Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Women On My Walk #6 - My Book Club

Among the women who are a regular part of my life Grams counts a group of ladies known as The Book Snobs. The Book Snobs meet monthly to have a few drinks, share dinner, and discuss a book. These ladies feed my intellect and nourish my soul.

Grams has always been an avid reader. So much so that when I was a child, my mother used to have to make me go outside and play. I would have much preferred to just stay inside and read all summer long. Often when she chased me outside I would take a book, climb a tree, and sit there and read all afternoon. I learned early in life that books could take me away. In the pages of a book I could go anywhere and be anything.

I discovered poetry in my Childcraft books as soon as I could read. I loved Robert Louis Stevenson's poem, Happy Thought.
The world is so full
of a number of things,
I'm sure we should all
be as happy as kings.
And Adelaide Love's poem, A Book, made me see what a book could teach me about the world.
A book, I think, is very like
A little golden door
That takes me into places
Where I've never been before.

It leads me into fairyland
Or countries strange and far.
And, best of all, the golden door
Always stands ajar.
Those nursery rhymes and fairy tales were followed by The Bobbsey Twins and The Little House Books. Then I moved on to Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys. When we moved to Corpus Christi, I was ten years old and discovered "The Bookmobile" for the first time. It opened whole new world of reading and books for me.

As a young teen I discovered Harold Robbins. I know for sure that my mother had no idea about the contents of such trashy novels as A Stone for Danny Fisher and The Carpetbaggers or that they were extremely inappropriate reading for a 13-year-old girl.

In my twenties and thirties my taste turned to romance novels by writers like Rosemary Rogers, Johanna Lindsey, and Nora Roberts.Those bodice-rippers helped me make it through all the years of diapers, potty-training, little league, and teenagers.

In elementary school I was delighted when the teacher would read a book aloud. I waited with anticipation for the period right after lunch when she would read every day.  And in junior high and high school I absolutely adored English classes. Teacher-led discussions that delved into the depths of a book were my favorite part of school.

Naturally, I kept reading after I finished school, but I missed the fulfillment of discussing books. Over the years I've found a few friends who share my enthusiasm for books; most notably, my friends Sandy and Janna. Both of them share my love of reading and discussing books.

For years, Janna and I talked about wanting to join a book club. So when Janna approached me a couple of years ago about joining a new club with some of her friends, I jumped at the opportunity.

The Book Snobs have added variety to my reading list. Thanks to them I've read books I would never have read on my own. We started with Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, a really great read about a depression-era circus. We've read everything from Victorian novels to bestsellers to banned books. We've discussed a wide range of topics including medical ethics and mental illness. We've read some chick lit, some new age, and some classics. We even tackled Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follet and read it in one month. The Book Snobs have seriously broadened my reading horizons. You can see our reading list on our blog, The Book Snobs.

The women of the Book Snobs share my love of books and reading. Reading with The Book Snobs has made me a more active reader. I still can't bring myself to write in the margins or highlight my books; but now I read with a stack of post-it notes to mark passages that I want to discuss. The Book Snobs provide a place to discuss books and all that's contained in them. That one night a month when I know that I can kick back with "The Snobs," have a glass of wine, a good dinner, and talk about books is something I look forward to every month.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Update on Grandad

It's been a month since Grandad's cardiac ablation at the Texas Heart Institute. He went back to Dr. Abdi Rasekh's office this week for his one month follow up. Dr. Rasekh is the cardiologist/electrophysiologist who performed the ablation.

Overall, he is doing extremely well. Over the past month he has had occasional short episodes where he thought he might have been in atrial fibrillation. Most of these lasted on a few minutes and were not intense or severe. Only once, this past Saturday night, has he gone into full-blown atrial fibrillation and atrial flutter. It lasted about 45 minutes.

Needless to say, I was extremely disappointed to see him go back into a-fib. But, he discussed this episode with the doctor who told him that it was not at all alarming or unexpected for him to still have these episodes. One month out from the ablation is not long enough for his heart to have fully healed.

Grandad will see Dr. Rasekh again in two months. After that he will wear an event monitor for the next month and then return to the doctor's office after they receive the results from the monitor. At that time they will recommend a course of action and/or treatment. It may be necessary for him to have an additional cardiac ablation or they may be able to begin weaning him off of some of the medications he is taking to control his heartbeat. I do want to note that we knew when he had this ablation that it might have to be done as many as two or three times.

I am very encouraged by how well Grandad is doing. For the first time in more than three years, he has energy. His personality is back to normal. And his color looks healthy and pink, not the sickly gray color it has been for the past three years.

And it's very encouraging that he didn't actually have a heart attack when we recently got a copy of the hospital bill. It was $83,000 for the procedure and the one-night stay in the hospital. Thank God we have excellent insurance coverage!

We are heading to San Antonio this afternoon to spend a four-day weekend with Our Little Princess. I can't wait for her to see her healthy, new Grandad. She already has more fun with him than anyone else. The new, improved Grandad may be more excitement than she can take.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Women On My Walk #5 - My Former Co-Workers

Grams went to work for our local United Way when I was 19 years old. I worked there for 32 years in a variety of positions. Over that period of time the organization had seven different Executive Directors. The total number of employees working there at any one time over the years ranged from 10-20. Most of those were women. Never at any time were there more than three men on staff at the same time. Generally speaking, nonprofit organizations employ many more women than men. I'm pretty sure it's because women work cheaper than men, but that's not the point of this post.

I wish I had kept a list of all the women I worked with over the years. In most nonprofit organizations employee turnover is high. If I just had to guess, I'd say that over that 32 year period I worked with more than 100 women of all ages, races and varying degrees of competence. Most of them were lovely women from whom I learned a lot. There were a few who would qualify as outright crazy, but most of them were just like me; working to give their families a better quality of life and making the best of being working moms. Some of them left and I've never heard from them again; others have become close friends.

One of the groups that has saved my sanity is a group of these former co-workers that I call "the lunch bunch." For the several years we worked together, we ate lunch together, usually at a table in one of the common areas of the office. When the last director took over, she immediately decreed that we would no longer be allowed to eat there. It was her way of beginning to divide and conquer. Shortly thereafter, she began firing and/or laying off existing employees or driving them away so she could hire her friends. In less than one year, all but one employee had been replaced by her friends.

No longer working together did not deter us from getting together for lunch. Of course, it was not every day, but it was still fairly regular. Recently, we've moved our gatherings to the evening for cocktails and dinner. It gives us more time to linger and visit. And there are a couple of former co-workers who no longer live nearby, but we stay in touch via email and/or Facebook.

We were co-workers. We covered for each other at work. We worked together to make sure everyone met deadlines and achieved goals. But as co-workers we shared more than just work; we shared our lives on a daily basis as only women can. We had babies, sent them to day care and came back to work. We nursed sick children and sometimes we brought them to work with us. We bought whatever the kids were selling as fundraisers. We wept with each other when loved ones died. We laughed at our kids' antics. We gave each other moral support when our kids were teenagers. We supported each other through divorces. We hosted showers for babies and brides. We celebrated graduations from high school and college. We held each others hands when our children started kindergarten or left for college. We cooked for each other. Some of us became grandmothers. Somehow, we made going to work every day more tolerable and sometimes even enjoyable.

We held our tongues when we saw each other doing stupid things ... well, sometimes we didn't actually hold our tongues because sometimes you've just got to say what has to be said. Sometimes we got downright mad at each other. There were even a few instances where we yelled at each other or stopped speaking for a while. Some of us spoke our minds, others just shook our heads and walked away. We provided shoulders to cry on and encouragement to keep on going. We accomplished a lot of good things together, both personally and for our community.

But we came to know each other and to like each other. I once told a group of them that they were not my friends, they were my co-workers. When I worked with them, I somehow felt it was important to recognize that difference. But I have to acknowledge that when I said that, they looked as if I had slapped them and I felt bad.

We are a diverse group of women ... accountants, secretaries, social workers, fund-raisers, managers, educators, and consultants, among other things. Each is accomplished in her own way. Sometimes we make it look so easy to be working moms and sometimes our hair is on fire. We are as different as we are alike. Some of us are girly girls and some of us are not. Some of us cook and some of us don't. Some are high-maintenance and high-heels and some of us are jeans and flip-flops.

When we get together we let our hair down ... we eat ... we drink ... we laugh ... we bitch ... we moan ... we celebrate ... we cry ... we surprise each other ... we shock each other ... we support each other ... we like each other. We've become our very own support group. I'm proud to call them my friends!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Taking Control Means Getting Organized

Grams has now spent the last two days cleaning out our four-drawer file cabinet. It has not been cleaned out in many years ... actually, it's never been cleaned out since we bought it quite a few years ago. Just to make that point, I'll admit that among the things I found in it were our tax returns from the 1980s along with a lot, and I do mean a lot, of bank statements.

The end result was four 33-gallon trash bags of shredded paper, a dead shredder (may it rest in peace), and a stack of papers that need to be organized and put back into the file in some kind of meaningful order.

Besides my personal need to take control, a big part of the reason Grams decided to undertake this purging process is so that, when Grandad and I pass into the great beyond, our kids won't have to deal with as big a mess as we had to when our parents passed.  To that end, I spent the morning perusing web sites that offer advice about what families need to know when a loved one passes and how to organize personal files.

There are a great many internet resources about this subject. Some of them are free and some of them are kind of pricey. The most thorough guide I found was from the Career Transition Center of the U.S. Department of State. It's 46 pages long and can be downloaded in an Adobe Acrobat file. If you're interested, you can find it here. But that was a little bit more detailed than I needed. I pulled information from about a dozen web sites and have compiled this list that I'm going to use for creating my files. I suspect that it will evolve as I actually set it up, but these are my starting categories and what will go in each one.
  • Personal Data (one file for each family member) to include birth certificate, Social Security Card, copy of driver's license, and passport.
  • Medical Records (one file for each family member) including a copy of health insurance cards, contact information for each doctor, allergy information, and medical records.
  • Life Insurance including location of policies, amounts of coverage, and contact information for all agents.
  • Academic Records including transcripts, diplomas, financial aid/student loan information.
  • Tax Returns for 3 years including all supporting documents
  • Automobiles including titles (originals and copies), automobile insurance, registrations, spare keys, and contact information for insurance agent.
  • Home including location of deed, mortgage, location of homeowner’s insurance policy, claims information, contact information for insurance agent, floor plan, breaker schematic, pest control records, etc.
  • Financial including the location and account numbers for all accounts, passwords, specifics of each account (joint or individual), and contact information for investment accounts.
  • Bills/Credit Cards/Loans with copies of most recent bills/statements.
  • Warranty Information with receipts, warranties, and owners manuals on all major purchases.
Hopefully Grams will finally be able to get a handle on our personal record-keeping.  I will update you as this project moves along.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Life is Good and I'm Taking Control

For the past several years Grams has felt like my life has been out of control. There were a number of things that contributed to that feeling. Here's just a brief recap of the major events of the past few years.

With the assistance of Adult Protective Services, my siblings and I removed our mentally-challenged sister from my mother's home against my mother's wishes. I left a job that I loved after 32 years because the new management and I didn't see eye-to-eye. My mother had to be moved to a nursing home which was followed by a series of falls and several surgeries. My husband got sick, had heart surgery and still didn't improve. Mom slipped into a coma then her kidneys failed and we had to make the decision not to start dialysis. Then the same day I found out my husband had to have lung surgery, my mother died. My husband hat lung surgery the same day we buried Mom, so I didn't even go to the funeral. We spent the next three years searching for a medical solution to my husband's declining health with an endless amount of frustration.

I went from being a working woman who never lifted a finger at home, didn't cook, and had a manicure every two weeks to being responsible for everything, and I mean everything, at home. It would have been so easy to just surrender and fall into a deep depression. But somebody had to keep everything going, so I got out of bed every single day and just kept putting one foot in front of the other and doing what had to be done. Honestly, some days that's all I could do, just put one foot in front of the other and keep going. But it's not in my nature to surrender or quit, so that's what I did. I just kept going as best I could.

I'm happy to report that, once again, life is good! Grandad is finally on the road to wellness. He actually feels good for the first time in years and he's back to his old self which means he's pitching in and helping around the house, marking things off my "honey-do" list, and even joking around. We made it through this dark time with the support of our wonderful kids, a great group of friends, and prayers and support from our extended family and friends.

And some great things have come out of all of this. Grandad and I are closer than we've ever been. We've always been each other's best friends, but we've learned a deeper trust and reliance on each other. My kids have shown me what wonderfully responsible adults they are. I've always known they were great kids, but they and their spouses have been there for us in ways that I never even imagined they would be. When we needed something, I had only to ask and sometimes I didn't even have to ask. They knew what we needed and they just did it. I could not ask for better kids ... they are amazing!

But this tumultuous period has had at least one casualty ... my house. We've always struggled with clutter. Both of us come from a long line of hoarders. When my father-in-law died it took three men and more than one industrial-sized dumpster to clean out his junk. Grandad has inherited that need to hold on to stuff in case you ever need it. And five of us spent three days going through my mother's two-room apartment. Then we ended up just selling almost everything to a junk dealer who hauled it away for us. I too struggle with wanting to "collect" stuff like my mother did.

This means that every closet, drawer and storage area in the house and garage is packed to the fullest. I'm afraid to open some of the doors because I know stuff is going to come tumbling out. Now that our kids are grown and gone, shouldn't we have more closet space? Not so! I've learned that, while they don't want to take all their stuff with them, they don't want me to get rid of it either. The clutter has taken over. I almost feel like I could be on an episode of The Hoarders. Seriously, it's not as bad as all that, but now that I'm feeling more in control of my life in general, I feel the need to take control of the clutter. And, I'm determined that cleaning out my stuff will not be such a huge job for my kids in the future.

Bottom file drawer - before de-cluttering
Starting today, I'm going to de-clutter my house one small space at a time. I'm starting with one drawer of our file cabinet. The bottom drawer is full of old computer software and hardware. Some of it is as old as our very first PC which would make ridiculously old and out of date. For years, we've just tossed old software, cables, and small hardware into this drawer in case we ever need it again. Well, enough is enough, it's time for it to go. I bought a new package of 33 gallon trash bags. I have my recycle bins on standby, I've got my Freecycle account ready to list the stuff that someone else might be able to use, and I've dusted off the shredder and moved it into the area where I'll be working.

My new byline will be "if we haven't needed it in the past year, we don't need it." It's going to be tough, but I think the hardest part will be just getting started. Updates will follow ... stay tuned.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Summer Vacation - The Finale!

The original point of Grams and Grandad's trip to Boston was to see the Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular. For years now, we've watched the show on television. Every year Grams says to Grandad, "we really need to go see this in person." Part of that is because I've always noticed that the temperature is considerably cooler than it is in South Texas on July 4th, but mostly it's my desire to see the concert the fireworks live.

We left the hotel at around 8:30 a.m. on Sunday, July 4th, and took public transportation down to the subway station nearest to where the show takes place. Everyone is encouraged to use public transportation to and from the area. They even close some of the roads around the park and, after the event, public transportation is free. Once we left the subway station it was still about a 12-block walk to the entrance.

Line to get a bracelet and go through security
We wanted to be sure that we were admitted to the Oval which is the lawn area right in front of the Hatch Shell. That requires a bracelet which they start handing out at 9 a.m. the day of the event. When all the bracelets are handed out, no one else is admitted. We arrived around 9:30 and were surprised at how crowded it already was. We had heard that in previous years all the bracelets were gone by 11 a.m. We stood in line about 15 minutes to get our bracelets.

Tents & umbrellas come down hour before show
Our original intention was to get our bracelets, leave and return later in the afternoon. But when we saw how crowded it was we decided we should go ahead and claim our own little piece of real estate.  We chose a spot on the bank of the river under a tree for shade, spread out my shawl, and sat down to stay. It was a warm day for Boston. The high was probably in the mid 80s. Since we left highs in the mid-90s, Grams and Grandad were comfortable.

Since we  did not have any chairs or even a blanket, we were on the ground for the day. It was now around 10 a.m. and the concert would not start until 8:30 p.m. followed by the fireworks at 10:30. That left us 10 1/2 hours before the show started and more than 12 hours before it would be over. But, this was the reason we came, so we decided to make the best of it. I won't lie to you, it was a very long day of sitting on the ground, but it was worth it. There were thousands of people doing the same thing all day long. You could definitely tell the rookies and out-of-towners from the locals and those with experience. Many were very well provisioned, others were like us. But there were food and drink vendors just outside the security gates and they weren't the usual festival vendors, many of them were Boston area restaurants selling good food.

As we sat on the Oval, we met people from Alaska, Connecticut, Washington, DC, New York City, Boston and lots of other places. For me, that was a terrific part of the experience. Many people came and claimed their place, stayed for a few hours, and then left their belongings and were gone for a while. (I can't imagine being able to do that in South Texas. Sadly, I don't think your belongings would still be there.)

101st Field Artillery Regiment
Those of us who remained all day amused ourselves in a variety of ways. Some played trivia, chess, or cards; some napped; a lot of people soaked in the sun; many read newspapers or books; and others just chatted. A few people had radios, but none were loud enough to be disruptive or annoying. From time-to-time during the day Soldiers of the 101st Field Artillery Regiment, Massachusetts Army National Guard, fired M102 Howitzers in preparation and/or practice for Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture.

I believe that part of the reason this event works so well is that they seriously restrict what is allowed on the grounds, especially alcohol. Everyone who enters the Oval must pass through a security checkpoint and every bag is searched. Things that are not allowed include alcoholic beverages, glass containers, aerosol cans, and sharp objects (including metal eating utensils). All of these items are confiscated. No pets are allowed either. (The whole idea of no alcoholic beverages would be a hard-sell in South Texas, too.)

Everybody wore red, white, & blue
Red, white, and blue attire was the dress of the day ... the more outrageous the better. Several times during the day photographers came through the crowd snapping photos. Some of those were used on the jumbo-tron during the show. People walked around giving away small American flags and red and blue "Statue of Liberty" crowns. Everyone was unabashedly patriotic. Grams loved it! Yes, I know we look ridiculous, but we were in the moment, What can I say?
Diver searching under bridge
In addition to the personal security searches, other security precautions were very obvious. All the footbridges were manned with Army National Guardsmen. Massachusetts State Police in boats searched the structure of each bridge and divers searched the in water beneath them. Uniformed military and uniformed police were intermingled with the crowd.

When choosing a place to sit for the day, you have to choose between seeing the concert and seeing the fireworks. You cannot do both. You can hear the concert from anywhere in the area, but if you want to see the concert, you won't be able to see the fireworks. We chose a place on the bank of the Charles River where we could see part of the stage and most of the fireworks, yet still be in the shade most of the day. Grandad is on medications that require him to stay out of the sun, so that was the major concern for us.

The Hatch Shell
At about 8 o'clock the show finally started. I snapped a few pictures of the stage, but nighttime photography is challenging. The concert is so much better in person than it is on television. The Boston Pops plays a lot more than you see on television. The only part of the show that disappointed me was that Craig Ferguson's role was so small. I really thought he would do at least a little of his stand-up act, but all he did was introduce Toby Keith.

Confetti cannon
In person, the 1812 Overture is awe-inspiring. When the cannons fire and all the church bells in Boston ring in unison, it's breathtaking. The concert ends with a huge blast of confetti, which signals that the fireworks are about to begin.

The fireworks, which started a few minutes after the 1812 Overture, were the most spectacular I've ever seen and they lasted a full 45 minutes. I didn't get any good pictures of the fireworks, but they were amazing.  (I'm uploading one photo from the Boston Pops web site.) They were far and away the best fireworks I've ever seen. The show was over around 11:30 p.m.

Behind the barricade, not admitted.
Leaving the event was the most challenging part of the day. This year's crowd was estimated at half a million people. All of those people had to leave a relatively small area at the same time. We hiked the twelve blocks back to the subway station. On the way we met a couple from George West, which is about 50 miles from where we live. When we arrived at the subway, it was so crowded that the Transit Police were only admitting about 100 people at a time. Once we got inside the station, the first two trains that came by were completely full. They didn't even stop. When the next one stopped, it looked like a scene from a movie. As many people as possible crammed onto the train. We only had to go about four stops, so we were among the first to get off the train. Catching a bus back to the hotel was even more challenging. Several packed buses whizzed by, finally after about 45 minutes, the driver of a crowded bus took pity on us and let us board. It was only about a mile and a half to our stop, but we were way too tired to walk.

By the time we got back to our hotel it was almost 2 o'clock. We had a 6:15 flight from Logan Airport, so we showered packed and rested for about two hours. We slept most of the flight to Houston, but we were still exhausted.  We took turns driving from Houston to Corpus Christi.

It was a great vacation and Boston is now on my list of favorite cities, but we're happy to be home and sleeping in our own bed.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Summer Vacation - Boston Day 2

Grams and Grandad were up early and headed into Boston for one of the events of Harborfest.  The Harborfest website describes it as "... a six-day long Fourth of July Festival that showcases the colonial and maritime heritage of the cradle of the American Revolution: the historic City of Boston."

We took the bus and the subway back to MIT to board the trolley. We were in luck, there was a trolley waiting. But when we tried to board, the conductor informed us that he was waiting for a charter and we would have to wait 10-15 minutes for the next trolley. We took advantage of the wait and went inside Cosi for our morning coffee. Coffee in hand and back outside, the next trolley pulled up, but it was full. The conductor who was waiting for his charter invited us to sit on his trolley and wait. By now there were quite a few other people also waiting. While waiting we chatted with the conductor and asked him if we would still make it to Long Wharf in time for the event we wanted to see. He assured us that we would, but then the next trolley that came was also full. This was Saturday, July 3rd, and the crowds in Boston had grown exponentially overnight.

What happened next amazed me. The conductor radioed his boss and told him that he was going to take us to the next stop rather than wait for his charter. He had assured me that we would make it in time for the reenactment and he made sure we did.

"The British Are Coming" was the reenactment of the Redcoats invasion of the city of Boston. The troops arrived by sea and marched to the Boston Common where they encamped.
While we waited for the ship carrying the British to arrive, we visited with the Redcoats who were there to meet them. We also chatted with other members of the crowd. All I can say was that Texas was well represented in Boston. Every place we visited all week we met people from all over the USA and quite a few of them were fellow Texans.

As the Redcoats marched off to camp at Boston Commons, we boarded the next trolley and headed for the North End (politically incorrectly known as Little Italy). It was a warm day so we grabbed a couple of iced teas to carry with us on our trek.

The North End was easily my favorite part of Boston. The streets are narrow and crowded. The buildings and the sidewalks are brick. The people are Italian and friendly. The restaurants run the gamut from open-air grab-a-slice-of-pizza places to elegant Zagat-rated bistros.

We wandered around just looking. The North End is so different from where we live that we were in awe. Many of the people we saw were so stereotypically American-Italian that it almost felt like a movie set. People were outside sitting on their steps. The firefighters had pulled folding chairs out to the sidewalk. We stopped to chat with them and asked for a recommendation about where to eat. They recommended a place called Artu. It took us a while to find it, but it was worth the walking. We started with Caprese Salad which was outstanding! I ordered my favorite Italian dish, Chicken Saltimbocca. Grandad ordered his usual Lasagna.  Both were excellent.

After lunch we continued our trip around the North End walking around the corner to the Old North Church and Paul Revere's house. There was a short but interesting presentation by a member of the congregation.  The Old North Church, which is actually called Christ Church, is an active Episcopal congregation. Admission is free; maintenance is funded by donations. She did an excellent job of telling the story of how on the night of April 18, 1775, Robert Newman, the sexton of the Old North Church, broke curfew to hang the lanterns for less than one minute. And it was seen not only by the Patriots, but also by the British troops, who were pounding on the locked front door by the time Newman came down the steps. He escaped by climbing out the window to the right of the altar. It's also interesting to note that this was an Anglican church. The colonists did not worship here, the British worshiped here. It was known as "The King's Church."

The church has been maintained much as it was in the 1700s. It has unusual box pews and its original candle-lit chandeliers.  It has a beautiful pipe organ, a clock that has been running since colonial times, and some small angel statues which were a gift to the church from a pirate who stole them. 

The gardens of the church are maintained as they might have been in the 1700s. There is a statue of Paul Revere on horseback and a memorial to fallen soldiers from the Iraq and Afghan wars. Still today, the steeple of the Old North Church is visible from many vantage points in Boston.

The City of Boston has so many sites to see that we could not possibly have done everything we wanted. We had to be satisfied with what we could see from the trolley on one last ride around its route.  Here's a quick recap.

We saw the bronze shoes that were a memorial to Larry Bird.  By the way, Grandad has bigger feet!

We saw the Cheers! bar, although it was extremely crowded and we didn't go in.

We saw Savenor's, the butcher shop where Julia Child bought her meat.

We saw the Church of Christ Scientist which has a huge reflecting pool and the people walking down the sidewalk next to it look like they're walking on water.

We walked through Harvard Yard and around the campus and we saw a building on the MIT Campus designed by famous architect Frank Gehry.

We saw Fenway Park, but we didn't go to a baseball game. Grams is not a baseball fan. But we noted that a nearby gas station closes on game day because they make more money from parking cars at $50 each than they can make selling gas.

We saw both the Old and New State Houses.  It's interesting to note that the "new" one was built in 1798.  The Declaration of Independence is still read from the balcony at the Old State House every July 4th.

We passed the graves of such patriots as John Hancock, Paul Revere, Samuel Adams, and Mary Goose (the real Mother Goose).

We drove past the site of the Boston Massacre where five civilians were shot by British troops in 1770. This was one of the events that sparked the American Revolution.

We ate cannoli from a real Italian bakery.

We saw America's original Victory Gardens, 49 acres of gardens set aside by the city during World War II in response to President Roosevelt's call for Americans to grow their own vegetables.

We passed the New England Holocaust Memorial which is made up of six glass columns inscribed with the infamous tattooed numbers of six million Jews who died in death camps.

We visited the Jamestown Ship Yard and saw the USS Constitution.  "Old Ironsides" is the oldest commissioned ship in the USS Navy and was built in Boston and named and commissioned by George Washington. Every year on July 4th, she sails into Boston Harbor and fires a 21 gun salute to our nations birthday.

We saw the Bunker Hill Memorial where 1200 colonials repelled two attacks by trained British troops on June 17, 1775, before the British finally captured the hill. It was a huge psychological victory for the patriots and proved that they could stand up to British "regulars." It was here that American General William Prescott gave the famous command "Don't shoot until you see the whites of their eyes."

We drove through the tunnels of the "Big Dig" and saw the Leonard P. Zakim-Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge. We saw Beacon Hill and the Back Bay. We saw Boston's Emerald Necklace and walked along the Charles River.

We found the people of Boston to be warm, friendly, welcoming, and unpretentious. The next and final day of our trip is set aside for the Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular, so that's it for sightseeing.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Summer Vacation - Boston Day 1

Grams and Grandad were staying at the Homewood Suites Hotel in Arlington, Massachusetts. Our morning started with their free breakfast buffet. They offer a very nice variety of choices including a selection of fresh fruit, yogurt, breads, bagels, scones, sweet pastries and some pre-made omelets, sausage, and bacon.  It was pretty impressive for a free buffet breakfast.

Before leaving home, we purchased tickets via the internet on the Old Town Trolley.  The trolley stop nearest our hotel was at MIT, which is about five miles from the hotel.  On the first day we drove our rental car to the MIT campus and parked in the public garage at Cambridge Center.  We were parked there for about five hours and it cost $23.  We thought that was a little steep.  After that day, we took the bus and the subway; it's a lot cheaper than parking and a lot less stressful than trying to drive in an unfamiliar city with very narrow streets and hundreds of people on bicycle.

If you're vacationing in Boston and want to see the sites with some knowledgeable narration, you can't go wrong with Old Town Trolley. If you buy online, ticket prices are $34.20 per adult. This gets you two days on the trolley plus a harbor cruise. The trolleys make 16 stops around Boston including one in Cambridge. You can get on and off at any of the stops as many times as you like. The trolleys run every 10-15 minutes from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. You must be back on the trolley at 5 p.m. and they will take you back to your original boarding point. The Conductors on the trolleys are very friendly and very knowledgeable. Most of them are natives of the Boston area and many of them have studied history. They definitely enhanced our Boston tourist experience. 

Our first stop was Quincy Market, Faneuil Hall, Long Wharf, and the New England Aquarium. We started with a stroll through Quincy Market which has been a public market since 1742.  Vendors sell all sorts of souvenirs, clothing, shoes, and a large variety of food. Some of the shops are indoors and some are outdoors. In the outdoor marketplace, there is a delightful variety of street performers. We saw singers, jugglers, acrobats, and a bagpiper. They move on and new performers move in throughout the day. It's a lovely place to spend a few hours and a few dollars.

We walked across the street and out onto Long Wharf, the site where the British landed when they came to occupy Boston in 1768. It was built in 1710-1721 and in colonial times was the busiest pier in the busiest port in the Americas. Today it is the launch point for a number of tourist boats and ferries. There are also a several very nice restaurants and a Marriott hotel on Long Wharf.

Since we were there and it was about to depart, we lined up for our Boston Harbor Cruise.  The 45-minute cruise takes you around the waterfront past modern docks and wharves, past the site of the Boston Tea Party, and to the Charlestown Navy Yard where the USS Constitution is docked. It was Navy Week in Boston and there were two other US Navy ships docked at Charlestown and open for tours.

Upon returning to Long Wharf, we ate lunch at Tia's Boston. It's right across the street from Quincy Market and has a lovely patio where you can eat outside. Their lobster lunch special is only $13.95 per person for a one pound lobster,  slaw, and french fries. It was the first time Grams has ever eaten a whole lobster. The waitress was very helpful and gave me instructions. It was delicious and messy. They provided a bib, but what they really should provide is sleeve covers and gloves.  

Next we walked over to Faneuil Hall. The original Faneuil Hall was built in 1740. It was destroyed by fire in 1761, but was immediately rebuilt according to the original plans. It was renovated in the 1970s. Since colonial times, it has been a site for speeches, announcements and assembly. I was very moved to stand where such noted Americans as Samuel Adams, Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, and John F. Kennedy have delivered important speeches. In colonial times, the Sons of Liberty met on the second floor of Faneuil Hall giving the hall its longtime nickname "The Cradle of Liberty."

After leaving Faneuil Hall we strolled back through Quincy Market where Grams bought a pair of shoes. They are Apropos Conversation Shoes advertised as "influenced by European women whose fashion sense does not include white athletic shoes." I bought the open-toe "Sand-elle" model, since I'll be wearing them where its extremely hot most of the year. They are designed to look fashionable while being as comfortable as athletic shoes. I like them so much that I've decided to order a pair of the Ballet Skimmers too.

By this time it was almost five o'clock so we boarded the trolley and rode back to MIT. We really enjoyed just riding the trolley. Every one of the conductors/tour guides has different stories and points out different landmarks.

When we got back to Cambridge, we discovered a Starbucks right around the corner from the parking lot.  We went in for frappucinos and enjoyed visiting with the baristas. There were quite a few students studying in the coffee shop. This particular Starbucks has a daily trivia question with a free drink if you get it right. Since Grams is a trivia buff, I was excited.  Sadly I did not know the answer to the question "What singer was the character Dudley Dooright based on?" But I do know now. If you want to know the answer, leave me a message in the comments and I'll send you the answer. We also discovered that the Google offices were in the building next to the trolley stop. I couldn't resist snapping a photo.

We returned to the hotel and started looking around for a place to eat dinner. On the advice of the desk clerk, we went a few blocks down the street to the Arlington Diner. The decor is very mid-century modern retro diner. The booths are upholstered in turquoise and pink vinyl and the tabletops are Formica. The menu has a distinctively Greek flavor. Even the waitress was from Greece. Grams had the Beef and Lamb Gyro Pita. It came with lettuce, tomato, onions, and Tzatziki and was very good. Grandad had a Turkey Rueben which he also enjoyed, although the sauerkraut was not as strongly flavored as he is used to eating.

We went back to the hotel and turned in for the night. It was a great day.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Summer Vacation - Salem

Grams and Grandad moved from Worcester to Arlington today. We checked out of the hotel in Worcester and drove about an hour and a half to Salem.

Upon arriving in Salem I was surprised to discover how little I knew about Salem. I knew that it was the site of the infamous Salem Witch Trials in the late 1600s and I knew that the House of The Seven Gables was located there. I was expecting an ancient seaside village of old decaying structures. That is not at all what I found. Salem is a thriving city of more than 40,000 people. It is also the home of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site. 

Upon arrival in Salem, we again made a pit stop at Dunkin' Donuts (clean bathrooms) and asked for directions. The employees were helpful and friendly. They were also highly entertained by Grams' and Grandad's "Texas Twang" and asked us to say several things so they could hear how we sounded. I explained to them that we don't have accents, they do. We also decided it was time to try Dunkin' Donuts coffee ... all I can say is Starbucks has nothing to worry about. I'm not switching.

Salem has truly embraced the "witch culture." There are references to witchcraft and magic at almost every turn. When we were pulling out of Dunkin' Donuts' driveway we saw this house right across the street.

We drove down into the historic district and went straight to the National Park Visitor's Center where we were greeted by Bob, a very enthusiastic National Park Service Senior Volunteer. I so regret that I did not snap a photo of Bob. He was great and had the best diamond jewelry I've ever seen! He opened our map and made helpful notes about which sites were "must sees" and which were a waste of time and/or money. He also told us that we should not waste our money on a tour trolley because we could walk to all the sites that were on our itinerary and it would be less than a mile. Later in the day I went back into the visitor's center because we could not find one of the attractions we wanted to see. I pulled out my map and asked for clarification. The National Park Service Ranger said "Someone wrote all over your map!" Another Ranger who was standing nearby said, "She had Bob." I smiled and told them that Bob had indeed helped us that morning and he was great.

The first attraction we came to was the Salem Witch Trial Memorial. I must say that at first it was not too impressive as memorials go. But the explanation of its design makes sense of the whole thing. "The memorial is surrounded on three sides by a granite wall. Inscribed on the threshold are the victims' protests of innocence. The testimony is interrupted mid-sentence by the wall, symbolizing society's indifference to oppression. Locust trees represent the stark injustice of the trials. At the rear of the memorial, tombstones in the adjacent cemetery represent all who stood in mute witness to this tragedy. Stone benches within the perimeter bear the names and execution dates of the victims."

It's important to note that those who were executed for witchcraft are not buried in this cemetery. It was not deemed appropriate for them to be buried in hallowed ground and they were denied Christian burial.

Next up as we followed the red line down the sidewalk (a guide for tourists) was the Maritime Historic Area which includes a museum, the tall ship Friendship, and several historic buildings. The history of Salem is better told in this district than it is in the tale of the witchcraft hysteria. In early America, Salem was one of the premier ports, handling many tons of cargo for years, until Boston took its place. The historic buildings are extremely well preserved and beautiful. There are a number of Park Rangers available to answer questions and there is a video you can watch to learn more. 

Still following the line we passed a row of shops and restaurants which included the oldest candy store in the United States. They actually make some of the candy they sell there and they have several antique candy pressing machines on display. The cases were full of every kind of candy you can imagine -- lemon drops, licorice whips, bon-bons, truffles, sour candies, divinity, and fudge, just to mention a few. But, it was lunch time, so I resisted the urge to buy some of the delicious, but pricey, candy they had in their cases.

Moving on down the street we came to the House of the Seven Gables. It was built in 1668 and is the oldest surviving wooden mansion in the USA. There are a lot of references to Nathaniel Hawthorne in the Salem area as well as a number of other literary figures. This is the house that inspired Hawthorne to write The House of the Seven Gables, but he never lived in it. It was owned by a member of his family. 

At this point, we backtracked down the red line and stopped for lunch at the Witch's Brew Cafe, which Bob had recommended for lunch. I had a delicious plate of freshly made hummus with raw vegetables and pita bread. It was delicious.

After lunch we went down to the Salem Witch Museum. According to Bob, there are several witch museums in Salem and each of them is a little different. We chose the one he recommended.  Admission is $8 per adult. You should be aware before you go that they use the word "museum" very loosely. There are no surviving artifacts from the Salem Witch Trials. The "museum" is actually a 30-minute audio-video presentation that tells the story of the Salem Witch Trials. It utilizes mannequins dressed in period costume and posed in various displays. The displays are lighted in sequence as the narration tells the story of the witchcraft trials and the accompanying hysteria. As you can see in the picture on the right, the exterior of the museum is currently covered as it undergoes renovation. By the way, the statue is of Roger Conant, the founder of Salem, who was not a witch. Honestly, I was a little disappointed in this museum and would not recommend it. My advice is save your $8 per person and rent the movie The Crucible before you go to Salem. It's a much better telling of the story.

The highlight of the day in Salem was definitely our walk down Chestnut Street. Again, directed by Bob, we drove the short distance to Chestnut Street and parked on one of the side streets. Bob had told us that Chestnut Street is widely considered to be the most perfect example of federalist architecture anywhere. He was not wrong. This is truly the most beautiful street of houses I have ever seen. This street is where Hollywood goes to film any movies that call for this look. The curbs on Chestnut Street and throughout much of Salem are actually granite. Many of the driveways and sidewalks are also paved with granite bricks.
These houses were built in the early 1800s. I want to point out the house that was built by a merchant, Thomas Saunders, in 1810 for his daughter, Mary Elizabeth, and her husband. The house is three stories and has 24 windows on each side. These are not museums.  Most of these houses are still homes. There are even a few that are for sale. Asking prices start around $1,750,000.

I find it ironic that Salem now makes its name and its reputation on the infamous Salem Witch Trials, but at all of the attractions they acknowledge that there were no witches; what happened was the result of hysteria. There are a number of theories about what caused the hysteria, everything from mold in stored grain which caused hallucinations and twitching to simple boredom among a group of young girls. 

Here is a sampling of signs I spotted around town, including a statue of that famous TV witch, Samantha. There may not have been any witches in early Salem, but today Salem is a hotbed of magic, fortune telling, and modern witchcraft. 
Salem is so much more than witchcraft and magic. I heartily recommend a visit to Salem, but the best part of Salem is not to be found in the witch trials.  The best part is the architecture and it's maritime history.

We left Salem and drove to Arlington-Cambridge and checked into our hotel which was right on Massachusetts Avenue where Arlington and Cambridge meet. We arrived at the hotel just in time to grab dinner at their dinner buffet, which is free for guests Monday through Thursday.  It was just spaghetti and meatballs, but it wasn't bad.

After dinner we settled in to our hotel room and discovered that our suite had its very own jacuzzi tub.  Woo hoo!  Grams filled the tub, grabbed this month's Book Snobs selection, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and settled in for a long soak.  It was heavenly.   

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Grams and Grandad's Summer Vacation - Plymouth & Cape Cod

Grams and Grandad are on what I call a "fabulous" vacation this summer, courtesy of Southwest Rewards and Hilton Honors.  We are in the Boston area for the week.  The culmination of our trip will be Boston Pops Fireworks Spectacular on July 4th.  We've watched it on television for years and every year I've said "we really need to go see this in person."  So this year, here we are.

We left Corpus Christi at 9 Tuesday morning and made the 3+ hour drive to Nick's house in Northeast Houston.  We parked our car there and he took us to lunch and dropped us off at Hobby Airport for our 3:40 flight. 

The Southwest Rewards program gives you free flights for traveling on Southwest Airlines.  If you fly Southwest, you really must join their rewards program.  This is one of the perks of Grandad working in Houston.  The tickets cost us $10 each.  The downside is that they restrict which flights you can take.  The closer to a holiday you want to travel, the more difficult it is to book the trip.  That's the explanation for our "late in the day" trip. 

We flew from Houston to New Orleans where we were delayed more than 30 minutes.  The explanation given by the pilot is that a thunderstorm had just moved through the airport so traffic was backed-up getting to the gate.  We sat on the tarmac for more than 30 minutes waiting to pull up to a gate.  We later heard from another airline employee that the delay had actually been because Vice President Biden had been leaving the New Orleans airport after a trip to the Gulf Coast regarding the oil spill.  I suspect it was probably a little of both. We did not have to change planes in New Orleans, but we were able to move to an exit row which gives Grandad (who is 6'5" tall) a little more leg room. 

From New Orleans we flew to Baltimore where we should have had 50 minutes to make the connecting flight that would bring us to Boston Logan. We arrived at gate B2 and had less than 5 minutes to sprint to gate A11 to catch our flight.  We made it with a couple of minutes to spare and were again able to get the exit row seats.  Southwest even held the flight long enough to make sure our luggage was on board.  The sacrifice we made to the weather and VP Biden was the time we had for dinner.  We arrived in Boston around 11:30 p.m. having had no dinner.  Needless to say, all the airport food outlets were closed.  By the time we claimed our luggage, caught a shuttle to the car rental agency, picked up our car, and drove to the hotel, it was 1:30 a.m.

We did not go completely hungry, we had snacks.  Grams always travels with snacks.  Thanks to a Facebook posting from a friend who spent five hours last weekend on an airplane tarmac, I had plenty with me this time.  My carry-on had beef jerky, protein bars, and mixed nuts.  And when we checked into the hotel, the night clerk gave us breakfast bars, apples and bottled water. 

Our hotel rooms are rewards stays from Hilton Honors.  The first two nights are being spent outside of Boston in the Worcester, Massachusetts in a Hampton Inn.  Tomorrow, we'll be be moving to the Homewood Suites Cambridge/Arlington. 

When we checked in last night we were exhausted and cold.  Temperatures last night and tonight have been in the 50s.  I was dressed for South Texas when we arrived and was literally shivering by the time we got to our room.  When we walked into the room, we found the thermostat set on 60 degrees.  It didn't warm up until sometime around 5 this morning. 

We slept until about 9 this morning, had our free breakfast at the hotel and headed for Cape Cod.  It's about a 90-minute drive from our hotel, but the weather was cool, there wasn't much traffic and the scenery is beautiful. 

Our first stop was Plymouth where we stopped at a Dunkin' Donuts to use the bathroom.  We split a cake donut and asked for directions to the tourist information center.  The young lady at the counter was very helpful and gave us very good directions and the following advice "When you park your car, be sure to put a quarter in the parking meter or they'll give you a ticket."

She talked exactly like Julianne Moore's character with the exaggerated Boston dialect on 30 Rock.  It sounded more like "When yah pahk yah cah, be shuh to put a quahtah in he pahkin meteh or they'll give you a ticket."  It was good advice; we saw several cars with parking tickets on the windshield. 

We enjoyed the lady at the visitor's center.  She was extremely knowledgeable and very helpful.  I thought for sure she must be a retired history teacher, but she said that she had learned everything she knows about the area just from listening to other people over the years. 

On her recommendation, we paid $10 each for a shuttle tour of Plymouth which turned out to be interesting. The driver/tour guide also sported his very own Boston accent and was probably the worst tour guide in the history of tour guides. He told us several times that he didn't have his notes with him or he would tell us about one place or another. There were 10-12 stops on the tour where other passengers would have gotten on and off the trolley. But we were the only two passengers for all but one leg of the trip. The guide would point out a place and tell a story about it.  But he drove so fast, that by the time he finished his story we would have already passed the next place of interest.  The fact that we had already passed a place did not deter him from launching into his story about the place that we had already missed. After a while it was hilarious. But is was fun anyway and we saw many things we wouldn't have found on our own.
Salem is absolutely beautiful. There are blooming flowers everywhere, including the most beautiful hydrangeas I have ever seen. The water is sparkling and I love the Cape Cod architecture. It's amazing to see buildings that were built in the 1600s and 1700s and everywhere you turn there are historical monuments and markers.

We had a delicious late lunch at the Blue Blinds Bakery.  We split a Bread and Cheese Plate and a bowl of Potato Soup.  They were so nice that they split the soup into two small bowls for us and served each with a generous slice of Sun-Dried Tomato Bread.  The entire meal was absolutely delicious and cost about $10.  As we were leaving, we bought two macaroons, a ginger snap, and an oatmeal raisin cookie to take with us.  The ginger snap was the best I've ever eaten.  The cookies were large enough to share.  We haven't eaten the oatmeal raisin cookie yet, but I'm sure it will be delicious. 

After our lunch we drove to Hyannis and looked around.  Wow, there are some gorgeous estates up there.  We also drove a little way down the coast and just looked around.   That included a drive through the village of Sandwich which is the home of the Sandwich Glass Works.  If you're ever on Cape Cod you should definitely put it on your itenerary.  It doesn't take long to get there if you're in Plymouth, it's the next town over.  Sandwich is the oldest incorporated town on Cape Cod.  My Mom collected "Sandwich Glass" but I never really knew what that meant.  The glass works is not there any more, but there is a museum with glass-blowing demonstrations and a lovely little museum shop.  It's one of the most picturesque villages I've ever seen.  Absolutely gorgeous, and slightly off the beaten path.

We arrived back at the hotel around 8 o'clock and ordered a pizza from a local place called Blue Jeans Pizza.  It arrived quickly and had a hand-tossed thin crust and was topped with pepperoni, meatballs, Italian sausage, onion, green peppers, mushrooms, tomato sauce and blend of cheeses.  It was better than our usual chain-store pizza and we enjoyed just relaxing for a while.

A few things I've noticed since we got to Massachusetts.  The first thing is how many Dunkin' Donuts they have.  They are as ubiquitous here as Starbucks are in other places.  Locals tell us they like Dunkin' Donuts coffee better than Starbucks.  If it's better, I may never know, because there's a Starbucks right next door to my hotel and, to quote an old cigarette commercial "I'd rather fight than switch."  The second thing I've noticed is that drivers actually stop for pedestrians in crosswalks here.  Kudos to Massachusetts drivers!

The most amazing thing so far is how good the air smelled everywhere we went on Cape Cod ... think of all things fresh ... flowers, evergreens, salt air, and some other mysterious quality that I can't quite put my finger on. The aroma is enticing, bewitching, and intoxicating.  I think I would stay just for that wonderful aroma.

Tomorrow, we're heading to Salem. I would like to visit Concord and Lexington if time allows.  I'm pretty sure lobster is on tomorrow's menu, but we'll see what looks interesting as the day goes by. 

I heard from a friend that Corpus Christi had six inches of rain today along with significant coastal flooding.  Hurricane Alex made landfall tonight in northern Mexico.  I hope that damage is minimal and everyone in the path of this storm is safe.  I'm not sorry that we're missing all the excitement, but it's odd to be out of the loop.  I miss Dale Nelson's "every hour on the hour" updates.