Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Best Christmas Present Ever

Ryan and I gave Ryan's grandfather the best Christmas present ever. If I was a touchy-feely person in touch with my emotional and spiritual side, the present would have been a photo of the family with angels photoshopped into the sky, looking down on the grandfather's progeny. Or maybe it would have been a video of all the various family members, near and far, telling his grandpa how much he has meant to the family.

But I'm not that kind of person, as much as I would like to be. No, the best Christmas present ever was, in fact, a Snuggie.

Ryan's grandpa is 91. He has decided to eat nothing but ice cream, since that's the only thing he thinks he can digest. (Don't ask him about digestion issues. He has no problem sharing extremely graphic details, which I have yet to be able to block from my mind.) Because of the ice cream diet, and because he's a frail old man, he's cold all the time. Ryan saw this Snuggie emblazoned with the BYU Cougars logo all over it (in the most tasteful manner the Snuggie people could come up with, I'm sure) and he knew that this would be a winner. It was going to be such a winner, however, that chances were good that other family members would also get him a Snuggie. We couldn't let that happen, so we came for Christmas Eve, thereby beating the rush of Snuggie-bearing relatives. Christmas is all about winning, right?

When Grandpa opened the wrapping paper (which had to be peeled off ever-so-carefully, so it could be saved for later) he knew exactly what it was he was looking at. He's homebound, so he watches a lot of tv. He had me open the box right away and Ryan helped him put it on. Grandpa couldn't stop exclaiming about how great it was - he could stay warm and still use the remote! Still eat his ice cream! He was thrilled, thrilled I tell you. I've never seen anyone get this excited about a present before - and it was sustained excitement, not the flash-in-the-pan excitement I can sometimes generate from my kids. He couldn't stop touching it, telling us how soft it was and warm, too. And with his favorite sports team! How could anything possibly be better than a BYU Snuggie?!

This felt like a moment of gift-giving triumph. Gifts are so hit and miss, especially for someone like Ryan's grandpa, who really doesn't need much in the way of material things. If you've been with me for a while, you're familiar with my blog entry about Joy Units - Ryan's grandpa was so happy that this Snuggie might be the King of all Joy Units. I guarantee that he'll use it every single, solitary day. He told us that he can't wait to tell his son Glen about the Snuggie. And since Grandpa is at that stage in life where everything he says, he repeats about eighteen times (which is why you REALLY don't want him talking about his digestive issues) he'll be sure to tell everyone he talks to just how much he loves the Snuggie. I know it's incredibly selfish to make this about me, but doesn't it feel good to find the exact right gift for someone? I'll tell you - it does. I didn't even pick it out - Ryan gets the credit for that. But making this old man, who has (by his own admission) very little to live for, extremely happy for some small new comfort in his life - it makes me happy.

This Joy Unit win might just carry me for the rest of Christmas. The kids asked for, and are getting, very reasonable items this year. The boys are all getting scooters - fancy ones for the older two. Zack's getting more Legos than any 5 year old could possibly need. Darcey's getting a princess castle dollhouse with an assortment of princesses to go with it. The big surprise is that we are also getting the family a Wii. They aren't expecting it, so I'm hoping to score some major Joy Units from it. It could completely backfire, though - what if they didn't ask for a Wii this year because they really don't want one? They're just fine playing Wii at their friends' houses, and would rather we spent the money on books and maybe some modest gifts for a poor family.

Oh, who am I kidding? The kids are going to love it. If nothing else, I will love it - I bought Super Mario Brothers so I could relive my childhood. I'm hoping that this will be something fun we can do together as a family. Ryan's convinced that it is going to increase the amount of fighting, but I say we already have 100% fighting - how can we increase it? Is there a way to fight more than all the time? I figure they'll just shift their fighting from the computer or the tv and transfer it to the Wii. My prediction is that this will be a fighting-neutral proposal. Less fighting in one area, more fighting in another - it's the way the world stays in balance, the yin and yang of the sibling battleground. It's why I sing "With peace on Earth, goodwill to men" with such fervor every year - I'd like to change it to "With peace in our house, goodwill to brothers" but that doesn't fit quite right.

Anyhow, it remains to be seen the ultimate outcome of buying the Wii. Ryan thinks it might be the most expensive I-told-you-so of all time, and I'm hoping that the Wii will be more positive than negative. If it turns into a huge debacle, that's okay too - it'll give me more to talk about, now that the swingset is gone. But I don't think it will.

Here's wishing you and your family a Merry Christmas, with peace in your home and goodwill to siblings. And lots and lots of Snuggies.

Monday, December 21, 2009

In Sickness And In Health

I was beaten at the "which spouse is sicker game" this weekend. Anyone who is married knows this game - whoever is the sickest gets to do less of the work, take the easier parenting duties, and generally garner whatever sympathy the less sick person is willing to offer. The less sick person goes along with this, knowing that at some point, the tables will turn - it is one of the few times the Golden Rule reigns supreme. One of the first strategic moves, then, is claiming to be sick first. Just like calling shotgun, you've got to declare your illness first. The sticky part is when both spouses claim to be sick, that's where the negotiations begin.

I've made this handy chart to show, in order from least to greatest, the heirarchy of sickness.

Really minor injury (bad bruise, stubbed toe, removable splinter)
Single symptom (cough, sore throat, runny nose)
Multiple symptoms, minor cold
Multiple symptoms, major cold
Minor injury (slammed finger in door, dropped can of soup on foot, rubbed eye with hand that just chopped jalapeno peppers)
Fever + cold symptoms
Fever + chills + cold symptoms
Regular Flu
Swine Flu, Bird Flu, or any other Flu named after an animal
Bleeding in copious amounts
Pregnancy, first and third trimesters especially
Major injury (broken bones, concussion)
Organ malfunction

If either spouse has more than one of the items on the list (say, Minor cold symptoms plus minor injury) then the sum of the two illnesses will be taken into consideration. If a spouse has three items (say, Pregnancy plus vomiting plus stubbed toe) then the other spouse had better just give in right then. Especially if pregnancy is one of the illnesses, and you had something to do with it. Trust me, it's for your own good.

As simple as my handy chart makes it seem, in actuality there are many gray areas to determining spousal sickness preference. Who called sickness first, for example. How each person slept the night before. How obvious the symptoms are, along with how easily the symptoms are faked. How "tough" the person generally is, and how frequently they cry wolf over sickness. What fun things is the person willing to sacrifice in order to be considered sick?

One thing that should not be taken into account is whinyness. The louder person is not necessarily the sicker person. That makes things extremely difficult to sort out, since each person's tolerance level for the same illness could make a complainer appear sicker. If you are married to a vocal sick person, but you are more of a suck-it-up type, it's time to start being more vocal yourself. Unfortunately, you have to speak the other person's language, and a loud sick person is going to interpret your stoic silence as "I'm just fine, and I'd love to bathe the kids tonight while you play xbox with your buddies!" Even if you have children actively vomiting while you writhe on the floor in pain, DO NOT assume your spouse understands the level of your illness. And if you are the spouse reading this that says "Gee, I'm so lucky! My spouse can handle life just fine while he/she's sick. He/she's a trouper!" then chances are you are married to someone who has yet to learn the art of sickness expression.

Not that I have any personal experience with that. We don't even own an xbox.

Back to the topic of sickness heirarchy. Let's use a personal example to demonstrate. On Saturday, I woke up with a sore throat plus I didn't sleep well the night before. Ryan had some gas pains in his stomach. Both the sore throat and the gas pains would be considered a single symptom illness, but my bad sleep trumps his good sleep, putting me in the position of Most Sick. However, he clearly believed himself to be sicker than me, and did things like laid in bed, took naps, generally acted like a sick person. I, on the other hand, felt miffed that my clearly worse sickness was not being acknowledged. I mean seriously, gas pains? Gas is definitely a less impressive symptom, even in the single-symptom range. And it's grosser, too. I had a perfectly respectable illness, and there I was, grocery shopping and running errands and taking care of the kids.

By Sunday morning, the balance shifted in Ryan's favor. I still slept badly, but this time it was as much from the sore throat as it was from Ryan's flopping around in bed. At 6:15 a.m. I asked him if he wanted to go to urgent care, but he said no, he'd be okay. I got the kids up and out the door for church by myself. I wanted his help, but he couldn't help me. I tried to keep my resentment bottled up (the way all painful emotions should be, ha ha) and reminded myself that just two weeks ago, he did the whole Sunday routine alone while I gallivanted around Maryland. I could be the trouper. I came home from church to find him still in bed. At about 3 p.m., right about the time I wanted him to watch the kids so I could take a nap, he headed to urgent care. They sent him to Orem Community Hospital for a CAT scan, at which point it turned out NOT to be gas pains after all, but instead an inflamed appendix. He was sent to Utah Valley Regional Medical Center, where he underwent surgery at about 8 p.m.

I farmed out the kids to some extremely generous neighbors and sat with Ryan in the various holding areas before his surgery. I held his hand and rubbed his arm and generally tried to be positive and supportive. This was, of course, to assuage my guilt. How on EARTH was I supposed to know that his single minor symptom illness was in actuality a Major Organ Malfunction?? Really, how was I supposed to know? My husband says "gas pain" - the medical community says "death's door." Talk about mixed messages! And here I was being all snooty, in my mind at least, about how much work I was doing by myself while Ryan got to lie around all day. Of course, he was lying around while one of his internal organs was blowing up like a Jiffy-Pop bag, but I repeat, how was I supposed to know??

Clearly my guilty conscience is seeking justification here. While it might appear that I am a selfish, uncaring spouse, rest assured that when the severity of his situation came to light, I did the right thing. Actually, once he decided to go to urgent care I knew he must have been in worse pain than he let on. And you know what? Until he was wheeled off for surgery, we had a great time together at the hospital. The kids were gone, he and I watched some Survivor, we talked and hung out and basically considered it a really expensive date. If you've watched the comedian Brian Regan's skit about visiting the emergency room, then you'll appreciate this information: Ryan was a 7 but they gave him morphine anyway, and the haunted choir in the half-room next to us was so loud we couldn't stop laughing. If none of that made sense, watch this video.

Ultimately, Ryan's surgery went well, he spent the night at the hospital and came home this afternoon. So far he's not in much pain, although he can't bend down or use his stomach muscles for much. And as for my sore throat? It magically got a whole lot better when the option of being the sicker spouse was taken away. Maybe I'm the one that needs to read between the lines when it comes to gauging how sick my spouse is. Or take another lesson in the Golden Rule.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Maryland, Day Four

My bags are packed and tomorrow I'm leaving on a jet plane (you better believe I'm singing that in my head and not just typing it - I love me some Peter, Paul, and Mary.) I can't believe it's over already. This weekend has been fantastic - I've done lots of fun things, but at a slow pace, not my regular breakneck vacation pace. I've meandered and moseyed and wandered and I loved it all. This trip was very much needed and I'm hoping to go home and feel a little bit more...human. More "me", less "mom". I'm aiming to be awake at 4:30 - yes, that's a.m. - so let's get today's recap going, shall we?

First up, I slept in. Ahhhhhh. So what that it was only until 8:30? After that I stayed in bed and listened to a book until I finally wandered upstairs at about 9:15. My grandpa was ready to come pound on my door to make sure I was okay. It would have been better than the kids coming in to get me - they wouldn't have bothered knocking. And they would have immediately asked me to do something for them. I sat at the dining table while my grandma made me a cup of hot cocoa and warmed a croissant. Oh man am I going to hate going back to 7 a.m. bowls of cereal after this.

One thing I've noticed on this trip is the lovely roads that I take to get everywhere. They are roads that have seemed unnecessarily long and winding to me in the past, and they might still be if my goal was to get somewhere in a timely manner. Since that was generally not a goal of this trip, I was able to enjoy how beautiful the roads were as they wound through the trees. Even without the leaves, the trees were lovely. The smaller two lane roads remind me of driving through the canyons, except a) not steep, and therefore none of the crazy switchbacks up the mountain, and b) instead of mountain on one side and cliff on the other, you've got trees on both sides. They are right up against the road, not much of a shoulder, and it gives the same impression as the mountain does, pressing its mass against you so that you tend to lean in just to get more space.

Roads in Utah, the roads I drive every day to get from point A to point B, are straight and efficient. They were master planned by Brother Brigham himself, and I suppose after spending two years crossing the Great Plains, maybe he didn't have any wandering left in him. Our nice, neat grid system is an engineer's dream, but it makes for a dull driving experience. Maybe I'm asking too much out of what is only intended to be a transportation system, but I'm a little sad that when I leave the Salt Lake airport, the only trees I'll see are those that have been put there on purpose. I will drive in mostly straight lines and make mostly 90 degree turns. I will see more billboards than foliage. When I need to get somewhere in a hurry, I appreciate our easily understood (once you get the hang of it) east/west north/south directions, but I want to somehow take my meandering attitude back home with me, and I'm afraid the staid, boring roads are going to immediately resurrect the efficient driver in me.

After my leisurely morning, I headed to Columbia Mall to meet my friend Josh for lunch at the Cheesecake Factory. We talked about our spouses and our children and our jobs, such a different kind of conversation than those we had 15 years ago when I was still in high school. That's one of the great things about seeing these friends who meant so much to me a very long time a go - they knew me way back when I was the previous version of me, Emily 1.0. Now that I've been upgraded to the 2.0 model, I can interact with these same people and notice just how different this version of me is. The fundamentals are still the same, but have I maybe gained some bells and whistles? A better user interface? Have I gotten less buggy? Sometimes I want to know how Josh and Rachael and others that "knew me when" see me - in some ways they are my benchmark. But at the same time, they've changed too, so it's not like I can measure against such a flexible ruler.

After lunch, we walked over to the mall proper and walked around. I worked in the mall for some amount of time when I was a senior, so it was a very familiar place to me. Today, though, it was a brand-new place. There weren't even the faint echoes of a place that felt the slightest bit recognizable. Josh pointed out the place where the JoAnn Fabrics where I worked used to be, and I had to stand there for a couple of minutes, just to get my bearings. This was the only place I visited on this trip that gave me this feeling of complete foreignness.

On my way back to Annapolis, I swung by our old townhouse in Laurel. We lived there from the time I was, oh, five or so maybe until I was 11. In order to get to the bus stop, I had to leave our neighborhood and cross through some woods, over a bridge that covered a creek, and into the next neighborhood. I have fond memories of this wooded area - my brothers and I used to play in the creek and catch crawdads. There were honeysuckles that lined the bank and to this day the smell of honeysuckles takes me back to this place. I tell you all this to help you see the memory of the place that I carry in my mind - remote, isolated, my own little wild place - I compared it to the woods where they played in the book "Bridge to Terabithia," one of my all-time favorites.

These rose-colored memories make me laugh when I see the reality of that place. The "woods" consists of a single line of trees on either side of the "creek," which is more the size of a drainage ditch than anything wild and dangerous. The distance from my neighborhood to the other was, I don't know, 100 feet or so? I'm bad at judging distance like that. Maybe from my house to the end of the cul-de-sac. Whatever the distance, it wasn't this long, dangerous trek I took every morning. I smile every time I compare my memory with the reality. How many other things do I remember so differently? What other places and events do I look back on fondly, that maybe don't deserve it? Is this the trick that the mind plays on people to make life more bearable, as in: if my past was this good, my future will be, too? Or is this the blessing that we get, to go through things that may be hard but take away from it the best pieces and leave behind the excess?

I left the woods and the creek and headed back towards Annapolis. I made my requisite stop at Friendly's and got myself a strawberry Fribble. (Isn't that a great word? Fribble? It's a nice, thick shake that you drink with a straw, so a good word for a good product.) It was purely out of obligation, that Fribble, because I wasn't the least bit hungry. With that checked off the list I hit historic Annapolis to pick up some souvenirs for the kids. I came home and packed - magically, everything fit into my suitcase and backpack (I hadn't kept spatial issues in mind when I was making my purchases.) At dinnertime (still not hungry, mind you) my grandparents took me to Adam's Ribs - oh,wait, Adam's Ribs, I just now got that! Adam, you know, from the Bible? And the rib? Wow, talk about delayed reaction. Okay, back to the story, we went to this rib place, whose owner is apparently NOT named Adam like I thought, and I got baby back ribs with a Maryland crab cake. (That one's for you, Kelly.) It was sweet and light, the outer crust was thin and crispy and it was filled with crabmeat - it was delicious. I'm not a seafood eater generally, but that's two crab items I ate on this trip and I liked them both. I'm going to make a Marylander out of me yet.

I stayed up late talking to my grandparents, then went down to my room and stayed up for another hour talking to Ryan on the phone. I turned out my light at midnight, knowing that sleep was probably futile with an alarm set for 4:30, and I was right. I couldn't fall asleep until one, then my cell phone rang at two, I slept from then until about 4 and decided to get up shortly before my alarm clock because, sheesh, why the heck not at that point. I'm on the plane now and it's only maybe half full (or half empty, depending on how you look at it.) I got the entire row to myself, so I laid down for an hour or so, but apparently I can't sleep on planes. I've never known before because I usually have kids to watch and/or hold during flights. Seriously, I don't know what people complain about - this flying stuff rocks.

I expect this is my last blog about my trip, so in summary I want to say that this trip has been truly wonderful. A balm, as they say, soothing my soul. What's so soothing about sightseeing and eating crabcakes and seeing old friends? I don't know. All I know is that I feel peaceful. I feel calm inside and mentally rested. I feel like things that a week ago had me completely on the verge of losing it aren't going to bother me now. My goal is to see how long this can last. Not forever, surely, but hopefully I can keep the idea of this feeling, the memory of it, and revisit it sometime when life is feeling particularly dire. How do you take a picture of a feeling? I want to lay it down on a page in a scrapbook and keep it safely on a shelf so it doesn't go away. Well, if I can't do that, I can record it in words: I am happy. I am relaxed. I can handle things. Life does not overwhelm me, and when things get busy or stressful, maybe I need to meander a little bit. Take a drive in the canyon and find some trees that aren't part of a master plan. Allow things to come into my life and if they don't make life better, let them go. Slow down. Life is good.

One last round of pictures:

Mmmm, Friendly's. Not the greatest ice cream, but the fondest memories.
This is the playground behind our old townhouse in Laurel. Different now, of course - the slide used to be straight and much shorter. One time Drew took his Big Wheel to the top of the slide but instead of riding it down the slide, he accidentally went backwards down the steps.
The bridge over the creek. Notice the lack of forest.
And the townhouse itself.
My grandparents.

Historic Annapolis. I think Utah has completely missed the boat on calling things "Historic." We've got history, too! I propose we rename Provo "Historic Provo." I think it'd be much cooler that way.

Annapolis harbor. The statue you see a tiny bit of is to commemorate Alex Haley's Roots - his ancestor, Kunta Kinte, arrived on a slave ship into Annapolis harbor.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Maryland, Day Three

Today's theme was A Walk Down Memory Lane. Actually, it was a drive down memory lane, as I rarely got out of the car (too cold). I started out by going to church at my parents' old ward. When I lived in Eldersburg, we were part of the Hampstead Ward, but sometime after I left they split and got their own building just a mile or two away from my parents' house. I saw a few people that remembered me (old YW pres, old Seminary teacher) and I was lucky enough to remember their names, which is a total bonus for people I haven't seen in 15 years.

Afterwards I met an old high school friend for lunch in Sykesville called E.W. Becks Restaurant & Pub. I found it completely hilarious that this good mormon girl went directly from church to a pub. Boy, say the word 'vacation' and the standards go right out the window, eh? Don't worry, we sat in the restaurant side of it and drank water. But I still find it totally amusing. Oh, and I need to mention that the restaurant wasn't just in Sykesville, it was in "Historic Sykesville." I know the town is old, but when did it go all "historic" on us? When I lived there, Sykesville was the back end of forever, it was even less impressive than Eldersburg, and that's saying something. But now it's got "historic Main Street" and I have to say, it's pretty darn cute. Maybe I'm just a sucker for "historic main streets" - Historic Ellicott City is still one of my very favorite places. Well, good for them for trying to make a buck off of historic-ness.

Lunch was great. We shared a crab dip for an appetizer - she suggested it and I pretty much forced her to order it. After all, Maryland is for Crabs and I was so going to eat something crab-related while here. Fortunately this was mixed with enough cheese and other stuff that I couldn't really tell what the crab flavor was. But that's okay - I ate crab like a true Marylander, and that's all that matters! (Plus, it was quite tasty.) Better than the food was the conversation. It was great to talk to someone I knew so well, albeit a very long time ago. Even though it's been 11 years since we last saw each other, I felt comfortable talking about anything, and that's the mark of a good friend. It was also nice that we didn't just rehash all the stuff we did back in the day - those conversations, while fun, can get old, or just show that you don't have anything in common anymore. Lunch with my friend was one of the highlights of my trip.

I headed back to Eldersburg next and drove past my old house. It's still my parents' house, but it's being rented out, so I couldn't go in or anything. The person living there was in the driveway when I pulled up across the street so I introduced myself and asked if I could take a picture of the outside. He was very friendly and told me how much his kids love the house. I didn't realize that I would have any kind of emotional attachment to a house I haven't been in for nearly ten years, but I did. I wanted to go in and see my bedroom the way it was when I left, like a shrine or one of those bedrooms in a historic home that belonged to someone famous, looking just like it did when Lincoln left for the play or something. Of course, it wasn't like that even when my parents still lived there. My sheets were barely cold before Tim moved into my room, 15 years ago.

What I really want is for time to have stood still and be there waiting for me to come and revisit. I wanted to come to Maryland and have everything be like a life-sized diorama, perfectly preserved in time and available for me to run my memories through. I drove to my old high school and sat in the front parking lot for a few minutes. To my right was the large parking lot where I attempted (and failed) to learn how to drive a stick shift. To the left of the front doors were the windows that I can so clearly remember looking out of, checking to see if my ride was there to pick me up. I sat there and pictured walking down those halls, but all of a sudden I realized that if I had walked inside on a school day, I wouldn't see the kids I left back in 1994. No one in the school would dress the way we did, or wear their hair like we did, or listen to the music we liked. The kids in that school today would look like, well, like today's teenagers. The building's the same but it's not the same on the inside - does that make any sense? I don't know why, but it makes me sad to know I can even though I can go back to the physical building where so many of my memories (both good and bad) were created, I can't ever relive it, because it's not the same anymore. I don't belong there, just like I don't belong in that guy's house. Such a bizarre feeling, to know a place so intimately in my mind and yet be a total stranger at the same time.

I have to say, as contemplative as that last paragraph sounded, I truly enjoyed driving around my old stomping ground. Roads looked familiar to me, but I had no idea where they went. I could point to exactly where the old Dunkin Donuts place was, or tell you which grocery store was in which strip mall, but I couldn't tell you the name of the street I was on. I drove around neighborhoods, trying to decide which house belonged to which friend. It was less remembering the town and more like hearing an echo from 15 years ago. It was faint, but it was there, and I enjoyed chasing down the echoes.

So here are a few pictures from my drive down memory lane.

High's - the convenience store where my dad would buy his " Super Big Burp" drinks - giant 44 oz Diet Cokes. I would always, always love it when my dad drove me to school, because he'd stop here and let me pick out a treat. To this day, I feel better when driving with a full soda next to me. I think gas station food should be its own food group.

This is my alma mater, Liberty High. They've renamed the auditorium after the drama teacher I had in school.
Yes, I know that if you've seen one McDonald's you've seen them all. This particular McDonald's is where I would go after school and get a Quarter Pounder Extra Value Meal for $3.14 after tax. My childrens' birthdates I forget, yet I know how much a cheeseburger, fries, and a soda cost 15 years ago.
Ah, the mall. When we moved there, it was an outdoor shopping center. They added a roof to make it more mall-like and trendy. But to my family, it was always a shopping center with a roof on it. The big anchor store was Kmart and the only bookstore in the whole town was a Little Professor. Even with the "mall," for most big purchases we had to go to what we called a "real mall," like Columbia (ask me to sing the jingle for it some time) or Cranberry Mall in Westminster. Today, the mall is a shell of its former non-glory - no, really, it's just a shell. It's pretty much empty and those front doors are boarded up. The Kmart is still there, though. I heard last week that the movie theater closed too. How, in a growing and seemingly well-off town, does a movie theater go out of business? Is there another one nearby that I don't know about? Bizarre. Apparently I have a lot to say about the mall.
My house! Or, my old house. When did the bushes get so big? Are there windows down there that they are covering? I can't even remember. And were the shutters always green? Why don't I remember this better?
My friend Rachael. She looks exactly like herself, just older.
This one and the one below are Sykesville Middle School. I don't have as many passionate feelings about this school as I did about Liberty. Middle school was such an awkward age, though, I even my subconscious just wants to put it behind me.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Maryland, Day Two

Whew. Today was busy, and I am wiped out. I don't know how much detail I will go into (knowing me, more than is necessary.) Today I took the Metro into Washington, DC - Our Nation's Capital. My goal was to do things that I had never done before or couldn't enjoy as thoroughly with kids there. I am that stereotypical person who never visits the places in her own backyard, but will travel thousands of miles to see some other state/country's monuments. Today I plan to rectify that a little bit.

First up was the Library of Congress. First established over 200 years ago, the Library of Congress (or LOC for short) was started with 700 books and 3 maps, procured from England at a cost of $5,000. These books were lost in the fire of 1814, when England invaded America and set fire to the Capitol building. The next installment of books came from Thomas Jefferson who sold his collection of 6,000 books to Congress for something like $24,000. Some of these books were lost in another fire, causing someone to finally decide to put their books in a new, fireproof building. Or at least fire-resistant. Whatever.

The LOC is a gorgeous building. The entry hall was ornate and the ceiling looked like it belonged in a cathedral. I didn't see too many books, to tell you the truth. The books are in closed stacks, only available to researchers, and mostly in other buildings. This building was more like a book museum - it was a richly decorated building built for the express purpose of housing knowledge. The Library of Congress is less a library and more of a shrine - a place to worship not just knowledge but also the book itself, the very paper and ink and binding.

As you can imagine, I loved it. I desperately wanted to be one of those librarians who are privileged enough to walk along the 650 miles of bookshelves and find the exact right book some researcher needs. Maybe I need to consider librarian as a future profession.

When I was done with the tour of the LOC, I headed across the street to the Capitol building for a tour. I love tours, by the way. It's the best way to see the highlights of an attraction while getting peppered with random facts along the way. Tour guide is another profession I would just love. This tour was slightly less interesting to me, but the building itself was nice. Rotunda, nice, Statuary Hall, nice. We didn't get to see the actual House or Senate chambers, though, so I kind of thought, what's the point?

It turns out that I didn't need a tour to see the chambers - Senate was in session today, rare for a Saturday, so I was able to go up to the gallery and sit and watch the Senate debate health care reform. I have to say, it was so much more interesting in person than it is on CSPAN. I've read a lot on the topic so it was interesting to watch the senators themselves argue for and against parts of the health care bill instead of reading political commentators' interpretation of what they said. I had a few observations:

-The room was almost completely empty. There were about 7-8 democrats in their seats (although I can't be sure they were all senators, and not aides or something) and the republicans would only pop in when it was their turn to speak. What's that all about? Can't they be bothered to sit in their chairs the whole time? What's the point of debating when there's no one there listening?

-Even though no one was there, they must have been listening to some extent, because John Kerry made a point (on a giant blue placard, no less) comparing the democrats' plan to cut medicare costs to something that John McCain said in his campaign. Five minutes later, McCain came in, placardless, and when Kerry's time was up, McCain stood and made a rebuttal. So they are somewhere listening, apparently.

-The senators get their facts from Both Kerry and McCain referred to that website as proof that some point they wanted to make was true. That's kind of cool, although I hope that isn't secretly owned by a secret cabal consisting of GM, Aetna, the AARP, the Teamsters, and Microsoft. Let's hope they stay impartial - the senators are counting on it.

-Neither side seems willing to actually compromise. Both seem to think that the best offense is a good defense, so neither side is open to admitting that their plan has weaknesses. The democrats that I heard today were 10000% convinced that their plan was so perfect, so correct it might as well have been written in stone by the finger of God. The republicans kept saying, "No, it's not, no it's not, no it's not." They practically had their fingers in their ears saying "Nanny nanny boo boo, I'm not listening!" How on earth do they expect to come to an agreement that both parties think is best if neither side is open to collaboration? I truly believe that compromise isn't an option - the democrats would rather beat the republicans than come up with a plan that the people want, and the republicans would rather lose completely so that when the democrats health plan starts costing seriously more money than they expected, they can say, "See? We told you so!" This is not the way to make a good decision.

-The senators need a lesson from a good marriage counselor. We've got a Venus and Mars situation here, two groups of people that are from completely different planets. They sounded like a couple having an argument where by the end, they aren't even arguing about the topic anymore, they're just arguing to argue. They are bouncing from topic to topic, and I am starting to believe that they can't even agree on what they are fighting about anymore.

Sorry to get all jaded and cynical and political in the middle of a vacation blog. I probably should have expected it, given that I was going to DC and all. The political ideal that the Capitol building was created to house is sound, but I think politicians have lost their focus, which is to make the best decisions for the people they represent. You want to know why we have such abysmal voter turnout? It's not that we don't care - it's that we feel like what we care about doesn't matter, at least not as much as what the lobbyist or the donors or the special interest groups care about. I know it's hard to make "out of many, one", but I think we need to try something else, because this isn't working for a lot of us.

Well. Ahem. So sorry about that tangent. I loved watching the senate debate, though - it was eye-opening and fascinating and, yes, a little irritating, but being there live made me feel like I was a part of it. One of the senators kept turning around and addressing the gallery, as if he realized that we, ultimately, did have some say in this. I loved watching the procedural stuff - a motion to have something included in the record, objections, ceding the floor, "Madame President" - I ate that stuff up. It was one of the highlights of my day.

I left after about an hour of watching because by then it was 2:30 and I was starving. That was one of the things I couldn't have done with kids, not only because they would have been too loud, but also because they couldn't put a meal off for 3 hours without some serious repercussions. I made the long, long trek to the Smithsonian from the Capitol building (okay, maybe it was 3 blocks, but it was so windy my umbrella kept turning inside out, and I needed the umbrella to keep off the rain/snow situation) and had a late lunch at the Museum of Native American Art, or something like that. The docent at the LOC recommended it.

I walked across the Mall to the National Gallery of Art. I spent an hour or so wandering around, looking at paintings. I like landscapes much better than portraits, I learned. When I realized that I was barely looking at the paintings anymore, I realized I had reached my cultural input maximum for the day and decided it was time to head home. I accidentally walked all the way around the outside of the building which put me near the wrong Metro stop. I ended up taking the green line to the red line to the orange line, when the other stop would have been orange all the way. But I figured it out, all on my own, and didn't look any less confused than other people there. In fact, I practiced my jaded, I'm-a-local,-none-of-this-impresses-me look to great effect on the Metro.

I got back to my car, eventually, and after a short detour through Cheverly (incidentally, the town where I was born, thank you very much) made it home in one piece. One tired piece, I should say. My legs are throbbing. But that is the sign of a successful day of tourism. If I came home and my legs were just fine I'd have to call the day only subpar. I'd accuse myself of not appropriately carpe-ing my diem. And I certainly wouldn't want that to happen.

Tomorrow I head back to the burg, Eldersburg that is.

Ooh, look, pictures!

This building behind all the trees is the Library of Congress. At the top is the Flame of Knowledge. So cool.
All around the inside of the main hall are these great quotes about books and learning. This one says, "Ignorance is the curse of God - Knowledge the wing wherewith we fly to heaven."
The ceilings were just stunning. The docent called them Italian Renaissance style.
I wish this camera had a wide-angle lens so I could have gotten more in this picture. There's no way to capture the majesty of this room. Oh, wait, yes there is!Behold the entrance hall of the LOC, courtesy of some website where I grabbed this. I love the internet.

The view of the Washington Monument, waaaaay off in the distance. Okay, so it wasn't that far, but did I mention how freaking cold it was?

Two views of the capitol building, one from the Mall-side, one from the Library side.
This is the frieze that runs along the inside of the Capitol rotunda. The original artist who painted these scenes (there are 16 that depict different times in history) miscalculated how much room it would take, leaving him with several feet of blank space. It wasn't filled in until the 1950's.

This is the painting on the ceiling of the dome - the Apotheosis of Washington. Dan Brown talks about it in his new book, but the book was too boring for me to remember what he said about it. Maybe if the book had been more scandalous...

Friday, December 4, 2009

Maryland, Day One

I made it to Maryland. Whoopee!!! It's my first trip alone in seven or so years, and man was I in need of a little alone time. Ostensibly, the reason for my trip was my 15th high school reunion in Baltimore this weekend. But none of my friends are going, so I'm not actually attending the reunion. (I figured it wasn't worth the $50 ticket to watch people I didn't care about 15 years ago get drunk at the open bar.) It seemed, though, that an excuse like this would only come along once every, oh, five years. Hence, I made my travel plans. I'm going to see a couple of my high school friends while I'm here, I'm going to do some touristy things that the rest of my family wouldn't be interested in (can anyone say: Library of Congress? Oh yeah!) and I'm going to do some serious walks down memory lane. I can't wait.

But to get to all that fun stuff, I first have to endure the hazing that we call air travel.

It could have been worse. I kept thinking that this morning. At least when I was stuck in traffic, barely moving in measurable increments for 45 minutes, I was the only one whining in the car. When I watched the clock tick closer and closer to takeoff time, and I was still stuck in traffic, at least I was the only one panicking. When I drove past the entrance to the parking garage not once but TWICE, causing me to circle the airport not once but TWICE, I was the only one there to call myself an idiot. When I was standing in my socks getting patted down because the full-body scan showed something in my right front pocket, at least I didn’t have four kids to redress and all their belongings to gather. I was stressed about getting to the airport with only 30 minutes to get through security and onto the plane, but at least I was the only one I had to calm down. When I got in line with the other cattle being herded to our fate, at least I didn’t have a car seat, a toddler, a diaper bag, and a backpack full of dvd players and other distractions in my arms. It’s been much worse before.

Now, I’m not saying that without kids, flying is a picnic. I think the whole airport experience is designed to encourage people NOT to fly. Honestly, where else other than an airport do you disrobe to such an extent in front hundreds of strangers? (Maybe I should clarify that – where else would I disrobe in front of strangers? The correct answer is: nowhere. I’m not that kind of person.) However, this being the first time I’ve flown alone in the 12 years since I had children, I have to say it is substantially easier. If flying wasn’t the only way to get most places conveniently, and if I wasn’t the kind of person who liked going places, I wouldn’t take kids on an airplane until they were old enough to manage their own shoes/jacket/dvd player/etc. Sitting by yourself, or maybe with your favorite responsible adult by your side, that’s the way to fly.

Despite the stress level of the morning, which had my hand shaking so badly that my entire left arm was vibrating, I can’t help but be excited. Sure, we had close to a two hour delay. But like I said, it could have been so much worse. Two hours on a grounded plane meant two hours of reading a book. The only frustrating part was that we were supposed to be going somewhere, but once we actually started moving, eh, it was no biggie. The woman next to me was upgraded, so I traded my middle seat to an aisle with a spot in the middle for the window guy and I to put all of our junk on. Plus, since now I was on the plane for much longer, I bought myself lunch from the cart. Sure, it cost $11 for a sandwich and some pringles, but I wouldn’t imagine buying it if it meant $11 x 6 people. For all the people who complain about the miserable, cramped conditions, the lack of free food, the delays, I say this: fly with lots of kids – your own kids, that you are responsible for keeping happy and quiet and fed and entertained – and then fly by yourself. This flight is practically luxurious. And I’m in coach!

Since I’m alone (have I mentioned yet that I’m alone?) I’m noticing for the first time the job of the flight attendants. You know what they are? They’re mothers! Even the men! And all of us on the plane are the children. We’re the ones complaining about how long the delay is (Mom! Can we go now?) or how long the flight is (Mom! Are we there yet?) or how cramped we are (Mom! He's touching my armrest! No, it's MY armrest!) People need help with their bags and their jackets and their dvd players. They spend the entire flight either feeding us or cleaning up after us. All I can do is try to be the best behaved child on the plane, because I know how much work kids are on planes and I just want to give these people a break.

My grandparents picked me up at the airport, and it was great to see them. They are in their 80's but they don't act it at all. They put up their Christmas tree and their house lights specifically so they would be on when I got here. They're supposed to be planning a trip to England to see my parents next summer, but they aren't thinking about it until after my visit. Aren't grandparents great? At least grandparents like this are, the ones who think you are the bee's knees and can't imagine you doing anything wrong and love you enough to keep the clay rat you made them in first grade. We went to the Double T Diner for dinner and now we're sitting in their sunroom, reading books quietly (or in my case, clattering away on the laptop). It is delightfully peaceful. I'm about to start making a game plan for tomorrow, which may or may not be hampered by the snow that is forecast. Tomorrow's plan is to take the Metro into DC and spend the day there.

It's so quiet, I think I can hear the blood whooshing around in my brain. I forgot life could be this quiet. I may never come home.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

My Post-Thanksgiving Post

It's late. I should be sleeping. Barring that, I should be writing a paper that's due in 36 hours. But since I still don't know what I'm going to write my paper about, I figured I'd write here.

I skipped the traditional listing of all the things I'm grateful for this Thanksgiving. I'm not sure why, but something about the Facebook-style sound bites of gratitude didn't seem to capture the depth of gratitude I'm feeling, and I didn't want to trivialize it. I have a lot to be grateful for this year. Let's start with the trivial things.

This year, I'm especially grateful for:
-Giant pharmaceutical companies and their vast amounts of money. Sure, they're probably greedy capitalist pigs and all, but they have improved my quality of life so much that I say they're worth whatever outrageous salary they're making. Please, please don't let the next scandal requiring government takeover happen in this sector. I need my meds.

-Washable markers. Granted, most days that markers enter my life, I'm wishing they didn't exist altogether. But if we have to have art supplies, thank you for making them washable.

-A two year old that still takes naps, can't get out of her crib, and can't open doors. I know I take a huge risk in saying this out loud, but closed doors are probably the last barrier between me and complete insanity. Although it seems like my other three kids have forgotten how to CLOSE doors, so the point may be moot.

-Apple Inc. They are the makers of several things I would take with me if stranded on a desert island, most notably my ipod and my laptop. I love how they just work, I'm never having to reboot or virus-scan or troubleshoot. Plus, my gadgets make me happy. The end.

-Having a built-in babysitter. Brad is old enough now to watch the other kids while Ryan and I go out. He's decent at it, too, which is a good thing because he is also too old to be left with a female babysitter not much older than he is. Having him available is a great convenience, Ryan and I are going on dates almost weekly, plus he frequently invites us to go on dates, so he can earn money. That's what I call a win-win-win.

And now for the big one: friends. I'm grateful for friends year-round, of course, just like I'm always grateful for family, health, blah blah blah insert the standard list of things adults are grateful for. But this year in particular, friends have made a huge difference in my life. It's one of those things that you're always happy to have but it's not until you need it that the significance stands out. (I was trying to come up with an appropriate metaphor for this: something you don't realize the importance of until you need it - like car insurance? An ice scraper? A rape whistle? None of these are quite right, forget it.)

We lived in a ward where I really never made friends. Plenty of acquaintances, sure, but over the year and a half, no real friendships. I remember the loneliness of that, having my first child and being so completely on my own with it. My visiting teachers didn't even come for like eight months, that last bastion of connection between a lonely person and the rest of the world. I never, ever want to feel that way again. That was a long time ago, but ever since I've gone out of my way to make sure I have friends, wherever I live.

Since we moved to Orem seven years ago, I've been blessed to make some of the best friends I could ever imagine. We've taken kids to various sports together, driven carpool together, watched each others kids while we volunteered at school. We've talked about tv shows and books (and I include my parents in this, two of my closest friends.) We've swapped recipes and meals and probably germs, gone through pregnancies and illnesses, shared happy days and sad ones. The song "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother" happened to show up in my car cd player a couple of months ago, and for a while I couldn't listen to it without crying. (Okay, so it was during my more emotional time, whatever.) The lyrics go like this:

The road is long
With many a winding turn
That leads us to who knows where
Who knows when
But I'm strong
Strong enough to carry him
He ain't heavy, he's my brother.

So on we go
His welfare is of my concern
No burden is he to bear
We'll get there
For I know
He would not encumber me
He ain't heavy, he's my brother.

If I'm laden at all
I'm laden with sadness
That everyone's heart
Isn't filled with the gladness
Of love for one another.

It's a long, long road
From which there is no return
While we're on the way to there
Why not share
And the load
Doesn't weigh me down at all
He ain't heavy, he's my brother.

I have felt the hands of my friends, my family carrying my burden this year. They would say that I haven't weighed them down, but my load has been too heavy for me to carry alone. I wonder if that's something I'm supposed to learn from this whole experience, how to carry one another's burdens. If so, then I have the best examples to learn from. I feel a constant outpouring of support and love, and for that I'm grateful.

I'd like to give a separate mention to Ryan, my best friend. I've been, well, let's just say not the ideal mother and wife of late. He has never, not once, not one single time ever showed me anything but support and love when I'm having a bad day. He's never told me to snap out of it, to buck up, or to get my butt off the couch and wash some dishes already, can't I smell them from the living room? Never said that, although I wouldn't be surprised if he thought it. He's been an example to me of patience, a virtue neither of us would claim as our own. But he's got it, for me anyways, and I'm so grateful for him.

So, thank you. Thank you all for being my friend, for sharing with me your troubles too so that I don't feel so alone. I'm going to try to be more like you, so that when you feel burdened, I can carry you. And I'll give you a copy of that song, so I'm not the only one crying in the car. :)