr. Bartley’s burger joint, a hole-in-the wall institution across the street from Harvard yard. Back in our warm hotel room, we called it a night, falling asleep to the Return of the King on TNT.

Sunday was our only college-free day. After checking out, we parked our car in the Financial District and began our Freedom Trail walking tour. Saw the usual sites such as Paul Revere’s grave stone, Faneuil Hall, and Quincy Market. But the highlight was a visit to the U.S.S. Constitution, aka “Old Ironsides.” This famous battleship remained undefeated in 33 battles, the most famous of which took place in 1812 against the British. Diego and I agreed that back then, men were men.

Now back in our car, we headed south towards Brown University in Rhode Island. After checking into the Hilltop Hotel in Seekonk around dusk, we drove into Providence to see “The Grand Budapest Hotel” at the Avon Theater. Little did we know, but the theater sits at the doorstep of Brown. The neighborhood struck me as working class meets New England academia. After the movie, we sauntered around the Brown campus, sneaking into the student lounge areas. Brown exhibited a uniform combination of modern architecture housed in venerable and well-kept brick buildings.

Brown building. (Get it?)

Brown building. (Get it?)

The official Brown tour began promptly at 9:00 am Monday morning. Our guide was JD, a handsome sophomore from Seattle who enjoyed piano and theater in addition to his pre-med academic regimen. He walked backwards while speaking to the ~15 or so fellow tourists. He explained how Brown has an “open curriculum,” meaning that there are no required classes outside of your majors. That means students can literally take whatever classes they wanted. This structure, along with the observed bounty of resplendent women, appealed to Diego’s sensibilities. As Diego described Brown, “Now this is how I envisioned college to be.”

After the tour, a Japanese-American admissions officer (or, as some described, a rejection officer) essentially explained that our probability of matriculation was statistically tenuous. But if accepted, it’s Nirvana and everyone loves it. Good luck. That insight seemed to be the common theme for the week.

We departed Providence around 11:00 am to head up to Amherst College, located west of Worchester in Massachusetts. The rain was falling harder and the temperature was dropping, causing ice films to form across the windshield with each swipe of the wiper. The two-hour drive was perilous but by the time we arrived at Amherst, the precipitation had arrested.



We arrived just in time to catch the 1:00 pm tour, led by Kirk, another curly blonde guy who looked eerily similar to JD at Brown. Kirk was a cordial fellow who explained how Amherst is a small liberal arts college, meaning that it’s 100% undergrads. The total school only has 1,800 students and, like Brown, they employ an open curriculum academic structure. Amherst is also part of the five sisters (Holyoke, UMass, Smith, Hampshire) where you can take classes at those campuses as well. It was also clear that its intimate size meant that students enjoy very close relationships with their professors and peers. The town of Amherst is quintessential small town, with a single strip mall surrounded by agriculture. It’s a trek to get there, which is something to consider.

We departed Amherst about 4:00 pm and headed south to Middletown, CT, the home of Wesleyan University. The drive took a little more than an hour and when we checked into the Crowne Plaza in Cromwell, CT, the sides of the roads were still covered with snow. Diego called his HHS friend and current Wesleyan freshman Riordan for some dinner suggestions. The Thai Garden, located just off campus, was some of the best Thai food I’ve had in a while. After dinner, we explored the campus before the sun had a chance to set.

Church at Wesleyan

Church at Wesleyan

Tuesday, April 1st involved an ambitious itinerary which we executed with Seal Team Six precision. It was a sunny and clear day that began promptly at 8:00 am with a breakfast meeting with Riordan at the Usdan Center at Wesleyan, or “Wes” as the locals call it. Riordan expressed his fondness for the college, which he praised effusively.

The official tour began a little after 9:00 am as Cassandra, an enthusiastic freshman, arrived late. The walking tour was quite extensive, lasting almost two hours. We headed back to the Admissions Office where an officer and a recent Wes grad gave their respective spiels. Like many of the Ivies, Wes offers an open curriculum and small class sizes. We cut short the discussion and left Wes promptly at 11:30 to make the drive down to New Haven.

With the help of my iPhone’s GPS, I secured a great parking spot directly in front of the Yale Admissions Office at 11:57 am, giving us a few minutes before Diego’s student-only discussion with Yale undergrads at noon. In this session, he learned–among other things–that Yale is looking for authentic and focused students.

Yale library of ancient texts.

Yale library of ancient texts.

A deluge of prospective students overwhelmed the office space at 1:00 so Grace, an Elizabeth Shue-looking senior, shepherded us to a large seminar room. She then proceeded to give a phenomenal explanation of the Yale way. Among her many jewels were that Yale values diversity of thought; that their curriculum is a balance between open and closed systems; and that Yale’s 12 residential colleges largely define students’ experience at Yale. A comprehensive walking tour followed where we navigated the monumental Gothic buildings in Yale’s deceptively-large campus. It gave the feeling of attending school at the Smithsonian. The importance of the residential college experience was reiterated several times by our guide.

Upon completing the tour, we hopped onto I-95 South towards New York City. We dropped off our trusty car at the Dollar rental near LaGuardia and caught the bus into Manhattan. From there, we took the subway down to my cousin’s pied-a-terre near Chinatown, dropped off our luggage, and caught a cab to the Mighty Quinn, a great BBQ restaurant on 2nd Ave and E 6th where we met our friends Sandra and Amar for dinner. Whew! What a day!

Wednesday morning started early because the NJTransit train down to Princeton departed Penn Station at 7:53 am. Arriving in Princeton, we meandered our way to the Frist student center for a quick breakfast before the touring began. Rain started falling by the time our 10:00 am info session began. It was hosted by Sarah, an attractive and articulate ’12 Princeton alum. Like Yale, Princeton has a combination of an open curriculum and core requirements. They also emphasized that Princeton is decidedly more focused on undergraduate education. They offer no law, business, or medical schools. Unique at Princeton is their requirement for every student to complete a senior thesis. Students also have guaranteed four year housing and their unique eating club system. As for financial aid, Princeton is a need blind university where their aid comes completely in grants; no student loans are needed or offered.



Our walking tour was hosted by Brian, a good-looking English major from Charlotte. He showed us all the famous sites including a quick glimpse of Professor Cornell West. After the tour, Diego and I enjoyed some Italian food at a Nassau St. eatery and then we toured the Princeton Art Museum. Our Princeton day ended when the 3:10 train departed the station heading north to Penn Station. Wednesday night concluded with dinner at Cha Chan Tang.

Thursday morning involved taking the B and 1 trains uptown to 116th and Broadway for our 10:00 am Columbia campus visit. The sky was blue and the weather warm. We were surprised to see how Columbia was in a defined campus space, replete with green lawns and gated walls. An ebullient admissions officer escorted our large group into a cavernous lecture hall where he proceeded to extoll the virtues of a Columbia education. Chief among them is their emphasis on a core curriculum. Unlike most of the liberal arts schools we visited, Columbia requires all undergrads to complete a set of required classes as part of their graduation requirements. The other emphasis was the relationship Columbia had with the city of New York. The balance of the pitch was similar to other schools: need blind financial aid, lots of extra-curricular opportunities, and four years of guaranteed housing. Applicants should be very thoughtful why they want to go to Columbia in particular.

Columbia's Low Library

Columbia’s Low Library

Following the information session, Mark led our campus tour. Mark was a spectacled astro-physics and math major from a small town near Charlotte, NC. He pointed out the overseas program and other various campus landmarks Columbia offered. I did not get the impression, however, that Columbia students exuded the tribal connectedness that a Yale or Princeton seemed to foster.

We grabbed a cab to travel east towards Sandra’s Hot Bread Kitchen bakery. Diego and I enjoyed seeing real people work on real equipment to produce real food. After a sumptuous lunch, we said our goodbyes and headed south to the Guggenheim, only to discover that they were closed on Thursdays. So we hiked across Central Park and ended up spending the afternoon at the Museum of Natural History. The exhibits were sublime. Our planetarium show was both educational and relaxing, representing a break from our day of walking.

In front on Dino.

In front on Dino.

For dinner, we went to the Burger Joint at Le ParkerMeridien on 56th St. From there, we headed down to the Al Hirschfield Theater for a fabulous performance of Kinky Boots.

Friday was our last day of the college tour which we spent at NYU. We were underdressed for the cold and drizzly weather. Kaitlin was the young admissions officer emceeing the info session. It started off with a well-produced 15-minute video that stressed the global diversity of the university and its urbane setting. NYU is huge, with an undergraduate population of 21,000 students. They do guarantee four years of housing and excellent extensions abroad.

By now, we were experienced with the script and cadence of the college information session: speak about its excellent academics and unique attributes; its extra-curricular offerings; and then admissions and financial aid. NYU was no different. Unique to NYU was the need for applicants to apply to one of the ten colleges.

Tommy, a North Carolinian Sophomore in Media Studies, led our walking tour. While NYU is in the heart of Greenwich Village, most of the buildings surrounding Washington Square Park make up the NYU campus.

Having completed our last tour, Diego ranked the colleges we visited: 1. Princeton, 2. Yale, 3. NYU, 4. Brown, 5. Wesleyan, 6. Harvard, 7. Amherst, 8. Columbia, 9. Emerson. We’ll see how this list changes after we complete the West Coast swing.

After the tour, we visited the Museum of Chinese in America located in Chinatown where we saw the immigrant story of our ancestors documented on the walls. Later that evening, we headed back to the Theater District to see Bryan Cranston in a brilliant performance of LBJ in All the Way.

In summary, we are extremely glad that we took this tour. Seeing these campuses in person helped Diego visualize an East Coast college experience and encouraged him to “step up his game.”

Spring Break in NYC

For this year’s Spring Break, we were excited to take our kids to New York. We arrived at JFK on Wednesday, March 28th at 3:00 pm after a direct flight from SFO. This was Diego and Sophia’s first trip to the Big Apple and we were greeted by an unseasonably warm spring day. Perhaps we should have packed some shorts.

The cab dropped us off on the corner of Elizabeth and Broome on the outer edge of Chinatown a little after 4:00. My cousin Stephen showed up just a minute later and he let us into the apartment. Just a month earlier, Stephen suggested we stay at his mother’s empty furnished apartment, which had just been recently renovated. We’re so glad we took him up on the offer because the one-bedroom unit was perfect for the four of us.

We settled in, said goodbye to Stephen, and then walked a few blocks south to Cha Chan Tang, a classic Hong Kong style restaurant where we grabbed a quick bite. After the early supper, we walked north on Mott St. and came across a simple Chinatown barber shop. I needed a haircut and the $20 special seemed too tempting to pass. Little did I realize that the haircut included a 10 minute scalp massage which was simply exquisite. I almost fell asleep.

We then proceeded to walk the neighborhood (Elizabeth, Spring, Prince, and Mulberry Streets) and came across boutique/bohemian retail shops specializing in everything from shaving equipment to exotic fragrances. We treated ourselves to some gelato before checking out old St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the local church. Believe it or not, we were still a bit hungry so we decided to try a slice of New York pizza at Prince St. Pizzeria. Heavenly. We had to have the pizza before we ate cupcakes at The Little Cupcake Bakeshop, which was just around the corner. The banana pudding was tasty but not quite as good as Magnolia’s. We also stopped by Rice to Riches, a hip place with interesting wall placards, where we sampled some of their rice pudding flavors. We passed up some other highly recommended restaurants – Havana, La Esquina, and Tacombi. These would have to wait for another day. With our stomachs more than full, we walked the few short blocks back to our apartment.

Thursday proved to be much cooler and we did not dress appropriately. We found that out while we were walking to the subway station. Our first stop was at Trinity Church at the end of Wall Street in downtown. We had 11:30 am tickets to the 9/11 Memorial but the guards didn’t seem to care that we were a half hour early. We were shuttled in through the cordoned lines and made our way to the check in room where we went through airport –type security. We went back outside, walked next to all the construction going on and ended up in a large open plaza. Here we saw a large square fountain which was placed exactly where the south tower once stood. The water would cascade from the edge of the fountain and fall into another smaller square opening in the center. It struck me as rather ominous-looking—as if the water poured some kind of bottomless pit.

Fountain marking the original South Tower.

The 9/11 museum was still under construction but they did have a gift shop that was tastefully done and informative. This store was very crowded so we got out and walked south on West Avenue until we reached Battery Park, the southern-most tip of Manhattan. We had already purchased tickets for the 1:00 pm ferry to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, but since it was barely noon, we were too early. We decided to have lunch at Chipotle and got back into line at 12:30. It was a good thing we had pre-purchased ferry tickets because the line for everyone else was about ten times longer. Ha-ha! Again, we went through security before walking onto the three-level ferry. Marcella stayed inside the ferry to stay warm but the kids followed me to the top deck where we had great views of the Manhattan skyline and the Statue of Liberty.

The boat ride only took fifteen minutes before we got off onto the Island. We walked around Lady Liberty and took our obligatory photos from her feet. The inside and base of the statue was still under construction so it was still closed to visitors. After circling the island, we got back in line to take the next ferry to Ellis Island.

Where millions of immigrants once passed.

Ellis Island is larger and more formal than I expected. It is mostly made up of a large central building with many wings. We purchased the audio tour which guided us through this building while transporting us back to the early 20th century. Millions of immigrants (3rd class and steerage) would first set foot in America through Ellis Island. Authorities would check your identity, your health, your intelligence, and whether you had enough money to get to where you were going next. The artifacts, displays, and audio tour at Ellis Island gave a great sense of what it was like to emigrate to America a hundred years ago.

We took the ferry back to Manhattan and did a quick stop at the Smithsonian Museum for American Indians (free admission!). I’m guessing that most New Yorkers don’t even know about this museum but it’s housed in a beautiful building. In one of the airy atriums, we were treated to an ad-hoc local choir whose heavenly voices transported us to somewhere sublime. Upon leaving this museum, we came across the large brass bull that marked the epicenter of the financial district. We turned right and walked down Wall Street but were surprised that there were no Occupy Wall St. protestors or anyone like that anywhere. After this quick stop, we ran back to catch the 6 train uptown because we were late for our next stop.

Feeling bullish.

Exiting the Spring St. station, we started running east down Delancy St. so that we could make our 4:30 tour at the Tenement Museum. Huffing and puffing, we sat at the last row while our tour guide was giving some basic background on tenement living. This museum is essentially a time capsule, showing how real people lived in New York during two eras. The first era described the life and family of Nathalie, a German immigrant with four children who lived in one of the apartments in 1874. It’s easy to forget how primitive the living conditions were. There was no running water, electricity, or even gas lamps. Filthy outhouses in the back were shared by all the families.

The adjacent apartment told the story of Josephine, an Italian immigrant who lived as a little girl in the unit with her family until 1935. For her, they had electricity and gas and containers for FDR’s government cheese. The living conditions, however, would still be considered very austere by today’s standards, even for poor immigrants.

So after a long day in lower Manhattan, we walked back to our apartment to rest our weary feet. Before long, however, we got going because we had Broadway tickets for the 8:00 pm showing of Rock of Ages. We got on the subway and once we walked out of the Times Square station, our senses were filled with flashing lights and screens from this iconic location. We walked north, absorbing the sights and sounds. Since we hadn’t eaten dinner, we jammed our way into a deli just a few doors down from the theater. The food was OK but the experience gave us a true sense of the hustle and bustle of the city.

Finally made it to Broadway!

Rock of Ages was an entertaining and hilarious show but probably not age appropriate for Sophia. It was a boy-meets-girl story set in the 1980’s in Los Angeles. Lots of 80’s hair band music got the crowd singing and chanting along. After the show, we took a few more pictures in Times Square before heading back. Near our apartment, we had frozen yogurts at the local Pink Berry establishment. I think that was enough for our first full day in New York.

With one of the stars of Rock of Ages

Friday was similarly cool but we were more appropriately dressed this day. We surprised the kids with our first stop—an NBC Studio tour. Diego was thrilled to see the 30 Rockefeller building and all the historical television moments displayed on the walls. Two NBC pages guided us through the studios where we saw the sound stages for Dr. Oz, the Jimmy Fallon show, and Saturday Night Live.

After the tour, we had lunch at a great soup and salad eatery (Hale & Hearty Soups) in the base of Rockefeller Center and then walked a block to tour St. Patricks Cathedral on 5th Avenue. This building was the largest cathedral the kids have ever seen. We grabbed a cab and made our way north to the Metropolitan Museum. The Met is a huge museum housed on two levels. The exhibit halls seemed to go on forever. A highlight was the Arms and Armory display where we saw King Henry VIII’s body armor. We also saw paintings from Degas, Rembrandt, Picasso, as well as classic American portraits from the 18th century.

Armory at the Met

Crossing the Delaware

We could have easily spent a full day at the Met but we wanted to leave some time for a stroll in Central Park. The park looked nice in this clear, sunny day.

Central Park

After a very long walk, we found the subway line downtown and ended up in our apartment for a short, ten-minute break. My cousin Stephen, his wife Irene and their two boys were waiting for us at Freeman’s, a rustic American restaurant that was only a five minute walk away. The food was fantastic and by the time we left, the restaurant was packed. We then walked east on Delancy, passing the famous Katz Deli, and stopped by the Il Laboratorio di Gelato—a large gelato production facility that also served some delicious gelato. We continued walking through this neighborhood and even stopped to buy some lottery tickets since the Mega Millions were now over $500 million. We said our goodbyes to the Chans and settled back into our apartment. Marcella and I, however, decided to get a 30-minute foot massage at the reflexology establishment across the street. Ah, just what the doctor ordered.

For Saturday, our friends Sandra and Amar, had agreed to serve as tour guides. I first met up with Amar at Legends, a sports bar across the street from the Empire State Building on 33rd. Chelsea, his soccer team, was playing and he wanted to see it live with his fellow fans. It was also a good opportunity for me to learn about and experience this sport a bit more. Chelsea won 4-2 and after the match, Amar and I went back to his place so that he could change his shoes (it was drizzly and a bit wet) before we walked back to our apartment where we met up with the whole gang.

Our first stop was lunch at Henan Flavor, in the hole-in-the-wall Henan restaurant on the eastern edge of Chinatown (The First HeNan Restaurant in East America 63 B. Forsyth St). The food there was absolutely divine and we stuffed ourselves until we couldn’t eat another bite. One of our favorite dishes was the $2 Pancake with Pork (#13).

That's He-nan, not Hu-nan.

Our first stop after lunch was the Essex Street Market, a large building housing local merchants and eateries. Sandra told us that the chef at one of the delis inside Essex Market is known for being notoriously rude to customers. Around the corner from the Market, we stopped by Economy Candies, which has an amazing collection of candy brands we enjoyed when we were kids. I purchased some 1989 packs of baseball cards and we found a Founding Fathers Pez collection set for Diego. Candy boxes were stacked from floor to ceiling in this only-in-New York establishment.

Economy Candy, NYC.

Exiting the candy store, we walked towards the Brooklyn Bridge. Since it was wet and windy, we decided to walk to only to the first pier of the bridge and head back to Manhattan.

Brooklyn Bridge

At the base of the bridge, we took the subway north towards Central Park. Our first stop landed us at Dylan’s Candy Bar (1011 Third Avenue), another famous, more upscale candy store—this one established by Dylan Lauren. The store was absolutely packed with customers but did offer an incredible variety of candies in its two levels.

At Dylan's Candy Bar.

After Dylan’s, we made a quick stop at Serendipity but couldn’t get seating there for a meal (2 to 3 hour wait!!). Instead, we walked towards the south east corner of Central Park and detoured into the Plaza Hotel, an old New York establishment. We then walked across the street to take in FAO Schwartz, the iconic toy store of Manhattan. This store too was packed with people so it was a relief when we decided to move on.

FAO Schwartz

We walked south on 5th Avenue, window shopping at all the expensive clothiers and jewelry stores. At 42nd Street, we turned to stop by Grand Central Station. Diego did a nice imitation of the AT&T dance while there and I had a chance to stop by the new Apple store.

Grand Central

From Grand Central, we took the subway to Chelsea. Here, we explored Chelsea Market which was formerly the home of the Nabisco manufacturing plant. Similar to the Ferry Building in San Francisco, the Chelsea Market houses a large array of fancy eateries and specialty retailers, almost all related to food. We stopped by Jacques Torres Chocolate Store, an establishment famous for its hot chocolate and awesome chocolate chip cookies. The hot chocolate was so rich that our kids had a difficult time finishing it.

Chelsea Market

Just outside of the Chelsea Market, we tried to take a stroll on the Highline, a refurbished deck that once supported the trains that traveled between Nabisco and Penn Station. Unfortunately, they had already closed so we proceeded to walk to the Flatiron District where we eventually had dinner at Grimaldi’s, a famous Brooklyn pizzeria. To enter the restaurant, we had to go through a church that had been converted to a retail store. Again, only in New York. We proceeded to stuff ourselves with two large pies. Awesome.

A couple NY pies.

After dinner, we walked a few more blocks to Eataly, Mario Battali’s Italian eatery concept. Taking almost the entire first floor of the building, Eataly contained four restaurants, several delis, a book store, and various food vendors in an open space environment. The place was packed and we meandered our way through the area, soaking in the fresh prosciutto, cheeses, and wines. We ended up—where else—but at another gelatoria. I shared the pistachio with Sophia while Diego and Marcella enjoyed the salted caramel.

Final gelato at Eataly.

We said our goodbyes to Sandra and Amar before catching the subway back down to our neighborhood. We passed the pizza and cupcake stores for one last time.

Kids’ Bathroom Remodel

Oftentimes, big remodels start off as something small. In my case, it was some chipped paint on the tub. I figured I could spend a few hundred bucks to have someone refinish this tub, which had been painted pink by a previous home owner.

But when speaking with the tub refinisher, he suggested that I just get a new tub. It’ll end up costing about the same anyway.

So that’s how it begins. New tub means new shower tiles. And if you’re going to replace the tiles, you might as well replace the floor tiles which means that the sink and vanity need to come out. New shower fixtures will need to get plumbed. And while I’m at it, I should add an electrical socket and a new light over the shower area. I can keep the toilet, though. It’s still in good shape.

It was time. The old bathroom was peach pink with cracking tile, chipping paint, and old fixtures.

So right around Mother’s Day, I began the destruction. I would start off in the shower area so the kids could still have a working sink during demolition. There’s no real trick to demolition other than wearing proper protection and having a strong back. Tile on top of concrete with chicken wire can get pretty heavy.

With the tub walls stripped, it was time to take out the vanity and tile floor. Again, plenty of heavy lifting, chiseling, and prying. When I got to the subfloor, I noticed some significant dry rot on both the studs and floor itself.

This damage obviously needed to get patched up, which I did.

These are the types of things that you can’t anticipate before the job but inevitably show up whenever you’re doing a remodel on an older home.

With the repairs done, I hired some plumbers to remove the old tub, install the rough-in for the new shower fixtures, and install the new tub. I then was able to start putting the cement board up around the tub area.

In this phase of the project, I realized how hard it was to work with 1/2 inch thick Hardie Backer boards. These cement boards are extremely difficult to score and cut and it’s not recommended to use power tools for cutting because the dust is really nasty. The floor was a bit easier because I used 1/4 inch cement board, which was easier to cut.

Next came the cutting of porcelain tile. There were a couple challenges here. First, the tiles we selected were really large: 17×39 inches. That meant they didn’t fit in standard tile saws. Second, it was porcelain, which is an extremely hard material. It’s harder than granite, so normal ceramic tile blades simply wouldn’t cut it. So I had to buy a special diamond-bladed wet/dry hand saw and set up complicated jigs to cut these tiles. Fortunately, since they were large, I didn’t have too many cuts.

I think the floor turned out pretty nice.

With the floor in, I was able to install the new glass-topped double sink vanity. This bad boy was extremely heavy so it was no easy feat moving this thing by myself. Since it was a glass top, I added some cool lighting inside the vanity so at night, you can see the light glow through. You can’t see that effect in these photos, but trust me, it’s cool. I also found some neat glass tile that I used for the backsplash.

Now that the vanity and toilet were installed and working, the bathroom was semi-functional for the kids.

Next came the shower stall tiling. We chose large-format white porcelain tiles with this cool cube texture. Again, cool look but a real pain to cut. I chose to run the tiles up to the ceiling. Here’s a close-up of the tile texture.

The trick to this part of the project was making sure all the walls were plumb. With an old house, 90-degree corners, plumb walls, and level floors are very rare. Our house was certainly no exception and I had to shim one wall almost half an inch to get it vertical. That was a lot of work. Here’s how it turned out.

I also installed a cubby hole which required a lot of odd-angle cuts and miters.

The Hansgrohe fixtures we installed are really slick. We love them.

In the end, this project took up most of my weekends from May through June but we’re really happy how it turned out.

For all you hardcore soccer fans out there, I need your help. I enjoy watching all the major American sports and with all the hoopla surrounding the World Cup, I figured I’d invest some time to see what all the fuss is about. So over the last few weeks, I watched with an open mind a bunch of the matches, including today’s final. But I just couldn’t get into it. I find watching soccer to be pretty boring and I’ll explain why.

First, a few caveats:

  • I do understand the basic rules of soccer
  • I acknowledge that soccer players are probably the best athletes of any sport out there and incredibly skilled (rivaling perhaps basketball)
  • I enjoy playing soccer and think it’s fun
  • I don’t know most of the soccer super stars
  • I acknowledge that it’s constant action (but so is watching a marathon, but that doesn’t make it exciting)
  • I don’t believe you need to score a lot of points for a sport to be exciting

Now that I got that out of the way, it seems to me that the sport of soccer seems to lack some of the elements in other sports that make for drama and excitement:

  1. The concept of risk and reward. In football, for example, if you’re down a couple touchdowns, you can try a Hail Mary of some trick play to get back in. In golf, you can try reaching that par five on your second shot. In baseball, you can try swinging for the fences. In basketball, you can try shooting three pointers. More often than not, you’ll fail but when it does work, it adds a lot of drama to the game. In soccer, I didn’t see (or don’t know if it’s even possible) to do the equivalent of a Hail Mary. What happens in the first 10 minutes looks pretty much like what happens in the last 10 minutes.
  2. The clock matters. In basketball and football, there’s added stress because every second counts. And so the rate of scoring, relative to the time left is very important. And as the clock wears down, you can adjust your strategy accordingly (see point 1). Tension and drama builds. In soccer, the clock doesn’t appear to be much of a factor. Since a goal happens on average every 40 minutes of play, if there’s 10 minutes left and you’re down 2-0, the game is pretty much over. In fact, you don’t even really know how much time is even left on the clock since the ref can add back a random amount of injury time.
  3. Match ups. Bird vs. Magic. Bonds vs. Clemens. Steel Curtain vs. Dallas O-Line. Nicklaus vs. Palmer. Ali vs. Frasier. There are classic match-ups in most sports that you want to watch, even for the casual fan. They want to witness greatness vs. greatness. But in soccer, you rarely have individual match-ups. The game is much too fluid to see one-on-one coverage for example.
  4. The build up. I enjoy sports where a play or an event sets the stage for more drama. In a tie game, the pitcher walks the first batter in the 9th inning. A football team just made a long running play and is almost in field goal range. A golfer hits a shot that allows him a birdie putt. But soccer is like a flowing river. The events that occur in one moment don’t really build up or impact another moment. With one kick, the ball is back on the other side of the field. There’s no game-winning drive. Or bases loaded come-back.
  5. Last man standing. In football, basketball, and even golf, you keep playing until there’s a winner. In baseball, you go into extra innings. In fact, part of the strategy and drama is that you start running out of players. In soccer, the match can either end in a tie or go to penalty kicks. Penalty kicks?!? That’s like going to free throws when a basketball game ends in a tie. Why not just keep playing until someone wins? If it takes six hours, it takes six hours.

I fully acknowledge that soccer is the most popular sport in the world. So clearly it’s me and not the sport that has the problem. Whenever I sit with other soccer fans and ask their help in how to appreciate the sport, all I get is, “Well, it’s exciting because you just wait and wait until someone scores.” Hmm. Surely there’s gotta be more to it.

When I was younger, I thought baseball was boring. Then I spent time with people knowledgeable about the game and now it’s one of my favorite sports to watch. I want the same thing to happen to me for soccer.

Can you help?

As many of you know, I like to do remodeling projects on my home. Last year, I had remodeled two of our bathrooms and this year, I put in a new front door.

Most recently, I just completed laying a stone tile facade over existing brick in front of my house.

The brick was in good shape but I just didn’t care for the brick look. Here’s how it looked before:

Brick face in front of the house

In addition to the two brick columns bordering the garage, I had a half wall of brick next to our front door.

Brick next to front door

So I purchased some thin stone veneer from RealStone Systems. Most of the pieces I ordered were corner units, as I had a lot of corners to cover. This stone veneer comes in 6″ x 24″ flat tiles and cost a little over $6 per square foot. Corners come in two pieces.

The tiles are over an inch thick, so I rented a large wet tile saw at the local Home Depot ($55/day) and bought 360 pounds of type-S mortar. (I also tweaked my back a bit lifting those 80 lb. bags.) What’s nice about these tiles is that you can apply them straight onto the brick. No scratch coat required. But with all the corners, there was a lot of cutting.

Here’s how it turned out. It took me and another helper two full days to complete the job.

Stone veneer next to the door

New stone columns

Stone close up

While there’s no grouting necessary, we did apply a bit of extra mortar to cover any gaps or large seams. One tip: make sure to keep a wet sponge handy as you apply the stone to wipe off any excess mortar. Once that stuff dries, it takes a lot more work to scrub it off the tile.

How much did this cost? Stone was a bit over $1,000 delivered + labor + tile saw + mortar = $1,500.

Let me know what you think.

Jerusalem & Bethlehem

I just got back from a day-long trip to Jerusalem and Bethlehem. My company was gracious enough to give me a day to visit Jerusalem and they arranged an excellent tour package for me. A van picked me up from my hotel lobby at 7:00 in the morning and whisked me away to a bus depot in Tel Aviv where I transferred to a larger tour van. There I met my tour group and the dozen of us fit comfortably in the bus/van.

We left Tel Aviv at the heart of rush hour around 8:15 and headed east towards Jerusalem. Since we were traveling against traffic, it didn’t take too long before we started climbing from sea level to the 300 meter elevations of Jerusalem. In little over an hour, the bus made its first official stop at a sight-seeing point that gave us all the first look of the Dome of the Rock and the ancient walls of Solomon’s temple. We all took our obligatory shots.

View of the Dome of the Rock

View of the Dome of the Rock

As we drove along modern Jerusalem, I was struck by the dry, mountainous terrain of the city and the many limestone buildings dotting the terraced hillsides. It had a much older feel than Tel Aviv even though many of the buildings looked like they were built within the last 50 years.

Our next stop was the Old City of Jerusalem. Until 1967, the Old City was under the control of Jordan. Before that, its ancient walls were built and destroyed many times over the centuries. The Old City is divided into four quarters: the Armenian quarter, Jewish quarter, Christian quarter, and Muslim quarter. We entered the Armenian quarter through the Zion gate and quickly made our way down into the Jewish quarter.

The Old City is relatively small and getting around the different areas took only a few minutes. What surprised me, however, was how recently-built many of the main structures appeared. I was expecting a truly old city similar to sights we saw in Rome. But because the city had gone through so much destruction, much of its latest incarnation is relatively new.

Shot of Old City alley

Shot of Old City alley

Our guide pointed out that we picked a great day to tour the sites. The weather was cool but clear and the crowds were minimal. He said this day next week will be a madhouse with all the Christmas revelers traveling to the holy land.

So we turned around a corner in the Jewish corner and then we saw the Western Wall. Built to support the western side of the Temple Mount, the Western Wall is the most sacred structure of the Jewish people. We had to pass through extra security to get down to the plaza where all the people were praying and wailing towards this wall. To approach the wall, men and women were separated and every man–including me–had to adorn a yarmulka. Reusable paper ones were conveniently available. I walked up to the wall, touched it, and took some pictures.

Not being particularly religious did not serve me well. I could not grasp the magnitude of the moment or the significance of where I stood. My ignorant disposition felt rather anti-climactic compared to the many orthodox jews who were passionately praying and wailing away.

Joe at the Western Wall

Joe at the Western Wall

I sneaked into the side cave area of the wall which appeared to be a synogogue or library. I believe I was the only gentile in this very serious space but my camera clicking did not appear to bother the many inside in serious prayer.

From the Western Wall, we regrouped and headed off to the Via Dolorosa. For those who took Sunday school, you’ll recall that the Via Dolorosa is also known as the “Way of Sorrow” or the “Way of the Cross.” It marked the path that Jesus took as he bore the cross on his way to his crucifixion. Through this via, each of his 14 stations are marked and adjoined by a small chapel. I did not go to Sunday school so I did not realize that the stations of the cross–those things I see in every church–happened right where I was now walking. It was pretty cool to realize that I was walking down the same path that Jesus took some 2000 years ago.

Following the path along, we entered the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, arguably the most holy church in all of Christiandom. This church was built in 325 AD by Emporor Constantine, who established Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire. This church houses the last five of the 14 stations. There was station 11 where He was nailed to the cross and station 12, the actual spot where his cross was placed. In fact, I knelt down and felt the hole in which his cross was allegedly inserted.

Station 11

Station 11

We took the stairwell down a level and turned the corner to view the tomb in which the body of Jesus was placed. This tomb had two chambers: the first housed a framed relic of the actual stone door that Jesus moved upon his resurrection and the second was the room where his body laid. Both of these rooms were very small and would not suit anyone with even a hint of clostrophobia. But hey, this little room is Christiandom’s holiest place so it was definitely worth a look.

After leaving this church, we went out to buy some souvenirs and have lunch at a nearby plaza. The schwarma I had was OK and a bit overpriced. We now reversed course and walked back to our bus to leave the Old City. Our next stop was Bethlehem.

Getting into Bethlehem was a little tricky. The city sits in the West Bank and as such, our Israeli tour guide could not enter. He dropped us off at a “checkpoint Charlie” type gate where we were greeted by tall barbed-wire walls and tough looking guys with large machine guns. Passport in hand, we went through their security and appeared on the other side. We were now in the West Bank.

Inside the West Bank

Inside the West Bank

Although technically not another country or state, the West Bank might as well be one. Its poverty and general state of deterioration was immediately clear. Our friendly guide greeted us as planned and we settled into two cars and headed to Bethlehem, which was only a mile or so away. As I looked out the car window, I could see Arabic on all the signage and storefronts and stern-looking men staring into our vehicle. I could not help but be reminded of the opening scene of the movie Babel.

We arrived at the Church of Nativity which Constantine also built some 1,700 years ago. Entering this church, I could tell it felt more “ancient” than others. Sure enough, this was one of the few churches that were spared destruction by the invading Turks, Persians, and Arabs over the centuries. So many of the frescoes and structure remain as original.

Our guide asked us to quickly follow him down some stairs. Before I realized where we were going, there I was, standing at the birthplace of Christ. The spot of his birth is marked with a silver 14-pointed star, which I touched and photographed.

The birthplace of Jesus

The birthplace of Jesus

A few feet away was a small room that was the location of his manger. Again, we were fortunate that the crowds were very light because this area is normally packed with visitors.

Back up in the church, I walked over to the Roman Catholic cathedral which in just 10 days will be telecast to the world as it’s been done every Christmas. We left the church, stopped by a Christian souvenir store, and then cabbed back to Jerusalem. The border check was a bit precarious as the Israeli guard inspected my passport for an unusually long time. Nevertheless, we successfully made it back into the bus which then took us back to Tel Aviv.

In summary, I have to say it was pretty cool to see the actual locations of Jesus’ birth, crucifixion, and resurrection. I think I have enough “holy points” to cover me for several church sessions. 🙂

Click here to view a full gallery of my pictures of Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

First Visit to Israel

I landed last night in Tel Aviv in my first trip to Israel. Except for the use of Hebrew everywhere, the city pretty much resembled many other urban European towns I’ve visited. There weren’t as many people walking about as I would have expected for a Saturday night.

We went to a very nice restaurant overlooking the Mediterranean. My seafood casserole was delicious and the local Sauvignon Blanc was quite good. The weather here is very mild–about 70 degrees with little humidity and a slight breeze.

Tomorrow, I head out to for a visit of Jerusalem and Bethlehem, which I think will be neat considering the time of year. I’ll be sure to take lots of pictures and post them here.