Christmas With the Cacti

Ah, Christmas.  A time of lights, worship, gifts, family, and friends.

My Christmas was a bit different this year.  I have three brothers and we’re spread all over the map and the other 3 have spouses/families that also need a little togetherness time, so getting everyone in one place for the holidays can be a little difficult.

This year we had an early Christmas which meant that, for the first time ever, I had no plans for Christmas Eve and Day.  Then it hit me.  I could go to Arizona to visit Mat and Carolyn.

Mat and Carolyn have been through some wonderful changes since I had last seen them in March.  The two are set to become the parents of twin girls in February.  As such, this seemed like an ideal time to spend the holidays with friends and have one more traditional round of shenanigans before the twins arrive.

While Mat and Carolyn were glad to have me come for a visit, their home would be a bit snug as they had already converted one of the guest rooms into a nursery and Mat’s dad, Barry, would be staying with them for Christmas plus Carolyn’s brother, Alan, would also be visiting for Christmas.  Mat also was slightly concerned that the twins might decide to come early and didn’t want to leave me at the house alone if he and Carolyn had to dash to the hospital.  As such, he recommended that I find a hotel for the duration.

When our mutual friend, David Sundberg, announced that he, too, wanted to visit Mat and Carolyn for the holidays, we began to make plans.

Like in March, the plans came about after the sweet spot of air fare had passed.  Dave also had to wait for his time off to be approved so I went ahead and booked a flight and would help Dave rendezvous with me in Arizona.

Then I began a search for hotels.  For kicks and giggles, I did a search on Embassy Suites, fully expecting to see a $200 or more per night rate.  Imagine my surprise when I found an Embassy Suites about ten minutes from Mat and Carolyn’s home advertising an $87 a night rate.  During my recent trip to Scotland, I had become a Hilton Honors member which meant that the rate would be about $81 a night after tax.

Hot diggety!!  A comfy suite with a free cooked to order breakfast every day.  Can we say jackpot?

Dave had decided to stay in Arizona for two weeks so opted to find his own accommodations as he didn’t want to change hotels after I left, so I would be on my own.  I ended up booking a 2 room king bed suite and I was ready to go on a Christmas adventure.

Day 1

I flew Southwest out of Omaha, nabbing a window seat close to the front of the plane.  I made some good time and even got to Phoenix a little early which started this adventure off on a much better note than the previous one where my initial flight got canceled.

Mat greeted me at the gate and we collected my bag and headed off to the homestead.

Shortly after my arrival, Carolyn and Mat wanted brunch so we headed off to a NY deli called Chompie’s.  I decided to have a corned beef half sandwich with some fries and lemonade.  The menu called it a jumbo half and they weren’t whistling Dixie.  Nobody without the name of Pac-Man was going to be able to fit this thing into her or his mouth.  I took one of the slices of bread and made a much smaller sandwich out of it and ate the rest of the fixings with a knife and fork.

With a tasty meal digesting, we headed back home and enjoyed some conversation while Mat and Carolyn’s cat, Tuna, continually swatted and climbed the Christmas tree.  Barry arrived a bit later in the afternoon and about 4pm, Mat took me to Embassy Suites to get my keys and drop off my bag.

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Embassy Suites Tempe

The Embassy Suites Tempe is a three story adobe style hotel.  Thanks to my Hilton Honors membership, I had checked in the day before and was able to pick my own room.  On the rare occasions I stay at hotels, I prefer rooms on the highest floor possible so I had picked Room 310.  The clerk checking me in told me there was a problem with the room so I moved to the more secluded Room 338.

As I walked to my room, I noted that Room 310 had a stellar view of the courtyard where the heated pool and hot tub were located.  But 338 would give me a bit more solitude.

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I was impressed when I entered the room.  The living room had an easy chair and couch sleeper plus an office area with a plasma TV mounted on the wall.  The bedroom was spacious with a king-sized bed with a pillowtop mattress and another plasma TV set up in the room.  I put my bag into the closet and rejoined Mat.

We returned to the house where more conversation ensued.  Early evening we went out to Venezia’s Pizzeria where I had a slice of pepperoni pizza.  We returned to the house for more conversation, got the word that Dave made it to town.  Due the delay of getting his time off, Dave was reluctant to pay last minute prices for air fare and a car rental.  So he had decided to make the loooong drive to Phoenix and back (40 hours round trip).  Understandably, he was a bit exhausted and would not meet up with us until Monday.

Mat and I took an “old man walk” as he called it where we talked and I took pictures of Christmas lights.  Afterwards, Mat drove me to Embassy Suites where I unpacked my suitcase, put away my clothes, and went to bed.

Day 2

I had a fantastic night of sleep.  Limbs splayed out.  Slack jawed.  And out all night.  I opened the curtains and noticed an overcast day.  I decided to go exercise in the gym and followed the signs and went around in a circle a few times before stopping at the front desk and asking where the heck was the gym.  Turns out it was actually inside the pool area.

I did 30 minutes on the elliptical, pleased at how much stronger I had become since using the HasFit regimen as I didn’t even start to breathe heavy until the brutal final few minutes and recovered my wind pretty quickly when I was done.

I took a hot bath and shaved and then went to breakfast.

Embassy Suites is known for a free cooked to order breakfast and it has a pretty good spread.  Breads, cereals, juices, milk, oatmeal (with fixings), bacon, sausage, eggs any style you want, homemade omelets, French toast, breakfast potatoes, and an amazing homemade salsa are available every day.

After a small meal, I returned to my room.  Mat and Dave came to collect me about 10am and made a stop at Hurts Donut where Mat picked up an apple fritter for Carolyn and we each got a donut of our own.  I went with Mint Oreo this time.

We dropped off the fritter and then went to Castles N Coasters for a day of mini-golf.  For the first time ever, we played all 4 courses which took over five hours, including a lunch break at In N Out Burger.

I played a pretty pitiful game to start.  One front 9 didn’t have me shooting anything lower than a 3.  Mat started off red hot as he made 4 aces in the first six holes.  He ended up running away with the win and it became a battle for second place and I had fallen 15 strokes behind Dave.  Miraculously I managed to slice his lead down to 5 by the final round, but could get no closer.

We returned to the homestead where more conversation ensued before a quick meal at Panda Express where I had a small order of black pepper chicken and mixed vegetables.  Shortly afterwards, Dave drove me back to the hotel for the night.

Days 3-4

Ah, Christmas Eve Day.

Mat picked me up about 9:30am and we met Dave at the homestead.  We made a stop at Safeway to pick up the pre-made Christmas dinner Mat and Carolyn had ordered.

Most of the day was just conversation.  Mat drove me over to Our Lady of Mt Carmel so I could attend Christmas service at 4pm.

I had never seen a church so packed.  I arrived at 3:30pm and the church was nearly full.  By the time mass started, the pews were full, people were standing at the back of the church and I noted people streaming in from the narthex during Communion.

I had also never seen a church so beautifully decorated for Christmas.  A large Nativity scene was set to the left of the altar, two Christmas trees were set at either side of the altar, and old-fashioned lampposts adorned the edges of the pews.

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This was easily the best Christmas service I had ever attended.  There was just something heavenly about it.  The chattering before service told me people were happy to be there.  The choir played some stellar jazzed up hymns.  Father had a simple sermon about what Jesus means to us.  After the service, I decided to walk back to Mat and Carolyn’s just so I could process the mass and looked forward to going again on Saturday.  This time I would bring my camera so I could get some snaps of the Christmas decorations.

When I arrived at the house, Carolyn’s father, Joe, and her brother, Alan, had arrived.  Alan has some special needs due to cerebral palsy, but is a very sweet guy.  Joe is fun and a master of dad humor.  We sat down to dinner and enjoyed a sumptuous meal of turkey, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, macaroni and cheese, rolls, and pie.

Afterwards a few gifts were opened while a fire crackled in the fireplace.  Then Mat, Dave, and I entertained the guests by badly playing a cooking game called Overcooked.  Most of Dave’s food was seasoned by the floor as he kept dropping it while I kept tossing food into the abyss.  Very entertaining and a great deal of fun for the night.

On Christmas Day, Dave picked me up so Mat and Carolyn could better care for Alan.  Mat prepared breakfast for those who hadn’t eaten and we opened up the rest of the gifts.  Mat and Carolyn got me a card game called Doctor Who Fluxx while Dave gave me $20.

Early afternoon we headed to Joe’s house for Christmas dinner.  At Joe’s, we met the family of his girlfriend, Fran.  Fran’s son’s (Elliott) fiancée, Ellen, made an epic Filipino Christmas dinner with spicy beef and cheese, egg rolls, stuffed eggplant, pork belly, and other delicacies.  Wonderful!  Simply wonderful!

We took a little walk after dinner before taking Alan back to his group home.  Then we went back to Mat and Carolyn’s where we played Super Mario Party (won 1, lost 1) and Mat introduced me to Luigi’s Mansion 3.  After a long day, Dave returned me to the hotel where I had a lovely night’s sleep.

Day 5

Today Mat took Dave and I to downtown Tempe where we walked around the downtown area and Tempe Town Lake before going to the movies to watch Star Wars:  The Rise of Skywalker.  I thought it was an OK movie.  It was definitely the weakest of the new trilogy with some serious pacing issues in the first third of the film, a somewhat tepid story, but all storylines are tied up, and the action scenes are great.

After the film, Dave bought an R2-D2 popcorn and cup holder and then Mat took us to The Chuckbox for the best hamburger in town.

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An R2-D2 popcorn and cup holder.

The Chuckbox is a Tempe institution.  It’s small and cash only, but specializes in cooked to order charbroiled burgers that you can fix up yourself.  Mat and Dave ate bacon cheeseburgers while I enjoyed a Big One (1/3 pound patty) with Swiss cheese on a whole wheat bun.  I then fixed it up with jalapenos, lettuce, onions, relish, pickles, ketchup, and mustard.  This truly was the best burger I’ve tasted and recommend a visit to any and all in the Tempe area.

From there it was back to the house where I won another round of Super Mario Party and we talked some more.  Late evening we stopped for a late dinner at Flavors of Louisiana for some Cajun cooking.  I had a 6 inch blackened chicken po’boy with a side of gumbo.  The gumbo was tasty though a bit more like soup than stew.  The sandwich was utter perfection.

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We returned to the house for another round of Super Mario Party which Dave won.  Then Dave took me back to Embassy Suites for the night.

Days 6-7

Putrid.

That word sums up Friday.

It started off decently enough.  I decided to use the pool and hot tub at 6:30am.  The heat of the hot tub merged with the cool morning air causing steam to visibly rise from the tub.  The hot, churning water felt good, but I had to skip the swim as maintenance started cleaning the pool.

Mat had to go in to work that day so I was left to my own devices until 3pm.  I didn’t need to plan too much as it started raining at 11am and it just went on for most of the afternoon.

About noon, I braved the elements to have lunch at Café Rio where I enjoyed one of their fantastic chicken quesadillas.  By that point the rain was really coming down so I speed walked back to the hotel where I remained until Dave picked me up about 3pm.

It was a pretty quiet afternoon.  We played more Super Mario Party and eventually had dinner at Lolo’s Chicken & Waffles where I ate a chicken tenders meal while keeping an eye on the Holiday Bowl where I ultimately had the satisfaction of watching Iowa demolish USC.  After dinner it was more gaming and then back to the hotel.

Here it was.  The last day.  Thankfully the sun was shining today, but it was cold.  Temps actually dipped below freezing which Mat says happens only twice a year.

Mat picked me up at 9:30am and Dave met us at the house.  After a bit of talking we headed out to an early lunch at Del Taco before heading out to another mini-golf battle at Golfland Sunsplash.

The fun park was really decked out for the holidays and I wished I would have been able to see it lit up at night.

My mini-golf slump continued, not due to bad shots, but bad breaks.  I was nailed with a slew of penalties as my ball continued to take bad bounces on many holes.  I was red hot on the final round, but it was too little, too late.

On the other hand, I did witness the impossible.  For the first time ever, Dave finally won his first mini-golf battle after 20 years of knowing him.  He sometimes placed second. . .usually third. . .occasionally fourth, but this time he took the whole enchilada with a combination of steady, smart gameplay which resulted in 8 holes in one and the most epic meltdown I had ever seen as Mat crashed and burned in the final round.

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Dave strikes a victory pose as Mat weeps after he falls to pieces in the final round of our mini-golf battle.

After the links duel, it was back to Mat and Carolyn’s where we squeezed in a quick round of Super Mario Party before I went to worship at Our Lady of Mt Carmel.

When church services ended, the four of us went to dinner at Chou’s Kitchen which serves authentic Chinese food.  The meals are meant to be served family style so there were quite a few leftovers.  My dish of choice was chicken in garlic sauce, but I also sampled potstickers and sliced beef roll.  During the meal, Carolyn picked up on my mood and wondered if I were feeling well.  Truthfully, I was feeling a bit blue as I knew that this adventure was rapidly coming to a close and I was missing my friends already.

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But there was time for one last hurrah.

When we got back to the house, I broke out a portable escape room (a gift from another friend).  It was pretty interesting.  The game replicates the escape room experience as you and your team time yourselves and track how many clues you truly needed to use to solve the puzzles and escape.  The downside is that the game can only be played once as once you’ve solved it, you know how to win and you may need to tear up pieces of the game and booklet to solve puzzles.

It was a fun game as we tried to escape the abandoned cabin.  Mat and Carolyn are serious escape room players and Dave and I learned we had to really pipe up to present our theories and solutions.  We did pretty well.  We did escape in about 90 minutes and needed 5 clues.  We’ll do better next time now that we know how the portable game works.

And for me, that was the end.  I said my good-byes to Mat and Carolyn, knowing that it would be a while before I would get to see them again.

Dave took me back to Embassy Suites and I wished him a safe drive home before heading off to one final sleep in Arizona.

Thus ends my Christmas with the Cacti.  Until I see you again, my friends.  Be well.  Be happy.

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