Friday, January 28, 2011

Where Is the Bear?

The neighborhood bear in action,
but not at my end of the neighborhood.
(Thanks to my Facebook friend from whom
I've borrowed this pic.)
I've been getting a lot of questions lately about the whereabouts of my neighborhood bear. Bear spotting stories were the talk of the neighborhood back in October. The best being when the bear was spotted on the day before Halloween. This led to lots of parents fretting (myself included) about whether or not to send the kids out trick-or-treating in the dark with a large black bear on the loose again. We all figured that the noise made by the kids out trick-or-treating would probably send that bear into hiding. The theory proved correct, and he wasn't seen on Halloween.

The good news is that he's disappeared from the public eye since mid-November after raiding a bird feeder nearly a mile down the highway from my neighborhood. He left behind his paw prints in the snow, which someone photographed and published in the local newspaper. I've seen no bear prints back by the pond he likes to frequent. But then the pond has been frozen over since December. I think it's safe to assume that he's hibernating somewhere in his den, which is hopefully located far away from my quiet neighborhood.

I kind of like a bear-free lifestyle. I don't have to worry about a bear surfacing out of the pond, lurking in the woods and wetlands, climbing out of the underbrush along the walking path, or dodging between the houses searching for full bird feeders. It will be interesting to see if he reappears once the snow and ice start to melt in April. One lesson that the bear has taught me (and my apologies to the local birds), don't keep a full bird feeder near your house when there is a hungry bear on the loose.

If anyone does see the bear, please let me know and send me pictures. I'll post them on this blog. Until then, enjoy the winter sans the bear. May he NOT return in the Spring.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Winter Driving—Minnesota Style

Old Ema keeps on going despite my 
best efforts to hit every pot hole 
on the road.
Pot hole season is starting way too early this year. As I'm driving down I-35E yesterday morning at a fairly good clip, zoning away at the road, I'm jarred back into reality as I hit a massive pot hole at top speed. I don't even see it coming as it's snowing a bit, the road is covered with ice, and my windshield sports a fine layer of white road salt. A quarter of a mile down the road, I see a man fixing his tire on his little car. This scene strikes me with fear.

I have no clue how to change a flat tire along the side of the road. To make matters worse, the temperature is hovering around 0° and it's a bit breezy which probably means a -15° windchill would greet me. And I'm not even remotely dressed properly for the subzero weather outside my minivan. Although I am wearing boots and gloves, I would certainly freeze in my dress and tights if I were stuck outside changing a flat along the interstate. 

I don't think I would even know where to find the spare tire. That would require somehow prying open the lift gate on the back of the van that is iced shut. If I did get it open, I would be covered in road salt as my van looks like it has been washed in the stuff. Then I'd have to somehow wedge the gate open as it's broken and slowly creeps down so you have to duck underneath it or risk whacking your head.

I pass another late 90s-model compact car along the side of the road. Abandoned and minus a tire. Not good for drivers on this stretch of road. I'm instantly reminded of another drive last spring where I encountered a coffee table lodged in a pothole. Luckily I did miss hitting that one. I decide that if I did get a flat, I'd call for help and wait it out in my car until a good Samaritan arrived.

As I switch over to the middle lane (seems to have fewer gaping holes), you will be happy to know that I did make it safely to my destination. As for the pot hole, I'm sure it's still there and getting bigger by the day, putting gashes into tires of unaware drivers of little cars. My old navy blue van continues to survive the daily impacts I put it though. It remains covered in salt and may just stay that way until Spring.

The Road Warrior

(Originally published on "A Suburban Mom's Survival Guide" 23 June 2009)
Don’t you feel like the summer months herald the start of the driving season? At least for me, that holds true. Last summer, the minivan logged  6000 miles over the summer vacation, and I’m on track to top that record with 2000 miles driven these past 2 weeks. 
What is with all of the driving? It is summer which should mean fun times hanging out at home with your friends and long lazy days in the sun or curled up with a good book. Maybe 30 years ago but not for my kids in 2009. I will admit that I am a Mom who schedules her kids a bit during the summer. (In my own defense, I have cut them WAY back on their summer activities this year.) I don’t think that they are overly scheduled as they seem to have plenty of free time but scheduled enough that I spend a good 2-3 hours in the car most days driving them around. That is a lot of my time! And I’ve found myself caught in a trap of my own making. 
I want a mix of summer athletics and academics to keep them busy and give me a bit of time without the whole gang underfoot. Great idea except that since I don’t have a nanny or a chauffeur, I’m doing both roles. This worked out perfectly fine in previous summers, but this summer I’m trying to start up my own graphic and web design company. Let’s just say the drive time is cutting into my creative time. Again, a problem of my own making. 
I do feel like a road warrior as I drive all over the Twin Cities. Any of you who normally  drive around Minnesota’s Twin Cities will sympathize with me. Typically I am stuck behind a car driving 20 mph below the speed limit on a narrow, single lane highway with no hope to pass around the creeping car. Or there is the other extreme of driver who really believes that he or she is the ultimate road warrior and drives like a maniac hovering on your back bumper until they can whip around you going 85 mph. My question in this case is “where are the police when you need them to a pull over those overly aggressive drivers?” 
I’m not a creeper or a maniac driver but fall somewhere in between. I’m just forever running 5 minutes late for the next practice or class and am just trying to transport kids without getting in a wreck. (Maybe that puts me closer to the maniac end of the driver spectrum.) Now you’re probably wondering why I don’t just set up some carpools with other kids. The majority of these drives do involve one leg of a carpool! I think it is the sheer volume of kids and their far away activities that keep me on the road. 
I do not mean to sound like I am complaining as I know that hauling kids around to activities is part of the Mom deal that you sign up for when that first baby arrives. I’m just trying to work out the details of being a stay-at-home Mom while trying to get a foot in the door of the design industry. I’m trying to find a good balance.
Of course my kids don’t realize (or appreciate) any of this. They have so many more summer opportunities available to them than I ever dreamed of at their age. As a parent, it really is hard not to schedule them in all of these interesting camps and outdoor activities which they love. Summer truly is all about the kids (at least in my suburban mom world). 
Now if you slow drivers out there would just drive at the speed limit!!!!

Friday, January 21, 2011

DELTA = Doesn't Ever Leave the Airport

This was the new meaning a fellow passenger gave to DELTA as we waited and waited at Gate F8 at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. Delta now holds the distinction of being my LEAST favorite airline and one I’ll try to avoid at all costs in the future. Now I’m sure that many of you have had your own flight delay horror stories but see how yours compares to my recent experience with Delta Airlines out of Minneapolis. (Being a writer I always travel with a notebook so as events unfolded I jotted down the times and details of our two days in the Minneapolis airport.)
I was flying from Minneapolis to Orlando with my three kids and my sister-in-law to meet up with my husband and two other families for our long-awaited 5-day vacation to Walt Disney World.
June 17, 2010
1 am: Accidentally discovered that our original flight to Orlando was cancelled (without any notification from Delta) and new flight was leaving two hours later at 9 am.
7 am: En route to the airport, I received a message that Flight 2586 was delayed to 10 am
9 am: Arrived at gate to discover that Flight 2586 delayed to 11 am. No plane in sight.
11:15 am: All passengers moved to a different gate at other end of airport. Departure time now 12 pm but still no airplane at the gate.
12 pm: Departure time changed to 1 pm due to a “mechanical problem.” Passengers getting a bit restless and agitated. We were told that the part (a battery) had arrived on another flight and was going to be tested. They were waiting for a crew to test the battery. THIS WAS THE FIRST OF MANY DELTA LIES! (The truth came out later that night that the new part arrived at 8:30 am. The driver lost the part/battery in transit. Both driver and part were missing for 3.5 hours. At noon, the part arrives at the hanger. Still a mystery what the driver was doing with the part for all those hours.)
1 pm: Passes. 2 pm passes.
3 pm: Crew supposedly arrives to test the part. Still no airplane at gate.
4 pm: The natives are getting restless and asking for another plane . . . Gate agents inform us that problem fixed. Plane arrives and we board the plane. Hurrah! So we think . . . 
5:30 pm: Passengers sat on the plane for over an hour on a 90°+ day with sporadic air conditioning and lights. Told there was still a “mechanical” problem they were trying to fix. The pilot Delta put on this plane was over his legal limit for flying hours. Isn’t that somewhat illegal??
5:45 pm: We were given the option to deplane and stay in gate area. 
6 pm: It’s announced that a computer was broken and must be replaced. The original flight was not cancelled so I could not rebook us without paying a steep penalty and the cost of 5 new tickets otherwise I would have gotten us out at that time. Fellow passengers are now screaming at the ticket agents, all of my kids are crying, and the airport is now under a Tornado Watch and Severe Thunderstorm Warning with the Western sky turning black. Sort of tops off our already horrible day.
7 pm: Plane now deemed fixed and we are back on board by 7:15 pm, strapped in and ready to go.
7:30 pm: The flight crew on the plane announces that the plane has no pilot to fly the plane. 
8 pm: Flight 2923 is finally cancelled while we are sitting on the plane. There is no other pilot available anywhere and no other planes available for the night. The flight supervisor put 150 passengers on a plane knowing that no pilots were available to fly the plane! If the passengers had knives, there would have been a mutiny on that plane.
10:30 pm: At hotel in Edina, Minnesota for the night without our luggage. We were given hotel and food vouchers and told to come back for a 7 am flight to Orlando the next morning. Yes, this unfortunate sage continues . . .
June 18, 2010
4:15 am: Get the kids up. My youngest is so tired that he hops into the shower wearing his boxer shorts. He ends up going “commando” until we arrive in Orlando. We put on our dirty clothes from the previous day and board a shuttle bound for the airport to start all over again.
6 am: Arrive at our gate for Flight 9856. The same airplane as the previous day is at the end of the gate. We spot a pilot and flight crew. Fellow passengers are hopeful.
7:45 am: Board the plane and push back from the gate. Cheers from the crowded plane! Then we sit and wait for nearly an hour without a word from the pilot or flight crew. I have a sinking feeling this is not going to be good. The pilot finally musters up the courage to announce that the plane has THE SAME COMPUTER PROBLEM AS YESTERDAY and wasn’t ever fixed. He asks us to stay on the plane while mechanics attempt to fix it for a SIXTH TIME!!! By this point, all hell breaks loose on the plane. Children and some adults are crying, people are screaming and frantically pushing their call buttons, people (including myself) are on their cell phones with Delta getting the run around. I’m thinking they need a computer expert and not a mechanic to fix this problem. Without uttering a word across the aisle, my sister-in-law and I (through our years of honed non-verbal messages) decide that there is NO WAY we want to fly on this broken plane, convinced it will plummet back to earth once airborne. This is the last straw, and we are getting off this plane and onto another flight to Orlando.
8:15 am: Asked to deplane from this heap for a 3rd time! As we enter back to the gate area, my son pulls me to the floor, plops into my lap, and proceeds to cry and scream (at the top of his lungs) how much he HATES DELTA. He manages to grab a sympathetic nod from once of the police officers in riot gear who has been called in to manage my fellow passengers and I. We are not happy campers! In addition to all of the crying children who have been missing out on 2 days at Disney World, an entire volleyball team has missed out on a national tournament, a diabetic woman is completely out of her medicine and is threatening the flight crew with her cane, people are hurling insults and threats at the lone Delta supervisor (who probably doesn’t understand because he really doesn’t speak English all that well), and a man has missed the final few hours with his dying father who passed away before Delta would allow him to rebook his flight. We got to pay Delta for this pleasure!
8:45 am: Mechanics still trying to fix the doomed plane. A 10 am departure is announced. Police are still on hand for the mob scene unfolding at our gate. Local TV crews are on their way to cover the chaos. (See attached clip.)
9 am: Luckily, I am still up at the ticket counter with an upset child when it is announced that a few seats remain on a flight through Charlotte to Orlando. Without hesitation, I rebook us and we are outta there! 
5:15 pm: We and all our luggage arrive in Orlando nearly 36 hours after our airport ordeal started. Here’s how it all ended, once the TV stations arrived at the gate, Delta sent a new plane for Flight 9856. It arrived safely in Orlando. The broken plane hopefully has been retired to the scrap heap. 
There was no excuse for the way Delta airlines treated it’s passengers bound for Orlando. Minneapolis is a Delta hub. How could Delta not have another plane available? We were there long enough to have a plane flown in from anywhere in the US or even Europe. As for the broken plane, Delta fixes it’s plane in Minneapolis. I think they knowingly stuck us with an inoperable plane. 
I apologize for the long account but I feel better having told it. I have spent far too many hours on the phone and computer with Delta lodging complaints and trying to get reimbursed for missed Disney days and our flights. So now I’m going public and telling everyone I know how horrible Delta Airlines is. I’m avoiding flying Delta in the future and urge you to do the same.
In the end, we finally made it to Disney World but missed out on two of our days. We packed all of the Parks into our remaining days and had an amazing time with our friends and staying in the Treehouses at Disney. I’m pleased to say that I didn’t even miss out on any of the roller coasters and my new favorite is the “Tower of Terror!”
Also, if you have any Delta horror stories to share, please add a comment for me. I’ve already heard 3 new stories in the past week. Happy travels!
(Originally published on "A Suburban Mom's Survival Guide" 15 July 2010)

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Technology Timeout Needed?

I ran across an interesting list in the Wall Street Journal this week (WSJ 1-11-11) about taking a technology detox for the entire family. Here is the list that caught my eye:

10 Signs Your Devices Are Hurting Your Relationships

  1. Cannot get through a meal without e-mailing, texting or talking on the phone.
  2. Looking at more than one screen at a time (i.e., checking e-mail while watching TV).
  3. Regularly e-mail or text, other than for something urgent, while another family member is with you.
  4. Sleeping with your phone near you and checking your e-mail or texts while in bed.
  5. Logging onto your computer while in bed.
  6. Have had an argument with a loved one about your use of technology.
  7. Texting or e-mailing while driving.
  8. You no longer go outside for fun.
  9. Never turning of your phone.
  10. When spending time with your family, each person is looking at a different screen.
I read this list out loud to my family—insisting that I wasn't making any of this up—while they called out the names of our family members who were guilty of these technology crimes committed against the family. Pretty sad isn't it that's we've come to this constant reliance on screens and technology. Even worse, everyone in my family is guilty of some of the "signs" on this list. Yours truly included.

So what to do about it? The obvious solutions are limiting time on TV, computers, and texting, which we all probably attempt. One small step that I've instilled for the past couple of years is insisting on a "screen-free" day on Sundays. As the Sunday "no screen" enforcer,  you can imagine that I'm not very popular. However this Sunday rule has been modified: computers can be used but only for homework and the TV can be turned on only for sporting events. The male contingent of the house could not survive Sundays without sports. This does require extra monitoring as sometimes episodes of The Simpsons sneak in during half-time of the Vikings game. It's a small start to taking back part of Sunday as family time.

The harder part is taking a timeout yourself. I love my e-mail and checking in on Facebook as much as anyone else, but once I realize I'm taking time away from my family I can easily tear myself away from the screens. How about you? A technology detox does work and salvages that quality time with those you love. Who knows . . . your kids may even discover the great outdoors again!

Friday, January 7, 2011

My Japanese Favorites

Yes, I realize this has nothing to do with surviving suburbia. It falls under escaping suburbia. My recent, and really quite unexpected, travels to Japan over the past few years have yielded a few favorite encounters from a culture I never thought I’d explore and experience. Here is my short list of discoveries:
  •  Zen gardens and Shinto shrines in the middle of Tokyo.
  •  Old ladies in kimonos with their hair dyed pink, purple, or blue tottering around on their wedges.
  •  The heated and musical Japanese toilets.
  •  Little bows.
  •  Eating the closest duplication of my Grandmother’s homemade raised sugar doughnuts at the New Otani Hotel. How did they get her recipe?
  •  Japanese maples dripping leaves into ponds filled with Koi.
  •  The beauty and serenity of Kyoto.
  •  The crazy music and bells and whistles that play in the subways when the doors of a train are closing.
  •  Vending machines selling cans of hot coffee and tea on all of the street corners.
  •  Feeling like a blonde goddess in high heels and a bright pink coat as I towered over the masses of Japanese clad in neutral black and khaki.
  •  Spotting Mt. Fuji from my hotel window on the morning of my departure from Japan.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Kids and the TSA

Is it a good thing that when traveling by air, my kids have the security drill down pat? They line up, look the TSA agent in the eye, and clearly answer his questions about their ages and if I'm actually their mother. They carefully pack their liquids and gels in a little plastic bag and place it in a bin to run through the metal detector. They quickly remove their shoes, belts, jackets, and sweatshirts and place them neatly in the bins. They push their carry-on luggage along the belt leading to the X-Ray scanner. They patiently wait their turn to walk calmly through the metal detector. (Luckily they have not yet been pulled into the line for the body scanner experience.) They quickly get redressed, grab their luggage and baggie of liquids, and find a bench outside of the TSA secure area to retie their shoes. Whew! Made it quickly and easily through another round of security. Boarding an airplane has certainly changed dramatically since I was their age.

This calm but fast and orderly routine has been drilled into them by their mother since 9/11 to save time and headache in the USA security lines. They have learned that other countries do not have a TSA and security measures when boarding planes in other countries are different and, in some cases, easier perhaps. 

It seems like there is something terribly wrong with our society when I, as a mother, can say that I am proud that my children can quickly get through an airport security line without crying, losing anything, or massively holding up the line by being poky. However sad and time consuming all of these extra security measures are, they certainly beat the alternative. 

Misguided Compassion

On behalf of all of the American exchange students whose lives were cut short on 21 December 1988, I am compelled to write in outrage about the Scottish authorities decision to release the Libyan terrorist who planted the bomb on Pan Am Flight 103 that exploded over Lockerbie Scotland killing all 259 people aboard and 11 on the ground. Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, who has terminal prostate cancer, was released from a Scottish prison yesterday on grounds of compassion. His return to Libya after 21 years prompted a  celebratory hero’s welcome and a warm embrace from  the son of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
All on the grounds of compassion. Mr. al-Megrahi showed no mercy or had any thoughts of pity for his victims when he loaded Pan Am Flight 103 with a bomb. He will get to say goodbye to his family before he dies. The Lockerbie victims never said goodbye to their loved ones. Where lies the sympathy in Mr. al-Megrahi’s actions? He showed no compassion in December 1988. This is not compassionate move on Scotland’s part; it is an outrage! A victory for the terrorist community.
Yes, I realize he is an old dying man and is no longer a threat. I caution you. Look back at the spectacle that took place on the tarmac in Libya yesterday. Therein lies the threat. A seed of dissent planted in a young Libyan mind upon seeing Mr. al-Megrahi’s jubilant return. A hero in the minds of Libyans.
Mr. al-Megrahi is no hero. Neither is Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill who made the decision to free this terrorist. The heros are the parents, husbands, wives, siblings, and friends of those innocent people who perished. They have had to live all these 21 years with a gaping hole in their lives. We must live with the aftermath of the release of Mr. al-Megrahi. I believe this decision will impact all of us. Not now perhaps, but in the future.
Why should I, a suburban Mom living in Minnesota, care so deeply about all of this?
I held a standby ticket on Pan Am Flight 103.

(This article was originally published on August 21, 2009 on my old blog "A Suburban Mom's Survival Guide.")

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

God vs. Hockey. Who Wins?

So far hockey is ahead.
This is my battle and no doubt a battle raging in many households here in Minnesota and elsewhere. When are all of the Sunday morning and Wednesday night practices and games TOO MUCH???
It is hard enough to drag the kids out of bed and into the minivan for the journey to church on a frosty November Sunday morning without the temptation of a much more fun and easier diversion of hockey or ballet or basketball (or pick your sport) practice. A battle always ensues. When did Sunday’s become fair game for coaches to schedule practices, rehearsals, and games?
I grew up in a town where the basketball or football coaches would have to answer to the resident Lutheran pastor (Missouri synod), who was equivalent to God, if they dared to dream of scheduling a practice on a Wednesday night or God-forbid a Sunday morning. It was grounds for excommunication!
Standards have changed in 25 years and living in a metro area that thrives on hockey and football. I have a hockey player, a ballerina, and a basketball player. I teach Sunday School and Wednesday night Confirmation classes. It is really a tough call. I sympathize with the parents of my students. In the past, church easily trumped sports and ballet practice without a doubt. But now that the Lutherans have decided it is okay to ordain gay clergy amongst their ranks, I now have an advocate on the side of Sunday sports. (Perhaps the Lutheran issues are a blog in itself and not worth touching with a 10-foot pole.)
So what does a church-going mother do? I believe in keeping Sundays for family. But as the kids get older and their activities more involved this gets more difficult with each passing year. I hate to admit that Sunday School has been skipped for a basketball game or hockey practice but Wednesday nights for Confirmation are sacred for the moment. 
When does it become too much? A child’s faith and lessons taught on Sunday mornings stays with them their entire life. Can you say the same about their chances at playing professional hockey or becoming a prima ballerina?

(This article was originally published on November 19, 2009 on my old blog "A Suburban Mom's Survival Guide".)