My niece joined the family on July 12th, 2010. This special young lady's mother is my younger sister, which in classic Chinese culture makes me her Jiu Jiu (舅舅) -- thus the title of this blog. Here I intend to semi-regularly post reflections, thoughts, stories, and assorted whathaveyous pertaining to our trip to China, adoption in general, and (mostly) watching my niece grow up. Since the web is a very public place, I will attempt to maintain my family's privacy while telling the story... but I invite you to follow the blog and come along for the adventure!

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Catching Up Through Halloween

Argh. Today started out with the news that Cousin J is now in the hospital with unexpected complications. Further misadventures were followed by the unpleasant discovery that our Corporate overlords had made A Decision and, with zero advance notice, upgraded all the PCs to Windows 7 -- and absolutely positively EVERY file I ever had on the hard drive was now gone, all printer & network settings were gone, all remote connections & links were gone, all of it. Then came the automated text message on my iPhone about my Discover card balance that lead to my finding a $274 transaction manually keyed in at a Sears store in California that I've never been to... I could go on, but I think you get the idea. So... what better way to retrieve my last few remaining shreds of sanity than to revel in pleasant memories of the past few months?  (Dude, maybe you're not as dumb as I think you am!)

So lemme start over again... Hi, everybody! I hope you've had a happy Hanukkah, a merry Christmas, a good Winter Solstice, an enjoyable Festivus, a fun Boxing Day, a wonderful Kwanzaa, and just generally good times with the holiday(s) of your choice -- not to mention good health along the way! In terms of catching up, I believe I left off at a late August history lesson... so I'll pick up the thread there.

Early in September, we had our annual MIT Crabfest.  It's got nothing to do with the Massachussetts Institute of Technology (and no one's actually required to eat crabs); "MIT" semi-sorta stands for Moms In Training, which is what AJ and several other women in what is now our batch of adoption friends referred to themselves as all those years ago when they first met at one or another China- or adoption-themed event.  The locale has changed over the years but we always manage to gather en masse, ostensibly for crabs but really just to share time & food together. This year's get-together was cut slightly short because the restaurant was literally at water's edge and one heckuva mother of a major thunderstorm came sweeping through as we were trying to herd the cats --- er, arrange the kids together for a group photo. Still, it was (as usual) a lot of noisy fun, and one of those all-too-rare occasions where the majority of the group (if not everyone) can all share some face time and marvel at just how much all the kids have been growing.

About a week later we celebrated AJ's birthday. Miri happily helped Mommy blow out her candles and then serenaded her with a lovely solo rendition of "Happy Birthday" before diving into the brownie cake in the center of the table. (I'm never sure if she enjoys singing the song because she likes it or because she knows it's followed by cake.) A couple of days after that, we spent a couple of wonderful days being visited by an old family friend and her partner.  We first met this wonderful lady when AJ was younger than the Pipsqueak is now and we were all living in Chile. There have been many life changes since then, and for a good number of years all contact was via mail (snail or electronic), but all the old jokes, conversations, and memories picked up the moment she walked into the house as if they'd never been interrupted.  Miri almost immediately joined in on the group friendship but, unlike her Mommy, had no trouble with the names of either guest; back when AJ was just three, she had trouble with the lady's name so she officially dubbed her "Peaches" because she could say the word easily! (Dude, you know your sister's gonna shoot you for including that, don't you...?)

All through late September and into October, my niece was undecided as to exactly which "Frozen" character she would be for Halloween -- and surprised nobody by deciding it would be Olaf, by far her fave. Oh, sure, by then she had everything needed to be a good Elsa or Anna (and I'm still trying to figure out what to do with the size 12 Elsa Coronation Dress costume sent to me by mistake that the manufacturer insisted was an Amazon error)... but Olaf it was, and one of our friends found a truly excellent Olaf suit at a truly reasonable price, so on the 30th Miri marched in her school's Halloween parade looking very much like a snowman. I raced like a madman to get there on time, parking what seemed to be miles from the school and literally running across the athletic fields just in time to snap two photos of the Pipsqueak as her part of the parade re-entered the building -- but she saw me and was happy to know Uncle Brian saw her parading, so (with the exception of my hyperventilating for several minutes) all was copacetic. My totally unbiased opinion, by the way, is that of the three Olafs in the parade, she looked the most like the real thing. Even AJ, who'd been experimenting with that costume for a couple of weeks, thought the Pipsqueak was extra-cute.

(Watching the parade, I was amazed at how many kids, both boys and girls, were dressed as assorted members of Marvel's Avengers or as Minecraft characters... and also at how many of the elementary school girls were wearing costumes I wouldn't have allowed a high schooler to leave the house in...!)

For Halloween itself, we were in Ocean City. It wasn't exactly a vacation; AJ's professional group had inexplicably decided Halloween weekend was a good time for their annual convention, so off we went. We had all been a little concerned that Miri would miss trick-or-treating and handing out candy at home, but the group held low-key mask-making and costume competitions that evening. After several awards were handed out for assorted fun masks & outfits, the much-coveted "Best Costume of All" award went to the smallest attendee's Asian-looking Princess Elsa. (Sorry, no web-appropriate photo of that one.) We had adjoining rooms, and after saying "goodnight" to Grandma & Grandpa several times, and reviewing the story of how she peed aaaalll over her Uncle Brian in the hotel back in China, the Pipsqueak finally drifted off in bed with Mommy.  I got to spend some quality time with her the next day (Mom & Dad really needed a breather from their nuclear-powered granddaughter), and we had fun watching the gulls & waves from the hotel's verandah, eating lunch with Mommy, visiting Miri's friend Megan in the jewelry shop, and just enjoying being away from the usual "stuff" of everyday life.

Of course, this being the end of October and start of November, we didn't spend as much time actually on the beach as we have in prior years. It was cold to begin with, and when those sea breezes come whipping across the dunes... Well, the beach attire worn by AJ & Miri, and the massive crowds on the sand, in the two photos below (both taken shortly before hitting the road) should give some indication of how warm it wasn't.

Now... set the WABAC for a day late this past summer, when one of the MIT moms got a line on a good price for tickets to Disney's Frozen on Ice at the Baltimore Arena. What seemed like a safe date was chosen and non-refundable tickets purchased in advance, so of course the show was at 2:30 in the afternoon on the last day of AJ's convention in Ocean City...! The result was that the ride out from OC was literally a race, me in the Rav with a bunch of luggage, everyone else in AJ's van, literally flying low all the way back from the Eastern Shore and then up into Baltimore in a desperate attempt to make the show. Well, despite the best efforts of more than a few idiots on the road (one of whom literally cut me off with inches to spare at 85mph) and AJ's last-second wrong turn coming into downtown Bawlmer, everybody was present for the opening moments of the show. Miri didn't have time to change back into her Elsa costume, and some of the souvenirs were priced orders of magnitude beyond their actual value, but the show was fun for everyone, the special effects were far better than expected, and a wonderful time was had by all. (I hadn't realized they actually encourage photos during the show, so I left my camera in the car... thus the somewhat lower-quality images from my iPhone. Sorry!)

Marshmallow was actually life-size -- waaaay cool!

(Dude, isn't "Frozen" ON ICE something cooked up by the Department of Redundancy Department?)

<Ahem> As I was saying, a wonderful time was had by all, and I can personally vouch for the fact that you ain't heard nuthin' until you've heard several thousand kids (and an almost equal number of adults) belting out "Let It Go" as loudly & enthusiastically as they can in a fully-enclosed arena consisting entirely of hard surfaces that reflect sound without muffling it. I only wish the father of two who was sitting behind me could sing on-key...  Afterwards, there was a very pleasant group dinner at a restaurant outside the city, and then the five of us headed home "for real" late in the evening. When we finally got back to AJ's, we learned she had lugged a halloween cake all the way to OC and back again without a chance to share it with us... so we closed out our adventures with very tasty chunks of my sister's home-baked Halloween dessert.

There's plenty more that happened in November & December, but I think I need to get some sleep so that's all for this post. It's unlikely I'll be posting again before New Year's Eve, so I'd like to take this chance to wish all my followers and readers, and all their families, a happy, HEALTHY new year... and I'll see everyone in 2015!

Thursday, December 11, 2014


Yes, of course I still have lots of catching up to do from earlier this year, but I wanted to write something a little less travelogueish and a little more adoptionstuffish. So...

I'm going through papers. I don't mean, "I'm cleaning out a drawer in my file cabinet." No, I mean "I'm finally digging through all those boxes & bags of assorted papers & mail & notes & clippings that were boxed & bagged to make it 'easier' to file them starting before my first eye surgery over 19 months ago." That's as in a totally INSANE volume of paper. I'm finding that in my quest to keep free-standing stacks of paper from falling over, I mixed different years of material so that I have to go through every. single. box. to make sure I've got all my tax papers, important records, etc.

(Dude, remember when you posted that "Neat people don't make the kinds of exciting discoveries I do!" sign in your office back at Goddard?)

As you might imagine, there have indeed been "exciting discoveries" during my archeological digs. Things like that stack of cards & notes from an ex that I'd thought had been thrown out long ago; the window sticker from my first car (as if I needed further proof that I'm a packrat); slightly over $6400 worth of repair invoices spanning the last 2-1/2 years I had the Mountaineer; paperwork from a 401K that I'd completely forgotten about; and all kinds of other stuff.

Other stuff including a vacation slip, granted by my then-boss with a smile but still lacking any & all official signatures, on which I request three weeks off from work in the middle of 2010 "To go on the adoption trip to China with my sister!" That particular paper brought everything to a complete halt for several minutes as I sat back and tried to remember what it was like back then... Back when The Wait had become something palpable, almost a living organism on its own, the prototypical 800-pound gorilla in the corner of the room. (Actually, we used to call it the "800-pound panda.")

All we knew about Miri at that point was a few notes on the official paperwork about where and when she was found, her estimated age, the results of her last medical exam, and a few boxes checked on a list of behaviors. There were many blanks, and the closest we came to knowing her actual habits was short notes like, "She is excited to the food" and "She does pooh-pooh once or twice a day." There were three precious, pored-over photos in AJ's email, and that was it. By the time we had gotten even that most sketchy description of my niece, we had been waiting nearly five years and had come all the way through the cycle from not celebrating Chinese holidays to throwing ourselves into helping with Harvest Moon celebrations & Chinese New Year celebrations & Dragon Boat Festivals etc. etc. etc., on to just going to the "main" celebrations as more & more of the families around us began to attend with their newly adopted little ones, right back around to not attending the last few Chinese festivals because it just hurt too damn much to see all those other little kids running around & jumping on bubble wrap while AJ's agency kept sending "they're getting closer... it'll be soon... hang in there..." messages and Miri's room remained vacant.

Marveling at how completely & totally our lives had been transformed in the years since I handed that vacation request slip to my boss (Kathy, if you're reading this, thanks again!) I carefully placed it in the "2010" box of sorted papers to be filed away, dug back into the mess, and in moments found something else that brought that evening's attempt to sort papers to a close.

It was an unassuming piece of paper, 3-1/2 inches wide by 6-3/8 inches long, creased almost exactly across the middle from being folded.  It had some text & numbers on it, obviously generated by a dot matrix printer (remember those?) in now-faded bluish-purply ink.  There were some numbers scribbled in my own handwriting, and printed across the top was "CHEESECAKE FACTORY" followed by some time & date information.

Now why the heck did I save this one stinkin' dinner receipt? I haven't eaten there in years! How did I manage to total over $57 on a single meal? How old is this thing? Where's the date stamp? ...OH.

Halfway to the "recycle" box, my hand froze as the images came flooding back. Cousins' night out. Three of us seated at roughly equal intervals at a round table, about two tables forward of the restaurant's back wall. I'm angled partly toward the window, partly toward that wall; AJ is slightly to my left, Cousin E slightly to my right. My sister has that "So what do you think?" look on her face while our cousin and I are looking at each other equally wide-eyed, our mouths hanging open. I'm just a few seconds away from saying, "Please make sure you tell me when you plan to tell Mom & Dad so I can reach minimum safe distance!" while Cousin E laughingly nods assent.

I know why I saved that receipt: that was the dinner at which my sister casually detonated a small tactical nuclear device on the table by saying she had begun the process to adopt a baby from China.  That little slip of paper is the only physical souvenir of one of those moments -- the ones that everything is defined as "before" or "after" and that serve as milestones in life's journey.

Can I remember what life was like before?

I got up off the floor, paced back & forth a bit, then plopped down on the sofa to examine the receipt again. A jumble of memories tried sorting themselves out in my mind: grilling my sister for detailed information she didn't have about "the child" and detailed information she did have about the process; the whole "why China?" talk so many adoptive families are familiar with; Mom & Dad's explosively negative reaction that changed so quickly into unqualified support; the newly awakened desire to learn any- and everything I could learn about Chinese culture; the sudden presence of an invisible shadow of a baby that now affected every decision about finances, vacations, furniture purchases, room arrangements, life plans; and so much more.

Yes, of course there were (and remain) an uncountable myriad of "before" memories. Yet when I hold that little slip of paper in my hand, they somehow all seem to belong a little more to someone else than they used to; it's as if there's always been a child's car seat in every family vehicle, always been a reason to save extra-shiny pennies, always been a reason to worry about the lyrics of the song on the radio, always been a little (and now not-quite-so-little) hand reaching out for one of ours, always been jokes about "remember, you're the one who wanted a kid," always been this amazing little person in all our lives.

That's a lot of weight for one little slip of paper to be carrying. I think I'll use a little extra tape when I add it to the scrapbook.... :-)

Friday, November 21, 2014

Catching Up: August 30th

Quick, name all the cities that have been capital of the USA.

I'll betcha that I've got a name on my list that you probably don't... one that I never heard of until I'd lived just down the road from the place for a couple of years.

Set your WABAC to a little to-do commonly referred to as "The War of 1812" and take a look at what happened 'round these parts. I'll give you a hint: the British burned Washington, DC. Yep, that's right, the mother country of the USA, staunch ally in two world wars, political model upon which our own government is based... they burned a statistically significant chunk of our capital on August 24, 1814[1]

As you might imagine, the gummint headed for the hills... or, at least the nearest plot of land that wasn't infested with Redcoats carrying guns & torches. First Lady Dolly Madison famously saved a famous portrait of George Washington by having it cut from its frame, and barely got out of the city before all the fun started. Meanwhile, Dolly's hubby James wound up spending the night in the tiny hamlet of Brookeville, Maryland -- making it "America's Capital for a Day."

So, now that you've pencilled Brookeville into your list of former US capitals, fast-forward back to the bicentennial celebration of that day's events.  Brookeville is still there, amazingly still recognizable despite developers' best attempts at paving over the place. (The house in the photo to the left is just one of many that was already getting old when President Madison and his party came to visit.) Just get onto Georgia Avenue and head north out of DC... and keep going. You'll know when you reach Brookeville because it has (thankfully) staunchly held onto its historic status to the point where the near-highway status of Georgia Avenue/MD Route 97 is brought to its knees by a "T" intersection with a stop sign -- and a (locally well known but not always loved) 100-degree turn to the left if you want to stay on MD Route 97. [2]

After our extended trip into Lancaster County, PA, earlier in the month, I had really fallen behind on yardwork, housework, and all kinds of other things ending with "work" so I hesitated when Mom called to say she & Dad were accompanying AJ & Miri to Brookeville's big celebration, did I want to meet them there...? (No pressure, it's entirely up to you, Miri's been asking and we told her we didn't know if you'd be able to join us, she wasn't too disappointed but hoped you could, but really, no pressure... Yah, right. <g>)

I figured my neighbors already knew I wasn't the best housekeeper on the block so I put on a clean pair of jeans, grabbed my camera, and headed up Georgia Avenue to Brookeville.  More correctly, I headed up to Olney, where the county was running shuttle buses from the old Montgomery General Hospital building up to Brookeville because the road was closed to all but local homeowners. I passed the time talking with the family of one of Miri's little friends who'd happened to arrive just after I did. When the  shuttle finally showed up, it turned out to be a county school bus tricked-out with air conditioning, plush seats, seat belts, internal radio & ceiling speakers. The kids were all unimpressed, but every. single. adult. on that bus spent the ride up to Brookeville comparing experiences with MoCo public school buses "back in the day" when the seats were anything but plush, seat belts were unheard of, the only radio aboard would be a transistor radio (or Sony Walkman) lashed to the dashboard by the driver, and the only "air conditioning" was an open window... assuming you could pry one open at all.

Everyone disembarked laughing over the changes and we all headed our separate ways. I said goodbye to Miri's friends and spent a few minutes at the elementary school watching the drum-and-fife corps (all in period uniforms) run through their paces before walking up into the town proper. The closer I got to the center of Brookeville, the more fun it was to look around; not only was it novel to be walking (safely!) down the middle of Georgia Avenue, but it looked like every person who lived in the town & environs was dressed in period garb, either civilian or military. (Even most of the US flags on display were the 1812 version.)

I used my decidedly modern iPhone to try to locate my family, and after a few minutes they hove into view, walking slowly in my direction. The Pipsqueak soon let out a happy Uncle Brian! and came running up to me for a hug, then spent the next several minutes attempting to breathlessly tell me about all the horses and people and flags and drums and things she had seen. (I think she was especially impressed by the folks riding horses. She's been on pony rides a few times, but even to me the horses all seemed large; to the pipsqueakish Pipsqueak, they must've towered into the sky.)

We spent time wandering among the various displays and mini-performances, enjoying the virtual time travel back a couple of centuries. At first, Miri seemed most impressed with a couple of donkeys at one exhibit (probably the only non-dog animals around smaller than her!) but was soon engrossed by various hands-on exhibits and craft demonstrations. She even insisted on watching the relatively realistic surgery demonstration in one tent, not the least bothered by the fake blood liberally slathered over the mannequin serving as "patient" -- but also had a grand old time using a big two-handed plane to smooth a log, trying out period musical instruments, and helping a lady operate a large weaving loom. (Although she seemed to prefer the quieter handmade needlepoint to the difficult work of running the loom with its many moving parts.)

After a while, we all began to get a little hungry, but a quick look at the limited menu and unlimited prices in the dining tent brought us all to the decision that it would be best to return to a modern-day locale for dinner.  Even the soldiers and townsfolk all seemed to be slowly making their ways back home, the horse-drawn carriages now heading resolutely out of town while part of the drum-and-fife corps trudged past with nary a bang or tweet.

Miri asked if I could carry her on my shoulders, but after just a few paces it was obvious that we were both too hot for that -- so she took my hand and we had a nice stroll back up to the shuttle stop, talking about all the neat things she had seen and done. (We also spent a couple of minutes discussing whether or not McDonald's was a good place to go for dinner; mercifully, she likes the mac & cheese at a nearby restaurant so she was amenable to having dinner there instead.)  The Pipsqueak made sure we were in the right place to catch the "shadow bus" -- she just gave us that look when we tried correcting her to "shuttle bus" -- and then happily asked if she could ride to dinner in my car instead of Mommy's. (Of course she did!)

And that, in much more than a nutshell, was how the Pipsqueak and her family spent part of August 30, 2014 in the 19th century.

Speaking of which...

In some ways, Brookeville has changed so little from what it looked like back during those tumultuous days in 1814, I didn't have to squint too hard to actually see things how they looked when President Madison & Co. came to spend the night.  Reviewing my photos that evening, I came across one that somehow kept asking me to make it look "right":

Obviously, back in 1814 there were no overhead utility wires, electric lines running into houses, or asphalt roads with bright yellow stripes running down their middles... so I decided to test my new and improved vision (which is still giving me fits, by the way, thus the long delay in making this post). I fired up my trusty ol' copy of Photoshop CS3 and threw the photo at it, thinking I'd have fun for a few minutes. Well, it took a couple of evenings to finish, but in closing, here's the 1814 version of the above photo to tide y'all over 'til my next post:

[1] Among the architectural victims was the White House, until then most commonly referred to as the President's Mansion or similar names. It literally became the white house because a heavy coat of white paint was the only way to hide the soot & scorch marks after post-war rebuilding.

[2] If you turn right, you'll have a pleasantly twisty drive to Brighton Dam and parts beyond. However, if you negotiate that infamous left and manage to not get lost on a couple of odd doglegs Route 97 makes along the way, that road will carry any history buff among you directly into the town square of famous Gettysburg, PA.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Quick Apology & Explanation

Hi, all... Just a quick note tonight... I haven't stopped blogging or anything like that... It's just that since the last eye surgery I've been experiencing an unanticipated problem. Until my eyes have finished settling into their new normal and I've had a chance to get new glasses, there's been a real increase in eyestrain for me (especially my left eye, which is working a whole lot harder than it's used to).

I'm sitting in front of a computer most of the time that I'm at work, and when that's combined with all the usual demands one puts unthinkingly on their vision during the day, by the time I get home at night the eyestrain (and lack of focus and double vision and...) is just too much to deal with.

I've got a couple of half-completed draft posts (written 2-3 lines at a time), and expect to get fitted for new glasses within the next week, so you should start to see new posts appearing here again shortly.

In the meantime, thanks very much for your patience (and for the nice words & thoughts), and stay tuned for more Pipsqueakisms soon!

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Catching Up: Lancaster County "Plus"

Okay -- it's early October, y'all think that maybe I should wrap up my posts about the trip we took back in August...?

Yeah, me too -- so here goes...!

The morning of the 4th presented a now-familiar scenario: my sister and niece were in the bed next to mine, with all the extra pillows on the floor in between. It's pretty much the way we've covered ground since those momentous days in China back in 2010. The main difference is that the nearly bald, usually quiet little baby from the China trip was now a very active and independent young lady -- thus all the extra padding on the floor between the beds just in case gravity got in the way of all that activity.

We planned to make a couple of stops and then head home, so after braving one particularly impolite family in the hotel's small breakfast room we cleaned up, packed up, and then I gave my niece a ride on one of those big luggage carts down the hall & out to the car. (Another constant from our family travels -- she's loved riding the things since her first trip to OC.)

We spent some time at a nearby outlet mall (where I found a model train store that made me glad it was too far for me to visit regularly or I'd be in hock up to my eyeballs), and after a few phone calls across the parking lot to figure out who'd ended up in which store, we hit the road for real.

But not heading home -- nope, we were in Pennsylvania Dutch country, so pretzels were calling! After a pleasant drive through a series of picturesque small towns, we reached the Julius Sturgis Pretzel Factory in beautiful downtown Lititz, PA. (All joking aside, it's actually a very pleasant & very walkable "downtown" with many interesting small shops.) We placed an order for a batch of pretzels -- we had to wait because they were still being baked! -- and then after a few minutes of wandering through the various displays in the old house that comprised the gift shop, museum and waiting rooms the entire waiting group of about 20 people was led through an unassuming door into the original factory in the back of the house.

The first activity was for everyone to be lined up on either side of a long, narrow table to get a taste of what it was like to be a pretzel folder. (It was a virtual taste only -- the dough we were using was by law inedible & never saw the inside of an oven.)  Everybody, including the Pipsqueak, got to roll out a "snake" of dough and then twist & tie & flip it into the proper shape. I figure the average time was about 1-1/2 minutes per pretzel... some of which were kinda sorry lookin' examples of the species. Our slightly hyper guide then pointed out that the highly-paid (for the day) professionals who'd had that job could whip out artfully twisted pretzels at the rate of 6-8 per minute... and they did it standing over that table all day long in brutal heat, six days a week.

the JiuJiu didn't do half bad... but that's still one ugly pretzel...
Miri got a little help from Mommy but made her own pretzel!
We were shown & taught about the various types of equipment used and some of the history behind pretzel-making, which left me thinking that from that day on I'd feel guilty stuffing my face with something that took so much hard work & care to produce. Suffice it to say we were all very, very glad that the ovens that comprised the entire back wall of the room were no longer used!  After the tour ended and we picked up our pretzels (unfortunately not quite baked all the way through), it was back on the road again after a few photo ops with the giant (plaster) pretzel out in front of the building.

We didn't go too far, though -- just across town to the Wilbur Chocolates Factory. The smell was wonderful even in the parking lot across the street, but the "museum" was a bit less of an actual museum than we'd hoped. Various hygiene laws prevent visitors from going onto the factory floor, but since it's directly overhead while you're in the building the presence of big, thumping & humming machines is obvious. There are several rooms absolutely packed with old candy molds, ads, containers, recipes, etc., and the back wall is made of glass so the ladies making some of the company's hand-dipped products can be seen at work. Unfortunately it felt more like a giant gift shop than small informal museum (although there's a TV up on one wall running an interesting & actually entertaining educational video on the history & preparation of chocolate), so after a while we all grabbed one last handful of the free samples (YUM!), purchased a couple of small bags of goodies, and hit the road out of town.

At this point, AJ & I conspired to hijack our folks for a short time (not too difficult when everyone is riding in the lead conspirator's minivan with her driving). The Gettysburg National Military Park has been a fixture in the family's travels for years, going all the way back to when our folks stopped there during their honeymoon -- it was even the site of our last pre-China family road trip. Of special interest is Devil's Den, where Mom & Dad had an interesting experience during their honeymoon trip, and as we left Lititz their offspring decided it had been a long time since we'd been there with them, and we were kinda-sorta in the neighborhood, and we might not get back again 'til next year, so why not...?

Of course, we hadn't made a wrong turn all day, so now it was one "oops" after another (and it took our folks just a little while to figure out what we were doing).  We drove through downtown Gettysburg at least twice during the back-and-forth to find the National Park Service Museum & Visitor Center -- which we've not only been to several times in the past but is also almost too large to not be found. Eventually we pulled into the suspiciously empty parking lot to discover it had closed a little over half an hour earlier, but at least there were pretty flowers to shoot in the golden late afternoon light. We also found a (new for us) life-size statue of Abraham Lincoln sitting on a bench, so we had fun taking photos of Honest Abe and the Pipsqueak. (Dude, that sounds like the title of a new sitcom!)

After a few more oopses -- the traffic patterns have changed since we were last there -- we finally pulled into a parking spot directly opposite Devil's Den and we all enjoyed watching Miri enjoy being "taller than all of you!" after I'd helped her up onto one of the smaller boulders. After creating a few more new family memories, and adding Pipsqueak photos to the big stack of photos of Grandma, Grandpa, Mommy and Uncle Brian standing by the same sign over the past six-plus decades, we headed to a nearby Friendly's for dinner and then headed for home at long last.

For me, that marked the end of the latest family trip; I could only take so many evenings off from work, so it was back to the usual craziness for me on the 5th. AJ was a little luckier with her timing and was able to stay out for an extra day, so she & our folks took Miri to see another old family destination: Luray Caverns.  Despite some trepidation over taking a nuclear-powered 5 year old into an enclosed underground space, everything worked out nicely. The glitches were few and minor, and there was plenty for everyone to do & see because the entrance fee for the caverns themselves now (apparently) includes access to nearby automotive & folk life museums.

I was thoroughly bummed at missing this part of the trip, but I was happy that Miri could share it with her Grandma & Grandpa. Catching up with everyone a couple of days later, I was quietly shocked to hear Mom say that she thinks it was probably her & Dad's last time ever in the caverns; the long walk, uneven surfaces and steep stairs at either end have become too difficult for them to handle. Despite that more-than-slightly scary reminder of the passage of time, the entire trip allowed us to create a boatload of fun family memories that I think the Pipsqueak will be able to smile about for many years to come.

And now I'm finally caught up with the first half of August, so I'm going to try to get some sleep so I don't end up snoring during Yom Kippur services. I'll catch up on the rest of August soon, I promise!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Catching Up: Pennsylvania Railroading

Just a quick note: HAPPY 5775!  L'shana tovah!

And now... continuing with my efforts to catch up on what happened more than a month ago...

The day after our visit to Dutch Wonderland, it was time to see (and experience) some old-style railroading. After a morning of the girls having a fine old time in the lobby (the instant they noticed me pointing my iPhone at them, they dove laughingly under a table and wouldn't come out 'til I gave up on getting a photo of them sitting & singing), we set off for the Strasburg Railroad.  There was some trepidation because when we rode the train last year, the Pipsqueak wasn't exactly thrilled with some of the louder noises, but with her BFF in tow we were all in high spirits squeezing into AJ's van. (All our concerns turned out to be unfounded -- it's amazing what a change just a year can make in how little girls view the world around them!)

There was the usual "oops" as we started with a wrong turn (Dude, you wouldn't ever tell your sister "left" when you mean "right," would you...?) but it wasn't too long before we were on familiar territory and shortly afterwards the S.R.R. yard tower and nearby railroad museum hove into sight. After some review of the offerings posted on the station wall, we settled on bundle tickets offering both a ride on the Road to Paradise and entry to the railroad museum across the street.

We chose our seats on one of the beautifully restored old rail cars (the girls were happily amazed when I converted a bench facing backwards into a bench facing forwards with a quick flip of the back) and it wasn't long before the clanging, hooting old steam engine pulled us away from the platform and through the Lancaster County farmland.


There was the usual stop where the engineer blew his whistle and we waited to hear if the ghost of an old, long-defunct railroad's engine would answer (of course it did!), then a short stop on a siding while another train passed, until we came up alongside the Amtrak lines running behind a bare concrete warehouse. "This, folks, is... Paradise!" was the laconic announcement from the conductor, and we all had a fine time waving at the engineer and his fireman as they uncoupled the engine from one end of the train and drove slowly past on a parallel track to hook up at the other end for the return trip.

There was a quick stop as a couple of families got on & off at one of the railroad's picnic groves, another stop on that siding for another train to pass us on its way to Paradise, and then we were back at the station. We hung out at the station for a little while as the girls checked out the restrooms, then the gift shop. We collected the group portrait taken aboard the train by the "butcher" and set off across the street to the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania.

Walking past the 1950s-style Good Humor Ice Cream truck that had pulled up out front (complete with driver in the original white uniform, selling real Good Humor ice cream) and made our way into the museum's entry hall.  After a few minutes oohing and aahing at a model railroad we entered the museum proper and spent a happy afternoon wandering among an amazing assortment of old engines, rolling stock, interactive educational displays (including a fun Lego town), memorabilia, and railroad-related artifacts. We also took a few minutes to walk around outside among the museum's unrestored holdings, where the girls put on a strange little show for us and I paused to investigate how one installs a bay window on a caboose.

As Mom said after looking inside one of the old restored steam engines inside the museum, these supposedly "primitive" machines were easily as complex and advanced as any produced today.

Eventually we ran out of displays to clamber over and (after having to use our cell phones to pull everyone together from the far ends of the museum building) we sat down in the lobby and tried to find a place to go for dinner.

This may sound simple, but on a Sunday in Pennsylvania Dutch country, there aren't exactly a bajillion places open late in the afternoon or into the evening. A few failed web searches & phone calls later, we headed back to the Lincoln Highway to see which fast food joint might still be open. Before we reached the intersection, we passed the Hershey Farm, Restaurant & Inn (which is in Ronks, several miles from Hershey). Mom thought it looked open, so we pulled in and waited while she ran in to find out. Moments later, she came back out with the good news that they were indeed open and had a large buffet that cost less than many of the others we had been considering. (All a bit of a surprise, since their website listed hours that would've meant they were closed.)

After we took turns taking photos with "Amos" (the 2-story-high Amish farmer off to one side of the parking lot) and on an Amish buggy near his feet, we went in for dinner and basically ate ourselves silly. We were surprised when Miri consented to try one of the chicken nuggets and pronounced it good. In fact, she like the nuggets so much, her happily shocked uncle went back to the buffet for three more platefuls for her. (This was so amazing because, for the past couple of years, McDonald's Chicken McNuggets are the ONLY type of meat my niece has allowed past her lips.) I finally went to one of the custom dish cooks and explained that the Pipsqueak is an uber-picky eater but loved their chicken nuggets... so could he let me in on their secret? He disappeared into the back area to check with his boss and came back a minute later with a big smile and a piece of the carton the nuggets were shipped in with the manufacturer's name & description. (We're still trying to find a way to buy them in less than massive-restaurant-bulk quantities so we can see if she likes them as much when they're prepared at home.)

After a fun half-hour sojourn in the hotel's large gift shop, we packed our bulging bellies back into AJ's van and returned to the hotel.  Miri's BFF and her mom had to head back home, so we said our goodbyes and rearranged our accomodations. Just like our other family trips (including China), AJ & Miri took the empty bed in my room and I had fun with my giggly niece before we all settled down for the night.

Even though S and her mom had gone home, there was still had a full day of family vacation time left to go, and we had plans for the day... which I'll write about here soon!

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Catching Up: Return to Dutch Wonderland

I'm clicking the dial on the WABAC just a few tiny notches so we can all revisit the beginning of August and I can tell the story of our extended trip into Pennsylvania Dutch country & environs. (See? When I said I'd catch up, I really meant I was going to catch up!) But first, a word from my present-day self...

The Pipsqueak continues really liking kindergarten, and her teacher is turning out to really be awesome.  We've still had a few bits of extra anxiety here & there (and she's not sleeping by herself in her own bed every night), but all in all it's been A Good Thing for all parties involved. Miri even surprised the entire family by becoming... a cheerleader! She's not on the school's official squad (she's too young), but the after-school program has an informal cheerleading squad for their informal football team, and my niece apparently decided it looked like fun and signed herself up. So, not too much unlike her mother (back when she was on the cheering squad in junior high), every now & then my niece will suddenly be clapping & stomping rhythmically for no apparent reason, and she's had a lot of fun putting on a show for Grandma & Grandpa so they could see how she cheers.

Oh, and today is my sister's forty-Xth birthday, so Miri has periodically burst into a Mandarin-launguage birthday song at random times throughout the day. She also helped Mommy blow out the candles on her brownie cake, and couldn't hold back her excitement when Grandma told her she should go tell Mommy to look in the big box near the front door. :-) More news as developments occur... but now it's back to the past with a visit to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania!

We still haven't managed to get our whole group of adoption friends together for a trip to Dutch Wonderland (a site that Miri's been waiting to return to after last year's visit), but this year we did manage to have some friends join us. After our usual later-than-planned start and a couple of minor traffic-related misadventures along the way, we met up with Miri's BFF SH and her mom TH at the Shady Maple Smorgasbord for a big late lunch/early dinner up in Pennsylvania Dutch country. The family's been going to the Shady Maple on & off for years -- ever since Mom & Dad stopped there on their honeymoon more than six decades ago. It's not the world's greatest food but it is good food, and lots & lots of it, with lots & lots & lots of variety, and at a reasonable price. (Dude, it doesn't hurt that you can probably spot the place from low Earth orbit, so it's not too har to find!)

Anyway, we had a good belly-busting meal that culminated with the girls experimenting with the results of mixing different colors of slushies in their glasses. We then caravaned to our hotel (Country Inn of Lancaster, same place as last year and probably again next year) and took advantage of Dutch Wonderland's late afternoon entry special (if you go in after 5pm, it doesn't count against your full-day ticket that you can use for the next day). Having bought tickets online ahead of time [1], we pretty much sailed through the entrance -- once we pried the girls loose from the massive & strategically-located gift shop -- and had a good time wandering the park & taking advantage of several rides before closing time. We even bumped into Princess Brooke, the Safety Knight, and Duke the Dragon at the entrance so the girls got some really nice souvenir photos.

Oh, before I continue, a word about photos. Some dummy (not naming any names, here) made sure to charge both the regular & backup batteries for his camera, back up everything on the memory card, and even pack a mini-tripod... then left his camera sitting on the nightstand in his room. The result is that I was using my iPhone as still camera and video camera as well as GPS and communications device for the entire trip. The results weren't half-bad, despite maxing out the phone's memory & running the battery almost to total zero two days in a row, but there are fewer photos of the trip than usual. Coupled with my normal attempt to maintain at least some amount of privacy, this means there will only be limited illustrations in this serious of posts. Sorry... next time I'll tie the darn thing to my overnight case instead of leaving it laying around...!

Anyway, as I was saying... We returned to the hotel and soon had arranged for me to be in one room, our folks in the next, and the girls and their mommies in the 3rd. I slept quite well that night, but I understand it took a while for the bouncing, giggling, telling of stories, comparing of sleepytime fashions, etc. etc. etc. to draw to a close before the occupants of that 3rd room could get some shuteye.

We were all up bright & early the next morning and headed out for a full day at Dutch Wonderland. The Turtle Whirl was such a favorite that the girls & their moms rode it three times, and the girls probably would've stayed on the Wonder Whip all afternoon if we let them, but a couple of rides were a little less enthusiastically tried out. There's one that I can pretty much guarantee Miri will never ride again if she's given the choice, and the older of the two spaceflight simulators was so old that even my 5-year-old niece felt the graphics were disappointing.

On the other hand, I could hear both girls making loud happy noises on the "Crazy Plane" ride, but my sister couldn't exit the thing fast enough. We rode all the water rides (for some reason, we didn't get nearly half as wet on the log flume as we did last year) and got to see all the different diving shows (where sitting too close to the red "splash zone" seats made up for the log flume's shortcomings), and Miri even got her pony ride (missed due to bad timing last year).  The bulldozer, panda, and bouncing frog rides warranted extra time. I avoided any of the high-G rides (roller coaster, Turtle Whirl, etc.) because it's still a little too close to this spring's eye surgery for such adventures, but it was a lot of fun to watch the girls enjoying themselves so much. (It was also nice to occasionally just site & talk with my folks while the Little Dynamo was busy getting AJ shaken, dizzy, spun around, or otherwise occupied.)

One feature that's new at the park this year is Exploration Island, where the main attraction is a scattering of nearly life-size animatronic dinosaurs. The Pipsqueak & SH enjoyed them, and the rest of the grownups were impressed, but... old dinosaur hand that I am [2] I was in hog heaven the entire time. I mean, c'mon -- how often do you get to interact with a young T-Rex, or a mama Triceratops and a couple of her babies? By coincidence, I have a few extra photos of this part of the park...

(Yes, I know the Pterosaur technically is not a dinosaur... it just looked too cool to leave out.) All the grownups were excited to learn that the Shunosaurus is a "Chinasaur," but the girls didn't seem halfway as impressed with that fact.  The only thing that bothered me about this particular installation (the animatronic figure itself was impressive, even "breathing" like a living creature) was that DW's careful fact-checking apparently did not extend to the grammar used in the sign's language...

There was also the usual scattering of "DON'T" signs throughout the area, but they all had a sense of humor so they didn't break up the "family" feeling of the place. These three were among my favorites:

The "Do Not Touch" sign made me laugh, because I have a photo of Uncle Beazley as the desktop picture on my laptop, and Miri knows him well from our visits to the National Zoo. I remember when he was located on the Mall downtown in front of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, usually with a small horde of kids clambering up, down, and all around... some invariably in the exact same pose as shown on the sign. But I digress...

I had seen on the DW website that they had recently experienced some flooding, and had been worried that Exploration Island and the associated rides (highway, gondola, and jungle boat) would be closed, but all were operating normally. However, the water level was still a bit higher than usual, as shown in the animated GIF below.

I swear I left a couple of hairs between the boards of that bridge... but all's well that ends well, and we all enjoyed a full day at the park. The only feature we didn't take advantage of was the water park, but none of us minded too much because we were all happily tuckered out.  After a more-expensive-than-planned sojourn in the DW gift shop, we tried to find the restaurant where we'd eaten last year (the waitress took a shine to Dad as soon as she saw his "USS Coral Sea - CV43" cap and gave us all the veterans' discount plus a free serving of pie for Dad), but we ended up at a different chain restaurant and still managed to have an OK dinner before returning to our rooms and collapsing contentedly into our beds (with much less pre-lights out activity, I understand).

The next day was spent riding the Strasburg Railroad and visiting the Pennsylvania Railroad Museum, but that's all for another post... so, until then... Zai Jien!

[1] You can get much better deals on DW tickets if you buy them online in advance than you can at the park or even through "special" pricing at the local hotels. Just print out the ticket pages (complete with their barcodes) at home & bring 'em with you to the park.

[2] I was into dinosaurs before it was cool. Growing up, I was on a first-name basis with the dinosaur exhibits in New York's Museum of Natural History. It got to the point where, when I was around 4 years old, Mom started telling me something about one of the dinos we were looking at and I corrected her -- and when she tried to tell me something different, a nearby museum guard interrupted with, "I'm sorry, Ma'am, but your son is right...!"