Sunday, July 25, 2010

Bu Reunion, Chicago-Style

Despite our lofty intentions of reuniting again in Germany or on an African safari, the latest installment of the Bu Reunion was held in the good-old Midwest. (See last summer's Dirrrrrty Denver post: for additional details on Bu Reunions.) As one of the Bu Bees gave birth to an adorable little boy two months ago, we decided to travel to her. We spent a couple of days in South Bend, Indiana. We toured the Notre Dame campus, but really we spent the majority of time reminiscing about those five magical months in Bamberg, Germany. In fact, we've watched the video created by our "historian" so many times that it will no longer play in a conventional DVD player. Fortunately, we have the whole thing memorized. This year's reunion had a different feel/tone/pace from past reunions, marked by the accompaniment of the group's first "Bu Baby." For instance, "Team Pinot" engagements were scheduled around feedings and the art of bouncing the baby to sleep was perfected by all. (Who knew there were so many uses for giant exercise balls?) After our initial rendezvous in South Bend, we loaded up the car and headed over to Chicago. As we all have been to Chicago at various times in our lives, we were most content to enjoy each others' company. That is not to say that we didn't take in some essential tourist stops, however. Once we had checked into our hotel--and checked for a diaper change--we noshed (I've never actually used that word before, let me know if it works) on an obligatory deep-dish Chicago-style pizza. Totally stuffed, our next destination was Navy Pier. Kudos to our hostess who navigated the busy streets of Chicago in search of decently-priced parking (unfortunately, we never found any). Never having been to Navy Pier as my last trip to Chicago occurred in January--what were we thinking?--I was impressed by the views of the city skyline and Lake Michigan.

Seeing as how all of us are equally laid-back and indecisive, it took a while for us to figure out what to do the following day. We finally settled on the Lincoln Park Zoo...primarily because admission is free. I guess we were thinking kid-friendly as well, although how much is a two-month-old going to get out of a trip to the zoo?!? At any rate, we had a nice time, despite the heat and humidity. In all actuality, it wasn't that hot; I doubt temperatures even reached the 90s. However, my three summers in the Pacific Northwest have completely obliterated my tolerance for humidity. Needless to say, I was as uncomfortable with all the moistness as this rhino. We found it necessary to cool off with some lunch and then trekked down Michigan Avenue for a little shopping. And I do mean little. We were really only looking for one store: H&M. Some members of our group fell in love with this store--and its affordable prices--in Europe, so in our quest to find it, we hiked down the crowded street. Since the baby needed some cuddle time, I found myself pushing an empty stroller for most of the walk. I quickly learned that people will move out of your way if they think you have a baby in there, so I used it to my advantage. We got held up a little half-way to our destination when we saw crowds of people looking across the Chicago River; we deduced from the yell0w t-shirt-clad workers that we were passing the film set for Transformers 3. We closed out our Chicago experience by taking in a (free) concert in Grant Park. The Chicago Symphony was playing pieces that corresponded to sequences from the Discovery Channel's award-winning (I think) Planet Earth series. The music was incredible; at times we forgot we were listening to live music. The coolest thing about it, however, was that our hostess' brother moonlights with the Chicago Symphony while on summer hiatus from the Louisville Symphony.

As usual, we began planning our next reunion before this one was even concluded. We also began making plans for the movie version of the best-selling book we are going to write about our German adventures. So, the next time you hear about the Bu Bees, we might be in print or on the big screen.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Track Stars

As mentioned in a previous post, my mom recently visited the Northwest. Her week and a half-long trip stretched over the 4th of July weekend, but initially I had no idea how to celebrate the holiday. When some good friends mentioned a prospective trip to Eugene, Oregon for the Prefontaine Classic track meet, I jumped at the chance to tag along. Mom was up for anything, so we claimed the back seat of the Subaru for the four-hour drive to Eugene. None of the group had ever been to Eugene before, so it was an adventure for all. We arrived a bit earlier than expected, so we quickly buzzed around the University of Oregon grounds. There was definitely a small college town feel, but we were surprised to learn that there are well over 100,000 people. I am pretty sure that out of those 100,000+, at least 95% of them are runners. Steve Prefontaine, Nike, and the stand-out Oregon track teams put Eugene on the map as "Track Town, USA," a title that, as far as I can tell, is certainly deserved. We were dodging runners left and right; in fact, on the morning we left town, a race sped past the house we rented. Rather than stay in a hotel, our friends found a house to rent in a neighborhood fairly close to the university. The house was cute and very clean. The proprietor was, thorough in her "house rules." So specific that as we were cleaning up prior to our departure, she requested that we re-start the washer and add bleach (which was NOT in the original instructions, for the record). But she was also very helpful and willing to share several suggestions on things to do and places to eat (even though her recommendations didn't quite pan out the majority of the time). The neighbors were also very friendly. In fact, we were even invited to the keg party they were hosting...complete with live band. How thoughtful. Like the last trip we took, we once again adopted the "WWJD?" ("What would Jon do?") motto...meaning that we hit up the first brewery we could find. We weren't disappointed. The beer was good and the company even better. We engaged in one of my all-time favorite activities: the "let's-talk-about-Bamberg" game. I could pretty much do that all day (and I only lived there for five months). But the whole reason we even went to Eugene was the Prefontaine Classic. I'm pretty sure my mom had no aspirations of watching a track meet after I graduated high school, but she was a good sport about it. Speaking of good sports, the three-hour meet (they didn't do all the events of a traditional meet) flew by with one world-class athlete after another. So much was going on that it was hard to focus. I especially enjoyed watching the steeplechase, javelin, and pole vault (which was directly in front of us). But the highlight occurred when the runners of the Men's 5000 Meter race were announced. One of these runners was none other than Lee's Summit's Matt Tegenkamp. I remember seeing him dominate at countless high school meets; it was sort of surreal to see him compete professionally.

Tegenkamp is the tall white guy in the middle.

We were pretty tired from our strenuous spectating, so we passed the afternoon and evening fairly uneventfully. We hit up another brewery, but that should come as no surprise. Our relaxing weekend in Oregon came to a close on our nation's birthday, so we headed back north and celebrated in true American fashion by having a barbecue.

Out of the many options we had to view fireworks, we opted for the nearby coastal town of Steilacoom. Immediately upon our arrival, we realized how bad we were at watching fireworks. Grossly unprepared, we had no snacks, beverages, or games to occupy the hour and a half we would have to wait. Maybe next year.

We did remember to grab blankets, which was fortunate because it had grown quite chilly by that time. Naturally, we thought hot chocolate sounded good, so a few of us walked a couple of blocks to a coffee shop of sorts. We really can't complain because we did it to ourselves, but we literally waited an hour in line, only to get in on the very last gallon of milk. The espresso machine ran out of steam (which baffles the mind because I thought steam was just hot water), so really, we drank "warm chocolate." Regardless, we made in back just in time for a pretty spectacular show over Puget Sound. Not only were we able to see Steilacoom's fireworks, but we were also treated to several other displays in the area.

All in all, a pretty good way to enjoy the 4th of July weekend.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Travel Ninja

I had the distinct pleasure of hosting my mom for a week and a half during her "summer vacation." (I think she just wanted me to stop whining about the fact that no one comes to visit.) Even though I was fully aware that she had no expectations beyond relaxing at the condo, going shopping, and getting a pedicure (all of which we did), I still felt as though I needed to be the trip planner and tour guide extraordinaire. With that lofty title came more responsibility than I was expecting. I have become a very complacent traveler, content to let Jon take the lead. I'm a good-natured follower, so it works out, but that leaves me feeling ill at ease when I'm the one in charge. However, I viewed my mom's visit as an opportunity to go outside my comfort zone. I would take the lead and plan a trip to Victoria, British Columbia. I had heard from several people that Victoria is a beautiful place to visit...even if it is a "blue-haired trip" where you look at flowers all day long. Jon went there when he was younger, so Victoria was not high on his list of places to go. So, I figured that would be a great place to take my mom. Jon wouldn't be missing anything, and my mom and I could have a relaxing trip spent looking at flowers. In addition, the trip sounded feasible for me to organize--based on the incredible marketing the Victoria Clipper employs in their commercials during the morning news. Despite my (misguided) efforts to teach researching skills to my students, I'm not very good at it, nor do I particularly enjoy it. Therefore it works out quite nicely that Jon is the most thorough researcher I've ever met...even if his chief source is often Wikipedia. So, when it came time for me to research the Victoria trip, I turned to Facebook. I received some excellent suggestions of things to do and places to see. It's always better to get personal recommendations anyway because then you get a more accurate picture rather than relying on travel propaganda. My inquiries and the exuberant responses even prompted my father-in-law and his wife to join us as they had never traveled to Victoria either. Still a bit dazed from a late-night flight and not one, but three recital performances, my mom gamely re-packed her suitcase and off we were to Seattle (in Monday morning rush hour traffic, mind you) for the boat to take us to Canada. After a brief ride across the Strait of Juan de Fuca, we arrived in what is surely the most British town in the Northwest. We walked to our hotel from the dock, checked in, had lunch, and then began planning our trip in earnest.
Armed with the suggestions I'd received and pamphlets from the hotel lobby, we began mapping out our 3-day, 2-night trip. Our hotel was within walking distance of nearly everything we wanted to see, and the weather was fantastic--albeit a bit chilly for my Midwestern mother--so we were all set. I was quite proud of myself for being able to read the map and help direct us where to go (although in all honesty, it was not that difficult).

We started out at the highly-regarded Royal B.C. Museum. It definitely lived up to its reputation. We were able to cover the entire natural history museum before closing time; I think the highlight--for Mom and I, at least--was the bird display. I'm still giggling over it.

After a stroll through the tourist gauntlet known as the Inner Harbour (notice this British spelling), we stopped at the Visitor Information Center for advice and then it was time for dinner. Even though we were seated in the "American section" of the restaurant (located in the very, very back--perhaps I shouldn't have worn jeans with holes in the knees), we had a nice meal. As if Jon were there, I ordered a locally-brewed beer and fish. That's right, the girl who doesn't eat seafood ordered fish of her own volition. (For the record, it was quite tasty.) We turned in pretty early that night with plans for flower-watching the next day.

The underlying theme of the trip was "WWJD?" or "What Would Jon Do?" (please pardon the unintentional blasphemy). We had already successfully read the map and gone to a pub, so it made sense that our next course of action involved public transportation. Too cheap and too stubborn to use one of the over-priced tour busses to visit Victoria's world-renowned Butchart Gardens, we decided to take the city bus. The slight hassle of procuring exact change in Canadian currency was worth the delightful trip. Everyone on the bus was so polite, each telling the driver "thank you" as s/he exited, and Mom, being the conversation-magnet she is, engaged in some friendly chats with several of our fellow passengers.

Butchart Gardens was recommended by everyone for a reason: it was breathtaking. Slightly overwhelming for someone who watered a half-dead poinsettia for six months, but beautiful nonetheless. We spent several hours strolling around, admiring and trying to identify the various plants. I went a little overboard with the pictures, but with so much color--and so much potential for people-watching--it was difficult not to.

After returning to town, we wandered around for a bit before serendipitously finding refuge from the rain in the picturesque Parliament Building. We arrived just in time for a free tour, so not only did we get to see the beautiful architecture, but we also got to hear the story behind it, such as how the aisle width in the Legislative Chamber was determined (it's exactly two sword lengths apart to avoid messy altercations).

The Paliament Building is lit up each night like the (Kansas City) Plaza at Christmastime, so we needed to stall for a bit after dinner. We successfully found a Nanaimo Bar (delicious chocolate, coconut, cream cheese concoction), but we still had over an hour to wait. We returned to the Inner Harbour and caught the majority of a very entertaining juggling act, complete with fire, a chainsaw, and a unicycle. Street performing is its own industry there, I think. We got so wrapped up in the show that we didn't even notice when the lights came on, but when we did notice, it was certainly worth the wait.

We really only had one thing on the agenda for our final day and that was the Craigdarroch Castle. In true castle fashion, it was located on top of a hill, so the walk there was a bit exhausting, but seeing the four-story mansion was worth it. The woodwork was incredible and I couldn't get over the stained glass windows. Plus, there was a turret at the front, which automatically earns it cool points.

The walk back down was exponentially easier, so we took our time. The remaining hours of our Victorian adventure were pretty leisurely, which gave me plenty of time to reflcet on my brief stint as a pseudo-vacation organizer. I think Jon would have been proud of me and my "travel ninja" skills. I made plans (in a hopefully non-pushy way), booked travel, solicited suggestions, did research, drove into Seattle, read a map, asked the hotel desk for dinner recommendations, ordered local beer, ate fish and chips, found (and demolished) a Nanaimo Bar, took public transportation...all while hanging out with my mom and in-laws. In fact, I'm pretty proud of myself...although I'd be lying if I said I wasn't looking forward to being a tag-along traveler again soon.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

(Personal) Record-Breaking Performance

It feels good to accomplish a goal you set for yourself. Really good, albeit a little bit painful. This spring I set a goal for myself to break my PR (personal record) in the half-marathon. Just like teachers instruct their students, this goal was attainable, yet required focus and hard work to achieve. It was measurable, and the feeling of accomplishment I felt afterward proved to be all the reward I needed (because frankly, the ceramic tile I received at the finish has been sitting on my dresser for almost two months collecting dust). Talk about intrinsic motivation. The Capital City Half-Marathon marked the fifth time I laced up my sneakers for a 13.1 mile race. Each time I’d run it previously, I hovered just above the elusive two-hour mark, once rolling in somewhere around a heart-breaking 2:02. So, this training session I was determined to break two hours, meaning I would have to average around 9 minutes (or less) a mile. Not impossible, but a challenge (for me). I quickly discovered that’s tough to train for a race as long as a half-marathon by yourself. But I doggedly did all of my long weekend runs even though I didn’t have my resident cartographer by my side. Fortunately, however, I was able to borrow a friend’s Garmin GPS running watch which helped tremendously. Not only does said watch serve as a timer, but it also tracks your distance and keeps track of your mile pace (plus all kinds of other cool stuff that I wasn’t able to figure out). The Garmin proved to be a savior in the actual race, as I was aware the entire time of what I needed to do to break two hours…which was sometimes reassurance that I was on pace, other times a swift kick in the pants to speed up. Since I already spoiled this story and ruined all semblance of suspense by telling you I did in fact achieve my goal (by a mere 47 seconds), I’ll conclude with a motivational message to follow your dreams. No, seriously, I’ll include a picture to prove that I really did run and am not just totally making the whole thing up.