Monday, December 23, 2013

Waconda: The Holidays

When we closed on our house last June, we planned a 4-6 month timeline for our rebuild. We were looking forward to celebrating Christmas in our new home.

Well, Christmas is in 2 days. And the house isn't quite ready.

Here's hoping for Valentine's Day.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Waconda: The road to a full house is paved with empty promises

Finally, we have basement walls! The 2-man masonry crew has slowly, painstakingly placed the blocks to create our basement walls below the grade, and since this picture was taken, the wood portion above the grade has been finished. The quality of the work so far has been good, but somehow no one except Senior noticed that somewhere along the line a footing was left off the drawing, which has to be corrected. So next week we can look forward to… nothing. All the contractors are going hunting. The latest plan is that they will begin to lower the house the Monday after Thanksgiving, weather permitting, and then promptly knock it over.

The biggest learning experience so far has been the disappointing realization that no matter how many times our project manager promises to keep us informed of any changes to the schedule, he will never contact us unless he wants a check. If we push for an update to the timeline, the answer is usually "next week". The weather had been gorgeous all October, so it was frustrating to visit the site on a beautiful afternoon and find that the crews hadn't shown or had already gone home, or that materials hadn't been delivered. We knew to expect that the project would take a lot longer than planned, but we didn't realize that communication was a one-way street.

On the bright side, Senior and I have been meeting with Toby on the interior plans and they are coming along great. We want a simple, clean, energy-efficient design that puts the attention on the view and not on the house. It's been a lot of fun picking out materials and finishes. We download a gazillion pictures from Houzz and Pinterest, and have become pretty good at stealth photography of anything that inspires, no matter where we find it. I find myself noticing details that never seemed important before - for example, now I can tell you the finish on every driveway on my block, including the apron at the garage, and what type of faucet is used in most of the upscale ladies rooms in the tri-county area. We send our ideas to Toby, and he manages to put them into a cohesive design.

Back at the job site, we've heard the neighbors are having fun imagining how much money we are throwing into this hole. So far they have all been patient with the workmen's trucks encroaching on their driveways and a big old Porta Potty taking up prime real estate by the road. We've tried to respond quickly to any concerns, which has been well received. But they still think we're crazy. And maybe we just are.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Waconda: Stuck in a Rut

Here is what the house looked like a week ago, after the footings were poured: 

 And here is what it looked like today:

I know laying the ground work and marking straight lines is time consuming, but those ten blocks don't look like much to me. I can see they are making SOME progress. I know this because the site is full of important-looking things, like wheelbarrows, plumb line spools, pallets of block and vast piles of dirt. (And Gatorade bottles. These guys go through a lot of Gatorade. A hundred years from now someone will dig under the house, come up with the empties, and wonder if we were bootlegging the stuff in our basement.)  So based on this evidence, I'm hopeful that by next week we will have walls!

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Waconda: Lift-off!

We have lift off - the cottage is up in the air! And I mean waaaay up. It's pretty spectacular. In fact it's a bit of a distraction to people driving by. The cottage sits on a winding road with a blind curve to the east. Traffic tends to go by pretty slow, especially if a Sunday driver wants to take a picture of the lake. I understand that it's a kind of a shock to see a house suspended in mid air, but c'mon people, don’t stop your car in the middle of the road to gawk! That’s just asking for trouble.

Our new demolition contractors, Fred and Jim from C & A Construction, were busy prepping for the new foundation. Digging out the basement turned out to be harder than snapping your fingers without using your thumb. I guess when the last thing to move the earth on your property was a glacier, and a house has been sheltering that dirt from wind and rain for the last 95 years, it gets pretty compact. They actually had to use a jackhammer to break it up in order to excavate it.

We've had our own challenges these last few weeks trying to get Consumer's Energy to shut off the gas at the road. They took the "measure twice, cut once" concept to a new extreme and marked the property 4 times before they actually sent a crew out to cap the line. I've been trapped in an endless phone loop with them since July trying to get this straightened out.  Meanwhile our project manager struggled with securing the building and soil erosion permits from the township. I learned that building permits are based on the square footage of your entire dwelling, not just your living space. This seems to include exterior walls, eaves, porch, driveway, mailbox, passing cars and the square mass of all the ducks on the lake. But with persistence and a checkbook, all the issues were finally resolved.

We were supposed to get a call the day they actually lifted the house so that we could watch, but that didn’t happen. It’s a slow process, so perhaps it was better that we got to wait and see the dramatic transformation all at once. Once they had dug out enough dirt, two long steel beams were inserted under the length of the house. The way it was explained to me, they jacked up one end of the house and then supported it with four foot lengths of railroad ties. Then they moved to the other end and jacked it up to match. They repeated the process, stacking the railroad ties like Jenga towers, until they had enough clearance to pour the footings and build the basement walls. The whole thing is really cool!

The excavation crew is wrapping up, and if all goes well, the masonry crew should be in next week to pour the footings. We are really excited to see the project moving forward. Check back later to see our progress. And stop trying to snap your fingers without using your thumb. It just doesn't work.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Waconda: The Prologue

If you read this blog regularly, you might recall this post about the summer cottage we bought in 2012. The original owner christened the house “Waconda” when he built it. Our plan was to eventually renovate the cottage into our permanent year-round home. 

It’s really important to us that the finished product retains some of the original character of the house and if possible, remains true to its roots. The cottage is something of a local landmark due to its location. The setting is ideal, just outside of town with beautiful lake views and a long shoreline. Everyone seems to know the "little red house on the bay". We've had great times there with our kids and our friends, having cookouts, watching fireworks and just pushing off into the lake to float. The Girl engineered a fire pit and The Boy was inspired to write this song while sitting on the fishing dock. It was easy to overlook the peeling paint and sagging roof and the chimney that looks like a domino run. The house had a fridge and running water. Not much else was necessary for a day at the lake. But with no furnace and less than 800 square feet of living space, it wasn’t going to work for us to move in full time.

So shortly after purchasing the cottage, we contacted Crest Homes and had some plans drawn up. Meanwhile we put our other house up for sale and waited. And waited. And waited. We showed it more than thirty times without an offer. It was located in a high-end subdivision but didn’t have all the high-end finishes that are a requirement for the HGTV generation. So after six months we took it off the market, got out our cookie cutters and made it picture perfect. Last May we listed it again, encouraged by the news that the housing market in Michigan was starting to upswing. Within 5 days we had accepted an offer for more than list price. We set a closing date in mid-June and called our builder to tell him to dust off our housing plans.

Last year, before we bought the property, Senior met with the local township and showed them a statement of work describing what we wanted to do. The inspector said everything looked fine and we should have no issues.  So imagine our surprise when our builder went to apply for a building permit and was declined.

Our biggest obstacle is that the house was built before the current zoning laws were written. Grandfather rights allow us to continue using the property in the same way without restrictions, but any changes may violate the zoning code and have to be approved. We aren’t trying to build a McMansion that covers the entire lot, but we do want to extend the house a few feet towards the road. Years ago there was an attached one car garage (you can still see the cement footer) and we want to reclaim that square footage. 

Our builder was convinced that he could talk the inspector into approving the plans. He spent the better part of two weeks trying to convince the township to see it his way. After all, there was no other direction we could expand, and our neighbor’s garage extends right out to their property line. The inspector steadfastly refused, saying his hands were tied by the setback requirements. After their game of chicken ended in a tie, I went down and filed the paperwork requesting a variance to the zoning law, paid the application fee and waited. And waited. And waited. It took 5 weeks before we were put on the agenda.

In August, after sitting through 3 hours of zoning appeals from Starbucks and Sonic Drive-in and one other resident, we were unanimously granted our variance. We were now clear to begin our project! Step 1: a basement. The current house rests on pilings and dirt and, in one corner, a house jack. Again, because we are grandfathered in we are not allowed to tear down the existing house, but we are allowed to lift it up out of the way. We contacted the house-lifting guy we had lined up to see when he could start. He told us that due to the delay he was now fully booked and couldn’t get to our project until late October. Ugh.

All setbacks aside, we are finally ready to get the project underway. We've found a new house-lifter who will (hopefully) be prepping the site this week. We are working with a great designer, Toby Fraifogl, who is helping us visualize the metamorphosis. 
After many months of planning and dreaming, we are on the verge of reality. My job is to chronicle the transformation, which I’ll do in this blog. If you are curious, check back in and see our progress.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Czech it out

I expected a recent business trip to Eastern Europe would find me in a busy, polluted, post-Communist city. I was pleasantly surprised when I ended up instead in the town of Rožnov pod Radhoštěm in the Zlín Region of the Czech Republic. 

I flew out from Detroit’s huge airport on Father's Day, missing a family cookout at the lake. As I waited in line to board the plane, doing my best "bored-frequent-flyer" impression, I heard the guy behind me tell his friend that he was missing a family cookout at the lake. I thought that was kind of a cool coincidence. Then I heard the guy go on to say that the cookout was at his daughter’s boyfriend’s lake house. It was at that point that I realized that his voice was familiar, the daughter he mentioned was The Boy’s girlfriend, and the cookout he was missing was at our lake house. We said hello and laughed, and he expressed relief that he hadn't said anything derogatory about said boyfriend.

The flight was uneventful but included 2 layovers, so the total travel time was about 19 hours (it took 23 to get back home). Usually the plant I’m visiting arranges a driver to meet me at the airport, and usually the driver is late and speaks no English. I was pleasantly surprised when I walked out of the tiny airport into the bright sunshine and found a work colleague waiting for me. He even bought lunch on the way to the hotel.

The hotel was kitschy looking on the outside but very comfortable on the inside. The beds were just firm enough and the room was well equipped, with an unusually strong internet signal and a full restaurant and bar. The only drawbacks were the typical European shower, about half the size of a phone booth (obviously not made for porky American tourists), and the lack of air conditioning or a ceiling fan. The region was in the middle of a freak hot spell, and temperatures over 90˚F every day meant that the small room heated up to sauna temperatures.

I settled in and then met a coworker from Germany for dinner at the hotel restaurant. I needed to get up at 6:00 am the next morning for work and I hadn’t slept much on the flight, so I turned in early. The U-shaped design of the building discouraged any breezes through the opened windows. What did come through the window was the sound of the man in the adjacent room snoring. I tried to convince myself that it was Czechian crickets, which was the only thing that kept me from chucking one of my steel-toed boots through the window at his head. Eventually I fell asleep until the sunrise woke me up. I was really surprised to find it was only about 4:30am. Sunrise in Michigan at this time of year doesn’t happen until about 6:00am (although sunset in both locations was around the same time).

Work kept me busy during the days for the week I was there, but I did have time in the evenings to explore the area. It was a short walk from the hotel to the old town center, through a beautiful park that ran along a river. The first time I went, my German co-worker joined me. We wandered to town and, after deciphering an ATM that only spoke Czech, we stopped for dinner at a small restaurant with an outdoor patio. Just as we sat down a thunderstorm blew in, so we had a great lightening show to accompany dinner. We considered the possibility of a lightning strike as we hugged the pole of the patio umbrella to avoid the raindrops. We decided the trees and rooftop spires around us would offer the least path of resistance (a decision that may or may not have been enhanced by the good local beer), so we stayed outside for the entire meal. By the time we were done the storm had blown over and we stayed dry on the walk back to the hotel.

The local food is really heavy and starchy. Every meal includes potatoes or noodles, something fried and lots of gravy. There was only one night where I was able to find and order a green salad, and it came with a side of cracklings, which were little fried pieces of goose skin swimming in a bowl of semi-congealed fat. I tasted it for posterity, and was reminded of the time my older sister convinced me that I should try a spoonful of Mom’s secret kitchen treat, Crisco. 

The people we spoke to (who were very friendly and vigorous) contribute their good health to Slivovitz, a local plum brandy. It’s clear and smooth and delicious, served ice cold in clever little short-stemmed shot glasses after the evening meal. It’s highly recommended as a digestive aid.

The best night was a super evening arranged by the Plant. They organized a private English-speaking tour of the Wallachian Open Air Museum, a well-known landmark in this little town. Afterwards we headed to Pustevny in the Beskydy Mountains for a hike and dinner at Hotel Tanečnica. The views were spectacular, and I managed to keep up even though I didn’t know about the hiking part and wore ballet flats. Dinner was excellent and the company was even better. Here are some pictures from our adventure:



My last afternoon was on the summer solstice, and we finished work early. My coworkers headed back to their homes, but my flight didn’t leave until early the next morning. So I explored the town again, venturing outside the parameters of the town square. Most people live in colorful but shabby apartment buildings. Trimming the grass is not a priority. People get around on bicycles or foot-powered scooters. I bought a chocolate gelato (served in a silver holder, which I nearly walked off with before realizing they were just offering a hands-free serving), did some window shopping, took some photographs of the scenery and relaxed by the river with a book. There was a festival going on in the park with many local musical groups performing short sets - an indie-flavored pop act, a quintet of high school girls playing classical music, children in traditional costume singing folk tunes, fresh-faced boyband wannabes and various duos with guitars. It was a peaceful way to end a hectic work week and a nice segue to my long flight back home.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Facebook Papers: Bonus Chapter

What is the Facebook Project? Well, I hadn't posted anything in a while, and the people who actually read this blog were getting pretty vocal in wanting me to post something. Since nothing was inspiring me to write, I turned to that great bastion of culture and refinement, Facebook, and asked readers to suggest topics that I could blog about.  I have to say, I have some weird Facebook friends. So here is what their suggestions inspired.  Each fb comment is a separate post, in order of response.

This little project was supposed to be complete, but this late suggestion is near and dear to my heart. I waste a lot of hours at the airport waiting to travel somewhere during the course of my job.  There are few things at which I excel more than complaining about it (topped only by my grumbling about the time actually spent on the airplane). And although most of the airports I pass through are updating the decor, I still have to deal with the people and the policies. So without further ado, my own personal top ten list of the worst things about airport travel:

Bonus suggested topic: Airport traveling annoyances

#10:  Walking past the sky lounge and knowing you aren't important enough to get inside.

  #9:  Charging station hogs.

  #8:  When your luggage gets stacked above another suitcase on the baggage carousel and you can't reach it.

  #7:  $5 for a package of sour patch kids and no free wifi.

  #6:  The guy who hovers at the front of the 'elite' boarding line, even though he is seated in Zone 4.

  #5:  Anyone who talks on a cellphone next to me. Text, dammit!

  #4:  Getting stuck behind a rookie in security. Yes, you have to take your shoes off. Aaaand your belt.

  #3:  People who take their shoes off any place else except security (especially the toe-pickers).

  #2:  Bathroom doors that open INTO stalls that are too small to enter with carryon luggage.

  #1:  Getting to Gate F14 after walking for 25 minutes, only to be told that your flight now leaves from B68.

Friday, June 7, 2013

The Facebook Papers: The Copycats

Well, the Brazil Nut suggestion certainly spurred a lot of similar requests. Too bad my tiny little attention span won't allow me to do them justice, so you will have to be satisfied with the short answers. 

Suggested topic #10: The chick pea is neither a chick nor a pea. Discuss.
     Of course the chick pea is neither a chick nor a pea. It is actually a garbanzo bean. Unfortunately that name makes you think of annoying blue-nosed muppets instead of nutritious, tasty, yet decidedly mealy legumes. So back in 1976 the garbanzo bean industry went to France for a makeover and came up with the name "chiche", (French for 'mush'). Over the years, in typical telephone-game fashion, the name has evolved to the present day Chick Pea.

Suggested topic #11: The "Thin Ice" sign sitting on a lake of thin ice... who put it out there?
     I did. You darn kids stay off my lawn. And my frozen lake.

Suggested topic #12: Does a horse push or pull the cart behind him?
     Neither. Carts are always pulled by donkeys. Horses are in charge of buggies and carriages. (And in case you are wondering, plows are pulled by oxen and pushed by farmers, and wagons are pulled by suburban parents at street fairs, festivals and fireworks displays.)

Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Facebook Papers: The Brazil Nut

Suggested topic #9:  The Brazil nut is neither a nut nor from Brazil.  Discuss.

Court Officer: All rise. 

<Judge enters>

Court Officer: Court is now in session. Please be seated.

The Court: Mr. McBirney, please proceed.

Mr. McBirney: Thank you, your Honor. I’d like to call the Defendant, Mr. Excelsa.

<Defendant takes the stand>

Court Officer: Raise your right hand. Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?

Defendant: I don’t have hands. But I do swear to tell the whole truth and nothing else.

Court Officer: Be seated.

<Defense approaches the witness>

Mr. McBirney: Please state your name, address and occupation for the record. 
Defendant: My legal name is Bertholletia Excelsa but most people call me Brazil Nut. I come from Cobija in the Pando region of Bolivia. I am a seed.

Q. Could you tell the jury about your family?
A. My family is Lecythidaceae, in the order Ericales.  We are related to blueberries, cranberries, tea, gooseberries, phlox and persimmons. 

Q. Thank you, now, could you tell the jury about your educational background?
A. I don’t have a formal degree. I spent my formative years in a fruit pod, grown at the top of an enormously tall tree in the Amazon rainforest.

Q. Were you alone in that pod?
A. No sir, there were 24 of us.

Q. Could you describe to the jury what happened on May 13 of this year?
A. Sure, sure. It was a typical day in our tree. We were hanging there in our pod minding our own business, you know? It had been really wet and the branches were hanging low. A late afternoon storm came up and we tried to hang on, really we did, but our pod was heavy, right?  We were mature and, and the pod - it was thick and woody and really, really heavy, about 4 pounds! We couldn’t hang on to our tree. So we fell. And it was a long way down, over 80 feet! A guy was walking by – I mean, what kind of idiot does that, just goes for a walk in the rainforest?

Ms. Hoover: Objection, your honor! 

The Court: Sustained. Mr. Excelsa, just tell us the facts.

A. Ok, ok. So this guy walking through the forest passed right under our tree, at the exact same time that we lost our grip and fell. We landed square on his head, bounced once and fell to the forest floor. The guy was dead before he hit the ground. We were lucky he didn’t land on us.

Q. So what did you do next?
A. The force of the impact caused our pod to split. We all fell out and scattered on the ground. It felt great to be out of that cramped space.

Q. Did you try to help the victim?
A. What could we do? The guy was huge. Besides, we’re seeds. We don’t have a lot of first aid skills. And there is terrible cell phone reception in the rainforest. So we just waited.  The next day some castanheiros came by for the harvest and found him. They gathered all of us up – luckily they used separate containers for the guy and us – and took us to the marketplace. That’s the last I saw of the guy.

Mr. McBirney: Thank you sir, that’s all I have for this witness.

The Court: Ms. Hoover, your witness.

Ms. Hoover:  Thank you, your Honor.

<Prosecutor  approaches the witness>

Q. So, Mr. Excelsa, you claim to be a seed?
A. I am a seed.

Q. And you claim to be from Bolivia?
A. I am from Bolivia.

Q. But you go by the common name “Brazil Nut”?
A. Yes. Well, that’s what most people call me. Some people have another name for me, but it’s not politically-correct and rather demeaning.

Q. Don’t you think it’s misleading to call yourself a nut from Brazil when you are actually a seed from Bolivia?
A. I can’t help it if people don’t know the difference between a nut and a seed. I told you I grew up in a fruit pod and lived there until it split apart. True nuts don’t split – the seed and the fruit are one and the same. In fact, peanuts aren’t nuts either! They’re seeds too, like me. But who wants to eat a Pea-seed?

Q. And your location?
A. Look, my tree is native to Brazil, but not everyone stays in their home town. Did you?

Q. That’s irrelevant sir. Please answer the question.
A. We have to follow the orchids. Our tree has beautiful flowers with long coiled hoods. In order for our fruit pods to grow, the flowers must be pollinated by an insect strong enough to lift the coil. We depend on orchid bees to do this because they have a long tongue to reach the nectar, so we can only flourish where the orchids grow.  A lot of my relatives still live in Brazil, but most of us have spread throughout South America.  Bolivia is especially popular with my relatives because of their pristine forests.

Q. All right then, Mr. Excelsa. Is it true that you have the potential to cause great harm to humans?
A. No! We are a valuable part of a balanced diet! We have vitamins and minerals, and are the richest dietary source of selenium. Selenium boosts antioxidant activity, is very important for proper functioning of the thyroid gland, and lowers your risk of joint inflammation. We also contain an amino acid called methionine that fights off chronic illness and signs of aging.

Q. How much Selenium do you contain?  
A. Well, the amount varies from one Brazil Nut to the other.

Q. Is it true that 1 ounce of Brazil Nuts can contain 10 times the adult U.S. Recommended Dietary Allowance for Selenium?  More even than the Tolerable Upper Intake Level?  And that you also contain Phytic acid, which can prevent absorption of some nutrients, and trace amounts of radium, a radioactive element?
A. Uh, well…Yes, but…but that is if you eat 6-8 of them at one time. No one needs that many. We are the biggest seed in the mixed nut container.

Q. And yet you always seem to be at the top of the container, don’t you Mr. Escelsa?  Why is that?
A. That’s the “Brazil Nut Effect”.  We are 65% oil so we are lighter than most of the rest of the nut and seed crowd. And we’re kind of delicate. Our high fat content means we go rancid pretty quickly. But we are also creamy and delicious. Our oil can be used as a clock lubricant, for making artist’s paints, and in the cosmetics industry. We are a very well-rounded seed family.

Q. So sir, did you know the victim prior to the accident?
A.  No, not personally

Q. But you did recognize him?
A. Not really. All you humans look alike to me.

Q. Did you know the victim was a successful local artist, known for his exquisite carvings?
A. N-no

Q. Did you know that he specialized in carvings made from the fruit of the Brazil Nut tree? In particular, those found near Cobija in the Pando region of Bolivia?
A. <whispers> No

<Prosecutor reaches into her large briefcase and removes an intricately carved Brazil Nut pod>

Exhibit 1
Ms. Hoover:  Your honor, the People would like to mark this object as Plaintiff’s Exhibit 1.

The Court:  So noted.

Ms. Hoover:  So Mr. Escelsa, do you recognize this carving?  

Ms. Hoover:  Mr. Escelsa?

The Court:  Mr. Escelsa, answer the question.

The Court:  Mr. Escelsa, ANSWER THE QUESTION.

Defendant:  <visibly upset> Yes!  It’s my cousin.  He killed them. He killed so many of them.  He had to pay!

<Pandemonium ensues>

The Court:  Order! Order in the court!

Ms. Hoover.  No further questions, your Honor.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Facebook Papers: Retirement!

Suggested topic #8: Retirement! What would you do... if you could?

So what do you think the suggester meant by 'if you could'? If I could do anything? Or if I could retire? Because at this rate, I will still be working until I'm 82. Most likely I will spend retirement just trying to keep my heart beating. Oh, and hoping that my kids will finally move out of the house.

The only way I see myself retiring at an earlier age is if I win the lottery. And if that is the case, I will devote all my free time to the Big Head Corps, raising funds towards the preservation and restoration of the world’s largest papier mâché head collection. If I'm really good at it, maybe they will let me wear the Tom Selleck head in the Detroit Thanksgiving Day parade.

This photo was totally hacked from The Big Head Corp's facebook page

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Facebook Papers: Finding Love

Suggested topic #7:  Finding Love... how you keep each week from being your last with a husband and older kids

OK, these Facebook blog topic suggestions are getting tougher. Truth is, I don't how how to find or keep love. I just got lucky. 16-year-old Jess met 17-year-old [Beforehebecame]Senior back in high school. I barely remember those two kids. She was the do-gooder in a family of cynical liberals and he was the rebel in a family of faith-centric conservatives. But the same traits that made us the square pegs in our own family dynamics meshed beautifully when we met. I read something recently that said that it was easy to fall in love; the hard part was learning to like the person you were left with after the initial attraction wore off. Fortunately for me, I like Senior. We balance each other, although somewhere along the way we traded personalities. I think a lot of people who meet so young can grow apart, but we grew up together. He taught me to be spontaneous and positive, and I taught him to appreciate the little things. We had common goals, a strong sense of humor, and the blessing of good fortune. And I think pulling up our roots and moving a few times helped our little family grow stronger because we learned to rely on each other in every new situation.

As for keeping love alive with older kids? I guess that depends on what age you are talking about. If you have teenagers all you can do is hunker down and hang on for the ride. My kids, now in their 20's, are actually pretty fun to be around. A couple things that worked really well for Senior and I over the years was to make sure we took vacations together without the kids, even if it was just a weekend trip. It helped us focus on being a team, working towards a common future. And when we were home and the kids got in trouble, regardless of what age they were, Senior and I would take the time to talk out the crime and the punishment together before we disciplined them. We were a united front. Luckily we didn't have to practice this too often. Oh believe me, the kids got into all kinds of trouble, but basically they were pretty respectful of our rules. In fact, the only time I can remember wanting to trade both our kids in for a pair of goats happened when they were pre-schoolers. It started with a trip to the grocery store. It ended with a cop. 

It was always a challenge taking the kids along when I went grocery shopping at the local Tops Market, especially before the invention of cool race-car grocery carts and digital media distractions. Before the advent of 24-hour mega marts, stay-at-home moms like me didn't have a lot of options. Once in a while a neighbor invited one of the kids over for a play date, or maybe Grandma would drop in and babysit. But typically I hauled them along and hoped for the best. I liked to go in the morning before they got too cranky, but one day I got sidetracked by other tasks. Before I knew it, it was early afternoon and there was no food in the house. I had planned to try a new recipe for dinner and needed to get the ingredients, so I made a list (organized by aisle to minimize the time spent in the store) and loaded the kids into my little pickup truck. Unfortunately I didn't realize that they had spent the morning watching Barney videos backwards, and now were brainwashed into misbehavior.

I spent the first half of the shopping trip using one hand to keep The Boy stuffed into the little seat at the top of the cart while he tried to thread his huge fat feet back out through the leg openings, and using the other hand to corral The Girl so she didn't pull all the coupons out of the electronic coupon dispensers and stuff them in her pocket. When they weren't whining about the confinement, they were singing their version of the store's jingle "Tops never mops, look at their floors!" at the top of their lungs. My patience was wearing thin when The Girl said she had to go potty. I gave her the standard mom grilling: "Now? Are you sure? Can it wait?" Noticing the insane glint in my eyes, she told me she was okay and could wait until she got home. 

I turned back to the cart and found that The Boy had removed the lid from a carton of yogurt and was eating it with his hands. What didn't go in his mouth was in his hair or on the cart handle. In hindsight, I should have let him finish it, but at that time the acceptable response seemed to be to yell at him and take the carton away. I rummaged through my purse for wet wipes (a mom staple) and cleaned him up. That's when I realized that The Girl was no longer anywhere in sight. I called her name twice and she appeared, popping around the corner from the paper product aisle. I warned her to keep one hand on the cart for the rest of the trip if she wanted to make it out of the store alive. That's when I noticed her shoes were damp. This couldn't be good. I asked her to explain and with tears in her eyes she said she couldn't hold it anymore. I whipped the cart into the paper product aisle and found… nothing. The Girl calmly showed me where she had crawled up on the bottom shelf behind the bulk rolls of paper towels to do her business in private.

I seriously considered just quietly rearranging the paper towels and walking away, but I figured karma would hunt me down. I called a stock boy over and pointed out the puddle. He looked at us, speechless, and called for a cleanup. (I guess Tops does mop their shelves). We slunk away towards the dairy aisle, where I paused to explain to The Girl why she could never, ever, ever do something like that again. As this was going on, The Boy decided he was being ignored so he might as well look for another snack. He turned around in his seat and rummaged through the items within reach. A carton of eggs was in his way, so he grabbed it and flipped it out of the cart. It opened and landed upside down, breaking all dozen eggs on the floor. Time stood still.

One of the other shoppers took pity on me and offered to find someone to clean it up so I could get out of the store. I thanked her profusely and started toward the checkout. Before we got more than a couple steps away, The Girl handed me a big hunk of expensive cheese and asked if we could buy it because she liked it. I told her she had never had that kind and we weren't getting it. She turned the hunk over and showed me where she had bit into it and found it delicious. I put the cheese back on the shelf.

I made it through the long line at the checkout lanes without sobbing and headed out to the truck. I buckled the kids into their car seats, stacked the grocery bags in the truck bed, and got behind the wheel. Suddenly it struck me that with all the drama, I forgot to buy Parmesan cheese in the dairy aisle. At that moment, having Parmesan cheese seemed like the most important thing in the world. I needed Parmesan cheese. I was not going to be able to make it through another day without Parmesan cheese. It was a key component in the recipe I planned to make for dinner, and something was going to go as planned that day, even if it meant that I had to go back into the store. I looked at my children and realized that it would be a Very Big Mistake to take them back in with me. They were safely strapped into their seats, so I locked the truck and dashed back into the store solo. I was gone less than two minutes. They were both crying when I got back. Nothing had happened, they were just tired and cranky and under the influence of the anti-Barney. So we headed home, which was only a few blocks away.

I turned off the main street, passing the middle school just as the kids were being dismissed. That's when I noticed the patrol car behind me with his lights flashing. I pulled over, much to the delight of the pre-teens leaving the school. As the officer walked up to my window, I laid my head on the steering wheel and closed my eyes. When he got to me, I rolled down the window.  He looked at us quietly for a moment. Then in a compassionate voice he said, "I have kids too."

It turned out that one of the other shoppers was passing by my truck during the two minutes I was in the store alone. She noticed the two crying children (but apparently did not notice the eight paper bags stuffed with groceries in the back of the truck) and assumed I had abandoned them while I did my weekly shopping. So she called the cops. We lived in a small town with a local police force. It only took a few moments for the officer on patrol to get to the store, but by then I was already in the truck and headed out of the lot. 

I told him my story - that I realized after loading up the truck that I had left my purse at the checkout, so I ran back in to get it. That sounded better than admitting that I had a Parmesan cheese meltdown. He said that was okay, he could see the kids were fine, and that he knew I was probably annoyed but I should appreciate that I lived in a town where people looked out for each other. "Appreciation" wasn't the emotion I was feeling, but I smiled wanly and thanked him for not arresting me, then pulled away and headed home to naps and probably a big glass of wine.

Postscript:  I did ask The Girl if it was okay that I tell this story to the world before publishing this. In spite of her mother, The Girl turned out to be an amazing young woman with a great sense of humor. She said it was fine, and that she would be staging a re-enactment on Tuesday at the local Kroger.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Facebook Papers: The one with the really long title

Suggested Topic #6: "You have traveled to different did that affect you? What did you like or dislike? What was the strangest thing you saw? Where would you like to travel if money was no object and why that place?" 

I have had the good fortune to travel a lot. I've been to most of the US states and Canadian provinces, and had my feet on five continents. The majority of the international trips have been work-related. It's a curious blend of good and bad - the good is obviously the fact that someone else pays for it, and the bad is that it can be crushingly lonely. I'm not a good explorer on my own, and when I do strike out to see the sights, I usually end up at a sidewalk cafe looking at the "real" tourists with envy.

Whether traveling for work or play, the best times are when I've been able to experience something off the beaten path, guided by someone who lives there. I've toured a hobbit house in the German hills, explored downtown Calgary with an off-duty fireman; crashed a South African wedding; played trivia at a Brit pub (I aced the Motown questions); drank from a coconut in a city park in Brazil; participated in an elder ceremony in Thailand, and shot at (and missed) a clay pigeon at a Rod & Gun club surrounded by Iowa crops. I've shopped in markets and bazaars from Tequisquiapan to Shanghai, and have been honored to be invited for home cooked meals around the globe.

I've seen strange-awesome, strange-awful and strange-awkward things. Want to see my pictures from the museum dedicated entirely to potatoes? How about the one of a slug the size of my finger? Or I wish I could show you a video of the time I was hit by a bird! 
I've seen the rain sweep through the mountains in a swinging curtain and shakily crossed a gorge on a narrow swinging bridge. I've held lion cubs and walked with elephants, interrupted a moose's lunch and seen eagles soar. I've sampled exotic foods and local wines poured by the winemaker himself. One fabulous day I renewed my wedding vows with the love of my life at the crest of Niagara Falls.  But the most memorable and enjoyable trips, short or long, have been the ones where Senior and I are on the motorcycle with no particular destination. I'm still planning my dream vacation, where the two of us explore New Zealand in just such a fashion. I want to see if that country is as breathtakingly beautiful in person as it is in pictures.

In case you're reading this and feeling a twinge of envy, I'll confess that I have travel amnesia. I try to forget all the times my stomach flip flops because I have to go on the road again, the crowded flights and missed connections and trying to navigate where I don't speak the language without getting hopelessly lost. I've spent many days trying to work while fighting jet lag and many nights in dingy hotels smack in the middle of industrial parks, wide awake at 3AM and missing my family. I've been on the other side of the world when I've received a phone call telling me that one of my children is in the emergency room. I've flown with an ear infection when I thought my head would explode, and I'm on a first name basis with Montezuma. But no matter what happens on a trip, I'm never back home for long before I get the itch to hit the road again.

So all this travel - how did it affect me? I love it. I hate it. It humbles me. The world is so big and so beautiful and so varied. And there is no place like home.

Friday, April 5, 2013

The Facebook Papers: Writer's Block

Suggested Topic #4: "Writers Block"

Well, I just couldn't think about anything to say on this topic. So I did what I do best: I googled it. Google is awesome. In 0.37 seconds I had 106,000,000 results.

The first link was for a Wikipedia page, which started off with disclaimers, making me assume that the person who Wiki'd this page did NOT suffer from writer's block:

This article is written like a personal reflection or opinion essay rather than an encyclopedic description of the subject. Please help improve it by rewriting it in an encyclopedic style.
The next link was to the Purdue's Online Writing Lab (OWL). It had a lot of encouraging tips designed to motivate slacker students to go write the papers that they had put off until the last minute. Frankly I was too enamored with their cool logo to read much of it.

The third link was to a page about overcoming writer's block by the Capital Community College Foundation. Remind me to never enroll at CCC, or "U Downer" as I like to call it. I wanted to cry after reading the first paragraph:

For many writers the worst part of the writing experience is the very beginning, when they're sitting at the kitchen table staring at a blank sheet of paper or in front of that unblinking and perfectly empty computer monitor. "I have nothing to say," is the only thing that comes to mind. "I am XX years old and I have done nothing, discovered nothing, been nothing, and there are absolutely no thoughts in my head that anyone would ever want to read about."
The next link was to a blog written by Charlie Jane Anders called The 10 types of writers block and how to overcome them. I clicked on the link, but sadly (because I was googling on the job) our own corporate Big Brother blocked me:
Access denied! The page you requested was blocked automatically because of content that is potentially not supporting the corporate goals.
Ok, busted - I guess I should not be surfing the Web at work. Instead I should be in the break area watching the Tiger's opening game like most of the other employees. So I emailed the link to my personal email account so I could check it out when I got home. It's actually a very thoughtful and cleverly-written blog. And it has super-cool pictures! So since Charlie Jane did all the hard work for me, I'll consider this topic complete.

The Facebook Papers: Coffee

Suggested Topic #3:  "Coffee"

Ever since my teenage days, I've adored a good cup of coffee. Right from the beginning I drank it black, the stronger the better. It was a badge of honor before there was a Starbucks or Caribou on every corner. Out in the boondocks where I lived, you bought coffee at a diner or you drank it at home. Coffee was served black at our house. If you wanted it, you drank it that way. I felt infinitely cool when I downed a cup of thick black mud while all my friends gagged at the thought.

In my 20's and 30's, coffee was a bonding experience. When we went to our family cottage, one of the cherished rituals was to have your 2nd (or 7th) cup of coffee sitting together out on the front porch. My in-laws still made coffee with a percolator on a stove burner, and it was delicious. I shared many, many cups with them on weekend afternoons while cousins gathered and football ruled the TV. And as any pre-schooler's mother desperate for adult companionship can attest, having a friend over for a cup of coffee is like taking shelter from a storm.

By the time I was in my 40's, trendy coffee shops were all the rage. I can clearly remember the first time I had a cup of the burnt dirt known as Starbuck's morning blend. I quickly became a fan. I was still a black coffee purist, and a total coffee snob. No milk, no sugar, no cheap grocery store blend, and no flavored beans. The only exception I would make was to occasionally sprinkle some cinnamon over the freshly-ground beans before brewing to get just a hint of exotic taste without any extra calories (or to order one of those fancy after-dinner coffee drinks with three kinds of liquour that overpower the accompanying splash of Folgers).

And now I'm in my 50's, and somehow over the years I've been sucked into the fray. Those fancy coffee drinks were a little indulgence; a reward after a hard day. It started off innocently enough, just a small vanilla latte or a soothing chai tea here and there. I'd ask for fewer pumps of syrup to keep the sweetness down. I knew I could stop any time. I probably would be off the junk today if it wasn't for that insidious crack known as Coffee-mate. It comes in innocent little packages of decadant goodness like peppermint patty, Belgian chocolate toffee, caramel macchiato and about 20 other flavors. And they're everywhere - at the gas station, in the cafeteria at work, on the shelf in my kitchen cupboard...

If I'm going to make it to my 60's without a spare tire or clogged arteries, I am going to have to go back to my coffee roots. I just have to find a stove-top percolator.