Monthly Archives: August 2012

A Word on Family Road Trips

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Road trips used to be easier.  We used to truss  sorry – fasten securely in their car seats – the kids up in the back of the car with a laptop, some DVD’s, some snacks and we’d reach our destination with nary (ok, a minimum) of complaint.

Times have changed.

Our kids, both teens, are no longer content to sit in the back of any moving vehicle unless it contains at least two of their friends and is rolling towards either a mall, a movie theatre, or an amusement park.  Once the destination is reached, said teens flee the car before any other humans can see that they’ve arrived under the control of their parents.

So, imagine their…let’s use the word dismay…at being trapped in a car – not even a cool car with video screens or GPS – for upwards of nine hours at a time whilst their parents (one driving, one napping) provide absolutely no entertainment whatsoever and who have the unmitigated gall to drive right by any and all amusement parks.

Think then of the parents’ resultant rebuttal dismay  at being trapped in same said uncool vehicle for upwards of 9 hours at a time with bored, slightly hostile spawn.  Some tempers might become frayed.  Ok, just mine as my husband is a saint.

Back in the good old days, the worst we dreaded from our little ones was a tiny foot hammering away at the back of the seat  or a sudden potty break.  Mostly, our kids were dreamy travelers – they napped.  Our daughter’s eyes would start drooping the minute we strapped her in.  I remember my son sucking contentedly on his pacifier, his huge brown eyes gazing up at the car ceiling as if it was the most fascinating thing on earth.  Then his eyes too would close and peace would descend on our little mobile world.

On this trip, my daughter’s steely blue eyes bore into the back of my head, not blinking.  If I dared make eye contact in the rearview she fixed me with The Look, then slowly peeled her gaze away.  Oh dear.  We’ve gone beyond the days when all discontent could be fixed with a container of Honey Nut Cheerios, a sippy cup and a Dora the Explorer backpack full of paper and crayons.

The boy child was somewhat easier to handle.  He was quite content to sit for hours and play his DS.  The problem with this strategy revealed itself after we realized he hadn’t had a decent meal in six hours.  Dr. Jekyll, may I introduce Mr. Hyde?  Not pretty.

My husband and I must shoulder the blame for subjecting them to the monumental torture of a summer road trip to start with.  However, if I may just offer a word (or 500) to my “little” ones:

Sometimes, just sometimes, the world does not revolve around you.  Reality sucks, I agree, but sometimes trips have to be arranged according to time, budget, and parental desires as follows:

  1. It’s a miracle we went anywhere at all this summer given your father’s work schedule
  2. Sadly, none of our lottery tickets paid out and the miracle did not go so far as to provide us with an unlimited budget.  These days, we simply cannot afford to fly all four of us…anywhere.  Even if we could’ve afforded plane tickets, we would’ve slept in the airport terminal as a car rental would’ve done us in financially
  3. Last summer was The Big Vacation; this summer was about catching up, re-visiting old stomping grounds of the adults.  As you saw with eyes glazed over by stupefying boredom, your parents had friends, lives, houses, sand dunes that they could claim as their very own territory before you two became the focus of our familial universe

I know you did not enjoy this summer’s vacation as much as last summer’s.  And no wonder but it is important to realize that last summer was The Big One.  Not every summer will be filled with exotic locations such as Monte Carlo, Rome, and Santorini.

Kids, I wish we could.  I wish we were so filthy, stinking rich that we could go somewhere new and exotic every summer – and we could take all of your friends with us – in separate private jets, no less.  That is not our reality.  Next summer?  You’re probably going off to separate work camps nature camps.  Or working and going to the pool or that really, really big lake out front called Lake Ontario (complete with beaches, lifeguards, and cleaner water than we saw anywhere in the Mediterranean – or Virginia Beach).

[LECTURE ENDS HERE]

In an effort to reach some sort of common ground, I attempted to ascertain what comprised a good vacation – private jets and exotic locales notwithstanding.

Conclusion?  There is no common ground, at least not in our little unit.

My idea of a good time is my snow-white ass parked on a stretch of pristine beach with a good book, a bucket of SPF 50 by my side.  If a waiter wanders by with a tray of margaritas, so much the better.  My idea of a wild and crazy time is to add headphones to that picture.

My husband loves a little bit of time on a beach but ultimately he gets twitchy and longs for some physical activity – playing frisbee, flying a kite, blasting up and down the shoreline on a jet ski.  He also loves museums and churches.

The kids want to be waited on, catered to, and entertained.  Location is the only thing that differentiates vacation from an ordinary day at home.  My daughter loves a good pool and a beach with awesome, adrenaline-pumping sport like parasailing. She drives a mean jet ski.  My son would be just fine in a cave – not spelunking but playing video games.  Only occasionally would he emerge, blinking, into the light of day to sightsee.  I haven’t really nailed down his favourite type of place but the Colosseum and the Coca-Cola Museum were his two faves from the last two years.  A trail of chocolate would help in drawing him forth from any cave.

Are separate vacations the answer?  I need copious amounts of downtime – and food/alcohol at regular intervals – or I become unbearably witchy.  My husband and daughter are marathoners who can sightsee until their legs nearly drop off.  My son is a wildcard – depending on his mood and the charge left on his DS.

Vacations are supposed to be relaxing – a break from the tedium of everyday life.  Can this family’s vacationing future be saved?

Mining For Gold

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Our recent road trip – the “Going Home Tour 2012,” (among its more polite nicknames) – stirred up a whole barrel full of memories.  As I wandered up K Street one steamy evening (only slightly lost), I wondered why I hadn’t used more of my past in my writing.  Oprah has her “Ah-hah moments.”  Mine was more of a “Duh!” moment.

I was born at George Washington University Hospital in 1961; the city – and my nation – saw huge upheavals of change in the Sixties.  Of course I don’t remember all things clearly but so many events were a backdrop to my childhood – JFK’s assassination, the civil rights marches on Washington, MLK’s speech, RFK’s death, the Vietnam protests, Watergate – Washington played a central role in all of that history and I was there, more or less.

There was a period in my  late 20’s to early 30’s where things got a little blurry.  My mother had just passed away and I was left with equal parts grief, guilt, and money.  These ingredients combined rather neatly into a period of binge partying and shopping (often at the same time).

I remember (vaguely) nights drinking in Georgetown and Adams Morgan, bad decisions regarding men, not being able to find my car the next day and walking out of a rest room in one of Washington’s best restaurants with my gauzy black skirt firmly tucked into my stockings.  If Mayor Barry hadn’t been…um…otherwise distracted back then, he might have invited me to live elsewhere.  I was Snookie with light hair and freckles.

I get a knot in my stomach at those memories but I shouldn’t shy away from them.  I should dive right in and create something.

Childhood summers were spent on the Outer Banks. Those sandy barrier islands are where most of my childhood’s happy memories come from.  In the works is a trilogy of short stories set in different villages there:  Duck, Kitty Hawk, and Nag’s Head.  Seriously, who can resist those names?  Beaches are great settings for those mini-soap operas that often unfold during summer vacations.

Last week, as we drove across the Wright Memorial Bridge, memories came blasting back.  My husband commented later that it was obvious I was re-living some of my youth.  I ran up and down giant sand dunes, I played in the surf, I smiled a lot.  Not all memories were happy but that’s ok.  Material is material; all of it should be embraced.

New York: what can I say?  Though I consider NYC an old friend, not all memories from there are Hallmark moments.  As I walked by the McGraw-Hill Building, I cringed visibly at the memory of a rather disastrous job interview.  When I was 12, my mother put me on the Metroliner from DC with cab fare pinned into the hem of my dress.  She schooled me on how to hail a taxi and told me to be rude and fake an accent.  I did ok.  But would I put my 12-year-old on a train for New York City nowadays?  I shake my head then ponder a story…

There was a guy (isn’t there always?) from the New York area. There are less-than-stellar memories surrounding his family.  They were well-to-do Upper East Side types; they had money and connections.  I was a hick girl from DC.  I was Nobody.  For a very brief moment in time, I was connected to the Somebodys.  And then, suddenly, it was midnight and I was left with some mice and a pumpkin…I grin mischievously at the thought of a scathing little story about them but I must be careful there.  Upper East Side types are notoriously litigious.

Despite my exhaustion from driving, visiting, and sightseeing, I realize this trip was a mining expedition.  Before, I was all worked up about “going home again.”  Going home again as an outsider is fine – especially if you’re a writer.  Such a position offers the perfect blend of perspective and recollection.

In the dark, damp caves of memory are thick veins of pure, pure gold – just waiting to be extracted.  Now, where’s that pickaxe?

Hell Has an Ocean View

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Family fun destination…not for us

For those who might be residents or devotees of Virginia Beach, let me apologize in advance.  I’m sure there’s nothing wrong with the place, really.  Maybe I was just tired (so tired). We arrived in a driving downpour and found ourselves in a hotel right out of a low-budget horror flick.

In our defense, pictures lie.  They lie so convincingly and perversely – making innocents (us) think that all oceanfront hotel rooms must be stunningly beautiful – if only made so by the view.  I’d never spent any time in VA Beach; I’m an Outer Banks girl.

Further to our defense, we booked all the hotels using our Visa points.  Therefore, we were somewhat at the mercy of the Visa rewards program’s choices. That reminds me, I should call Visa right now and tell them, for the protection of their loyal customers, to remove that hotel from their list as a public safety service.

So.  We arrived in a downpour, exhausted by the long drive from Atlanta.  My husband came back to the car after checking us in, an odd look on his face.  “It’s old,” he said as he stood outside the car, droplets of rain dripping off the end of his nose.  “It’s definitely an older hotel.”  Maybe he meant “quaint.”  I was tired.

The mouldy hall carpet, slightly squishy underfoot should’ve been a clue.

We were tired.

The not-so-faint smell of urine in the elevator, hallway, and well – just about everywhere – should’ve told us still more.

We were SO tired.

Upon entering the dark, dank, smelly orifice that hotel management dared to call a room, I sensed what would happen next:  one or both children, tired as they were, were going to take running leaps at the beds, flopping their innocent pure (heretofore healthy) little bodies down on coverlets that had not been laundered since the early ’70’s.

Don’t just wash – scrub!

“NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!”

I was too late.

My son, my youngest, my baby hit the top of the covers with a loud thwump, scattering God knows what kind of airborne pestilence throughout the room.  Gagging, I headed for the bathroom.  Gagging again, I retreated and stood in the middle of the room.  Have you ever been somewhere that you didn’t want to touch anything?

Strains of bad music floated up from below our room.  Worst cover of a Lynyrd Skynyrd song ever.  Gazing out the cloudy glass door to the balcony, I saw my beloved Atlantic yards away.  Hell has an ocean view.  Looking down, I saw  an open air “cabana” attached to the hotel, source of the “live” music.

There must have been some kinda look on my face when I turned around.  My husband mumbled something about parking the car and fled.  Maybe he realized he’d better hide the car or I was going to make a break for it.

The song ended; unbelievably there was not only applause but rebel yells and whoops the likes of which I hadn’t heard since  attending a Civil War re-enactment as part of a school field trip in Grade 5.

Photos lie – were those swimmers inoculated?

“At least there’s a pool, Mom,” said my daughter.  She is one who always tries to look on the bright side – like her Dad.  We looked down at the murky, grayish-blue water in the pool.  Dark, unidentifiable things lurked in one end.  “No, I would rather have you in the ocean even though it’s a red flag day.”

We walked to the beach after my husband deemed it safe to return from the parking garage – our lucky car got to be a few blocks away from Hell.  As we walked by the open air pavilion/concert venue, we saw the band – a few grizzled old fellas hammering away on guitars with one or two equally grizzled women grinding away in front of them.

One good thing about that night:  we found a decent restaurant.  Authentic Northern Italian food in a family-owned restaurant.  I regret to inform you that I cannot recall the name of said restaurant.  I shot a few glasses of wine in quick succession.

Several times in the night,  my own miserable mewling woke me up.  Some time in the night, we acquired a new band (reggae).  I think at one point I tried to sleep sitting up so as little of my body would touch the bed as possible.

Dawn broke revealing heavy, leaden clouds.  My husband and I decided to go in search of coffee.  We stepped into the hallway.  “Is there a waterfall in the lobby?  I didn’t notice it coming in…” I began to say.  My husband pointed over my shoulder.  “Nope.  That’s the water feature, I guess.”

Rain was pouring down through the ceiling tiles into the hallway outside our room.  We were on the top floor and obviously the roof was in the same shape as the rest of the place.  Underneath our feet, the carpet squelched and belched, completely waterlogged.  My face must have said it all.  Within the hour, we had booked a room further down the coast on the Outer Banks. 

We never packed so fast; it was if we had been unexpectedly sprung from prison.  I hit the Wright Memorial Bridge from the mainland to the Outer Banks doing about 95 mph.  I lowered all the windows down – not only to smell the tangy salt air but  also in an effort to expel whatever airborne spores we still carried from Hotel Hell.  As our tires thumped over the sectioned concrete of the causeway, I could feel my mood lifting.

Every summer, around the middle of July, the wheels of our family station wagon spun over that same white concrete.  The Outer Banks – OBX – stand for summer and always will.  I hung my head out the window like a dog and inhaled the salt wind.  I was on my way home.

“Hello, Aquaman. I’ve Got a Mission For You…”

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Hey, Aquaman.  It’s time to pull yourself out of your retirement clamshell and pull off another rescue mission.  I need you to bust a few dolphins out of the Georgia Aquarium who are being subjected to repeated episodes of unspeakable cruelty by an evil, tone-deaf dude known as “The Star Spinner.”

Let me ‘splain…

Atlanta, Georgia is home to the world’s largest aquarium – ten million gallons worth.  On the face of it, it is a spectacular facility thanks to big corporate dollars – The Home Depot and AT &T among others.

On their website, there are a lot of references about devotion to conservation and research for marine life.  The website also provides information for school curriculums going all the way up to Grade 12 as well as summer camps.  So far so good.

The biggest “wow factor” is the huge (there are not words descriptive enough to convey its enormity) ocean tank filled with gigantic whale sharks, rays, and other astounding creatures.  You will not soon forget having a whale shark glide over your head as if you were swimming with it.   The other exhibits were…ok.  I’d seen better, frankly.

The whole place is slick, shiny and visually stunning.  Like a Maserati at a car show.

Until the dolphins.  The poor, poor dolphins.

We were very excited when told that the dolphin show (AT & T’s “Dolphin Tales”) was included in our ticket price.  We raced to the auditorium, found good seats, and were gobsmacked by the sheer size of the place.  We couldn’t believe how many people the place held.

I’ve been to a few dolphin shows in my day.  The best I can recall was at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago – educational and entertaining in a venue where everyone got splashed with some dolphin water.  Another good one was in a water park near Puerta Vallarta, Mexico that seamlessly meshed education and entertainment – afterwards, my kids swam with some dolphins in a special pool.

On the one hand, I hate that we exploit these magnificent animals for our entertainment; on the other hand, they are a thrill hard to resist.  Who doesn’t love a dolphin’s playfulness and acrobatic prowess?

Soon, the lights went down and an expectant hush fell over the 50 million or so people crammed into the auditorium. Spotlights shone on the water, loud music blared out of surround-sound speakers (surely heralding the arrival of the dolphins?), and then…a man in a cape appeared above the tank.  His cape appeared to have gotten tangled in someone’s Christmas tree lights.  I couldn’t help but wonder about the wisdom of electrically lit attire near so much water.  The man shouted that he was known as “The Star Spinner” and evil sea monsters ate his ship or his piano or something.  I became confused. Where were the dolphins?

The man in the sparkly cape stopped shouting and began to sing.  Badly.  After a few notes, I knew at least one thing instantly:  the Georgia Aquarium Dolphin show was the only place that would hire this man.  People winced; seniors could be seen switching off their hearing aids.  Babies cried.

Was this for real?  And, for the love of God, where were the dolphins? And if this man was causing us auditory pain, what kind of effect was it having on the dolphins?

In short, the show was not only embarrassingly bad in terms of entertainment but embarrassingly short on…dolphins.  Maybe this was for their own protection.  When they did show up, they were like a cheesy sideshow act.  They did flips, waves, and jumps.  They carried glassy-eyed, frozen-smiled trainers on their tails.  The star attractions were then quickly herded out so the sparkly dude could continue warbling about evil sea monsters.

There was no educational information passed on about dolphins, their special skills, their habitats.

Reminiscent of a very, very bad Six Flags show, I began to be concerned for the well-being of the dolphins (not an emotion I expected to have at a state-of-the-art facility). Special effects with explosions, strobe lights, loud (bad) music as well as insultingly bad singing –  is that a good environment for these marine mammals?

If the Georgia Aquarium is at all invested in the health and well-being of marine life, they should halt this travesty immediately.  It’s insulting to the humans and more importantly, to the dolphins.  Is this place truly a groundbreaking simulated marine habitat dedicated to conservation and research or is the Georgia Aquarium all about the corporate dollar?

So, Aquaman, what do you say?  Let’s go spring those dolphins, get them away from the bad Vegas actthey’re trapped in now.  Sorry, Georgia Aquarium, you get a big, fat Fail from us.  You could do so much better with all those millions…

 

 

Writing on the Run

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I sincerely hope that I never have to go on the lam because if I do, it will surely spell the end of my writing career.  I’ve only been gone two weeks and despite all good intentions, I managed to post ONE blog entry.

[Insert picture of Banshee hanging her head in shame HERE]

Perhaps it is the nature of our vacations.  Perhaps I am not organized enough.  Perhaps I am too:

  • old
  • cranky
  • tired
  • all of the above

What the hell happened?

We brought a computer – mostly for my benefit.  Hubby doesn’t need his laptop to stay connected – he can do everything on his iPhone and he was determined to check emails as little as possible.  I vaguely remember flipping open the laptop early in our stay in Atlanta and then…darkness.

In my defense, we were SO busy in Atlanta.  Tired after the long drive from Toronto (via Cincinnati), we found we had no respite from driving while in our former Southern home.  We literally spent the entire four days there behind the wheel.  With one exception, all of our friends live waaaaaaaaay outside the city.

And, if I’m honest, I partied in Atlanta.  I hadn’t seen some of these people in nearly ten years.  I woke late and went to bed later.

Burnt out, exhausted, and with a cumulative hangover, I set out for Virginia Beach thinking a few days on the shore would restore me, get me back on track.  I thought my biggest worry would be spilling sand or margarita on the laptop.  It was not to be.

The rain poured down – inside and outside our hotel.  Our feet stuck to the room carpet.  I begged the children NOT to expose any bare skin to the bed covers.  We fled the next day.  In our haste to leave, we apparently left behind the power cord for the computer.  Ooops.

Rattled, we fled to a luxurious beachside hotel in Kitty Hawk, NC.  I felt behind in my scheduled relaxation.  It was still drizzling but I was ON THE BEACH.  Determined to get as much time with my old friend, the Atlantic Ocean, I put all thoughts of blogging far from my mind.

Washington DC afforded me no extra time either – being bitchy takes time and energy.  We were all experiencing severe travel burn-out at this point.  The best thing to do was split up – I went for lunch with a dear friend and hubby went on a museum/gallery trek with the kids.  Although we had Wi-Fi in the room, our computer had no battery power left.

We looked northward with dread, I have to admit.  Another long drive with less-than-inspiring scenery (New Jersey Turnpike) and the exhausting prospect of sightseeing in Manhattan.  The good news:  we wouldn’t have to drive.  The bad news:  we were just plain pooped and tired of being cooped up together 24/7.

No power left in the computer, no energy left in me.  I got on the Staten Island ferry hoping that some fresh air (ok, I know its New York Harbour) would perk me up.  I walked to the hotel business center and sat down in front of one of the computers.

The sign read:  Insert Credit Card here.

Free Wi-Fi in the room but not there.  Fuuuhhgetaboutit.

Oh well, I’m more of a yarn spinner than a diarist.  Maybe this is the way it has to be for me.

The piles of dirty laundry in my living room are rivaling the Empire State Building in height.  As soon as we hit the house, we each fled to our separate spaces.   This morning, cup of coffee from my neighbourhood cafe by my side, the laptop was opened.  So simple.

I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke

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Several things come to mind when thinking of Atlanta:  the War (as in Civil) and Coca-Cola.  And, of course, the Braves if you’re a  baseball fan.  I could add traffic and an amazing array of fantastic eateries but that would be getting too far off track.

Back in the 1880’s, a guy named John S. Pemberton pondered a refreshing treat to get his customers through another muggy, hot Atlanta summer.  Eventually, he came up with the formula (still held in great secrecy over 100 years later) for Coca-Cola.  Incredibly, it wasn’t a sure thing when it first appeared – Pemberton was a pharmacist, not a marketer – and he only sold 51 drinks that first summer.

The most incredible thing about Coke has been its longevity and the army of marketing genius behind the brand – dating back to the turn of the 20th Century.  Once it took off, it became a stellar money-maker and the company hasn’t looked back since.  In 1919, the formula for Coke was purchased for an astounding $25 million dollars.  That’s like a gazillion dollars today.

So, when one goes to Atlanta, one must visit the World of Coca-Cola.  This relatively new museum occupies prime real estate downtown adjacent to Centennial Olympic Park and next to the Georgia Aquarium.  There was another World of Coca-Cola but it was old, rundown, and outdated – and uninspiring.  Kind of like when they changed the Coke formula.

Technology rules at the new museum; it isn’t so much an ode to the drink itself as a tribute to the marketing machine that has propelled the company since the early 1900’s.  There is a little theatre where you can watch old commercials and those from other countries.  There is also a theatre presentation in “4D” where the seats move, you get squirted with water, and if you can skip it you might want to – especially if you have back issues.

The best?  The Pop Culture Gallery – the colourful wood carvings of Coke bottles and the giant collage piece is worth the price of admission.  And then, there is the section known as Taste It! where you can taste over 60 flavours made by the Coca-Cola Company all over the world.  The gift shop is everything you’d expect.  Interesting tidbit:  all apparel sold there is made from recycled plastic bottles.

I’m not a rabid fan of Coke but I’m glad I went to this museum.  It’s a fascinating look at the vision of a few men and one of the most closely held secrets in the world.

Tomorrow:  the Georgia Aquarium

Under My Wheels: Toronto to Atlanta

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I’ll tell you why I avoided looking at too many maps before getting behind the wheel on Monday morning:  it’s a long freaking way from Toronto to Atlanta.  There are no shortcuts, no scenic routes.  Just miles and miles of asphalt in varying degrees of decay.  After (nervously) getting over the border – why am I always nervous? – I got down to the business of SERIOUS DRIVING – something I haven’t done since I drove from Calgary to Toronto three years ago with a 9 year old and a dog.

Observations:

  • It would be helpful if my 2012 Jetta (bought in Canada but made in Mexico) had MPH on the speedo.  It would save me from constantly having to do math and practicing my excuse speech for the state troopers.
  • Basic rule of SERIOUS DRIVING: keep the driver FED.  We had a lapse of feeding as we entered Cincinnati last night.  Heads rolled.  I’ve been apologizing for my behaviour most of today
  • Cincinnati seems nice and easy to navigate (assuming you haven’t been on the road for 8 hours and you are exhausted and hungry.
  • The Cincinnatian Hotel is very nice except I don’t know why there was a hole in our bathroom wall.  Not a bashed in hole but a hole on purpose – like a partial wall between the bathroom and the rest of the room.  On top of that, the doors to the bathroom were louvred.  Can you say “NO PRIVACY?”  I love my family but I do NOT need to hear their very personal bodily functions at full volume
  • The colourful and whimsical flying pigs are awesome.  I don’t know why Cinci has them but they’re awesome.  Kind of like the colourful, whimsical cows in Chicago.
  • It’s hard to give a city its due when you’re tired and anxious to get somewhere else.
  • Hubby snores like an asthmatic hippopotamus.  Ear plugs must be purchased and soon.
  • Americans LOVE the left lane of a highway.  For hundreds of miles, I sat boxed in by semis and the odd Floridian and dozens of others who steadfastly refused to move over.
  • Atlantans still love to drive fast.
  • Atlanta’s inner suburbs are lovely.  I remember when I first moved here I couldn’t believe how lush the place was – flowering trees everywhere.
  • Room service is always a rip-off no matter how hard you justify it.
  • Children need a hotel with a pool to burn off energy stored up from sitting in a car for two days straight.  Failing that, they need to run laps around the parking lot until they are calm.

So, there we are.  I am going to be in bed the minute the sun falls.  Tomorrow:  pool time and a day of relaxation.  The rest of the week is chock full of catching up with old friends – dinners, lunches, brunches, drive-by air kisses – whatever we can squeeze in.  There’s never enough time.