November 17, 2020 was my 23rd birthday. It came at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, before widespread vaccine availability. To put it in the simplest terms, it sucked.

November 17, 2021 was my 24th birthday. Although covid is still a concern to this day, Elizabeth and I are not only vaccinated, we are boosted against it. The odds that we end up getting seriously ill from covid are low enough that we feel pretty comfortable getting back amongst the hoi polloi. Therefore, this year’s birthday celebration had to be twice as big. It actually started with my birthday present to Elizabeth, a pair of tickets to see Luke Combs at the American Airlines Center in Dallas on November 19. And then it spiraled into what may have been the best birthday weekend of my life. Elizabeth set an awesome itinerary for our two nights in Dallas. Fancy food, aquarium, concert, MINI-GOLF – basically anything you could imagine Nolan wanting to do, we did it.

Technically, I guess my birthday weekend started on Wednesday the 17th – my actual birthday. It wasn’t too exciting a day; I usually worked from home on Wednesdays this semester, so I just sat on the couch and worked with Scipio. After Elizabeth was done working, we had a brief Zoom chat with my family to wish me a happy birthday, and then we went out to BJ’s for a quick celebration dinner.

*Note: literally almost every picture in this post is of Elizabeth. Maybe she should have taken some pictures of me*

The real party started the next day after my convection class at the NWC. The class’s start time of 10:00 was perfect for dropping Scipio off early in the morning and then forgetting about him for 48 glorious hours.

If I didn’t know better, I’d say the clock moved slower than normal in class. Every time I looked, only a few more minutes had gone by. Howie lectured and lectured, until finally 11:15 rolled around. I stayed literally only as long as it took to be polite, and then I was out the door. Elizabeth was off getting her nails done for the weekend/Taylor and Kyle’s wedding a week later, so when I got back I had time to do some last-minute packing briefly and prep for the weekend. Finally, I had wheeled our suitcases down to the car and we were ready to go. It was time to celebrate my birthday in style!

Every time I drive I-35 southbound toward Dallas, I am reminded that it truly is hell on Earth. The never-ending construction near Wynnewood and the subsequent drop down to one lane are usually between “awful” and “gouge out my internal organs”. We leaned towards the latter on this day, and not even my college football betting podcast was enough to get me back into a good mood. Instead, Elizabeth and I steadily got hungrier as I put the pedal to the floor through southern Oklahoma and north Texas.

We’d planned on a late lunch in the DFW suburbs at Cava. As it turned out, it ended up being more of a late, late lunch thanks to the traffic and our slightly late start. When I say late, I mean 4:00. So, like, so late that it may or may not be approaching an early dinner. And on top of that, we had fancy dinner plans that night, so we didn’t want to ruin our appetites. And on top of *that*, Elizabeth had class at 6:00, so we needed to get to our hotel before then. All of those factors led me to scarf half of a Cava bowl as fast as I could before getting back into the car. The size of the DFW suburbs is always astoundingly large, and city traffic is always astoundingly AHHHH for me, but we did manage to get to the hotel. We had an argument over whether one could pull onto the sidewalk of the Hilton Garden Inn Downtown Dallas (I was right, you could) for drop-off. Then I dropped Elizabeth off and had a whole other ordeal finding the parking garage on the one-lane road. It was very stressful for this small-city guy. Most importantly, though, we were checked in and could get to the room in time for Elizabeth’s class.

Our room was up on like the 8th(???) floor of the Garden Inn, with a window overlooking the hotel’s luxurious rooftop-ish pool and the rest of downtown Dallas. We took in the views briefly as the sun started to set among the skyscrapers before I closed the blinds to the world so Elizabeth didn’t have to deal with glare on her laptop screen during class. She put in Airpods, and I pulled out my laptop to waste 75 minutes. No complaints here, as Elizabeth had thought of everything, including beer from 405 Brewery and chocolate-covered strawberries. Once her class was over, Elizabeth joined me in bed as we drank an entire bottle of champagne and watched the start of the Patriots/Falcons Thursday Night Football game while waiting for our late, late reservation at Monarch. It’s a good thing we had the late lunch, or I might have been passing out with hunger by the time dinner rolled around. I didn’t even need to get ready until 8:00! The nice thing was that the restaurant was in a high-rise just one block over, so we could walk there.

When we got to Monarch, the front desk on the first floor directed us to the elevator leading to the restaurant and offered us complimentary glasses of champagne for the ride. Very fancy. When we checked in upstairs, the hostess directed us over to the bar while we waited for our table. This was even fancier. With floor-to-ceiling windows that gave a panoramic view of Dallas, a drink that basically tasted exactly like whiskey with the ice cube in my glass carrying a monogrammed Monarch logo, and the charge I got from the bar for our drinks, it was little wonder that my head was spinning. Although, in hindsight, that might have just been because I was drunk.

After a half hour had gone by, I began to suspect they’d forgotten to seat us. I walked up to the hostess stand where yup, they’d forgotten. It wasn’t a huge deal in the long run, but it was 9:30 and by now I was hungry! The waiter led us to the back corner of the restaurant, against a wall without a view of our own but with the ability to see outside just a few tables over. Everything on the menu looked delicious – I was kind of down for anything. The hunger and the alcohol allowed Elizabeth and the waiter to talk me out of the $18 pasta dish I was going to order and talk me in to the $50 veal. And the brussels sprouts. And Elizabeth got talked into a $75 king crab leg. I wasn’t paying, so she could do whatever she wanted as far as I was concerned.

About halfway through the meal, I started feeling a bit ill from the alcohol I had drank – maybe the elevation as well? Whatever it was, I took a walk or two to the bathroom to clear my head and drank lots of water because I didn’t want to ruin the special dinner Elizabeth had planned. The waiter offered me a free drink for my birthday, which I covertly passed to Elizabeth instead. The upshot was that by the time I had eaten a pitifully small amount of that giant veal, and the check had been paid, I was feeling a lot better. Meanwhile, Elizabeth was the one getting drunk.

The trend fully reversed: now I was feeling much better, and it was Elizabeth stumbling barefoot through the streets of Dallas back to our hotel. When we got there, she took a shower, vomited, and fell promptly asleep. Happy birthday.

I was fortunate enough to rouse Elizabeth out of bed at a reasonable time on Friday morning. This was kind of our big day in Dallas, so to speak. We had a mini-golf reservation in the early afternoon, Luke Combs in the evening, and some other plans to fill out the rest of a busy and awesome day. It all started the way most great vacation days do: brunch. Elizabeth had found a restaurant named Ellen’s a mile or so away near Dealey Plaza that had a fantastic-looking brunch menu. Our luck was in on this bright, sunny morning: there was parking right in front and we didn’t even have to wait to be seated in the cozy booths. I got a cup of coffee and Elizabeth got a latte that brought her back to life.

Brunch was a Mexican-inspired eggs benedict entree for me with a fruit gazpacho, while Elizabeth got really brave (I’m so proud!) and got a pancake pot pie. This was maybe not the best brunch I’d ever had, but it was at the very least solidly above average and possibly even bordering on great.

The only downside, such as it was, was that our table and food were ready so promptly that we had time to kill. I had a research meeting at noon, after which we planned to drive to Frisco for the mini-golf round, but until then we were free agents, so to speak. I didn’t really care how we spent the morning, but I think Elizabeth didn’t want to waste a beautiful sunny day away from Scipio in a hotel room. I can understand where she was coming from, too: it was a birthday weekend! We’d sort of talked about going to the nearby Dallas Aquarium, but had decided not to go because the weekend was already too busy. But hell, why not?

The Dallas Aquarium is a pretty large establishment that kind of models each floor based on what level of the “rain forest” you’re in. The top floor has all of the canopy creatures like tree frogs, parrots, and Elizabeth’s favorite, sloths:

Then you worked your way down toward the floor with the crocodiles, flamingos, and snakes. Finally, the subterranean levels displayed the things you’d expect to see in an aquarium – jellyfish, belugas, and of course, the shark tunnel.

Elizabeth even had to face the cousin of the king crab she’d vomited the night before.

We only had a little over an hour to get to the entire aquarium, which Elizabeth wasn’t exactly dressed for. That meant we had to hustle a bit and may have missed some of the cool wildlife that the aquarium had to hold. However, I think we did a pretty good job of seeing all that needed to be seen within our hour, and even had time for me to buy Elizabeth a stuffed otter as a commemoration of our trip. By the time we hustled out to the car, found a parking spot conveniently right outside our hotel, and got up to our room, I had a few minutes to spare before my research meeting. It wasn’t even noon yet!

The meeting actually ended up lasting longer than I expected. Myself, Liz, and Tyler talked about some small-scale research issues as well as large-scale thesis strategy over the course of the next few months. Now it was Elizabeth biding her time in bed while I did some work stuff. I left her waiting longer than I expected, but not so long that it delayed what was coming next: mini-golf in Frisco!

One scary drive down a DFW tollway later, we had arrived at the mall area where Puttery mini-golf awaited. I’m genuinely not sure what I was expecting, but it sure wasn’t what we got. Puttery’s lobby was on the first floor, with a big oaken spiral staircase with framed golf-themed pictures all over the walls leading to the second floor where the courses were. Upstairs was a cross between putt-putt and Dave and Busters. There was a bar, and tables to sit down and order a snack while waiting for your food (we got a pizza). Then there were three 9-hole courses to choose from – alpine-themed, library-themed, and optical-illusion-themed. I chose the alpine one before seeing them, and still have the suspicion that that was the wrong one. No use crying over spilt milk though, the alpine course was still very cool. The person in charge of that course got our drink order (they had themed drinks as well!) and showed us how to virtually keep score.

Now let’s be clear. I had the competitiveness turned way down. This was about having fun and trying some upscale alcohol to celebrate my birthday. With that said, my first putt on the first hole was a random whack hole-in-one around two corners. Ok then! And from there, I proceeded to play a flawless 9 holes of mini-golf. I almost regret having such an A-game in such a meaningless round. Elizabeth did a great job picking out such a fun activity though.

And when it was done, I had tied the course-best score on the day (not counting that dirty liar Ash J):

You’ll also note that Elizabeth did pretty good too! I gave her a 4-stroke handicap because she had high-heeled boots on, so really she was a top 5 participant on the day too.

The only thing was… it was 9 holes. Even playing slow, it took 20 minutes. So we *still* had time to kill before the Luke Combs concert. There was a mall just down the road in Frisco, so I suggested that we do some time-killing there. Elizabeth could look for a dress for Taylor and Kyle’s impending wedding and I could relax a bit. As things have a tendency to do at the mall, “time to kill” quickly blurred into “out of time”. Our dinner reservation was back in the city; after fighting our way back down the scary toll road in bumper-to-bumper traffic we were back downtown. In hindsight, the mall trip was probably not a great idea. It had been a long day that was only going to get longer. A small break at *some* point probably would have served us well, but that’s not always the way Nolan and Elizabeth do travel.

Dinner was a Mexican restaurant just a block or two away from American Airlines Center known as Mesero. It was pretty good. I don’t really have any complaints, although the restaurant itself was crowded with wanna-be cowboys and concert-goers, and the food itself wasn’t necessarily spectacular. It got the job done.

Afterwards, we walked the couple of blocks to American Airlines to attend the centerpiece event of the weekend: Luke Combs, live in concert.

There was some sort of quasi-masking rule in the stadium that 98% of people were ignoring. Even if we hadn’t ignored it, the amount of time Elizabeth spent with a drink in her hand would have guaranteed no mask-wearing for almost the length of the concert. There were three acts: a first guy whose name I honestly will never remember led off for like a half hour not long after we got there in front of a 20% full crowd. Our very very upper-deck section was basically entirely empty at this point except for us and a few other couples drinking giant frozen margarita beverage things. When in Rome:

When in Rome you may end up spilling your drink without telling anyone all over the floor next to you and praying that the people don’t notice when they show up.

Ashley McBryde performed the second, longer act. She can *sing*. I was impressed by her performance, enough so that I delayed buying Elizabeth her Luke Combs merch until after she had finished singing. That meant that the merch stand was a lot more of a nightmarish zoo than it would have been otherwise, but no worries. As long as they didn’t run out of “Beautiful Crazy” shirts in her size, I wasn’t going to get in trouble.

Now the stadium was filling up in earnest. Our upper-bowl seats didn’t provide much leg room, but it didn’t matter. From the moment Luke Combs came on stage to the end of the encore, we were standing. His performance ruled. From the open to the close, he stomped around the weird 4-sided stage, flinging solo cups and shotgunning beers in time with the music. His performance of “Even Though I’m Leaving” left me with red eyes and left the dude behind me sobbing while his bro friends did a terrible job at cheering him up. The slow songs like “Forever After All” gave Elizabeth and me the opportunity to slow dance there in the rafters of the American Airlines Center. Seriously, if you get the chance, see Luke Combs in concert. It’s no frills, no small talk, no useless flattery of the crowd. He’ll just sit on a stool and sing his heart out for 90 minutes. And you will be singing along for every single second of it.

Afterwards, Elizabeth and I were treated to the joy of an entirely stalled parking garage exit for 20 minutes. Even with the hotel like a mile away, it ended up being pretty late at night that I got a (once again quite drunk) Elizabeth into bed. And this time she stayed asleep for a good chunk of Saturday morning.

That was fine, though. We didn’t *have* to be anywhere until 11:00 when the OU/Iowa State game kicked off in Norman. Not a shot in the world we’d be back in time for that, but there was no reason we couldn’t get to a Buffalo Wild Wings to watch my beloved Sooners cap off a perfect birthday weekend, right? In the meantime, we took a frigid walk through downtown Dallas to get Elizabeth coffee at a local shop inside a hotel. Then we walked back to do a final packup and inspection, and checked out of the Garden Inn for the last time. After packing up the car, we made one final harrowing drive through the DFW metroplex en route for the B Dubs in Denton.

Our timing was perfect. We got there at like 10:58 right as they opened their doors to us and all of the other patrons there to watch some 11:00 games, who coincidentally happened to mostly be OU fans. Because of that, we got primetime screens and the background audio ahead of the Texas game (lol). The game itself was a typical OU thriller, with the team blowing multiple chances to put the game away and winning on some last-second heroics. The weekend was capped.

Elizabeth napped the rest of the way back while I drove in silence, listening to Michigan’s beatdown of Maryland. Now I was extra happy, as both of my teams would be playing their rivals for a chance to go the conference title game in a week. The sun was setting in a pink-purple blaze of glory by the time I reached Norman and pulled the car into Fetch and Stay, where Scipio was exceedingly grateful to see us. We took him back and all three of us got ready for a well-earned night of sleep. Without a doubt, it had been one of the best birthday weekends.

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