Sunday, December 23, 2007

The 'Other' Family Trip

Today, my husband, James is taking over the blog. While I was in Canada with my Mom and Marty earlier this month, James, Maddie, Josie and my Dad headed to California. DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions of my husband are not mine. I take no responsibility for typos, bad English, or offensive remarks !!!

James writes:

While Michele was taking her trip, Maddie and Josie were with me for a combined business trip/ weekend vacation. It had been a while since my parents saw Maddie and Josie and I was hoping to get some good photos of our daughters at Disneyland for our family Christmas card.

Any Southern California Disneyland fan can tell you that the best time to visit is the first two weeks after Thanksgiving. Disneyland is decorated for Christmas and there are no crowds. It’s easy to ride all the attractions but most of all; it’s a jolly good atmosphere. Maddie is well in to her teenage, “everyone is against me” years, so it’s good to have her at place that reminds her ha life is not bad.

Josie, on the other hand, has been asking me to take her to Disneyland for the past two months. While she enjoyed her first visit, which was right after her second birthday, her awareness daily grows exponentially.

As an added bonus, my father-in-law, Charlie, was with us. We assumed that with Michele and her mother traveling to Canada, Charlie would appreciate the peace and quite. The fact that he preferred to travel with us for a whirlwind tour of Southern California did not go unnoticed.

We flew on Virgin America – quite an airline. We took advantage of the very low fares and were nearly the only passengers on that flight. Think of Virgin America as a nicer Jet Blue. This is good because when Jet Blue goes out of business, Virgin America stands ready to pick up the slack!

My friends a Prietive group had a 2008 Volvo XC70 station wagon waiting for us at LAX. We piled our luggage and ourselves in this very nice vehicle to begin our Southern California adventure.

The first stop was In-N-Out burger. They’ve opened one right next to LAX, which I managed to miss during our April visit. A sign stated that their starting wage was close to $10/hour. Hmm – maybe we CAN afford to move back!

I was once told that Charlie’s oldest brother, Danny, passed away in Los Angeles in 1963. That was the last time Charlie was in Southern California, in a cemetery close to LAX. We visited Uncle Danny’s final resting site, which was less than two miles from LAX. It was quite moving to see Charlie’s reaction when we found it. He took the time to point our to Maddie and Josie that Danny is one of their great-uncles. While Josie didn’t understand, that moment as not lost on Maddie.

Now, off to my first meeting – Cal Poly Pomona!

Of course, the 405 Northbound was clogged. My Southern Californian driving acumen kicked right back in – we took the 405 South to the105 East to the 110 North to the 210 East to the 71 South and we were at Cal Poly Pomona is less than 30 minutes. No comments on the speed. My front seat passenger, Charlie, was wearing his sunglasses so I wasn’t sure of his reaction to my fine driving skills or if his eyes were opened for much of that journey.

I’m always honored when I’m invited to speak to the engineering students. The faculty much enjoys it also – after all if things worked out well for a slacker and screwball as I was, there is hope for all! We meet with my favorite professor, Dr. Mike Shelton, who is now the chairman of the Mechanical Engineering department. I was surprised to see my old 3-D dynamics professor, Dr. Berkowitz! I’m glad that he didn’t quiz me on anything on that subject!

After my meeting, Maddie wanted to visit the Arabian horse stables. We first visited the stables in January, where we were given a very nice tour. Maddie learned about al the horses and the Equestrian Science program and Cal Poly, while Josie would run, stop, point and yell, “HORSE”!! I think Charlie was a little surprised to see that Cal Poly had such an extensive facilities (of which he only saw half – we didn’t visit the other part of the Agricultural sciences facilities. I explained to him that when W.K. Kellogg (yes, THAT Kellogg) gave the land to California for a college, he wanted them to teach engineering and raise Arabian horses. The Kellogg ranch was surrounded by Diamond Bar ranch and Phillips Ranch – both now cities of the same name.

One of the students that were decorating the stalls for Christmas told us that the yearlings were out and about. Maddie made a beeline to those yearlings as Charlie carried Josie to see all the horses that were in their stalls, then walk to see the yearlings.

For some reason, Mother Nature made babies of all species cute and adorable. Watching all the yearlings come to Maddie, Josie, and Charlie for affection (and hoping for food) was great.

Now, to Disneyland!

Like any premium hotel chain, Marriott treats their loyal customers quite well. After checking in, we went to the hospitality suite to relax. I was constantly on my Blackberry (I WANT AN iPHONE!!!) Confirming my appointments and teleconferences while trying to relax. Because there was a major NFL game that evening, would be taking the kids to Disneyland, then meet a colleague after we returned.

There’s nothing like being greeted my Mickey Mouse when you enter Disneyland and we experienced it. Mickey was quite happy to see us and the feeling was mutual. There’s nothing better than watching my two daughters have a good time. The big event that evening was Josie going her first roller coaster, She enjoyed it so much that we did it twice! She was a little scared as we stood in the very short line, but seeing, Donald, Goofy, and Pluto riding the coaster helped out.

Jet lag is a travel curse that most have yet to counter and we were no different. Eating breakfast at the local Denny’s at 4:0 A.M., we discussed our plans for the day. Charlie was going to Disneyland with the kids while I attended to my business.

Mother nature steeped in for, by 9:30 A.M., the rain was so hard that we changed our plans. We would leave for Lancaster now and return to Disneyland on Sunday.

To say that my parents where delighted by our earlier than planned arrival would be an understatement. My parents were delighted to see their grand daughters and made Charlie feel at home. And they said, “hi” to me.

Our dear friend, Dave, joined us for the Saturday adventure – the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. Like those that because politically aware during the brief Kennedy Presidency, Reagan affected many of my peers in the same manner. I believe that he was one of our best Presidents and personified that office, that position, and our country. We are, by nature, an optimistic country. Our Declaration of Independence stated that we American believe that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are inalienable human rights. Reagan never forgot that and practiced it throughout his public career.

As I toured the museum, it came to me that his was a public, not political career. I contrast his leadership and stewardship to the current venomous environment that’s found in all level of government today. There’s nothing wrong with this country and all levels of government that a President wit vision, with an understanding of this country’s foundation, and leads with that foundation, couldn’t fix. And NONE of the current candidates, especially on the Democrat side, have this. Oh well.

That evening, we found that our good friend, Larry Grooms, is running for Lancaster City Council. The old guard that has run Lancaster in to the ground is dying. Larry would make a great city councilman and, if he chose, a great Mayor.

By the way, I drove my father’s 1999 Dodge Caravan during our Saturday trek., I think we were all surprised to see how that 2.4 liter 4-cylinder engine performed. Most amusing was when Charlie mentioned to my father about my average driving speed. My father replied, “He’s actually slowed down a bit!” He would not have made that comment if his minivan had a bigger engine.

Sunday was a great day. Charlie was at the Downtown Disney ESPN Zone taking in the Sunday NFL action, we went to Disneyland and California Adventure. Josie drove a car for the first time and Maddie went on her favorite California Adventure rides (I know, “Eisner’s folly” has only four attractions that are Disney quality). And the Raiders beat the Broncos.

Other than experiencing a “wave off” while trying to land at Dulles, Monday was your typical coast-to-coast travel day. Michele had a very nice Chicken dinner waiting for us when we arrived home and the kids were very happy to see their Mother.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A Life Full of Riches

This essay was in this weeks Newsweek magazine, which came in my mail today. I thought it was lovely... It's also a timely reminder of how much I have to be grateful for....

A Life Full Of Riches
This material world constantly reminds me of what I don't have. But somehow I still feel wealthy.
By Karl R. Green

Updated: 3:34 PM ET Dec 15, 2007
It was early December 2003, my first season as a Salvation Army bell ringer, when I was confronted with the question. I was standing just outside the doorway of a Wal-Mart, offering a "thank you" and a smile to each person who dropped a donation into my red kettle. A neatly dressed woman and her young son walked up to the kettle stand. While she searched her purse for some cash, the boy looked up at me. I can still see the confusion and curiosity in his eyes as he asked, "Are you poor?"

"Well," I stammered, trying to think, "I have more than some people, but not as much as others." His mother scolded him for the social no-no, and they hurried off to do their shopping. His question, however, did not leave me.

I've never thought of myself as "poor," but I can't deny certain facts. Every time I fill out my 1040 form, I fall into one of the lowest income brackets. In the past 35 years, I've taken just one vacation trip. My TV is a black-and-white set that someone gave me eight years ago.

Yet I feel nothing more than a passing whim to attain the material things so many other people have. My 1999 car shows the wear and tear of 105,000 miles. But it is still dependable. My apartment is modest, but quiet and relaxing. My clothes are well suited to my work, which is primarily outdoors. My minimal computer needs can be met at the library.

In spite of what I don't have, I don't feel poor. Why? I've enjoyed exceptionally good health for 53 years. It's not just that I've been illness-free, it's that I feel vigorous and spirited. Exercising is actually fun for me. I look forward to long, energizing walks. And I love the "can do" attitude that follows.

I also cherish the gift of creativity. When I write a beautiful line of poetry, or fabricate a joke that tickles someone, I feel rich inside. I'm continually surprised at the insights that come through my writing process. And talking with so many interesting writer friends is one of my main sources of enjoyment.

But there is one vital area of my life where I am not so well off. In a society that spends so much emotional energy on the pursuit of possessions, I feel out of place.

When I was younger, there was an exceptionally interesting person I dated. What was most important to her, she told me, was "what's on the inside." I thought I had found someone special to share my life with. Then I took her to see my apartment. At the time, I lived in a basement efficiency with a few pieces of dated furniture. The only new, comfortable chair was the one at my desk. Shortly after her visit, our relationship went straight south.

The seemingly abrupt change in her priorities was jolting. It remains a most memorable turning point in my personal journey.

In contrast to relationships, stuff just doesn't mean that much to me. I think most people feel the same way—except when there are social consequences to not having particular items. There is a commercial on the radio that begins, "Everybody wants a high-end TV …" The pressure to purchase is real. It may be true that everybody wants a high-end TV. After all, nobody wants to be a nobody.

But I'm happy to live without one. In fact, not being focused on material goods feels quite natural to me. There are many people throughout the world who would consider my lifestyle to be affluent.

Near the end of the year, when I put on the Salvation Army's red apron, something changes inside me. Instead of feeling out of place economically, I begin to feel a genuine sense of belonging. As I ring my bell, people stop to share their personal stories of how much it meant to be helped when they were going through a rough time. People helping people is something I feel deeply connected to. While I'm ringing the bell, complete strangers have brought me hot chocolate, leaving me with a lingering smile. Countless individuals have helped to keep me warm with the sentiments of the season: "Thank you for ringing on such a cold day." "Can I get you a cup of coffee?" "Bless you for your good work." December is the time of year I feel wealthiest.

Over the past four years, I've grown to understand more about myself because of a single question from a curious child. As I've examined what it means to be poor, it has become clear to me what I am most thankful for: both my tangible and my intangible good fortune.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Christmas Card Outtakes

These are a few of the photos that didn't make the cut for our Christmas cards. I know I'm biased, but I honestly believe that these two beauties just can't have a bad picture...

Only 8 more "sleeps" till Santa comes!!!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Our Christmas Miracle !!

Josie sat on Santa's herself!!

She has been telling me for weeks, "I'm not sitting on Santa's Lap". Today, while at the mall, I had Maddie walk up with her. I told her that Maddie was a little scared. "Could you go with Maddie to make her feel brave?" I asked.

"Sure, Mom," was Josie's reply. She had just got up from a quick nap. I had the girls photos taken today for our Christmas cards and the place was running REALLY behind. As in, 'we-waited-for-an-hour-and-a-half-with-our-good-clothes-on' behind. I was not a happy camper. Neither was Josie by the end of the session.

Maddie was a trooper, but she's way too critical and hard on herself. She's a beauty, and a smart one too! Her smile can light up a room and she just doesn't see it. Out of 90 photos, we only managed to find 4 that we all truly liked!! I'll post those once my Christmas cards are mailed out...should be Saturday at the latest.

Hope all of you are enjoying the Holiday Season.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Josie Goes 'Gangsta'

So, a few weeks ago, Maddie is listening to some songs on the computer. Josie makes her way in and when the song 'Low' comes on, she breaks into dance. Of course, she demands that Maddie and I dance with her... So there we are, the three of us, throwing our bodies around the office and jammin.

Once we were done dancing I say to Maddie, "Who does that song?" She replies "FLO- Rida".

"FLO who?"
"FLO Rida."
"Madd, last time I checked, Florida was a state, not somebody's name."
"Mom, it's FLO Rida, not Florida."
"Well, Madd sounds STEW pid to me...."

I thought it was funny....Maddie just winces now at her parents attempts at humor.

Anyway, Josie loves to dance to the song and I finally remembered to grab the camera when she went all 'gangsta' on us. She is one funny kid.


This weekend, we had a lot of 'teamwork' going on...

On Saturday, we all lent a hand to Maddie who was preparing her science project. She will be growing and analyzing 3 different bean types with various levels of soil acidity. Earlier in the week, we visited a local farm products store and the owners were kind enough to donate the bean seeds in support of Maddie's project. Don't you just love local merchants who support the kids education?! I know we do ! Early Saturday we did all the soil mixing and planting. Later in the day, Maddie and her Dad built a support stand for the growing lights she'll be using for the seedlings. Even Josie got in on the act, helping move wood blocks around (her specialty!) I helped mix the soils and documented the process for Maddie's presentation which will be done in February.

On Sunday, we decorated the Christmas tree. This year, Maddie took a back seat while Josie helped put the ornaments on the tree. She was so very careful, telling me over and over again, "Be careful Mom, they're fragile" (and yes, she does actually say fragile !) She put me to shame... I was the one who broke a bulb! Josie stayed well focused and arranged everything 'just right'! We had a really fun time. Here are some of the handmade ornaments I purchased on our trip to Canada last week. I think they are beautiful - birds are a special favorite of mine... After all, what's more natural to have on a tree than birds ?!

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Road Trip...To Canada!!

Last Thursday, my Mom, my friend, Marty and I departed on a long 'girls' weekend. We drove from Virginia to Canada in search of a Marche de Noel or Christmas market. My Mom was born in Quebec City. She lived and worked there until she came to the US to marry my Dad. We made the drive from Philadelphia to Montreal and Quebec many times as kids. Back then, our family of 6 did it in a Volkswagon Beetle. Our last trip up to Canada as a family was around 1975.

Since that time, my Mom has only visited the province of her birth once. I had visited in the early 90's with some girlfriends - we went to Quebec for the Winter Carnival - so it had been sometime since I had also visited. Marty had never been to Quebec and was overjoyed at the prospect of going on a vacation that she didn't have to plan. We were all quite excited for the trip.

We left at 5:30AM Thursday morning and checked into our hotel in Montreal by 5PM the same day. The trip was uneventful and we all enjoyed the scenery once we were out of New Jersey. We encountered just a bit of snow on our way through the Adirondack Mountains. Our hotel in Montreal was in the perfect location - a side street in Vieux Montreal. It was just two blocks away from the Notre Dame Basilica . Our arrival was perfectly timed - we had plans to see a light show at the cathedral at 6:30PM. The show, "And then there was light...", is a multimedia presentation of the history of Montreal. It focuses on the founding of Montreal and how the Basilica came to be what it is today. The show was really interesting and the Basilica is just beautiful.

We left the Basilica and found a nice restaurant called 'Crepe Suzette' where we caught a late, but light dinner of hot soup and crepes. Yummy! We were all very tired so we walked the half block back to the hotel and hit the hay. In the morning, we did a bit more sightseeing and shopping before packing up. Our ultimate destination, Quebec City, was just a 2.5 hour drive away.

We arrived in Quebec City and found our hotel (again in seemingly the PERFECT location!)dropped our bags and headed out to explore. It was cold and windy and a light snow was falling. It was just beautiful. We took our time strolling the streets and checking out the boutiques. Around 4PM we found ourselves in front of the famous Chateau Frontenac. It is the most photographed sight in Quebec, not to mention, an elegant hotel.

We decided to stop in and see the Christmas decorations. Then, we decided to stay a while. We found a table in the bar which overlooks the St. Laurence. We ordered a cheese and fruit plate and some of the pomme frites. Mom had a glass of wine while Marty and I opted for warmer treats - I had a Baileys and coffee and Marty - a hot chocolate. We had a lovely time just talking and watching the fog roll in over the river. It was a nice treat.

It was snowing as we left the Chateau. As we headed back to the hotel, we enjoyed looking in a few more shops. We happily called it a day around 8:30PM.

Saturday was when the real 'fun' began. We bundled up (the projected high for the day was 3 degrees!) for the 10 minute walk to the market for the Marche de Noel. We walked out the door of the hotel and it seemed as though the air was frozen in our lungs. It was COLD !! Not only was it 3 degrees, but the wind was kicking at about 25 MPH. I had sunglasses on to protect against the glare and the wind, but when I wrapped my scarf around the bottom part of my face I ended up steaming up the glasses. I ended up walking into a few things... The walk was all downhill, steep hills. We took the walk with baby steps - my biggest fear being that my Mom would take a fall. We made it in one piece and happily shed our coats inside the warm market. We found some really unique Christmas ornaments, farm goods and a bakery specializing in buche de noels (yule log cakes),

Handmade Christmas decorations

My Mom just loved this couple who specialized in apple products - they were so warm and friendly.

Marty with one of the artist at the market

Mom rests with just part of the haul

Once we figured out that we would never get back up the hill to the hotel with all our packages, I ran to go get the car. It took me about 1/2 an hour - walking into the wind (Brrrrrrr) and waiting for the valet to bring out the car. This, of course, gave Mom and Marty a chance for 'tag-team' shopping... One sat with the packages while the other picked up more goodies. By the time I returned and loaded in our packages - the back of the car was full!! Thank God that we drove and didn't fly...we would have never managed!

From the market, we travelled 30 miles east of Quebec to visit Ste. Anne de Beaupre. I remembered visiting this shrine as a child with my parents. It is a beautiful Basilica, with some of the interior pillars holding some of the canes and crutches of those who have found a cure there.

We enjoyed touring the Basilica, but got the 'bums rush' to depart because there was a funeral taking place there about 2 hours after we first arrived. We didn't mind though, it felt a little funny 'sightseeing' while the family started to arrive and greet one another...

We made our way back to Quebec around 2 PM. We managed to stop by the Montmorency Falls on the way home. But, again, it was so cold we just ran out, took our photos and headed back to the warmth of the car and its heated seats!

Marty at the Falls

On the street outside of our hotel, there were Christmas festivities being held - carolers, choirs performing, and Victorian Christmas characters, along with Pere Noel himself. I grabbed them and asked if I could take their photo with my Mom, where upon, they went and dragged her to middle of the street and started calling her 'maman'!

We finished our shopping and sightseeing around 5PM, then headed indoors to enjoy a nice relaxing dinner. Throughout the day we kept hearing about a 'monster storm' that was due to hit on Sunday. Our original plan was to take our time leaving on Sunday and stop somewhere around Saratoga Springs for the evening. That all went out the window when the forecasters were calling for a foot and a half of snow in the Adirondacks. We decided it was best to leave early on Sunday and see how far we could get before the snow started. We left Quebec at 6:15 AM and we were at the US border at 10AM. We missed the snow but hit some rain around New Jersey. We walked into my sister Claudine's house in Maryland at 6:15PM. Darling sister and daughter that she is, she had a nice dinner waiting for us! Thanks, sis!! Marty and I headed out to Virginia about 8PM and had no trouble making it home - exhausted, but happy. It was a wonderful trip and I'm so glad I got to share it with my Mom and my dear Friend, Marty.