Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Bus Goes to Canton

I'm very excited that Jerome Bettis, "The Bus," the most prolific Running Back to ever play for the Pittsburgh Steelers (not named Franco Harris), is headed to Canton, Ohio, and will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, a wonderful honor for a great individual.  My father and I were treated to several years of entertainment while attending Steelers games at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh (my father had season tickets), with Bettis as the primary runner for the Steelers offense.  Congratulations to The Bus for this great honor.

Photo courtesy of the Pittsburgh Steelers
In 2005, just prior to the Steelers run through the playoffs on their road to Super Bowl XL, Dad and I had tickets to the last regular season game that season, versus the Detroit Lions.  The Steelers won big.  It turned out to be Jerome Bettis's last game in Pittsburgh, since the Steelers played only road games through the playoffs, and The Bus retired after the Steelers big Super Bowl XL win.  My Uncle also got passes for my Dad and me to be on the field during warm-ups prior to the game, and I was able to take a lot of great pictures.  Here are a few that I took of The Bus:

Fast Willy Parker warming up with The Bus

The Bus joining his team mates on the field for warm-ups

Soaking in the atmosphere prior to his last game in Pittsburgh 

Bettis after scoring his last touchdown in Pittsburgh

Bettis making his last carry in his last game in Pittsburgh...for a first down, naturally

Scoreboard image of The Bus just after leaving the game, being congratulated by Sean Morey
Congrats to The Bus!  Have a great evening, everyone!

Friday, January 30, 2015

Doggy Diarrhea Dilemma

Faithful Pup Scout had diarrhea today.  There isn't much worse in the world than a dog with the runs.  I've changed many a messy diaper, and all of the putrid odor and gagging that entails, but cleaning up dog diarrhea is so horrible by comparison.  I feel bad for Scout, but cleaning up after one of these episodes, and we've had quite a few over the years with this dog, is not something I'd wish on anybody.  It required a lot of hair trimming and wipes, as well as a lot of help by my daughter, and I think all three of us are now traumatized.

Faithful Pup Scout has a history of having a "gentle" stomach.  As a puppy, she ate her fair share of household  items, most notably anything on the floor that fit in her mouth.  Fortunately, we never had any issues that required a trip to the pet hospital.

We regularly gave her treats as a reward when she was a puppy after she went outside to do her business, but too often she would throw up shortly after that.  That's when we had her checked out.  The doctor told us she was just a nervous dog, common with the Maltese breed.  He told us she should eat a bland diet, gave us a prescription for a special food, and had us cut out her treats completely.  We felt bad that she couldn't have her treats anymore, but she actually improved.  She didn't seem to miss them.  But every few months, Scout would go through a spell where she wouldn't eat her food, and diarrhea would follow.  Today was one of those days.

Scout is also aging very quickly.  She doesn't see or hear so well anymore, and she hurts herself whenever someone knocks on the door and she excitedly jumps off the couch onto the floor.  She just forgets that she's too small and getting brittle in her old age.  I carry her around the house often now, too.  Thank goodness she's only 9 pounds big.

I know we're fast approaching the point when a decision will need to be made about this little dog.  The breed averages 8-12 years, and she just turned 13.  When my wife, Teresa, and I got her, little did I know that she would end up being MY dog...Teresa wanted her, not me.  Well, not really.  But she has sure endeared herself to me, and Melody adores her.  And Scout is two years older than her.  Scout is my little shadow.  She follows me everywhere, and get noticeably depressed when she stays with my parents, away from home.  That's a lot of pressure.  But we love our Pup.

Have a great evening, everyone!

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Friendships and Growth

Now, having friends of the opposite sex is a completely different story.  The movie WHEN HARRY MET SALLY... presented that it was impossible for men and women to be friends without sex getting in the way.  As a Christ-follower, I follow a different path, where sex will not get into the picture unless marriage comes first, and since marriage is supposed to only happen once in a lifetime, 'til death do they part, the sex part isn't even on the RADAR in most friendships.  But that's just me.

My parent's first house, in Riverdale, MD, was my first home, and we lived there until I was four.  The family who lived next door had a little girl who was a year older than me, but, since we were all we had, she and I were friends.  That may have been the start of my love affair with female friends.  I've had a lot of female friends over the years, true, dyed-in-the-wool friendships,  I've mentioned here in the blog about Alice, who was Marty's sister.  Marty was my best friend for many years, but Alice usurped him when it became apparent that Marty and I were drifting apart.  Alice and I were great friends, and we had many great conversations.  Yes, I did fall in love with her, but I didn't tell her until after she was engaged to someone else.  Our friendship survived, and I wish I could say that she and my wife, Teresa, became friends, too, but distance was always a factor in maintaining a close friendship, and it just isn't right being friends with someone who is married to someone else.

I was fortunate that Teresa had a gang of really great friends, and after her death, they became my friends.  The best part of these types of friendships is that they don't have any kind of romantic tension that may exist in relationships where there is mutual attraction.  These wonderful ladies have looked after me and my daughter, Melody, which I believe is their way of honoring Teresa's memory.  We all get together every Christmas for a little party, and even after a couple of them got married and started families, we continue to get together, including all of the newer members of our gang.  We don't always see eye to eye on things, but it's nice knowing we all have Teresa in common, and that is the bond we'll always have.

Some really great friendships developed from my time as a youth counselor.  Lisa was a youth director with a military background, and her out-going personality balanced well with my introvertedness, creating a dynamic that I believe led us to have a thriving youth program.  Lisa was more than willing to take the lead on so many aspects of running that ministry, which let me be me, the background guy and planner.  Throw in two more individuals on our team, Scott, who was the disciplinarian, and Diana, who was the runner and quiet assistant to Lisa, and we had a great leadership team.  Lisa and Diana (and Scott) continue to stay in touch, even though we have all moved on to different areas of the country.  I think what was important in our relationships with each other is how we were able to exhibit that friendship to the kids in the youth group.  They saw four adults who were loving to one another, in a Christ-like way, who not only were great role models (in my opinion), but were respectful, decent, supportive friends to each other.  We worked so well with each other, that when Lisa decided to move to a new church, the rest of us went with her, and we took over the leadership of the youth group at the new church and it prospered.  That was a case of God really showcasing His will, and the success of that program was all to His glory.  And it didn't work without those friendships.

I mentioned yesterday how much I've struggled with maintaining friendships in the time since my wife's death, and my desire to perhaps find my niche at my church.  I'm convinced that the church is where I need to look to find those true friendships and connections.  I think, if my history as a youth counselor is any indication, that this may be where I'll look.  With my daughter entering middle school next year, I feel like this may be a logical area of growth for not just Melody, but maybe for me, as well, and I plan to volunteer to help with the youth group however they want to use me.  And maybe a few friendships with the other adults involved with the youth program will develop.  That's what I'm praying for.

Have a great evening, everyone!

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Friendships and Loss

I'm struggling mightily with an issue that has been bothering me for a while.  I was never one who had a lot of friends.  I'm a bit of a loner, and being an introvert doesn't help.  I'm a believer in "quality" over "quantity," anyway, and the close friends that I have are highly valued, true quality friends.  But I allowed many of these friends to exit my life because I didn't do the necessary maintenance required to keep those friendships from drying up, and I'm looking around and realizing that I really don't have any very close friends anymore.  What I'm talking about are the male friendships one develops as a kid and either keeps throughout one's life, or picks up and develops through the different phases of life.

"Tim" and "Martin" were my best friends when I was a kid.  Tim lived five houses down from mine, and we bonded when I was about 5 or 6.  Unfortunately, he moved away by the time we reached the age of ten, and looking for a new buddy, Martin and I became close.  Martin lived down the street, just around the block, and we were inseparable until high school, getting together almost daily to do things and hang out.  We had other guys in our circle of friends, but he and I were the ring leaders, and there was mutual respect and admiration.  Things changed in high school.  He struggled academically, so we never had the same classes, and the only times we even got together were at lunch and in the band, then again after school.  I guess, as we grew apart, we didn't have as much influence on each other as we would have liked, since he became a bit of a "bad boy," and I was squeaky clean.  Once we started driving, and he got that beautiful '66 Mustang, he was burning up the back roads around our community.  I shared his love of muscle cars, but I was never going to be able to compete with him, and since his parents were very strict and didn't allow him to let anyone ride in his car with him, we didn't get together much.  He ended up in a rough crowd, and one night, after a party during our Junior year, he had too much to drink and he flipped his beloved car.  While we remained friends, we were never as close again.

We lived far enough away from our church that none of the kids in my church's youth group went to my school, so while I developed some very close friendships in the youth group, particularly the twins, "Joe" and "Jon," they were in one circle and my friendships at school were in a different circle, and they didn't cross over.  I developed several close friendships during this time of my high school career, with "James," "Kris," and "Tom."  We had many of the same classes, and Kris and I were in the jazz band together.  The four of us got together a lot, and the friendships carried over into adulthood.  Jon, from church, was also a good friend, but there was still the separation between my church friends and my school friends.  Kris's brother, "David," also became a good friend during this time of my life, especially after Kris got married.  Kris, James, David, and I did a lot together, and we were a pretty close bunch.  I was a groomsman at both Kris and David's weddings, and David was the Best Man at my wedding.  But it was shortly after Teresa and I were married that I had a falling out with David that, to this day, I take full responsibility for causing.  I was too shortsighted to realize that I needed to have close male friends in my life.  While Kris kind of drifted away with his wife, and they started a family, and James disappeared completely, it was David who longed to continue our friendship as it was, despite the fact he was married so much sooner than I was.  I decided that it was more important to make my wife the only friendship that really mattered, and David disappeared from my life.

Teresa and I made many new friends, mostly through our church, and they were our "couple" friends, the husbands and wives that we spent our social time with.  While these husbands did become fairly good friends, they were born out of the common association we had as married couples, though no less important.  But I had allowed my "pre-marriage" friends all disappear from my life.  Interestingly, Teresa did not.  She still got together with her friends from college, all of whom were not married.

After Teresa died, I watched all of these "couple" friends disappear from my life.  I had read many books on grief that said this would happen.  I didn't believe it, but within about a year after she died, they were gone.  Teresa and I had started attending a new church, Grace Community, less than a year before, and we were not yet plugged in enough to know very many people, so I didn't have anyone there that I would call a friend.  I was really all alone.  But back into my life popped Kris and David, and even Tom and James were back.  The five of us began to get together every couple of months.  It wasn't the same as it had been when we were younger, as we were all older with kids and new and busy lives and careers, but we made the effort to get together when we could.  It was good for me.  But I still didn't allow them fully back in.  I had been burned, I guess, and didn't trust that they would remain in my life.  I should have trusted God.  He brought these guys back into my life when I needed them the most, and I wasn't making the effort to allow them to come back all the way in.

I tried to get involved in some of the ministries at my church, but that was a real struggle.  I am such an introvert, and my self-confidence is really low, so I had myself convinced that no one would want me as a friend.  I tried out the drama ministry, something I enjoyed being a part of when Teresa and I led the drama ministry at our old church, but Grace's drama ministry completely died several years ago.  I thought I might have found my niche by doing a few dramatic readings during the worship services, and through that I developed a little bit of a friendship with the worship and music director, but after his untimely death last year, I lost that connection, as well.  I even tried to get involved in the Men's ministry at the church, but my responsibilities as a single parent make that too difficult to maintain any kind of regular attendance, and I've had trouble connecting with a small group due to my introvertedness.  I've struggled so much with depression, and while I can freely share this here, I can't seem to trust anyone there enough to share this with them (though I know several guys do read this blog, and so this may be news to them; I hope I haven't disappointed you guys).  I realize that friendships evolve organically, so I don't want to try to force anything, but I also know I'm not trying very hard.  That might be mental illness talking, but I feel too guilty to reach out and ask for help.  When I have, it has scared people away, and when someone does try to jump in to my life to help me, I don't let them in.  I don't want them to know how much I'm struggling.

I want so much more for my daughter, too.  I had really hoped that maybe one of the "older" girls from the church camp might become more involved in her life, as a sort of "big sister," something she really needs.  A good Christian role model in her life would be an answered prayer.  My sister, who has her own struggles, has recently tried to be a "buddy" for her, but since she is her aunt, and there is a huge generation gap between them, it just doesn't work.  And, unfortunately, as much as I hate to say it, she isn't the type of role model I want for Melody.  Melody has been spending less and less play time with the neighborhood kids.  I don't know what that's about, and though I've tried to broach the topic with her, she just doesn't talk about it.  Melody is developing very fast into a young teen, and that is creating an interesting dynamic for the two of us, not all of it good.  But if she had someone closer to her age, someone who she liked and trusted, maybe she would share a bit more with them.

So where does that leave me?  Where should I be looking for friends?  Work?  No, I'm in a management position that just isn't conducive to close friendships.  Even my peers are so competitive and career oriented, that I just don't feel comfortable pursuing friendships in that environment.  Family?  My father has become my best friend, really, and that at least gives my a confidant, but it's hard to share everything with him.  He's a giver and a fixer and an enabler, and he wants to help me with everything, while I feel too guilty burdening him with all that I'm dealing with.  My brother and I aren't close enough, as much as I wish that were otherwise.  Old friends?  Tom and I are probably the closest of the bunch, mostly due to the losses we've experienced that have created a common bond.  But Tom is struggling with his faith.  I want so much to help him, but the physical distance is a problem (we're more than an hour apart), and I'm hardly in the right state of mind to help anyone.  Church?  That really is the answer, and I believe, as my daughter, Melody, enters into middle school next year, and the youth group, I may find myself with a new niche as a youth counselor, something I did for more than a decade following high school.  I still need those male friendships in my life, however, and I know that's going to require me getting my act together.  It is something I will continue to pray about.  It really is that important.  The Men's ministry motto is, "We're better together," and that's so true.  God wants us to lean on each other, especially when we're struggling.  I need to learn how to trust again, too, and allow these guys into my life.  That's my weakness, and it doesn't need to be that way.

Forgive me tonight for this "stream of consciousness" blog post.  It is weighing on me, and it's something I needed to get out, for therapeutic reasons.  As I've mentioned before, writing is therapy for me, and this blog is the ultimate "Dear Diary."  Pray for me.

Have a wonderful evening, everyone!

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

To Sleep Or Not To Sleep...

I couldn't sleep last night.  I tried.  I really did.  But I wasn't successful, at least for the majority of the night.  I laid my weary head into bed at 9:30 p.m.  I was tired.  I was anticipating some snow, which I love, but I knew we wouldn't get a lot, not like what was forecast for the areas just a few hours north, and there was almost no chance that the Federal Government would close up shop.  Schools, yes.  But not the Government.  Your hard-working government worker would be hard at work tomorrow.  But why couldn't I sleep?  I was really tired.

The house was really quiet.  I had sent daughter Melody over to her grandparent's house yesterday, so I was the only one home.  Maybe I was worried about her.  I didn't need to, but she had sent a text to me just before I went to bed asking me to, "...pray for at least a 2 hour delay!!!"  Why has my daughter stopped wanting to go to school?  She used to LOVE school!

I read for a while.  I'm reading a pretty cool book by Dennis Bjorklund called Seinfeld Secrets:  An Insider Scoop About The Show, which describes many of the trivial behind-the-scenes happenings that occurred during the filming of each episode of one of the funniest sitcoms ever to appear on TV, Seinfeld.  I downloaded it on my Kindle about a week ago, and I was about halfway through it before last night.  I stopped reading it at around 10:30, then tried to sleep.  I tossed and turned until almost midnight, but could not sleep, so I tried reading again, and I finished the book.  I tried to sleep again, but was soon up again with the light on at 1 a.m., feeling very frustrated.

I could not get comfortable.  The CPAP breathing machine that I use for my sleep apnea just wouldn't sit right under my nose, and I had a stream of air blowing into my left eye.  Maybe that's why I couldn't sleep.  My left shoulder, the one I broke about 8 years ago after slipping in Faithful Pup Scout's "accident" on the kitchen floor and landed quite hard on said shoulder, was throbbing (a combination of arthritis and the moisture and cold air from our "blizzard" outside).  Maybe?  Faithful Pup Scout was snoring quite loudly.... I was jealous of her apparent comfort.  I turned off the light once again and closed my eyes, partly to keep the CPAP airflow from drying them out, but also to perhaps force sleep to come.  And it did.  I'm guessing it happened at around 2 a.m., but I can't be sure.  My alarm went off at 5 a.m.

I felt horrible.  I didn't feel at all rested, and my only hope was that maybe the blizzard had changed course and we had three feet of snow outside and the entire DC-Baltimore Metropolitan area was completely shutdown so I could go back to sleep.  I picked up my iPhone off the bed stand and checked for weather-related texts, emails, or tweets....and, shockingly, I saw that the Federal Government had a 2-hour delay!  What happened?  Had the blizzard changed course?  Was there enough snow outside to shut us down?  Away to the window I flew like a flash, tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.  The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below.  When, what to my wondering eyes should appear but one measly inch of the white stuff, barely enough to keep the kids out of school (though they did get the day off).

I went back to the bedroom and laid on the bed.  I reset my alarm for 7 a.m. and closed my eyes....and sleep would not come.  I resigned myself to the fact that I was awake for good.  There would be no more sleep for me this morning.  I got up, decided to shower and get dressed, and I headed out to work, arriving only minutes later than my normal starting time.  Two cups of Keurig-generated coffee later, and I was wired.  I can only hope that sleep will come to me tonight.

Have a restful evening, everyone!

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Nobody Asked Me, But...

Nobody asked me, but...

...IKEA is a pretty cool store.  Sure, much of the stuff they sell may not look like high-quality furniture, and they certainly have cheap prices, all things considered, but they can sure give you some great ideas for decorating your house.  My daughter and I took a trip over to the Beltsville, MD, IKEA and spent a couple of hours walking through the showroom.  That alone is an experience.  I get the feeling that interior decorators have a blast coming up with ideas for the display areas throughout the showroom, where you can walk through "living rooms," "kitchens," "bedrooms," "bathrooms," and entire "apartments!"  Each display is decorated with all of the gadgets and iconic items with the weird Swedish names that can be found throughout the store.  We grabbed a couple of Lersta reading lamps, a Kvart, a few Ledares, a couple of Kopplas, and a Rusch.  It was a good trip.


...Grace Community Church is blessed to have Pastor Rich Yauger on staff.  He preached a wonderful message this evening focusing on Mark 3:1-6 (ESV):
Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there with a withered hand.And they watched Jesus to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man with the withered hand, “Come here.” And he said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.
Pastor Rich talked a bit about his history in the church he grew up in, which was a very strict environment, with prohibitions against going to the movies and even listening to rock music. While this may sound laughable, it is still the case in churches in many areas of the country.  According to Rich, this was a real challenge for him, and he was constantly tempted to break the rules and do the wrong thing.  That said, the big thing here is that too often we try so hard to do the right thing that we forget that the only way to eternal life is through Jesus, or, as Rich put it, "We focus on the behavior instead of the Savior."  Mine is a very shorthand account of Rich's message, so if you want to hear it in full, the message will be available in a few days at the Grace website.  Check it out!


...La Palapa Too is one of our favorite restaurants.  Located just off of Johns Hopkins Road at US 29 in North Laurel/Fulton, it has some of the best Mexican food in the area.  It's a spin off of La Palapa in Old Ellicott City, which my daughter and I have never visited (though I think we should).  We've been going to La Palapa Too for several years now, and I guess we have gotten a reputation for being regulars, as well as for ordering the same things off the menu every time we visit.  Melody always gets the chicken fajitas, and I get the "new" Burro Loco, which is a burrito containing fajita chicken and steak, as well as onions and green peppers.  I love it!  The wait staff, which we have gotten to know fairly well, laughs at us for always ordering the same thing, but that's what we like.

Tonight, we ordered our regular items, and when the food came, something seemed to be amiss.  Some of the side items were missing, as well as the sauce that usually covers the burrito.  I figured that maybe the chef in the kitchen tonight had taken a few liberties, and so I began to dig in.  That's when I found what I thought at first was a practical joke.  The burrito was filled with broccoli, and nothing else.  No meat, no peppers, no onions... just broccoli.  Now, I like broccoli, but not as the featured ingredient in a burrito.  I called over our server and she seemed as surprised as me.  Within minutes, I had my correct Burro Loco.  There was no explanation, though, and I didn't ask for one, though I had to wonder why anyone would want a broccoli burrito.  We've had so many good experiences here that there really is little reason to mention one bad experience other than as a funny story, and the fact that the restaurant fixed it so quickly was appreciated.  Check out La Palapa Too!


Picture by me, modified by Melody Freed

...The snow being forecast for Sunday night into Monday may turn out to be our biggest yet this Winter, from the sound of things.  The bigger question, of course, given the issues lately with school districts being criticized for either canceling or delaying, or neither, is whether there will be closures on Monday, and, if so, will the Federal Government follow suit.  That lately hasn't been the case.  I've had to use leave quite a bit over the past few weeks since my sister, who takes care of my daughter each morning and gets her off to school, has such a fear of driving in inclement weather, leaving me to take care of Melody.  My boss, who I met with on Friday after missing much of the week due to illness, and anticipating the possible bad weather, was quick to suggest that I take my work laptop home with me and work from home on Monday if the weather turns out bad, even if work is canceled.  Lucky me.  Looks like I'm working no matter what the weather does.

Enjoy the rest of the weekend, everyone!

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Sick Day

The flu found me several nights ago.  I received a flu shot at the end of November, but I've been hearing that the shot didn't cover the strain that's floating around getting everyone sick.  And that's unfortunate.  My daughter, Melody, also seems to have it, and she was showing signs several days earlier than me.  She did not receive the flu shot (which was my fault... I forgot to send in the permission slip to the school when they gave out the flu mist a few months ago).  It's interesting to see just how much worse her symptoms are compared to mine.  I hate for her to miss school, but she needed to be home.  My sister took her over to my parent's place on Tuesday morning.  I attempted to work on Tuesday, but after a case of the chills and sweats, and a dizzy spell, I went home and have been camped out on the couch ever since.  Melody's symptoms have been more cold-like, with severe congestion and cough, along with a mild fever.  My symptoms are fever, dizziness, congestion and cough, though much less severe.

Because I went to work on Tuesday, I was able to clear out my schedule a bit, though I still had to call into a meeting yesterday afternoon from the couch.  I wish I could attend all of my meetings from the couch.  As it is, being home today caused me to become a little stir crazy.  As bad as I feel, I still don't seem to know how to relax.  All I can think about is everything I'm missing at work, even though I know my employees are more than able to carry on without me, at least for a few days.  I also hate disappointing my boss, who I know would prefer me to be at work, even if she tells me to take it easy and get well.  But I guess it's natural to feel that way.  So to pass the time, I read about a movie that was just released, called ATTICUS INSTITUTE, and I downloaded it and watched it.  And it spooked me, like all scary movies seem to do.  While I watched it, I sorted my daughter's clothes, which was a task I wouldn't wish on anyone else.  If you like scary movies, ATTICUS INSTITUTE is probably a little tame.  The director called it "creepy", and it was indeed that.  If you like to sort clothing, then I should invite you over and you can have fun with that.

The one good thing about being home today was watching the snow fall.  It was a beautiful snow, and as snow lovers know, it can change one's entire outlook.  That's the effect it has on me.  While the snow was untimely, with the impact it had on the afternoon's rush hour and kids walking home from school, which also necessitated me having to go out and shovel the walk and dig out my Jeep despite how rotten I was feeling, as well as having to drive over to the school to pick up Melody, I enjoyed watching it fall out the back window, with the stand of trees behind our neighborhood providing a beautiful backdrop.

Sick days always seem like a lame way to miss a day of work.  Sitting at home worrying about being at work probably isn't the way to go, either.  But if we treat a sick day as an opportunity to take care of oneself, by resting and relaxing, and not worrying about the things you can't control, then you're doing the right thing.  It took a day and a half for me to finally realize it.  I'll be home one more day, mostly because it never pays to rush back (I tend to regress when I do), but also because it's the smart thing to do.  I have no meetings to go to tomorrow, and my employees certainly have things covered.  My boss really is understanding, even if I don't feel like she is. And I might actually get into the right frame of mind and relax a little bit, something I couldn't seem to do until now.

Have a great evening, everyone!

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Summer Road Trip: Godzilla and Roller Coasters

I get excited just thinking about a road trip.  Today was an opportunity to begin planning a few of our Summer trips, one of which will be at G-Fest XXII, July 10-12, 2015, at the Chicago O'Hare Crowne Plaza in Rosemont, IL.  G-Fest is the largest gathering in North America of fans of Kaiju Eiga, or Japanese giant monsters, such as Godzilla, Gamera, and Ultraman, among others.   I went to the second, third, and fifth G-Fests back in the mid-'90s, then my daughter, Melody, and I attended the most recent five straight.  It's always a great time!

Last year, we had the chance to meet several big stars from Japan, including Koichi Kawakita (who recently passed away, but is best known for heading the special effects for the Heisei/'90s series of Godzilla Films, and he won the Japanese Academy Award for special effects work on Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah); Tomoko Ai (one of the stars of Terror of Mechagodzilla); Katsuhiko Sasaki (star of several Godzilla movies); Robert Scott Field (who starred as Android M-11 in Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah and is an all-around great guy); Hiroshi Sagae (master sculptor and model maker for the film and toy collectibles industries); Don Frye (who starred in Godzilla: Final Wars, and is a professional martial arts fighter and professional wrestler); and Bob Eggleton (artist known for his Godzilla and comic book work).  While there is no news yet on who will be at the next G-Fest, it always promises to be great.  Today, I registered us for the show and for the hotel, and while it's almost 7 months away, planning can't begin soon enough!

We always try to combine our G-Fest trip each Summer with a few trips to various amusement parks in the Midwest to fuel our hunger for roller coasters.  Last year, we went to a few Six Flags parks, Great America outside of Chicago, and St. Louis outside of St. Louis, MO.  The year before that, we hit Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio, Kennywood, in Pittsburgh, PA, and Hersheypark in Hershey, PA.  This year, we're planning to go to Holiday World, in Santa Claus, IN, and Kings Island, just north of Cincinnati, OH.  Both have some world-class roller coaster, and since we've not been to either park, we're pretty excited.  It will be a great trip!

Spring Break is still not planned, though we may not go too far from home.  We already have season tickets to Busch Gardens, in Williamsburg, VA, so that may be all we focus on for Spring Break.  I have a cousin getting married in June, so we'll get a much-needed trip to Pittsburgh.  And I promised my daughter we would go to the beach, so Ocean City, MD, is on our list of Summer trips, probably in August.

On a rainy, gloomy day in January, it's actually kind of fun to think ahead to the nicer weather, despite how much Melody and I love and look forward to the snow.  This Summer will be a lot of fun.  You can't go wrong with a combination of Godzilla, roller coasters, and road trips!

Have a great evening, everyone!

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Give The Band A Hand

Thursday night was a big, important, fantastic, incredible, noteworthy, marvelous, wonderful, sensational, outstanding, super, excellent, dazzling, breath-taking, really good show.  My daughter, in her second year playing the clarinet in the school band, participated in the band's Winter Concert performance at her school.  It's something she has been excited about and I've been looking forward to for months.

When I was in fifth grade 30-some years ago, I also played clarinet, and I was preparing for my first performance.  It was really exciting.  So exciting, in fact, that I threw up backstage right before the performance, much to my parent's chagrin.  But the show went on, and I went on to have a very enjoyable and fulfilling musical career, one that led to some consideration of a career as a professional musician.  Though that didn't happen when I realized I really wasn't that good, and it would require a great deal of work that I just wasn't committed to doing, I had a great deal of fun.  And being a musician was a big part of my high school identity, which was so important to my self esteem and social environment.  My love of jazz also came into play when I started playing the alto saxophone and joined the high school jazz band, probably the pinnacle of my musical career.  I also played with an ensemble at my church, and with the Mighty Sound of Maryland at the University of Maryland, which in itself was an incredible part of my social development at a school the size of Maryland.  I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the music teachers and band directors that have been a part of my life over the years, as my confidence was certainly enhanced by performing in the bands I played with, as well as my many solo performances.

This wasn't Melody's first concert, but it was still exciting because I could see the confidence exuding from her that may not have been there at her first concert.  She was confident because she was an experienced musician, and she loved the music that the band was playing.  She also has a wonderful, caring, attentive, patient, understanding, and experienced music director (and you HAVE to be all of these things to be an elementary school music teacher!).  Mrs. Curry also has a delightful sense of humor, and I can't emphasize how important that is for someone in her position.  I can tell you, THIS parent appreciates that.

Melody had a warm-up performance earlier in the day at school that was put on for the student body, so she was already dressed for the evening performance.  After an emergency spot cleaning following an incident involving Melody's brand-new white shirt and cherry jell-o that was alleviated at the last minute, we rushed over to the school.

Unfortunately for us, we arrived after a majority of the folks had arrived, and for the second time in the past year, it appears the school completely underestimated just how many parents and friends would be attending the concert, as every chair had a body in it, and there were just as many people standing in the back and sides of the multi-purpose room.  On top of that, and just as unfortunate, tempers were short as everyone who entered the room and saw the standing room only crowd exhibited their disappointment that they would not be able to sit down.  With all of the bodies in the room, it got very warm very fast, and as people filtered in, there was no where for them to go except to stand in front of the people already standing in the back of the room.  It was uncomfortable, to say the least.

The fourth and fifth grade orchestras performed their portions of the concert first, and they were very good.  But it quickly became apparent that there was one more disappointment.  I only wish some members of the audience understood the etiquette associated with attending a concert, even one involving elementary school students.  It is really impolite to talk throughout the performance, as many seemed to be doing.  I decided to whisper to the folks standing in front of me during a break between two songs to please not speak while the music was being performed, but they chose to ignore me.

Closing out the concert was the Fifth Grade Band, and I was excited to hear Melody's performance.  And it was great, as elementary school bands go.  The band performed "Down The Field March", "Crown of Majesty", "On Caribbean Shores", and "25 Or 6 To 4", which brought the house down.  You could certainly see and hear the pride of musicianship come through during the performance, as the kids really enjoyed the music they were performing.  Credit Mrs. Curry, the director, for choosing music that the kids like to play.

After a rousing ovation by the audience, and the room was cleaned up by the school's fantastic custodial staff and many of the parents, I had a quick minute with Mrs. Curry to thank her, and she was so complimentary of the students, and had some kind things to say about Melody.  It was so nice, and I am so thankful that Melody has such a wonderful teacher and music director.  I know she is fostering in Melody a love of music and performance that is likely to carry her forward into a strong musical career.

Music education is so important to our children, and I can only hope officials in the county's school system understand this and will not diminish this importance with unnecessary cuts in budget that impact this part of the student's education.  I know from experience just how beneficial music education can be, and I can only hope that Melody will have the same opportunities that I had as a student.  It isn't just learning to play an instrument.  It's institutional, educational, career-enhancing, and will impact a student's self-esteem and social standing.  I don't know how different my own student career would have been without music and being in the bands, but I'm sure it would not have been as well-rounded and fulfilling.

Support music education in Howard County schools, and throughout this country's school systems.  It is that important.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Weekends With Teresa

Saturday mornings were always fun days.  My wife, Teresa, and I would get up around 8 a.m., which was sleeping in for us since I was always awake by 5 a.m. during the week, and she was up at 6.  This was long before Melody was born, prior to us getting the Faithful Pup Scout, so our time was really our time.  We were still newlyweds, technically.  So a Saturday morning was a selfish time for us, and love was always in the air.

Typically, we had a nice little breakfast, either a bowl of cereal or, if Teresa was feeling adventurous, we would have French toast.  We would generally do a few chores, such as cleaning up the house as needed, pay the bills, plan a trip.  Then, if we needed to do a little shopping (non-grocery), we would head out and do so, generally a trip to Target, or maybe Best Buy (the adult equivalent to a toy store).

We went out to eat a lot, more even than Melody and I do now, and one of our favorite lunch spots was Chick-Fil-A.  That was a treat.  The only one in the area at the time was in Maryland City on Rt. 198.  It was always crowded, too.  A Chick-Fil-A chicken sandwich for me, nuggets for her, sweet ice tea, and a fruit cup to share.  Then, almost always, we got a couple of cones to go.  Oh, to be young and thin again!

After finishing our shopping errands, we would head for home, settle in, Teresa would make a nice dinner, and we would almost always watch a movie.  In those days, we were still learning so much about each other, and I had so many favorite movies I wanted her to experience, just as she would share books with me that were favorites.  Then we would go to bed.  Then we would go to sleep.

Sundays were a little busier.  We were very active at our church, Montrose Baptist in Rockville, MD.  Teresa's father taught a Sunday morning Bible Study, the largest and most popular at the church (with almost 100 people attending regularly), with an average age of well over 50.  We were usually the youngest in the class, and as the teacher's son-in-law, I was looked at to take a leading role at times.  But Teresa was a true teacher, and much more comfortable in the spotlight, and because her dad had taught the class for years, he picked on her a lot.  Before we met, he regularly focused on her being unattached and in need of a date, and Heaven forbid a single guy would attend the class.  It was usually his first and last time there.  Obviously, things changed when we met and got married, and the class was clearly an important part of my faith journey.

Teresa and I led the Drama Team ministry at the church, which meant we regularly wrote, acted in, and directed sketches to enhance the message for the pastor during the service.  In addition, we put together large plays and productions several times a year.  It was a very fulfilling way to serve and I enjoyed using these God-given gifts in this way.  Teresa was such a wonderful actor, and became my muse.  I've never experienced such a period of creativity in my life, where a script would quickly come out of my head, and Teresa would bring it to life on the stage.  I quickly found out that my strength was behind the scenes, directing the action instead of being on stage myself, though when I acted with Teresa, it was magical.  God used us, and all credit goes to Him, but it was very fulfilling.

Following the church services, we generally would grab lunch with Teresa's parents, and if not them, almost always with friends.  We were so much more social back then.  Teresa's out-going personality reflected so positively on me, and we balanced each other well.  Rockville had so many places to eat, and we always had fun.  After finishing our socializing, we would head home to crash.  We might watch some football, or a NASCAR race (I was a huge racing fan back then, and Teresa became one, rooting on our favorite driver, Ward Burton).  Sometimes we would nap.  Life was so good.

I'm not sure what caused me to think about Teresa and our weekends together, but they are wonderfully happy memories for me, and something I don't think about enough.  How different would my life be if she was still with me today?  For Melody?  I can only imagine, since it wasn't meant to be.  We are approaching 11 years without her in April.  The time has flown by, and my memory being the way it is, so much of it is a blur.  I can barely remember my baby Melody, or even my toddler Melody.  And I only had 5 months of being a parent with a partner, before Teresa passed on to a better place.

Hug your loved ones, and tell them how much you love them.  You can never do or say it enough.  Life is short and it's fragile and every moment is precious.  May you always be in the Lord's grip.

Have a great evening, everyone!

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Career Day

Not too long after the school year started, my daughter Melody brought home a form from her teacher asking for volunteers for Career Day.  Melody asked me to please please please do it!  I didn't have a whole lot of interest or talent for it, but after some more begging, I threw my hat in the ring, filled out the form saying I was interested, and returned it to Melody's teacher.  I promptly forgot all about it.

Fast-forward to last month and I received an email from Melody's teacher informing me that Career Day was coming up, and that I should provide my information to her.  I was in a slight panic.  I really don't like to get up in front of an audience, whether for fun or as a part of my job, though I have to do the latter regularly and can do it as needed.  I just don't enjoy it.  I am and always have preferred to be a background guy.  But in this case, I had made a commitment to the school and Melody's teacher, so I agreed to do it.  It was scheduled for January 9th.

As an aside, this is the end of the calendar year for using leave in the Federal Government.  Since employees can only carry over 240 hours of annual leave, anything over that has to be used by this week, or it is lost.  So, in my scheduling of my leave approaching the end of the leave year, it worked out perfectly to use my last day of use-or-lose for yesterday, Career Day.  Except, after telling my boss about Career Day, she immediately pointed out that I could use duty time for the hours I put in for Career Day, which ended up being about 3 hours.  So I would end up losing those 3 hours as leave.  No big deal, really.  But then it snowed on Tuesday, and schools were closed, and I ended up taking off to be with my daughter.  As a result, I used more than my use-or-lose amount, and will end up carrying over 235 hours instead of the maximum 240.  First World problems, I know.

Anyway, yesterday was Career Day.  I'm a cartographer by trade, and that's what I wanted to focus on, but as an employee at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the work that we do in providing aeronautical charts and publications to the aviation community is very interesting, in my opinion, and I wanted to mention that, as well.

I arrived at the school about 30 minutes before they opened the doors to the students (though I brought my daughter with me).  The school provided donuts and coffee to the parents who were there (there were six of us), and we had a chance to talk a little bit with each other.  One was a fireman, which we all agreed was awesome and would likely be the favorite of the students.  He had brought an axe, as well as a few other tools of the trade, and we joked that he probably wouldn't even need to say anything.  The kids would likely "Ooooh" and "Aaaaah" while he would just stand there looking cool.  Another father worked for Under Armour, which is kind of cool, particularly for those into sports apparel.  There was a mother who worked for the National Security Agency as a "Code-Breaker", which is really cool, in my opinion.  I wished I could sit in and listen to her.  Another mother was a Construction Project Manager, and I thought that was interesting, as well.  Finally, there was a mother who was an Administrative professor for a local agency.

We had four sessions of approximately 20 minutes each, and the students would rotate from classroom to classroom so hear our presentations.  My daughter came to my first session, and it was nice to have a familiar face.  Fifth grade is an interesting age.  The kids are on the verge of being teenagers, and I know from over ten years of experience as a church youth counselor that it can be very difficult to hold this age group's attention.  I wasn't going to be able to just stand up and talk.  I needed to have a hook.  My job didn't require me to hold an axe and look cool.  In fact, my workday consists of lots of boring meetings now that I'm on the management side, though I certainly wasn't going to talk about that aspect of my career.  Fortunately, several years ago we had produced a professionally-made 3-minute video of how a Visual Flight Rules aeronautical chart is put together and used by a pilot, which was just gimmicky enough that the kids would, hopefully, find something to take away.  And, if that didn't do the trick, I would give them an actual aeronautical chart.

So a group of about 20 kids filtered in and I jumped right in to my presentation.  I told them about how there are maps all around us, everywhere!  In fact, right there in the classroom, there was a big wall map in the front of the room, another of the 13 original American colonies, and a giant globe.  I proceeded to tell them that there were maps in phone books, at subway stations, in road atlases, weather maps, books, brochures, amusement parks, stadiums, arenas, shopping centers, video games, GPSs, smart phone apps, and even sheet music!  (In my opinion, sheet music is a map for musicians.)  And, as a result, it is absolutely imperative that one has the skills necessary to view, read, and understand a map.  I told them a little about my own interest in maps, which was fueled at an early age by subscriptions to National Geographic magazine, planning family road trips, playing board games like RISK and AXIS AND ALLIES, inventing my own games using maps, and even my fascination with Japanese kaiju (giant monster) movies and super hero shows like GODZILLA and ULTRAMAN (which used intricately detailed models of actual cities, which are in their own way a form of 3-D maps).  As I got older, I started exploring on my own old road maps and atlases, such as the one of Prince George's County from 1873, which I used to drive all over the county to search out historic locations.  Then, later, my fascination with Route 66 led to my huge road trip across the United States driving down the historic route.  I discovered geography and cartography courses at the University of Maryland, and became a Geography major, which led to my job and career in aeronautical charting at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and then the FAA.  I started at NOAA as a summer intern, essentially, working a a Cartographic Aide, then Technician, before getting hired permanently as a professional cartographer in Visual Charting.  I then showed the 3-minute video, and spent the remaining time exploring with the students the charts I had brought for them.  I also talked to them about how the art of cartography has been modernized in recent years, and digital maps are now the way of the future.  Before I knew it, my time was up, and the next group of kids were brought in.

The second, third, and fourth sessions went even better, and were more polished as I became more familiar with my delivery and expectations, and could adjust my topic to what interested them most by their reactions.  Upon completing the sessions, I refused lots of positive comments from the teachers who sat in on my presentation with the students, and that was really nice to hear.  And that was it.

Melody came over to me as I was cleaning up and gave me a hug and kiss and told me how proud she was of me, and she thanked me for coming.  I thanked her, and said goodbye, and I headed out of the school and back home.  When I picked up Melody after school, she said all of her friends who came to my session thought I was great, so that was a nice bit a feedback.

All in all, Career Day was a great experience.  My hope is that at least a few of the kids might find interest in the field of cartography, and might look at a career in the world of maps.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

What I Did On My Christmas Break, Part 3

Melody and I were in Hershey, PA, and it was cold!  In the midst of a getaway last week, we had hoped to get one more taste of the Christmas Season before things wind down for another year.  Hersheypark was still open doing their Christmas Candylane celebration, and our intent was to spend the next evening at the park.  Since they didn't open until 5 p.m., though, we were looking for a few other things to do.

I had heard about a pizza joint at Root's Country Market in Manheim, PA, about 30 minutes from Hershey, and it was only open once each week on Tuesdays.  So, after a very nice breakfast at the Comfort Inn we were staying at (for FREE using my Choice Reward points), and being entertained by the ducks who lived at the little pond next to the parking lot, we headed out.

Duck Crossing

Roots had the look and feel of a flea market, but it had the flavor of a Dutch farmer's market, if you know what I mean.  There actually are Pennsylvania Dutch selling food, and it appears to be a great place to get some really good fruits and veggies, as well as butchered meat and other goods.  The seedy flea market side was also present, however, and there was a lot of junk being peddled.  But we had fun looking around, and we did buy a few items, including a nice hat for Dad (his birthday was that day!).  It was just a little too early for lunch, but we found the pizza place:  Norma's Pizza.  I'm guessing it was Norma herself who was making the pizzas.  It really didn't look quite as good as I expected, and since we weren't quite hungry, we passed on the pizza.  We spent a couple of hours at the market, all told, and then we decided to go find lunch somewhere nearby.

We ended up in the little picturesque town of Manheim and our GPS directed us to Francesco's, a little pizza joint right off of Main Street.  We were craving pizza anyway, so we tried it.  And it was good.  Melody likes her pizza plain, with just cheese and sauce.  I usually go with the veggies, but the "special" intrigued me, and that's what I got.  They were personal sized pizzas, but really filling.  And while the special was really good, it was just a little too much (it literally had every standard pizza topping).  After finishing our nice meal, we headed back to Hershey.

Even though Hersheypark didn't open until 5, Hershey's Chocolate World was open all day.  Chocolate World has a free ride through a simulated chocolate factory, and Melody enjoys going through it at least 3 or 4 or 11 times on each visit.  They also give everyone a free piece of candy at the end of the ride.  It's actually pretty cool, and is something I've experienced since I was a kid.  Chocolate World also has a "4-D" movie, a trolley ride through the town of Hershey, a chocolate tasting class, and a make-your-own-candy bar experience.  We've done them all, and this time the only thing we skipped was the make-your-own candy bar.  By the time we were done, Hersheypark was opening.  We had intended to go back to the hotel to change into warmer clothes, as the temperature was dropping significantly, but since we were already parked, we put on a few layers of jackets and braved it.

Hersheypark was decorated very nicely for the Christmas, and we couldn't help but be impressed with how nice everyone was.  All of the employees seemed to be feeding off of the Christmas Spirit.  The only negative, other than the cold temps, were the rudeness of some of the patrons.  This is something we've encountered before at Hersheypark, and is indicative of much of the Northeast, unfortunately.  I don't care for it, but I don't begrudge those who are just that way.  It just seems like it's ingrained in their DNA.  I mean no offense.  I just don't care for it.

An example of this is while waiting in line for rides.  At most parks, throughout the whole country, it's understood that if you want to ride with your friends, and they're in line somewhere behind you, you allow other people behind you to go ahead of you until your friends catch up, so there is no cutting in line.  At Hershey, people seem to have no issue with cutting in line to get ahead of others in order to ride with their friends at the head of the line, despite signs prohibiting this.  I guess it's up to other patrons to say something to these people, but I realize that no one wants to create an uncomfortable situation or confrontation.  It's really unfair, though.

We had dinner at the park, getting one of Melody's favorites:  Nathan's Hot Dogs.  Ever since our trip to Coney Island in New York City, Melody has loved Nathan's.  Usually, the dining area is outside, but fortunately and smartly, the area was totally enclosed and heated, which was appreciated on this cold night.  After eating, we enjoyed walking around the park.  It was a lot more crowded than we expected, but we had fun and rode a few more rides.  Soon, though, the cold was just too much for us, and we left at around 8 p.m., an hour before they officially closed for the night.

We had one more activity for the night:  Hershey's Sweet Lights.  This is a drive-thru Christmas lights display, very much like Columbia's Symphony of Lights.  It's a little ways out of town, a few miles from the park.  I was concerned it might be just as crowded as Hersheypark, and while it was pretty well packed, we were able to drive right in.  The only other concern I had was the amount of gas I had left in the Jeep.  The low fuel light came on earlier in the day, but we never did see a gas station between then and when we arrived at Hersheypark, and since we didn't return to the hotel (when I had planned to get gas), we were getting pretty low.  As we drove through the light displays, and I realized just how long the drive was, including a rather hilly area with huge changes in elevation and stop-and-go congestion, it occurred to me that we might run out of gas.  Fortunately, we made it, and we filled the tank without issue.  And I began to relax, because I do overly worry about this kind of thing.  We were pretty well exhausted by this time, and we crashed at our hotel.

A woman is overwhelmed attempting to feed the ducks...

The next morning, we took our time getting ready and packed up, and after checking out, and being entertained again by all of the ducks, we went to one of our favorite diners:  The Soda Jerk Diner, in Hummelstown, just down the street from our hotel.  It was delicious, as usual.  I was feeling kind of bad, though.  I had some pretty intense cold symptoms, and wasn't as geared up for the things we had planned to do that day.  We did return to Chocolate World one more time (with a couple more rides through the chocolate factory!), then we stopped at a mall in Harrisburg to get a few more gifts for Dad.  I was feeling pretty crummy, though, and we started our drive home.

It was a great trip!  We had a wonderful time, and it was fun to experience Hersheypark during the Holidays.  I still think Busch Gardens Christmas Town is much better, and I wish we could've gone there instead, but this was a pretty nice trip for a Plan B.

The rest of our Christmas Break can be summarized as a typical New Year's Eve for the two of us, and lazy New Year's Day, lunch and a movie (NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM 3, Robin Williams last movie) the day after that, Dad's big 70th birthday bash on Saturday with the whole family, followed by a very depressing showing by our Pittsburgh Steelers in the Wildcard Round of the NFL Playoffs, and a quiet evening at home by myself (and Faithful Pup Scout, with Melody staying at Mom & Dad's) on Sunday to complete our vacation.

And THAT is how we spent our Christmas Break!  Have a great evening, everyone!

Monday, January 5, 2015

What I Did On My Christmas Break, Part 2

Melody and I had a great Christmas, and since we had a lengthy break, the longest away from the office for me in several years, we took the time to really enjoy it and relax.  After a wonderful Christmas Day with my whole family, we spent a second night at my parent's home and had fun watching new DVDs and playing games.  Melody in particular loved using her new Karaoke machine.  It has a bluetooth feature allowing her to use her iPhone to access youTube videos and play them through the speakers.  I caught her strumming her new guitar every so often, as well, which is really cool.  She hadn't asked for any of the gifts she got from "Santa", and I wrestled with whether she would be happy with these gifts.  It made me happy to see her happy.  After the late night on Christmas Eve, I practically collapsed at around 9 p.m. and fell asleep to the sounds of Melody's angelic singing.

Everyone was up fairly early on Friday, and we had another fun day with our gifts and the togetherness of family.  I had gotten dressed early, and had begun collecting our stuff to take home.  Melody dragged her feet, though, and we ended up not getting away.  We watched the new GODZILLA movie on DVD in the afternoon, and about halfway through it, my cousin Vicki stopped by with my Aunt Linda.  They sat around and chatted with us for a few hours.  It was getting later and later, and since Melody still wasn't dressed, Dad suggested that we just spend another night with them.  I was anxious to get home, but he talked me into it.  We stayed another night.  It was a repeat of the previous night, though, and I was asleep before ten, after watching the rest of GODZILLA.

Saturday morning was spent finally getting my little girl out of her pajamas after two days in them.  We got dressed and, after our third ham sandwich in as many days, we loaded up our gifts into our Jeep and we headed for home.  We quickly unloaded everything and tried to find homes for all of our gifts.  I still have gifts from last year that are sitting around.  We also revisited all of the gifts that my in-laws had given us on Christmas Eve, still packed in the boxes we had them in when I dropped them off.  We had already missed church that night, so we got comfortable and cozy for the night.  We stayed up fairly late, catching up on our Tivo recordings while we enjoyed being home.

Sunday was a quiet, do-nothing kind of day.  I watched a lot of football, and it felt good to be lazy.  We spent some time planning our getaway for the next day, a little trip to satisfy my wanderlust, and Melody continued to enjoy her new gifts.  The Big Game began that evening, with my Pittsburgh Steelers taking on the Cincinnati Bengals.  The winner would take the AFC North Division crown, as well as the #3 seed in the playoffs.  And the Steelers took the victory.  It felt good.  Little did I know it would be the last bit of football enjoyment of the season.

We had been planning a trip to Williamsburg, VA, for a few weeks, and we were looking forward to going to Christmas Town at Busch Gardens, but we were kind of dreading the drive down to Williamsburg, and the potential rainy weather that was forecast.  So we totally revamped our trip plans.  We started out by having a very nice lunch with my in-laws at the IHOP in Mt. Airy, MD.  It was nice to see them and reflect on our Christmas.  I know they have a hard time with Christmas Day.  They struggle during the Holidays with the loss of their only child, my wife, Teresa, who passed away in April 2004.  I know they love their time with Melody on Christmas Eve, but they really try to get away from home on Christmas Day.  Melody's great-grandmother is still alive and living at a nursing home nearby, and they usually spend some time with her.  So we had a nice meal, then we said our goodbyes and headed west and north.

After an hour of driving, we arrived at our first destination:  Whitetail Resort near Mercersburg, PA.  We had planned to go to Liberty, which is closer, but they had no snow, not even man-made snow.  Whitetail was a bit further west, and while they didn't have any natural snow, but had plenty of the man-made stuff.  We don't ski.  I had a really bad skiing experience about 20 years ago that I don't like to talk about (though I think I may have blogged about it a few years ago).  We like to go snow tubing!  Tubing is very much like sledding, except steeper and faster than anything I ever did when I was a kid.  The place was very crowded, but we had a blast!  We had a two-hour pass from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., and as the sun went down, it got colder and faster.  When our session was over, we headed back to our Jeep and proceeded to our next destination.

When we travel, we have a personal rule about not eating at chains.  Sometimes we don't have a choice, however.  It was after 7 p.m. and we were struggling to find a place to eat dinner.  Many places were closed, and we were really in the middle of nowhere.  So we ended up finding a Bob Evans just off of I-81, and we had a very pleasant meal with a bunch of very cheery employees.  As we began to eat, and elderly couple entered and as they passed our table, the woman leaned down and told me that I must be a very smart man...She said she was a big Pittsburgh Steelers fan and I was wearing a Steelers shirt, and we talked about the great victory the night before.  She and her husband were driving south to Florida after visiting their family in the Pittsburgh area for the Holidays.  Steeler Nation is such a wonderful country!

After eating, we continued north and arrived at our next destination at around 9:30:  Hershey, PA!  I'll share the rest of our trip in my next post.  For now, have a great evening, everyone!  Enjoy the snow, if we get any...

Sunday, January 4, 2015

What I Did On My Christmas Break, Part 1

Wow, what a nice break!  The 11 days off constituted my longest consecutive time off from work in several years, and it was much needed and very much appreciated.  I'm so fortunate to have a leadership team under me that can handle the day to day work in a professional manner that allows me to not worry when I'm not there.  It would be egotistical of me to state they couldn't handle it without me, but I truly mean it when I say they can do it.

One thing that is necessary when I'm away from the office is to go to radio silence.  What I mean by this is that I refuse to check emails when I'm out.  My employees know how to reach me.  They have my Blackberry and my personal cell phone numbers, and I encourage them to call or text if they need me for any reason, or if there's an emergency I need to know about.  And they have called me, many times.  However, I don't check on them.  I deal with an immense amount of stress that has impacted my health, and it's for that reason that I stay away.  It's something that I wrestle with, because our society in America is one where we are expected to work our butts off to be successful in our jobs, all while knowing that it's exactly this kind of thing that impacts our health in a negative way.  So I consciously avoid contact with the office while I'm out, and I'm better off as a result.  Life is too short, as my wife's death showed me.

So, after leaving the office on Christmas Eve, I rushed to the store for a couple of last-minute items, then went home.  I had intended to go to one of the services at my church, Grace Community, but I ran out of time.  Melody, my daughter, was already with my in-laws, so I was looking forward to seeing her that evening.  I prepared all of the gifts for the night (and Christmas morning), then headed out for the Christmas Eve service at First Baptist of Damascus, where my father-in-law is the pastor.  It was a foggy night and driving was a bit dicey, especially on the back roads between Laurel and Damascus.  But I made it with plenty of time to spare.

Because of renovations to the front of the church, the services were held in the all-purpose room in the lower part of the building, and this was the first year they had to have two services due to the smaller size of the room.  My father-in-law delivered a great message, and Melody sang "Happy Birthday, Jesus" as she did last year.  As her gushing father, I thought she was awesome!  I wish Melody had more confidence in herself.  She avoids these kinds of things because she doesn't think she's very good, but she really is.  She received so many compliments, and still she thinks she wasn't good.  But it's so apparent she likes singing.

After the service, we all reconvened at the parsonage, where my in-laws live.  My parents had joined us for the service, as well as my sister, Aunt G, and my wife's Aunt Jody.  We had a very nice dinner, then spent the next few hours opening gifts and enjoying each other's company.  I'm so thankful for the opportunity to have everyone together like this each year since it allows me to spend Christmas Day with my immediate family, and gives my in-laws the chance to spend Christmas Eve with their only grandchild.  We said goodnight, and Melody and Aunt G rode home with Mom & Dad, while I rushed back home to get the next round of gifts and pick up Faithful Pup Scout, who, aside from a few hours that afternoon, had been at home alone for most of the day.  After changing clothes and getting a cup of coffee, I headed over to Mom & Dad's place and arrived at about 1 a.m.

I should mention that Melody and I had a serious one-on-one discussion a few weeks prior about the true meaning of Christmas, and she was made aware of the story of Santa Claus.  It was a conversation I wasn't looking forward to, and one I hadn't planned on having, at least as of yet, but the timing was good and kind of necessary given her direct questions.  I don't think she was as surprised as I expected her to be, but, at 11 years old, she is pretty smart.  I told her it wouldn't change anything.  She was still going to get presents, and she was still going to be surprised.  One question she had amused me, though:  She asked if it was true that I had to get up at 4 a.m. to get things ready for Christmas morning.  I told her it wasn't....that 4 a.m. was what time I sometimes ended up going to bed!

As she's gotten older, prep time has actually decreased since I have less complicated presents that have to be put together.  This year was a good example of that.  She has always received three presents on Christmas morning from Santa, just like the little baby Jesus received three gifts from the Three Wise Men on that first Christmas.  This was something that my wife and I determined in order for us not to overwhelm Melody, and to exercise restraint.  This also allowed us to give her presents from us, and the grandparents all got credit for giving her presents, too.  Melody's three gifts this year were a guitar, a Karaoke machine, and a bunch of Legos (which I wouldn't have to put together...that would be her job).

Christmas morning was wonderful.  In addition to Mom & Dad and Aunt G, Uncle D and his fiancee Erica all joined us.  We had a nice breakfast and finally went down to the basement for Melody's Christmas and the opening of gifts, which, with this family, usually takes a good four hours.  And we cut way back this year.  There were lots of surprises and wonderful gifts both given and received.  Everyone was happy, and we reflected on past Christmases and those who were no longer with us.  The meaning of the season was literally right there for all of us to experience.  And we thanked God for His blessings.

Have a great evening, everyone.  I'll share some more about our nice vacation in the days ahead.