Saturday, June 27, 2009

We Took the Scenic Route

Last week, Allyson, my sister Amy, and I drove 1165 miles to Indiana for a week of... eating. And lots of visiting. Bill couldn't understand why we would do such a thing--the driving, not the eating and visiting. He remarked dryly, "That's why they have airplanes." But it was fun. Really.

We left at 8:30 on Saturday morning, about three hours later than our family used to leave when we were children. Dad would force us out of bed and into the car long before first light, and we'd drowse on our pillows while Mom and Dad drank strong coffee from a thermos. This time, I figured if I was going to drive for eight or more hours, I was going to get a decent night's sleep first.

We'd planned to bring Ethan along, but he had received a last-minute invitation to go to New York with a cousin. It was a good thing because, even without him, my little Sentra was packed from top to bottom with snacks, books that I never read, journals that I never wrote in, videos, audio books, coloring books, dolls, pillows, blankets, Kleenexes, paper towels, feminine wipes that we used as moist towelettes, and anything else we could conceivably need or want.

Allyson in the Crowded Backseat

I took the first shift driving, and Amy's job was to entertain Allyson. I think I got the better end of the bargain. Allyson's main pastime was watching Amy load videos into the portable DVD player. It took at least five minutes to load each video and forward past all the previews, and then Allyson would request a different movie after about 10 minutes. To make matters worse, the car charger was very temperamental; one false move during the hand-off to Allyson could interrupt the power, and the whole process had to be repeated.

Allyson was an amazingly good traveler. She got a bit fussy in the late afternoon, but then she took a nice, long nap.

We stopped at the Super 8 in Rolla, Missouri, around 7:30 PM. Allyson wanted to head straight for the pool, but Amy and I were famished. We unloaded all our bags and then drove to Applebee's for dinner.

By the time we got into our bathing suits, it was 9:30, and we had only 30 minutes to swim in the tiny indoor pool. I dipped one toe in the water and decided it was not for me. I only like to swim in hot lakes and pools that feel like bathtubs. Allyson begged and begged me to get in, but I never made it past the third step.

For some reason, Allyson was afraid to get in the water without me, but finally Amy managed to coax her in. She clung to Amy's neck with a death grip, but at last she began to relax, and soon her giggles were reverberating off the low ceiling. When I tucked her in bed at 10:05, she fell asleep almost instantly.

Second Day of Driving
On the second day, the drive was endless, especially after the audio book that was supposed to keep us awake put Amy to sleep. She and Allyson were both snoring, but between the book and my 52 ounces of Diet Mountain Dew, I was able to keep my eyes open. The only problem was that my bladder is apparently about the size of a walnut, and we had to take a bathroom break about every hour and a half.

Dad would have been beside himself; he's always loved to "make time." He peed on the side of the highway more than once to avoid losing 15 minutes of precious road time. In fact, I remember one pit stop in an Arizona desert, miles and miles from civilization. There were no bushes, no cover of any kind, and Dad didn't want us girls to see him peeing, so he stood behind the car with his back to us. We hadn't seen any other cars in 30 minutes or so, but of course that was the moment when two white-haired ladies passed by from the rear. There was no question whether they'd seen IT; they looked positively scandalized! Everyone was mortified except for Dad, who just chuckled sheepishly.

We arrived at my Aunt Sue's right on schedule--7:30 local time. Many of our aunts, uncles, and cousins had gathered for their weekly family dinner, along with Mom and Dad, who had arrived the previous Wednesday. We went straight to the table and had Uncle Dan's ham and beans while we chatted with our aunts. They were anxious to see Allyson, who has become rather famous in our family through my blog.

Allyson couldn't be bothered with eating. She went straight out to play with all the kids. I loved the way they welcomed her into the group. It reminded me of how my siblings and I used to play with these children's parents whenever we'd come up for a visit. I could almost sense the dizzying passage of time. How can I be this old already?

We had the most wonderful stay with Aunt Sue and Uncle Jeff, with whom Allyson immediately fell in love. On the drive up, Allyson had been asking to return home to Daddy whenever she was tired, but for the rest of the trip she just wanted to go back to "Aunt Suze's."

Uncle Jeff and Allyson

Allyson loved all of my aunts and uncles, and she especially loved her great grandma.

Throughout the week, we made the rounds to all of my mother's sisters' houses, and each aunt fed us a delicious meal, complete with one or more decadent desserts. At Aunt Judy's, we sat around the fire after dinner and chatted until dusk. It was cool enough to wear a sweater (!), but the fire was blazing, and when the wind blew in the wrong direction, it made me sweat.

Dad, Mom, Aunt Judy

Allyson was ecstatic when she found a chair that was "just my size!". If you look closely at the picture below, you might spot the charcoal next to her nose. She had entertained herself endlessly by picking up charred chunks of wood and throwing them back into the fire.

We spent one afternoon with Aunt Mary and Uncle Dave, who now live in the house where my grandparents lived for decades. There are so many cherished memories associated with that house, and I'm very thankful that it's still in the family. When I sit in the living room, I can almost hear the muted voices of my aunts and uncles and grandparents, and I remember how I felt so contented while we children played with Lincoln Logs on the glassed-in front porch.

After lunch, Uncle Dave suggested that we take Allyson uptown to the old dime store for some candy. This brought back memories, too. Each time we came for a visit, Grandma would send us uptown at least once, our pockets filled with change. We loved the walk almost as much as the candy; Wakarusa's town square looks like a scene out of a movie.

With the current economic downturn, I expected to see some shuttered businesses, but everything looked as I remembered it. Cook's Pizza was still there, but we didn't have time to go in for a milkshake.

The dime store now specializes in fudges, nostalgic candies, and giant jelly beans. Allyson got to pick out her own candy--a lollipop and a single piece of purple taffy. I bought some Zotz for myself and Ethan. (Do you remember those hard candies with the fizzy, frothy center? They're not quite as good as I remembered.) For Bill, I bought a pound of red licorice jelly beans, his favorite.

On the way back to Aunt Mary's house, Allyson asked, "When will we see the dinosaurs?"

"What, honey?"

"The dinosaurs. When will we see them?"

"There are no dinosaurs here, sweetie."

"But Uncle David said we were going to the dino-saur."

It took me a moment to put it together. "Oh, honey! He said the dime store, not the dinosaur!"

"Oh," she said, crestfallen.

Almost as Good as Dinosaurs
Although we never saw any dinosaurs, we did get to pet some farm animals. We asked Aunt Sue if she knew of a farm we could visit, and after a few minutes of racking her brain, she said, "Of course! My friend Andy has cows, chickens, and pigs. I'll give her a call."

Within 15 minutes, we were on the road for her coworker's house. Andy and her husband welcomed us warmly and gave us a tour of their little farm. Allyson started by holding a chick, which was about six weeks old if I recall correctly.

Next, we got to pet a Frizzle chicken, which Andy referred to as her "fancy chicken." This unique breed has feathers that curl outward, and it feels delightfully soft and fluffy, kind of like a baby chick. We even got to pet the bright red comb, which felt floppier than I expected. The chicken seemed remarkably calm, but Andy said that it was actually paralyzed with fear because of the dogs, which like to terrorize the chickens. (The dogs followed us everywhere when they were not busy roughhousing with each other.)

Next on the list was a pair of calves. I was a little disappointed with them because I was picturing cute little babies, but they were actually more like adolescents. They were only about three months old, but they were probably two-thirds the size of an adult. They seemed shy, and Andy's husband had to muscle them over to the side of the pen so we could pet them.

Allyson wasn't very interested in the calves because she was anxious to see the pigs. The whole time we were petting the chickens and calves, she kept asking when we'd go over to the pigs. At last she got her wish. The pigs were cute, but shockingly smelly--though Allyson didn't seem to notice. She fed them long pieces of grass. I got past my aversion to pig slobber and fed them a couple blades myself. Their noses were soft and slippery and snuffly.

After the pigs came the three full-grown cows. Allyson seemed pretty fascinated with these, not at all intimidated as Ethan had been when he was her age. Andy and her husband remarked several times at how brave she was. She'd probably love growing up on a farm, but I can't see that happening.

I couldn't believe the size of the cows' tongues. Then again, I shouldn't have been surprised; I've shuddered over the packaged cow tongues at the grocery store plenty of times. Their tongues were quite rough and very slobbery.

The last stop on the tour was the ducks' pen. The ducks squawked at us indignantly. I think they would have charged us if the fence hadn't been in the way. I told Allyson they were saying, "Go away! This is our yard." I think she took that literally because she's still talking about those grouchy ducks two weeks later.

Barbies, Barbies Everywhere
I was relieved and proud that Allyson was able to entertain herself at every house we visited despite the complete absence of other children. The main reason was that everyone had a stash of Barbies, most of them antiques. (In fact, I probably played with some of those same Barbies years ago.)

It didn't matter that the Barbies' hair had seen better days, nor that their wardrobes were hopelessly out of style. Sorting through their clothes was like viewing a museum exhibit on the history of fashion. My favorite outfit was a metallic purple mini dress that was strapless on one side and had a white puffed sleeve on the other. I think my little sister Emily wore that same dress in blue for one of her proms.

Hopelessly Disheveled Bride and Brunette with Ridiculously Tight Shorts

These old dolls captured Allyson's imagination, and she entertained herself for hours by dressing and undressing them. At Aunt Cindi's house, she even got to drive them around in a Corvette. Occasionally she'd make up a bit of dialogue between the "mother" Barbie and the daughter, mostly a bunch of bossing: "Hurry and put your dress on! We'll be late for the party." (It's painfully obvious that she hears "hurry up!" way too often at home.)

I was really thankful for the Barbies most of the time, but the only problem was that Allyson often needed help dressing the tiny dolls. Over and over, I mindlessly stripped off the skin tight garments and forced the rigid plastic arms through impossibly tiny sleeve holes while I tried to keep up with the conversations around me.

By Thursday evening, I had wrestled those skin-tight blue shorts off Barbie's slim but rubbery hips one too many times. Suddenly, I had a brainstorm. "You know, Allyson," I said slyly, "Aunt Amy just loves to play with Barbies!"

In a flash, Allyson had carted the dolls and their wardrobe case across to Amy. "Hey!" Amy complained. "Your mama's being naughty." I laughed triumphantly as I watched Amy struggle to put the blue shorts--which I'd just removed--back onto the brunette Barbie.

A few days later, Allyson even charmed my brother's friend Marlin into playing with the Barbies. This is probably why she fell head over heels for him and drew him several pictures on the drive home.

Syracuse Lake
Allyson's favorite day was the Friday we went to the lake. The water there was even colder than the Super 8 pool, but none of the kids minded a bit. Allyson settled at the water's edge with a bucket and a shovel, and she filled and dumped that bucket over and over for about an hour. Occasionally, she played side by side with my cousins' children, but mostly she just stayed to herself.

Macy (or McKenna?), Allyson, Jayce

Allyson and Baby Jude

We left the lake when the thunder started sounding a bit too close, though I don't think it ever did rain. On the way back to Aunt Sue's, we decided to drop by the little Amish store called Rentown to buy some strawberries and some more whoopie pies. I'd bought some delectable chocolate whoopie pies there earlier in the week, but I'd been kicking myself all week for not buying the pumpkin ones, too. I am inordinately fond of whoopie pies; you might even classify it as an obsession. As it turned out, all the whoopie pies were sold out, and the girl behind the counter said, "Ach, those all sell when we put them out on Tuesdays." Now I'll probably never know what a pumpkin whoopie pie tastes like!

Just before we got to Rentown, we passed six adorable Amish girls riding a pony cart. Allyson had missed it, so Aunt Sue turned back around for another pass. "Should we take their picture?" she asked, and we just couldn't resist, though we knew the Amish are private people.

Giggling like teenagers, we drove up beside the girls, who ranged in age from maybe 18 months to about seven or eight, and I snapped a picture. They grinned broadly, seemingly happy to pose for us. The first picture didn't turn out to our satisfaction, so Aunt Sue drove by for yet another pass, and Amy took two more shots. Again, the girls all smiled sweetly. They seemed so proud, and I wondered if their parents worried about them out on their own--being stalked by the amateur papparazzi.

I had an attack of conscience afterward, and though I just have to share this picture, I did black out the girls' faces. You'll have to take my word for it that these little blonde girls were about the most adorable group of children I've ever encountered anywhere. If you click on the picture, you might be able to see the fancy black and pink leggings under one girl's skirt. In the background is one of the beautiful farms that are typical of this area.

On our last day in Indiana, we had a family reunion at the home of my dad's sister, Carol. We spent several hours eating and talking with Aunt Carol, Aunt Donna, and my cousins Rene, Joel, and Jenny (and their families). There were many other family members there, but I don't remember all of their names. One couple had brought their three-year-old grandson, and he and Allyson kept each other entertained and mostly stayed out of mischief.

Allyson, Aunt Carol, Babe

My brother Rick had driven up just for the weekend, and of course he was there, too. He laughed about our two-day journey; he had departed Texas in his Corvette at 3:00 in the morning and then drove for fourteen straight hours, arriving around 8:00 local time. He didn't even stop for meals, though he must have needed a few bathroom breaks since he kept himself hopped up on coffee and Red Bull.

Rick, In Red, with Several Cousins

Allyson was especially taken with Aunt Irma, who used to babysit me when we still lived in Indiana. Irma said that she did a double take when Allyson walked around the corner; she said it was like looking at me back when I was Allyson's age.

Allyson was in her element, often the center of attention. I strained to hear what cute little comment she was making at any given moment. Once, I saw her standing inside the back door and talking excitedly to a relative who was trying to walk into the house. Leaning forward to see what she was telling her, I suddenly sprang from my chair when I read her lips through the door: "I'm pee-peein'!" Oh no!!

It definitely could have been worse. This time I had remembered to bring extra clothes, and since she was wearing a dress, all she needed was a change of underwear and socks. She happened to be standing on a washable rug, so the carpet was unscathed. Whew!

We finished our enjoyable afternoon in the most delightful way--with Aunt Carol's homemade ice cream and her famous hot fudge sauce, which is literally good enough to eat on its own. Allyson and I each had two bowls, and Aunt Carol had at least that many. She's the only person I've ever met who can keep up with me when it comes to homemade ice cream. I once saw this petite woman put away three bowls in a row at my mom and dad's house. I did the same thing, and both of us were suffering for the rest of that evening. But did we learn? Of course not!

Taking the Scenic Route
All good things must come to an end, on Sunday morning, in our case. I got up at 6:30, planning to depart by 7:30. Instead, we sat down to a sumptuous breakfast of pancakes, eggs, and bacon which Aunt Sue had risen early to prepare. It was definitely worth staying for, and I was touched that she would get up so early for us.

So it was 8:30 when we said our last goodbyes and strapped on our seatbelts for the dreaded return trip. My belly was full, and I hadn't slept well the night before (too much homemade ice cream!), so I quickly dozed off while Amy drove. Amy kept remarking that she thought we should have hit 31 by now, but I muttered that it looked pretty far in the atlas. After 45 minutes, Amy woke me and made me consult the map. She really, really thought we had gone too far.

"Where are we?" I asked groggily. She told me the name of a small town, and I couldn't find it anywhere. I consulted the index at the back of the book, and as soon as I read the coordinates, I realized we'd made a big mistake. We were heading east instead of west, and we were nearly to the Ohio border!

"Oh no!" we both wailed. There was nothing to do but turn around, and that's what we did. At 10:00, we passed back through Nappannee, and I bemoaned the fact that I had gotten up at 6:30 for nothing! It took us quite awhile, but we finally shook off our foul moods and decided that we were just meant to take the scenic route.

Come to think of it, our whole vacation was like taking the scenic route. All we did was relax, eat, and visit for a solid week. Just looking at the farms and fields and Amish buggies instilled a sense of peace. We spent hours and hours together, and we never tired of each other's company. Hopefully I can remember to take the scenic route more often.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Here, Take this Water Bottle... No, I Insist!

Tonight I experienced what will probably (hopefully) be the most embarrassing moment of my lifetime...

I was getting ready to put Allyson in the tub when the doorbell rang at around 9:00. Clad only in her blue Dora mermaid panties, Allyson raced for the door before I could stop her. She thought it was her daddy coming home from California, but it was actually a vaguely familiar Korean man.

"Ah, hello," he said in an awkward voice. I pulled Allyson behind the door and opened it a crack. In my right hand, I held a dirty dustpan that I had just used to pick up a petrified water bug (a GIANT roach-like bug that occasionally wanders indoors) that I'd found in the corner when I was sweeping in preparation for Bill's return.

After an uncomfortable pause, I suddenly realized who this must be. Of course! It was the father of Ethan's friend Tin, who'd spent the entire day with us. "Hi!" I said.

He proceeded to ask who the contractor was who had put on our roof last year and whether he had discounted our deductible. Once I figured out what he was asking, I told him I couldn't remember but that I was sure I could find the invoice.

"No hurry," he said. "You can tell me tomorrow."

"Oh, no. I'll write it down and send it with Tin," I said. He knit his eyebrows in confusion, and I figured he was having trouble understanding me. Just then, I remembered the water bottle that Tin had bought at Walmart earlier that day. I was afraid he'd forget it, so I figured I'd send it home with his dad. "Just a minute. I need to give you something," I said.

I raced to the living room and back to the front door, and then I handed him the blue bottle, still in the Walmart bag. "Tin bought this today," I explained. He turned the bottle around and examined it, utterly perplexed. He stared at me blankly. "It's a water bottle that you stick in the freezer," I said when I saw him squinting at the instruction tag that hung from the bottle's neck.

"Contractor left this?" he asked, sounding mystified. "Is this the name of the contractor?"

"No, Tin bought it today..." My voice trailed off as the terrible realization finally dawned on me.

"You're... not Tin's father, are you?"

"Who's Tin?" he asked as he handed the bag back to me.

"Oh my gosh!" I covered my mouth, and I could feel my cheeks flaming. "You live next door, don't you?" He nodded. "I'm so sorry. Tin is my son's friend. I thought you were his father. I don't know him very well."

"It's okay," he said, looking as embarrassed as I felt. I got the feeling that he didn't understand my explanation. Maybe he thinks I have a strange compulsion to give virtual strangers bizarre, cheap gifts.

I was mortified. I might as well have been wearing a T-shirt that said, "I think all Korean people look alike!" The thing is, it really WASN'T an ethnic thing. I've noticed lately that I'm getting terrible with recognizing faces--even people I actually know. Sometimes I worry that it's early Alzheimer's.

The sad truth is, I've never spoken to my neighbor before, only waved at him when he was pulling in or out of his driveway. Obviously, I need to make an effort to get to know my neighbors!

When Bill got home, I told him the whole story, though he could scarcely understand me because I was laughing so hard that tears were streaming down my cheeks. He promptly located the contractor's card somewhere in the garage, and I thought I'd carry it over as a peace offering.

By this time, it was 9:30. When I knocked on the door, I could hear voices inside, but I wondered if anyone was going to come to the door. At last, a woman shouted, "Who's there?"

"The neighbor lady," I answered, which seemed an odd way to announce myself.

"Just a minute, please," she called.

Then my neighbor--Danny, as I recall--opened the door, wearing pajama pants and an undershirt. Oh, good grief! Apparently I had gotten him out of bed! How could I forget that he leaves every morning at 3:30 to open his donut shop? I apologized sheepishly for the late hour and handed him the card.

"Good night!" I said, and turned on my heel.

"Thank you," he called after me.

I will never be able to look him in the eye again!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Yes, I am Beautiful

Oh, it's good to be back in ladies' Bible study after several weeks off. This was my first week of the Beth Moore study Esther: It's Tough Being a Woman. It's speaking to me already, and we're still in chapter 1 of Esther.

Tonight, we talked about how women desire to be beautiful. I don't know that that is necessarily a bad thing, if you keep it in perspective. For me, though, it's been a deep insecurity for as long as I can remember. I don't know why I worry about being pretty enough. Maybe it started when I was growing up with my beautiful younger sister. Or maybe it came from the deep-seated guilt that convinced me I was unlovable. I felt ugly inside, and I didn't know what to do about that, so I focused on the outside instead.

God has delivered me from that burden of guilt, and I am starting to open myself up to be loved by friends and family. But I still struggle with insecurities about my physical appearance, maybe because I'm not willing to surrender that part of my heart to God yet. I pray I'll have a breakthrough during this study.

During tonight's video, there were several moments that brought tears to my eyes because Beth spoke to the hurts in my heart and made me long to be whole. She read us an index card that she often reads during her quiet time. It has three scriptures that she rewrote using the word "I" so that she could remember to make them personal:
  • Colossians 2:10 - I am complete in Christ. (I don't need anyone else to make me complete.)
  • Song of Solomon 7:10 - I am my beloved's, and his desire is for me. (Yes, I am desirable--in the eyes of both my husband and my savior.)
  • Psalm 90:17 - May the beauty of the Lord my God rest upon me.
I had to swallow a sob when she read that last verse. Truly, even more than I desire to be physically beautiful, I long for God's beauty to shine in me. Oh God, whatever you need to do to make me beautiful like you, let it be so!

The next thing Beth talked about was Esther's painful past: she was orphaned at a young age and was raised by her cousin Mordecai; both of them were exiles far from their native land. She had no mother to teach her how to be a lady, but God made her altogether lovely. He surely used her struggles to shape her into someone different from all the other beauties in King Xerxes' harem. And of course, He had an amazing plan for her all along. He didn't erase her past; He built on it.

Beth shared this quote, which I absolutely love: "You cannot amputate your history from your destiny."

She also read some commentary about one of the Hebrew words for "past," which shares the same root word as the word for "present." She said our future is rooted in our past, and that our past, present, and future all have one root--Jesus. I pictured my life as a tree that has been growing from a seed to a sprout to a sapling. All of those stages of my life stem from ONE root, and it's impossible to separate my end from my beginning.

It gave me chills just trying to comprehend this mystery. God doesn't erase my past. Instead, He uses every experience to bend me and mold me according to His plan. As much as I'd like to erase my past mistakes, past wounds, past and present insecurities, all of those trials have shaped me into who I am--into the only woman who can fulfill the destiny God has planned for me. Like Esther, I have been brought into this world and placed into these circumstances "for such a time as this" (Esther 4:14). What will my destiny be?

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Our Amazing Little Safari

Here at last is the rest of the story regarding our mini vacation in May. After our day at the ranch, we headed for the wildlife preserve....

Excerpt from Ethan's Journal, May 2009

After a hearty breakfast of eggs, leftover steak, and potatoes, we headed for Dinosaur World. This was sort of an outdoor museum with over 100 life-sized dinosaurs in a life-like setting. Seeing these massive creatures up close was striking. On a few of the displays, I could squint my eyes and imagine that the dinosaurs were real.

Ethan Running from a Fierce T-Rex

You pointed out little facts about many of the species, and you were able to identify some of them without reading the brass name plates. You were especially excited about the ones you recognized from the Jurassic Park movies, such as the beloved velociraptor.

Despite my oversized sun hat, Allyson's face was crimson from the heat; the humidity in the sweltering air was like a blanket. Nana was worried about her and sponged her down several times with wet paper towels. Allyson didn't seem to mind the heat, but she was a bit on edge. She understood that the dinosaurs were "just pretend," but she still kept asking us if we were scared. She told Nana not to worry, that she would "betect" her. When she posed with these velociraptors, the anxiety in her expression was genuine:

After a half-mile walk in the muggy heat, you and Allyson did the fossil dig. You had ten minutes to sift through some sand and find fossils which had been planted there. Then you could choose your three favorites to take home. (You ended up picking five.) They were mainly ancient teeth, and there was also a piece of amber.
Of course, you had to spend all your money in the gift shop. Nana bought you a replica of an iguanadon claw--which you used to terrorize me, Bill, and Allyson for the rest of the trip. You used your allowance to buy a polished slice of geode which was studded with amethysts.

Next, we drove a couple of miles to the Fossil Rim Wildlife Preserve, where we "camped" in two safari tents. Each tent had cement floors, two twin beds, air conditioning, a ceiling fan, and a pretty bathroom with a tiled, glassed-in shower. The camp overlooked a large watering hole where scores of animals gathered each morning and evening.

We moved into our tents and sat in our wooden porch chairs until the deer, wildebeasts, and oryx had dispersed. Then we drove into town for some barbecue, followed by the most divine banana pudding.

Allyson, Nana, Ethan

After dinner, we sat on the common deck area and witnessed a breath-taking display of lightning. It was so far away that we could only faintly hear an intermittent rumbling. It reminded me of the boom-boom of the approaching T-rexes in the first Jurassic Park movie, when the water in their cups was trembling. I told you about my impression, and you shivered with pleasure. The electrified fence around the perimeter added to the effect. We imagined the velociraptors methodically testing the fence, searching for a way in.

The lightning had begun to fade when we turned in at 9:30. I wondered if we'd have trouble falling asleep that early, but it wasn't a problem.... You were asleep in minutes. Allyson, however, kept the rest of us awake. She said she wanted to sleep alone on the mattress between the two beds, but she soon changed her mind. She wanted Daddy to sleep with her, then she wanted Mama, then she wanted Daddy again. Poor Bill was crowded onto a corner of the tiny mattress on the hard floor, but you and I were quite comfortable in our twin beds.

We woke up at 7:00 to find a huge gathering of animals at the watering hole. It was cool and overcast. We had French toast, eggs, and hashed browns in the glass-walled pavilion, and then we sat in the observation area and waited for the tour bus that never came. You were terribly frustrated by the wait, but I enjoyed basking in the sun as my goosebumps gradually melted away.

We picked up our bag of feed and drove through the preserve in our rented Kia minivan. We all enjoyed the experience immensely, and I can't imagine how the private tour could have been any better.

Within the first few minutes, an ostrich poked its head through your window, and I captured your hilarious shrieks of terrified laughter on video. [As soon as I get a chance to edit that video, I hope to post it.] We fed an endless stream of deer, wildebeasts, oryx, addax, and mountain goats.

Despite the posted warnings against hand feeding, the animals obviously expected it. Any animal that could reach thrust its head in a window. You and Grandpa fed many animals out of your hands. This proved to be an issue with a very assertive mountain goat. It seemed determined to climb in through your window. "Go! Go!" you shrieked when it clunked both front hooves against your door.

We followed the narrow, winding road for miles, often climbing and descending steep grades that took my breath away, especially since you were standing with your torso hanging out your window, your arms spread wide. You said it felt like you were flying. Allyson said it was like a roller coaster.

The animals we most looked forward to were the giraffes. These were the only ones we were offically allowed to hand feed, and they were Nana's favorites.

The giraffes didn't disappoint us. One very tall mother giraffe put her head right inside the van, practically laying her head on our shoulders. We held out flat palms, and her velvety lips slurped up the pellets. We ended up with giraffe slobber on our hands, but it was worth it.

All this time, Allyson--who was ecstatic to be free of her carseat during our 3 mile-per-hour trek--jumped from one side of the van to the other. (This caused a bit of argument; you didn't mind having her on your side if there was a giraffe or a rhino there, but you didn't want her in your space for no reason.) Allyson had been eagerly anticipating her chance to feed a giraffe, but when the moment finally arrived, she cowered in the back row with Nana.

I was so enthralled with the giraffe that I didn't notice the zebra whose nose was brushing my right shoulder. When I turned around, I almost jumped out of my seat. "Well, hello!" I said once I recovered my speech. I felt bad for ignoring this cheeky zebra, so I fed it several pellets.

When we finished our drive, we walked through a little park area where we fed the rest of our pellets to a cantankerous ostrich, some algae-covered turtles, and a school of shimmering silver fish that made the water churn as they devoured the food.

I couldn't believe how much fun we managed to squeeze into three days. I'm sure we'll remember our little vacation for years.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Now Who's Laughing?

Today's adventure centers around a Crock-Pot chicken recipe. It all began when we woke up at 6:30 A.M. and realized there was no electricity. We'd been having violent storms all night long, and they continued through the morning. The first thing I did was crawl back in bed since I couldn't work on my laptop and it was too early to wake Allyson.

When we got up, we enjoyed a breakfast of cold cereal and untoasted English muffins with peanut butter. Everything Allyson wanted required electricity--oatmeal? scrambled eggs? peanut butter toast?--and she was not too pleased.

I'd planned to turn on the slow cooker at 9:00, but 9:00 rolled around, and there was still no power. After a moment's thought, I decided to take the slow cooker to work with me. I knew if I left the chicken in the refrigerator, it would probably spoil. And what if the stove wasn't working when we got home?

I packed the chicken into a small cooler bag, along with several unopened packages of cheese and a package of Italian sausage, all of which I had purchased the night before. (See, this is why I usually just shop one meal at a time. Who knew that getting organized this week would cause such inconvenience?)

It took three trips to the car before I finally had Allyson strapped into her car seat. Luckily, it had stopped raining for the moment. I dropped her at Denise's house, which was also without power. Allyson was a little nervous and needed a couple extra hugs. I think she was afraid the storm would come back--which it did.

Just as I pulled into a parking space at work, the sky opened up. I couldn't wait it out because I had just six minutes until my first teleconference of the day, and I still had to load all of that food into the refrigerator and start up my laptop. I strapped the laptop's backpack on, slung the cooler bag and my purse over one arm, and stacked my Tupperware lunch container on top of the slow cooker. I took a deep breath and stumbled out into the rain, kicking the car door shut behind me.

I started to run, but the can of black beans jostled dangerously against the jar of picante sauce inside the slow cooker. So I did my quickest power walk to the building. When I arrived at the fourth floor, I was a stressed-out, drowned rat.

My local boss, Mike, spotted the slow cooker immediately. After he'd lightened my load, he asked with a laugh, "So, what's for dinner tonight?" (This wasn't the first time I'd brought the slow cooker to work, much to Bill's embarrassment. For some reason, everyone at work finds it hilarious when I cook under the desk in my cubicle.)

"Chicken with cream cheese and salsa and black beans," I answered as I hurriedly transferred the meats and cheeses into the tiny dorm-sized fridge across from my desk.

"What's the sausage for?" he asked. I explained about the power outage, and he promised to remind me to get the sausage on my way home.

When it was time to assemble the ingredients in the slow cooker, I was on my second conference call of the day. I hollered to Bill, who sits just on the other side of the divider, to ask if he would open the black beans for me. He grumbled that he didn't have time to track down a can opener, but Sherry piped up that she had one at her desk. (This is what I love about working in a cube farm! Everyone knows everyone else's business.)

My Friend Brandy and Me, my Cube, 2003

Bill retrieved the can opener and opened the can for me. He handed it over gingerly, as if it might be rancid. (He hates beans.) I drained the can over the trash can and poured in only half the beans, as a compromise for Bill. "Will there be anything else?" Bill asked sarcastically--though I could hear the laughter in his voice.

"Yes, actually. Could you grab the chicken out of the fridge?"

"Sheeze! Do you want me to rub it with spices and dice it for you?"

"No, just hand it over," I said, rolling my eyes.

Bill in his Cube, 2001

It was sometime around this point that I realized I didn't have a can of corn. "Oh, man!!" I wailed. Mike suggested I check the drugstore around the corner, which seemed like a good plan.

I slipped out into the hot, muggy afternoon after my teleconference and drove to CVS. A quick perusal of their one grocery aisle revealed that there was not a single canned vegetable, though I could have purchased tuna or mac n cheese or Pop-Tarts. I stood in front of the Pop-Tarts and scowled, deep in thought. I grinned when I thought of the solution: I'd just pop over to the Dickey's Barbecue, which was right on the way back around the block.

At Dickey's, I had another dilemma. My memory was correct about the corn, but all they had was half ears. Hmm... I was the only customer at 3:00 in the afternoon, so the server was patient.

At last, I announced, "I'll take... six ears of corn, please. To go."

"Will there be anything else?"

My eyes lit on the baked potato casserole right next to the corn. I wasn't even hungry, but that looked irresistible.

"And some of that potato casserole."

If the man wondered what I could want with six ears of corn and a small serving of potatoes, he didn't ask. But the angle of his eyebrows prompted me to offer an explanation anyway. "Weird, huh"

"Nnhh," he answered cryptically.

"It's for a recipe," I explained.

"Mmm." It seemed that English was his second language, so I wondered if he didn't understand me--either that, or maybe he was trying to avoid engaging in conversation with the weird lady with uncontrollable afternoon carb cravings.

"That'll be $8.59," he said. Now my eyebrows were raised. Ouch! That was a lot of money for the equivalent of a can of corn. Oh well.

Back at the office, I had just unloaded the corn onto a plate to cool and was contemplating how to cut it with a plastic fast-food knife when Bill rounded the corner. "What's with all that corn?" he asked loudly.

"Corn?" asked Rebecca, who sits just past the other divider.

"Yes, she has like a dozen ears of corn, and they're all lined up in a perfect row. Do you want some? She has plenty to share." Rebecca laughed, and I could feel my face heating up.

I explained about the trip to CVS and Dickey's.

"You thought you could find corn at a drug store?" he asked incredulously.

"Well, Mike said..."

"Why didn't you just drive to the grocery store? There's a Tom Thumb close by."

"I know, I know. That would have been smarter. I just wanted to get right in and out."

As soon as he was out of sight, I started sawing off the kernels with the blunt knife--between bites of the potato casserole, which was indescribably delicious. It was definitely worth the trip to Dickey's and the $8.59!

Meanwhile, two more people came by and exclaimed over my stockpile of corn. Several others teased me about the slow cooker under the desk.

'Round about 5:00, though, no one was laughing. "Man, that smells good!" Mike kept repeating. "I'd like to come home with you guys and eat," Don said. I just smiled like the smart, sensible ant next to the lazy grasshoppers.

Just before I left the office at 5:30, I laid the cream cheese across the top and latched the lid shut.

"Don't forget your sausage," Mike called out, and we both laughed. (Why do men always laugh when anyone says the word sausage?)

It was a long ride home, both literally and figuratively. I got stuck in a nasty traffic jam, and the chicken was smelling more and more inviting as my stomach twisted mercilessly. Just as I was pondering what I might use for an eating utensil--maybe even my hand?--the traffic started creeping along again.

At 7:00, we sat down to eat. When I prayed over the meal, Allyson added, "And Jesus, tell God not to flood the earth again. We need our power!" (The power was back on, by the way.)

At last, it was time to eat. It was sooo good. Almost as good as that potato casserole.

Now, here's what I'd like to know. Have you ever taken a slow cooker to work with you? (Potluck lunches don't count.) If you're reading this post via email, click the link just below the story, and you can take my poll.

If you've never taken a slow cooker to work, do you think it's weird? Leave me a comment to let me know what you think. I'd really like to know.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Barbie Ballerina Birthday Girl

I can't believe our baby is already three years old! I'd be sad that she's growing up so fast, but she just gets cuter and sweeter every day. We celebrated her birthday with my family on Saturday.

What Will It Be? Barbie, or Ninja Turtles?
A couple days before the big event, I took Allyson to Kroger with me to order a birthday cake. We pored over the cake catalog together, our heads bent low over the shockingly disorganized book--all the category dividers were in the front, and the corresponding pages were randomly stuck in at the back. I mention this because it made it very difficult to go back to her favorites after we'd scanned the whole book.

I told Allyson she could pick her own theme, which turned out to be quite a job. She exclaimed excitedly over almost EVERY cake. "Ooh! Winnie the Pooh!... Oh, it's Dora the Explorer! [vetoed, same cake as last year]... Look, Spiderman! Big turtles! [Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles--I was holding my breath hoping she wouldn't pick that one]... BARBIE!!!"

It was impossible to make a choice based on Allyson's enthusiasm, so I just narrowed it to two or three choices. "Do you want this one?"


"Or this one?"


At last, she settled on the Barbie ballerina theme, and we waited in line to place our order. At least the flavor choice was instantaneous: chocolate! [That's my girl!]

When the lady asked how to spell her name, Allyson proudly and clearly announced, "Allyson! A-L-L-Y-S-O-N!"

Despite Allyson's perfect diction, when we picked up the cake a couple of hours before the party I was disappointed to see that they'd spelled it with an I instead of a Y. You would think cake decorators would be more attentive to spelling! We were in a rush to pick up the potato salad and beans from our favorite barbecue restaurant, so I decided to just let it go.

Allyson wore a princess birthday ribbon, which didn't technically match the Barbie ballerina theme, but she'd been so thrilled when she spotted it at Party City that I just had to get it for her.

She had a wonderful time playing with all her cousins in the backyard, especially her beloved Sissy--my sister Emily's daughter Savannah.

We grilled burgers and hot dogs, and the kids sat on the back porch and ate a bite or two before getting back to some serious playing.

Meanwhile, the adults relished the air conditioning in the dining room and enjoyed some adult conversation--such as my brother Rick's story about my niece's dog, who ate some dental floss and then had poop-on-a-rope dragging behind her on the grass.

Soon Allyson was badgering us to serve cake and ice cream. She reported that Sissy wanted to know when we were going to eat cake. Bill told all the kids they had to wear party hats to get cake--even the boys, and even though they were purple and pink princess hats. All the kids obediently donned purple hats, though they had different ideas about how to wear them.

Cousin Hillary

Brother Ethan

Cousins Sam and Jacob

At last, it was the moment Allyson had been waiting for all day: time to open all those presents!

And then came the moment Bill and I had been waiting for.... When Allyson opened her pink Disney Princesses bike helmet, I asked eagerly, "What's that?"

"It's a... helmet."

"What's it for?"

"A bike?"

"Do you have a bike?"


Just then, Daddy emerged from the garage, wheeling a tiny purple bicycle. Allyson clasped her hands in delight. "It's just perfect for me!" she squealed.

She wanted to go outside and ride it right away, but by this time it was after 9:00, so we told her she'd have to wait until tomorrow. But we let her take it for a quick ride down the hallway (a dangerous precedent, I'm sure).

The party was a huge success. Everyone hung around until after 10:00, which I loved. Allyson could barely stand by the time she wished all her guests goodnight, and she was slurring her words. "Goodbye, Aunnnt Di-di-annne! G'bye Gramma n Grampa!"

At bedtime prayers, I started to thank God for Allyson's gifts, but she kept interrupting. "Tell him thanks for the stamps! Tell him thanks for the ballerina tutu!"

"You can tell him yourself, you know," I laughed.

There was none of her usual popping out of bed half a dozen times. She was OUT! I wasn't too far behind her after my day of vigorous house cleaning and endless errands.
First Bike Ride
True to our word, we took her out on the bike as soon as it cooled down a bit the next evening. She grunted, her muscles straining, as she pushed the little pedals and got the bike in motion. As soon as she'd picked up a bit of speed, she pushed the pedals backward and screeched to a stop.

"I was goin' too fast," she explained.

We had to keep reminding her to look straight ahead as we walked beside her erratically weaving bike. She wiped out a couple of times, but she didn't cry, though her lips trembled the time she fell on the sidewalk.

"What happened?" Daddy asked.

"The bike did it," she explained matter-of-factly. And she climbed right back on.

Yep, our little Barbie ballerina is growing up.

Friday, June 5, 2009

But Mama Lets Me Do It!

I was in the bathroom last night when I overheard the following conversation...

Bill: You want to do WHAT?

Allyson: I wanna poke holes in the bread with the pencil.

Bill: Huh? No, you can't do that to the bread.

Allyson: But Mama let me do it.

Bill: I'm gonna have to talk to your mom about that. That doesn't sound right.

Sitting on the toilet, I pressed my lips together to stifle my laughter. Oddly enough, Allyson was telling the truth, but it seemed too bizarre for Bill to accept.

On the way out, I closed the door quietly and then padded silently up the stairs to fold clothes. I figured if Bill didn't see me for awhile, he'd forget about the whole conversation, and I wouldn't have to explain why I'd allowed our daughter to poke holes in a piece of bread with a pencil.

My plan succeeded; both of us forgot the whole thing... until bedtime, when I spotted what I thought was some peanut butter toast in our bathroom trash.
"Did you know there's peanut butter toast in the trash?" I asked Bill, who was brushing his teeth.

He stared at me blankly. After he'd rinsed his mouth, he said, "Are you thinking I can tell you why the toast is in the trash?"

"Well, yes," I said. "You just fed her some toast for her bedtime snack, and I thought maybe you put it there. I just didn't want the ants to find it."

"She ate all her toast," he said.
I'd already removed my contacts, so I leaned in closer to investigate. "Oh, it's not peanut butter toast," I said. "It's just a plain crust from...." My voice trailed off, and my lips started to twitch.

"Where did the crust come from?" Bill asked, eyebrows raised.

"Remember when Allyson was telling you about poking holes in the bread?"

"She was telling the truth?" he asked incredulously. I nodded. "What did...? Why would...?" he shook his head and rolled his eyes.

Then the whole story spilled out between giggles.

I'd been rushing around to get us ready for the gym that morning--why do so many of my adventures begin that way?--when Allyson started waving around some new racecar pencils that she'd pilfered from Ethan's room. She was muttering something about making a traft [craft]. She might have mentioned something about bread also, but I didn't really hear her because I was too busy constructing a makeshift door hanger out of twisty ties and an old rubber band for my note to Ethan, who was late coming home from a sleepover.

So I did what I always do when I can't figure out what Allyson is talking about: I agreed with her. "Sure, honey. That sounds fun. But we'll have to wait until we get home from the gym. It's time to leave now." I figured she'd forget all about her plan by the time we got back.

The first thing she did when we walked back through the door was grab a shiny new pencil, still unsharpened. "I need some bread, Mama."

My reaction was pretty much the same as Bill's that evening, but Allyson reminded me that I'd promised she could make her traft when we got home. I didn't want to break my word to her, so I pulled out the heel from a loaf of bread and handed it to her. "Just this once," I said. "We can't do this any more after this."

It pained me to waste a piece of bread, even a rather stale crust, due to my mild food-wasting phobia. After all, I could have frozen that crust to make homemade croutons or bread crumbs. (I always have a giant Ziploc bag of crusts in my freezer.) "It will be okay. We have enough to eat," I told myself in my calmest, most soothing inner voice.

"What are you going to make?" I asked cheerfully.

Allyson sat down at the kitchen table with her racecar pencil and her bread crust. "Watch!" she crowed, her excitement contagious. She proceeded to poke neat little holes all over the bread. "See?" she said proudly when the bread had just the right array of randomly placed holes.

"Very nice!" I called after her as she carried away her prize. "Don't eat it!"

Of course, I should have followed up to see what she did with her bizarre "craft," but I have to confess that my attention span is pretty short. I didn't think of it again until I heard her asking Bill if she could do it again. Obviously, she hadn't heeded my admonition that this was a one-time deal.

Bill stared wordlessly after I'd finished my story. "Weird," he said finally, with a shrug.

I laughed sheepishly and kissed him goodnight.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

See the Squash Flowers!

Several days ago I was delighted to see a large yellow flower on our squash plant. I'd never seen a squash flowering, and I was surprised at how large and beautiful it was. I thought, "I'll finish what I'm doing and come out and take a picture."

By the time I got around to going back outside, the bloom had folded up, and then the next day it shriveled. I was so disappointed.

Bill told me it was actually the second time the squash plant had produced a flower, but I found it hard to believe I could have missed it since the first thing I do each morning is run out and look at the garden. I try to measure each little seedling with my eyes and see if it's growing. I look for new leaves and bug holes. I scan every inch of dirt for weeds. (I didn't expect to enjoy weeding so much. Each time I wrench a corkscrew-rooted weed from the rich, dark soil, I think, "Ha! Take that! And don't come back!" But they always do.)

I kept watching for another blossom each morning, and today my vigilance was rewarded. There were TWO beautiful yellow flowers on the squash plant.

The Topsy Turvy upside-down tomato plant also has several blossoms. I wonder how much longer before the tomatoes start growing?

Soon I'll have to add another step to my watchful care: looking for evidence of bigger pests, like birds. They'd better leave our veggies alone!


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