Sunday, September 23, 2012

New thing #47: Bunco bunch brunch

Anyone who knows me well finds it hilarious that a non-game player like me is in a bunco club. Part of the reason I participate is that "bunco" is code for "get together to eat, drink, gossip, and occasionally toss a pair of dice". But the main reason is the group of women with whom I play.

A job transfer brought us to Michigan ten years ago. We landed in an upscale neighborhood, and I wondered how we would fit in. Senior's hair was longer than mine, I had a couple tattoos, The Girl was in her Goth phase and The Boy hadn't quite grown into his front teeth. We were the only house on the street with resin chairs on the deck and a Harley in the garage. But the neighbors seemed friendly, so when I was invited to fill in as a sub in their bunco club, I decided to give it a try. I remember being intimidated with these women at first. One of them owned a plane, for crying out loud. Another lived in a castle. All were confident, successful and bright. And welcoming. And fun. I've been playing every month since then. If I need to know the name of a good contractor or a recommendation for a great restaurant, I call one of the bunco girls. When I had back surgery, they all pitched in and brought dinner to my family every other night for weeks. We celebrate each others's successes and support each other in hard times, so I really wanted to share a New Thing with my bunco babes.

There is a beautiful venue nearby called the Pine Knob Mansion. It's a popular spot for weddings, and they also host a Sunday brunch. Most of us had never been there, so we decided it would be fun to visit. Since none of us are planning to get remarried, we went for the brunch. We set out on a chilly fall day, only getting lost once on the labyrinth of roads winding up to the Mansion. This English Manor residence was built in 1927 by Colonel Sidney Waldon, who served as VP of the Cadillac Motor Company and was also responsible for creating the landing field now known as Selfridge Air Force Base. Only a few of the rooms are open to the public, but they are all impressive. There is a library straight ahead of the foyer, a beautiful paneled bar and ballroom to the left and the Great Hall to the right, where brunch is served. A stone terrace stretches across the back of the home, anchored by a gazebo and bordered by a serpentine wall. The house and surrounding gardens are located on the highest point in Southeast Michigan, literally right next to Pine Knob ski hill, and offer the best views in town.

The Great Hall has a beautiful arched ceiling, huge windows accented with stained glass, and ornate wood trim. The brunch buffet is laid out with a selection of traditional breakfast foods (including an omelette station) and a variety of heavier lunch selections. I felt it was my duty to sample just about everything they had to offer, even managing to nab pieces off a pyramid of fresh fruit without starting an avalanche across the white tablecloth. The attentive staff made sure our glasses were full and our empty plates were removed promptly. (It could be that they were just trying to stay warm, since there was a cold draft through the hall that lowered the temperature to almost unbearable proportions). After stuffing myself, I noticed that people were coming out of the bar with plates piled with cake and chocolate covered strawberries. Always up for a challenge, I uncorked my hollow leg and went to check it out. You could make your own ice cream sundaes, or help yourself to an array of desserts that I'm pretty sure came straight out of Costco's freezer case. They even had chocolate covered bacon, which of course we all tried. It was very salty and pretty disgusting.

Brunch at Pine Knob Mansion was a lovely, relaxing experience and I recommend it to anyone. But if you want to book a wedding there, I suggest you check the concert schedule at nearby DTE music theater first, or don't bother hiring a band. And wear a jacket. And stay away from the dessert bacon.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

New thing #46: Bikini boot camp

I've been hearing about Bikini Boot Camp at my local gym for almost two years. It's tough enough that some people enroll in a conditioning class just to work their way up to this one. It's run by a petite blond dynamo who just returned from maternity leave and can still bounce a quarter on her stomach. My best friend is one of her recruits.

Just to clarify - you don't wear a bikini to this class; it's supposed to whip you into bikini shape. My current shape is somewhere between pear and starfruit, and I knew one class wasn't going to do the trick. But if I don't challenge myself, who will? So I put on my big-girl pants (the ones with the built in sports diaper, just in case jumping was involved - I am fifty, after all) and headed to the gym.

We warmed up on the elliptical for about fifteen minutes before going to meet our instructor, Jessica. [Note: Jessica is actually a friendly, soft-spoken professional who took time to explain each move and correct our form, all while giving us useful tips like how to avoid stressful eating and how to reduce water retention bloat. But in the interest of artistic license, I will refer to her as the Drill Sergeant (Sarge) for the rest of this post.] 

Sarge handed us tonight's program, a full page of exercises focusing on upper body and core moves. Most of the moves would be done on something called the Tower, a tall, sleek torture rack with adjustable straps attached to a vertical sliding mechanism. Our training was broken into four sections. Each section had two different exercises that targeted opposing muscle groups. I can never remember the names of the muscles, so I just related each section to my problem areas:

     Group 1 - Back Fat/Armpit Bulge

     Group 2 - Batwings/Popeye Arms
     Group 3 - Droopy Shoulders/Humpback
     Group 4 - Beer Belly/Plank Butt

For the first group, Sarge said to move the slide up to the top of the Tower and put the weight between 15 and 25 pounds. Naturally I set mine at 12. We did fifteen reps of Back Fat with each arm, then segued immediately into fifteen reps of Armpit Bulge with each arm. I finished and was feeling pretty good until Sarge told us that we were repeating the entire set three more times. And get this, the last set didn't stop at fifteen reps - after you finished those, you rested for a few seconds then repeated reps until you reached the point of muscle failure. May I say, this was not the most motivating instruction I've ever received. 

I made it through the whole routine, using the counting technique I learned as a kid. "1, 2, skip a few, 44, skip some more, 99, 100." When I finished, I looked at Sarge like a happy puppy. She pointed to the door and said "Laps!" Two of them around the track; a mix of jogging and sprinting. By the end of the second lap I was composing my last will and testament in my head.

We were expected to repeat this whole routine for all four muscle groups. All the other Brunhildas quickly lowered the slide on their Tower to chest level and got to work on their Batwings. I gamely reached up to release the lever on my Tower, but since my arms were now jelly I couldn't get it to budge. I ended up standing on the base of the Tower, pulling with both arms in short, jerky motions accompanied by short, jerky grunts, until I finally wiggled the lever out far enough to set the slide into the correct position. After this everything became kind of a blur. We moved on through endless sets of Batwings and Popeye Arms, around the track twice more, then endless sets of Droopy Shoulders and Humpback. At this point I hit the figurative wall. Light headed and nauseous, I sipped water and took wobbly walking laps around the track until I felt better. I did return and try a set of Beer Belly/Plank Butts, but only made it through one before common sense took over and I headed down to the locker room.

I took Sarge's advice and stretched out my throbbing muscles, then grabbed my gym bag and headed to my car. I had to use my knees during the drive home because I couldn't get my arms to move the steering wheel. I was sore the next day (week), but not as bad as I had feared. I even heard a tiny voice deep inside me that said I should go back and keep trying until I make it through the whole class without skimping on any moves.  But I was able to drown it out with a nice glass of red wine from the comfort of my couch.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

New thing #45: Disc golf

I'm counting down my final few New Things, and with less than a month to the deadline, my family is pitching right in to make sure I reach my goal. Today they took me to play disc golf. There are a lot of courses around here, some easy and some more challenging. We went to Seymour Lake Park and played the back nine; a nice course that winds through the woods before coming out into the open near the ball fields. 

Disc golf is played by tossing flying discs down a course, aiming for the chains and basket of the target pole. You'd think you could just grab a Frisbee from the garage to play. But no, you have to go out and buy official disc golf discs, which are basically Frisbees with a thick beveled edge. They have putters and drivers and mid-range discs, all with different degrees of loft and speed. I tried a few different kinds, and every one I threw went about six feet and landed in a bush. 

I was having too much fun to get discouraged. The Boy showed me how to wind up on the tee (like pull-starting a motor) and Senior taught me to keep the disc level during release. The Girl and The Boyfriend kept us laughing and helped retrieve my wayward discs. I did get better as we moved through the course, despite the fact it took me two turns to cover as much ground as any of the boys did in a single throw. And even though I had a hard time zeroing in on the target, I managed a direct hit on The Girl with my disc. Twice.

I played real golf once, about thirty years ago. I made it to the second green before throwing my clubs down in disgust and swearing that I'd never play the game again. I've matured a lot since then. I haven't improved, but I've definitely matured. I'm a long way from the LPDGA, but I had a really fun afternoon with my family and I will play this game again.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

New thing #44: This one sounds more elegant in Haiku

Why yes, that IS two women on a giant inflatable Hot Dog.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Tubing seemed like fun;
But I had never tried it.
Sounds like a New Thing.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Inflate the Wiener!
And we shall conquer the waves.
But the lake says no.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Flying in the wake.
A moment later, airborne.
A nose enema.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Mermaids of the frankfurter
Regain the saddle.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Friday, September 7, 2012

New thing #43: Stand Up Paddling

 What's SUP!
Stand up paddling (SUP) is one of the fastest growing water sports, probably because it's not hard and you don't need a ton of equipment. I've been noticing people out on our lake with paddle boards and thought it looked like fun. Old men, pregnant women and dogs have all glided past our dock with ease. It wasn't long before my buddies at Groupon made me an offer I couldn't refuse - a paddle board lesson for three people taught by Urban Wave SUP. Sarah and Chani started the business earlier this year, and they'll bring everything you need to get the fun started.

Senior and The Girl joined me for our early morning lesson. The air was cool; the lake was calm and quiet. Chani showed up right on time and unloaded a variety of boards. She has a fun surfer vibe and set us right at ease. The 90-minute lesson starts on land, where you learn some basic rules and practice holding the paddle correctly. 
Before long we were in the water and ready to practice what we'd learned. 

We attached leashes to our ankles and The Girl bungeed a lobster to the front of her board for luck. You start out on your knees, and then push yourself up to a standing position. I thought this would be the hardest part, but it was actually pretty easy and we all popped right up. Chani continued to give us tips as she led us out into the lake, like how to brace yourself to shift your weight so your toes don't fall asleep from the death grip they have on the board. The stroke you use while paddling is different than propelling a kayak or a canoe. You keep your arms straighter and use your core to gain momentum. If you do it right it's a great workout.

After a few minutes, both Senior and The Girl really got the hang of it. I, on the other hand, couldn't get rid of my jelly legs. They both skimmed around the lake, executing turns and slicing through the shallows, while I continued to wobble and paddle around in circles, cursing all those old men and pregnant women and their dogs. I only fell once, somehow managing to end up sitting on the board instead of touching the icky lake bottom, but I never felt relaxed and was getting pretty frustrated. Then Chani suggested I trade boards with Senior, who had been paddling a longer, heavier board. Eureka! It made a world of difference and I immediately began to enjoy myself. SUP frees you from the confines of the canoe or kayak. You can turn on a dime or in a lazy circles, skip over the wake of a passing boat, streak across the bay or pause to watch the Bluegills swimming beneath you. You can stand, sit, kneel or just lie down and float. It's about the most versatile water toy I've ever tried.

By the end of the lesson we were considering buying boards and starting our own SUP community. But a good board isn't cheap, and you have to have a place to store it. Renting will work better for us for now, especially since the girls at Urban Wave will deliver the rental boards to our door. So keep your eyes open, we might be cruising by your dock one of these days.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

New thing #42: Hot air ballooning

“Well, one day I went up in a balloon and the ropes got twisted, so that I couldn’t come down again. It went way up above the clouds, so far that a current of air struck it and carried it many, many miles away. For a day and a night I traveled through the air, and on the morning of the second day I awoke and found the balloon floating over a strange and beautiful country."                                                                 ― L. Frank Baum, Oz: The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz

If you ever get the opportunity to experience balloon flight, you might find yourself wishing to be in Professor Marvel's shoes. It's a unique adventure that begins when your pilot snaps a tracer up into the sky to check the wind, and ends with a traditional champagne toast after you land.

I often see Sky Adventures hot air balloons floating in the sky over Oxford, so I decided to book a ride with them. At first I thought I might be flying solo, but then my fearless friend Marie agreed to join me. It took three tries before the weather and our schedules aligned in ballooning harmony, but we finally got to meet the crew and our fellow passengers. Marie and I were assigned to the Mini Phee, the smallest of four balloons that would be lifting off that evening. One of the pilots released a small latex balloon into the sky to check the prevailing winds, which determines the launch site.  The boy scout camp in Metamora was chosen, so we headed there in a caravan of trucks and trailers and watched the crew set up. It was remarkable how quickly the baskets and frames were unloaded and assembled. The balloons, which were stored in large canvas bags inside the trailers, are unloaded by slowly driving the trailer ahead while crew members dole it out on the ground, foot by foot. A flame-retardant skirt is attached to the end of the balloon envelope and then strung onto the basket frame. Now came the really clever part: diesel-powered industrial fans were wheeled out and used to inflate the balloons. It was fascinating to see the long tubes of nylon grow into colorful elongated spheres while crew members held firmly onto the skirts. Once the balloons were fully inflated, the pilot crawled inside the basket.  His crew slowly tipped the basket upright while the pilot fired up the burners. This heated up the air enough to keep the envelope inflated until we were ready to board.

A small portable ladder makes climbing into the basket quite easy. In no time we were rising up into the air, more smoothly than any elevator. It's very peaceful but not as quiet as I expected. There is a steady hiss from the fuel line, and when the burner comes on it erupts in a noisy burst. It's also quite warm, most likely from the huge deadly plume of fire hovering just over your head. The balloon rotates slowly as you drift through the sky, so sometimes you see where you're going and sometimes you see where you've been. The view is phenomenal, so clear that we could see the Detroit skyline over 40 miles away, and so much better than peering through an airplane's dirty plexiglas window. I think anyone who rides a motorcycle can relate to the wonder of actually being able to see and taste and smell the scenery as it goes by.

We meandered over the countryside at an average speed of about 6.5 mph, alternating between rising up then gradually dipping low enough to let the trees brush the dust off the bottom of the basket. At our highest altitude we reached 1400 feet. Neither Marie nor I felt any fear, even when hanging out over the side of the basket to take pictures of our reflection in a lake, or trying to grab pinecones out of the treetops. Great Blue herons glided below us, deer paused in the woods before dashing under the trees, and livestock paced in their fields, perhaps unsettled by the strange sound of the balloon above them. Most of the ride was over rural countryside, where the house-to-chicken ration leaned heavily in favor of the chickens. We waved and called to people out working in their yards or sitting on their front porch enjoying the soft evening air.

After about 45 minutes the tanks ran low and it was time to land. Our pilot picked out a suitable landing place in an undeveloped double lot of a country club subdivision, about 10 miles from our lift off point. There is a vent at the top of the balloon that he can manipulate by pulling on a cord, and that helps him regulate our speed and loft. He told us to hold on and keep our knees springy in case the landing was rough, then expertly steered us towards a 'Chaser' who had followed us on the ground. When we got close enough, our Chaser reached up and guided the basket down to a smooth gentle landing. We climbed out of the basket and helped tip it on one side to be dismantled, then waited as the crew walked the length of the balloon, squeezing out the air and securing it with straps before rolling it up. We helped them return it to the canvas bag while carefully shooing away the many curious grasshoppers that inhabited the empty lot. Apparently a grasshopper trapped in the nylon of the balloon will eat its way out.

We drove back to our meeting point and joined the other balloonists to swap stories and pop open some champagne (or sparkling juice). We toasted our successful flights and agreed that they ended all too soon, and we should do it again. Maybe next time we'll get all the way to Oz.