Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Normandy Landing Beaches and American Military Cemetery

The big selling point of a cruise to Normandy is the shore excursion to the landing beaches.  I mean, sure, Normandy has impressive cathedrals, yummy apple-based alcohol, and caramels.  But (literal) boatloads of Americans wouldn't be coming here regularly were it not for the World War II significance.

The ship offered two different excursions to the beaches, one for Americans (to Omaha) and one for the other allies (to Juno).  There was more demand for the American one -- not so much because there are more Americans on our cruise, but because a bunch of the Australians came on the American excursion, on the basis that they know the American story more than their country's own, thanks to all the war movies.  So we have two buses for the American tour.

The night before, we had a lecture from a historian (and dude hoping to sell us his book) who placed the landing in the greater context of the war.  (The French tour guides we've met have been pretty up front about the fact that it wasn't just the government that capitulated to the Nazis; the general populace was split on whether they supported the Germans.  Guides weren't exactly apologetic, but they did acknowledge it.)  History lesson done, we got up bright and early (actually, no -- overcast and early), piled onto our buses, and drove out to the beaches.

On the two hour drive out, the tour guide told us more stories.  Figuring that we had the history from the night before, she gave us stories from a more personal level -- sharing specific experiences of her family, and the individuals she has met giving D-Day tours over the past couple decades.  

In particular, she mentioned that one of her relatives had owned some property in occupied Normandy -- two houses connected by a garden.  The Germans wanted one of the houses for themselves, so told her relative that he had a day to consolidate everyone in the other house.  The relative was upset because his mother-in-law lived in the second house, and he knew that if his mother-in-law moved in with him, she would never leave.  And this was true -- she ended up staying in his house for another 30 years, long after the war was over.  "So," she tells us, "he had a reason for hating the Nazis."  The bus chuckles.  I don't find this very fucking funny.  Plenty other reasons to hate the Nazis.  Plenty people in Europe lost their houses to the Nazis and didn't have the option of moving their family into the other house, as they were packed on trains for the camps.  Ha ha, your relative had to live with his mother-in-law.  War is hell; he got off fucking easy.

Our first stop (well, the first one that mattered) was at the Ranger Monument at Pointe du Hoc.  The first thing you notice about Pointe du Hoc are the craters.  Round ones were bombs dropped from the sky; oval ones were explosives fired by the Navy (think about it).  And they're everywhere.  The allies bombed the shit out of Pointe du Hoc, but still didn't take out the artillery or the German command bunker until the Rangers ascended the cliffs and (with depleted forces and taking massive, massive casualties) did the bloody impossible.  Go them!  

I'm not sure what I expected to see at the Normandy landing beaches, but it was probably Pointe du Hoc.  The remains of the German command bunker is there -- half buried in the cliff.  You can go down inside it, walk through the rooms, imagine the German soldiers defending the coastline from within.  There's one room which has a long open slit for a window, facing the beach.  When you walk up to it, you see the French have conveniently left a barbed wire barrier just outside it, and you see the view the Germans would have had when sticking their rifles out of that slit and trying to defend the assault.  They also have the remains of the pillboxes the Germans built to protect their heavy artillery, giving you an idea of what the allies were up against.  It's all there; and you can touch it.

(I like touching stuff.  I am touching what they touched; feeling the cold of the cement block wall, the utilitarian metal hook on the wall.  It's an imagination-trigger.)

Two people are late getting back to our bus.  The other bus leaves for our next destination about 15 minutes before ours, while we're waiting.  When we eventually get to our next destination, Omaha beach, the guide gives us 15 minutes there and I realize -- when our bus subsequently leaves at the same time as the other bus -- that the tour guide kept us on schedule due to this couple's lateness by just HALVING OUR TIME at Omaha beach.  I'm pretty pissed about this (taking 5 minutes off Omaha and 10 minutes off the cemetery would have been the better call).  I get that we have a schedule to keep, but this is kind of WHY WE'RE HERE, and 20 people shouldn't get fucked over on their visit to Omaha Beach because 2 others lost track of time at Pointe du Hoc.

(But I was annoyed at the tour guide anyway.  Other people complimented her on the mother-in-law story, so clearly I was in the minority on that one.)

On the plus side, there isn't actually all that much to see at Omaha Beach.  There are two memorials and flags flying for the allied countries; but it's also a beach with kids playing and stand-up-paddle-boarders stand-up-paddling.  Two little kids were collecting sand in pails from right near the sculpture on the beach.  It's very much a "life goes on" type of thing.

I touched the sand.  Nice fresh, wet, unstepped-upon sand.  Packed firmly.  What was it like, I imagined, for the soldiers taking their first steps on that beach?  From the landing crafts where you slipped on the vomit because everyone was seasick; jumping into the cold neck-deep waves; trying to make it on shore under enemy fire, with defensive barriers in the way and absolutely nothing to protect yourself except the human shields of your fallen comrades.  Fuck.  Keep playing in the sand, little French kids.  On behalf of my country, You're welcome.

Jumped back on the bus for the ride up to the American Military Cemetery.  Our tour guide provides us each with a rose to place on a grave if we wished.  She also volunteers that if any of us were of the Jewish faith, we could follow the Jewish tradition and leave a stone.  She tells us we could find stones in the flower beds or on the Jewish Stars.  (I roll my eyes.  Twice.  First, because, believe me, any Jew who has ever been to a cemetery knows where to find a stone.  Second because, REALLY?  The only "Jewish Stars" in this place are other graves, and it's kind of not cool to take a stone off one grave to put it on another.  But partial credit for at least acknowledging the custom.)

Before heading off into the cemetery, we get one more story from the tour guide, and this one is actually good:  She tells us she had a couple on a tour who asked her to use her app (of course there's an app) to find the grave of a family member.  She finds the name and tells them where to go.  When they find it, the wife is angry and says, "That isn't his grave!  It's a cross, not a Jewish star."  And the husband says, "Remember.  He had people in Europe."  And the tour guide understood.  Because Jewish soldiers didn't want to self-identify on their dog tags, because it would put their families at risk if they were captured.  "So," she tells us, "there are 500 Jewish stars here, but probably more Jews."  I kind of lose it.

I casually pick up a stone to place on a random Jewish grave, and I have my rose to place on a random Christian grave, because I'm all equal-opportunity like that.

I'm walking alone in the cemetery and I remember the last time a tour guide handed me a rose to place somewhere.  It was at Auschwitz.  I stood next to my father and we laid two roses in the gas chamber, and whispered Kaddish, the mourners' prayer.  I am standing in the American Military Cemetery surrounded by graves of people whose sacrifice enabled the Allies to END THAT.  I lose it again.  I say Kaddish again; I can think of nothing else to say.

They're young -- the soldiers.  They were all so very, very young -- average age in the cemetery was something like 23.  (One of the guides said the "average age was 21-26," making me think "average" must mean something different in French.)  But, yes, very young.  I thought it ridiculous to call them the "Greatest Generation" -- they were too young to even know who they were yet.  They were just young men, mostly (over 60%) drafted, and they did what their nation called them to do and they got killed doing what history needed them to.

I placed my rose on the grave of some kid who survived the D-Day invasion but died a couple weeks later, on my birthday, in 1944.  

Sunday, September 18, 2016

50 for 50: 6.5 -- Day Two at Universal Orlando with Cousin Kim

While we'd (mostly) covered Diagon Alley on the first day, we didn't get to do much else in Universal's first park that first day, because they were kicking us out for Halloween Horror Nights.  Normally, the park's closing time is more of a suggestion than a hard and fast rule.  You can get in one last ride as the minutes tick past the set hour, and you can stay in the shops for an additional hour or more.  But not with Halloween Horror Nights.  Universal's main park closes at 5:00 -- and that means to start heading to the exit gates around 4:15 -- they start setting up stanchions and check-points and aiming traffic toward the "out" around then.  Which was fine enough for us, as we really HAD had a full day.  But we had more park to cover the next morning.

And we covered it.  Men in Black ride; Simpsons ride, Transformers ride, Terminator 2 show (with a, er, somewhat less-than-buff dude in the Terminator role), Mummy ride, E.T. ride--

-- look, I didn't want to ride the E.T. ride.  But Kim did.  I don't think I'd ridden it since I was a kid at and rode it at Universal Hollywood.  I mean, for a time, it was the signature attraction of the place -- everyone was amazed by the technology by which E.T. says your name at the end.  Now, it's a kiddie ride.  Sigh for lost childhood.

(Oh, and they have posters outside -- I'm sorry I didn't take a picture, so you'll have to take my word for it -- but the posters were trumpeting the "30th Anniversary release" of the movie in "2002."  Kim and I did the math on that one over and over, but couldn't make it work.)

And we did the Rock and Roll roller coaster (or whatever the hell they call it).  I think it's the most intense of all the coasters at Universal.  Mostly for the "holy crap, that's straight up in the air" start, but also for the nearly-straight-down that follows.  And for the fact that it's a looping coaster without an over-the-shoulder harness.  You just have a really good, solid, padded, around-your-waist harness.  Which I may have latched extra tight, because it was the only thing holding me in.  And with the harness pressing my midsection upward, and the right tilting you 90 degrees backward for the initial uphill, than quite a bit in the opposite direction when you go down, my, um, undergarments were not up to the challenge of keeping everything where it ought to be.  When the ride paused before another drop, I turned and shared this fact with Kim.  She shared her own problem of a similar nature.  We both started laughing.  Uncontrollably.  We rode the rest of this coaster screaming in laughter at how this ride was disorganizing our otherwise pristine exteriors.

We did the Harry Potter Escape from Gringotts ride again -- because it was AWESOME and because we had some unfinished business in Diagon Alley.  (One of which was the ice cream parlor.  Apple Crumble ice cream.  I will dream about that.)  But our other unfinished business (thankfully, handled before the roller coaster) was Souvenir Acquisition.  Specifically, video souvenir acquisition.  For what we'll just call Way Too Much Money (well, no -- considering Universal wanted $35 for the video of our laugh-fest on the roller coaster (no thank you), THIS was a bargain), you dress up in Hogwarts robes and pose in front of a green screen in a dozen different Harry Potter-related scenarios, and they take ten-second video clips -- which they put together in a two-minute moving-photo album for your viewing pleasure.  (I have the DVD -- which we haven't watched yet.  They still haven't emailed me the promised the file.)

Making it was kind of hilarious.  (I don't know who they expect to make these videos, but each room had about five robes in it:  two were 3XL and two were kids' smalls.  We had to use the stock in both rooms to scare up their only medium and large.)  Our photographer was giving us cues, and we were pretty horrible at acting as directed -- I know for certain that I messed up the timing on two of them (but I have great hopes for the very last).  Tip for anyone trying this:  they're not recording sound, but your interaction with your partner is much better if you improvise lines anyway; trying to mime this shit is a recipe for disaster.  Still, it was an amusing disaster, and I'm looking forward to watching us make fools of ourselves all over the Harry Potter universe.

And that's about it for that one.  I had a third day on my ticket (it's only another $10) so, after Kim and I had a leisurely breakfast (and good chat), we hugged, she hit the road, and I went back to the park to repeat a few rides before heading to the airport.  Wasn't nearly as fun by myself.  

But now I'm at the airport and my flight is overbooked, so I should head over to the counter and see what they're up to.  Which is a shame because I don't have time to proofread.  Or to tell you about the bird that (apparently unaware that it was not yet time for Halloween Horror Night) pretty much flew directly at Kim's face.  (She jumped!  I jumped!  Strangers jumped!  Seriously, it was like that damn thing was on a mission.)  Afterwards, I thought, "Hey, free scare!"

Friday, September 16, 2016

50 for 50: 6 -- Universal Orlando with Cousin Kim

I've been to Universal Orlando twice, which may make you wonder (a) why I put it on my Fifty for Fifty list and (b) what the hell I'm going to write about.

The answer to (a) is that it genuinely makes me happy.  Lord knows, I've been a Disneyland fan since, well, let's say about 1975.  But Universal Orlando raised the fucking bar.  After seeing what they did with the Harry Potter world -- recreating it, rather than just making nods toward it -- you get the very strong feeling that Disney better up its game with Star Wars land, because this just blows Disney the hell away.  I love this park.  

The answer to (b) is that, although Cousin Kim actually lives here in Florida, and has been to Universal, she has never actually been to the Harry Potter lands here.  Which left me in the really fun position of introducing her to this stuff and watching her be gobsmacked by it.

We got a late start, which turned out to be OK, because the parks are really slow this weekend AND we're staying in an on-site hotel, which means free Express Passes, which means virtually no waiting on most rides.  We started with the new King Kong Skull Island ride, about which all we really have to say is "disappointing."  It was one of those 3D ride-interacts-with-the-screen type of things, but not particularly well-executed.  Indeed, later in the day, we rode the Spider-Man ride, which we both agreed was a better use of the tech, even though it was a much older ride.

Then it was off to the Hogwarts/Hogsmeade [NB:  Google's spell check is not triggered by "Hogwarts," but it thinks "Hogsmeade" isn't a word] world -- also known as the FIRST Harry Potter park (Diagon Alley being the second).  Kim was amazed when we saw the first snow-covered shops, before we turned the corner to see Hogwarts castle from the bridge -- I'd sort of forgotten how awe-inspiring it is when you first see it and feel like you're actually THERE.

We rode the rides there really quickly.  (The Dragon Challenge was a 5 minute wait.  Flight of the Hippogriff was 45 minutes.  I'm just going to leave that right there, for anyone who knows what those two rides are.  On the plus side, we used the Express Pass for Hippogriff, so really only had no wait at all.  But we mock-yelled "Weeee!" on the whole thing, which made it entertaining.)  We looked in the shops -- more of a scouting mission than an actual shopping trip.  When I mentioned that you can get "sorted" on the Pottermore website, Kim decided that she didn't want to buy any Hogwarts stuff until she knew what House she was in.  I told her I got sorted into Slytherin (like all good mathematicians), and she mocked me about this for the rest of the day.  (Kept suggesting I'd want to buy stuff in the Dark Arts shop, or assuming I spoke Parseltongue.  I had to defend the honor of my House.)

We then rode stuff in the rest of the Islands of Adventure park.  (Not sure what was improved about the Hulk coaster, but it was enjoyable.)  And, yes, after we rode the Spider-Man ride, we pretty much turned to each other and said, "That was better than King Kong."

Halloween Horror Nights are going on now -- we're not participating, but it means they close the Universal Studios park early (while Islands of Adventure remains open late).  Having pretty much finished Islands of Adventure by 3:30, we took the Hogwarts Express over to Universal Studios to spend an hour in Diagon Alley.

I built this up for Kim -- because it is fucking amazing and she was impressed enough with Hogwarts that I knew I wouldn't-- I COULDN'T oversell it.  Diagon Alley is just stunning.  Hogsmeade is a bunch of individual one-story shops; Diagon Alley has multi-story buildings -- and they DO STUFF.  (At one point, Kim shouts, "Did you see that?!"  And I deadpan, "Oh, yeah, it breathes fire.  Did I forget to mention that?")  Outrageous.  We rode the one ride there (Escape From Gringotts) which we want to ride again tomorrow, and planned out some shopping, too, although Kim was still adamant about getting sorted first.

Got kicked out of the park around 4:45 (while thousands of people were pouring in for the privilege of getting the crap scared out of them) and had dinner (thanks, Kim!) at this new stupidly-named restaurant which has chocolate EVERYTHING and a steampunk theme.  (The bread.  The bread was chocolate.  With a salted caramel butter.  O.M.G.)

At which time, Kim's wonky knee was acting up, as was my foot-injury-caused-by-idiocy, so we called it a night and came back to the hotel.

Kim cranked up Pottermore and got sorted.  

Into Slytherin.


Thursday, September 15, 2016

50 for 50: 5.5 -- Day Two at Exotic Feline Rescue Center with Tammy

Some day, perhaps I will go on safari in Africa.  Until then, I'll be satisfied with yesterday morning, when I woke up in our little room at the Exotic Feline Rescue Center, and went outside to drink my tea, while a tiger, a black leopard, a cougar, and a bobcat all watched me.  And I watched them.  

(I didn't want to startle them with speech, so I signed that they were all pretty kitties.)

Now that we're not there any more and there's no opportunity for further parental freaking out, I can report that the cats up near the house were not the safest, most docile ones, but the ones who needed a little extra attention for one reason or another.  We were reminded that Rajean, our tiger, would happily rip our arms off, given the opportunity.  While I ate breakfast, Rajean stared at me, and then licked his lips, as if to say, "Yes, fatten yourself up.  I'm just biding my time."

At one point, when Rajean got up for a walk, I saw his tummy pouch hanging down and asked if he was a fat cat.  He responded by jumping right up on his box and spraying!  (We'd been warned about this behavior, so I was well out of range.)  Still, it made me reconsider whether the cats understood more than we thought they did.

That morning, we went on our private tour of the rest of the facilities.  (Including the, er, place where large dead animals turn into cat food, and the "world's largest pile of steaming cat poop."  They said we could climb the latter for a photo opp.  We declined.)  But we did tour the large field where numerous more cats had their cages.  (They had about 180 cats; fullest has been over 230.)  They'd told us the tour would be about an hour to an hour and a half, depending on how many questions we asked.  We were there for about two hours, fifteen.

So.  Many.  Cats.

After story after story of how they rescued these cats from horrible circumstances, I asked if they ever said "no."  Only if they didn't have the capacity.  They never turn down a cat for behavior or anything.  They have cats there with, um, records.  But they never hold an unfortunate human interaction (my euphemism, not theirs) against the cat, because the cat was being, y'know, a cat, while the human was being, y'know, a moron.  These are wild animals, and, while the Rescue takes good care of them (and lets people come and see them), they're very, very good about safety precautions for both visitors and keepers.  We were very good about keeping our distance from the cages, because of the whole wanting-to-tear-our-arms-off thing, but our guide said I could stand closer to this cougar because she was just hanging out.

And that was pretty much it.  We went back to the room, showered, and headed out to finish our day.

Bonus:  Tammy makes beads!

I am not artsy or craftsy by nature.  (Only that other kind of craftsy.  Y'know, like hobbitses are.)  Tammy, however, makes beads.  It's a time-honored process involving glass rods, a ton of patience, and fire.  (Fire!  She gets to play with fire!)  She let me go to a studio with her and watch her make some beads -- and I got to pick all the colors and help design the beads and everything!  Very kid-in-a-candy-store.

Of course, this whole 50 for 50 thing is really a gigantic me-in-a-candy-store-for-two-years venture.  I get to do things I love (or things I think I'll love) with people who mean a lot to me.  I'm starting to think the downside of this plan is that it will finish -- because this would be a pretty awesome way to go about one's life in general.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

50 for 50: 5 -- Exotic Feline Rescue Center with Tammy

Yes, sometimes you just have to have photos.  Wook at the pretty paws, just wook at them.  Awwww.

So, west of Indianapolis is the Exotic Feline Rescue Center.  It's pretty much what is says on the tin.  They rescue big (and mid-sized) cats from all over the country -- frequently, government agencies call them in when they find cats that are being mistreated, and they take them in, take care of them, and give them a forever home here in Indiana.  All of their cats have been born in captivity and couldn't survive in the wild.  Many have been really badly treated -- either by assholes or just idiots who think, "Yeah, if I raise that little tiger from a cub in my living room, he won't try to rip my face off when he weighs 600 pounds."  It's a nice facility.  Each cat has its own little play yard (safely fenced in from the humans, of course), although, when they get along, they are sometimes housed together.  (Once, they got along real well, and they had a lion born here.)  Sometimes the cats housed together aren't even the same species.  They don't judge.

The guy who runs the place lives in a house on the premises.  He sectioned off a little bedroom and bathroom (with its own front door) off the house and rents it out to overnight guests.  Overnight guests take the regular walking tour of the premises, then get to stay over in an area with several more cages, AND get to take a special tour of the private areas in the morning.  We're still pre-sleep right now, so all these photos are from our initial tour (and the cats right near our window).  That beautiful tiger at the top is "our" tiger.  Most of the other cats near the house stay hidden, but he's very much a people person, and comes out for photos (and attention) pretty much constantly.

This one is "our" black leopard.  He's out because he's just been given a snack.

This little darling is a serval.  They're from Africa and they can jump really high.  (See?  I was paying attention on the tour.)  Assholes breed them with housecats and make Savannah cats, which really do not make good pets (because they're still pretty wild), but the assholes do it because people pay big money for the offspring.  (And the servals seem pretty up for it.)

This lion really liked attention.

This needs no explanation -- but it's proof that tigers are just, y'know, big cats.

And this is a sexy cougar.  (Aren't they all?)  With a widdle pink nose.

After we did the tour and got all set up in our room (there's a stuffed animal tiger in here; I'm sleeping with him) we headed out to a diner in the next city over, and had some good diner fare (and brownie batter ice cream -- look into it).  Came back to the room around dusk, where we could just about make out the bobcat and the ocelot in the cages near our door.  (Too dark for decent photos, though.)  I was very excited to see the ocelot.  The owner told us that our best chance to see him would be from our window, as he was super skittish.  But he was pacing back and forth and we got to see his sleek little spotted self live and in person.

Bad news:  I got bit!  Good news:  It was only bugs.

So, as we settle in for the evening (I'm hoping to not use my white noise app; nature is trying to make sufficient sounds outside), I'm hoping the welts on my forehead go down by morning.  We've got way more fun scheduled for tomorrow!

Sunday, September 11, 2016

50 for 50: 4 -- Escape Room with Cousin Seth

Escape Room with Cousin Seth was something of a last-minute change of plans.  Cousin Seth had first claimed Hot Air Balloon Ride (still open, btw), but the balloon place was all booked, so I returned to the list for things of a more easy-to-book, not-so-adventurey variety.  And an Escape Room seemed like a no-brainer.  Because Seth IS a brainer.  So is Gabriel, his son, who came along. 

I've done two Escape Rooms before; this is the first one I've failed, and I honestly think this was (at least in part) due to the way this particular room was run.  We had a walkie-talkie we could use to get up to three hints.  When we used it to ask for a hint, despite the fact that there was a security camera in the room (so they were able to watch our progress), the guy started telling us to do stuff we had already done.  This was (1) annoying; and (2) a time-waster.  It happened twice.  The first time, he took so long trying to figure out where we were stuck, Cousin Seth unstuck us before the guy even got the clue out.  The second time... well, this was six hours ago and it still kind of sticks in my craw ... the eventual clue told us to touch something which had a "Do Not Touch" sign on it.  (And we'd been warned, before the game, to Not Touch stuff that says "Do Not Touch.")  Now, OK, sure, fine, he GAVE us the hint about having to touch the "Do Not Touch" thing, but we'd been dicking around for quite a lot of time trying to solve this particular clue on our own, and this time was utterly wasted because it was more or less impossible to solve this here clue without someone telling you, "Yeah, ok, NOW you should touch a 'Do Not Touch' thing."

Other than that, depending on how you look at things, we either failed miserably (leaving at least a half-dozen puzzles unsolved); came really close (had the right code for a lock, but it wasn't opening -- had it opened, we could have gotten to the end in about 3 minutes); or came outrageously close (without knowing it, we'd accidentally leapt ahead and gotten the code to open the final door -- had we but tried it, we would have escaped).

But, again, escaping wasn't really the point here (although it would have been nice).  The point was problem solving with Cousin Seth and Cousin Gabriel.  I'm happy to report that we together destroyed the math puzzle in that thing in about 20 seconds; and there was some nice teamwork (Seth and I put the map together, but Gabriel figured out how to read it).  Seth was also very calm at the end when we were running out of time.  I was overwhelmed by all the locks left unopened, but he kept me and Gabriel focused and working till the end -- which was totally the right thing to do.

(As was bitching about "Touch the 'Do Not Touch' thing."  Which we did for the rest of the night.  Because seriously?)

I actually met up with Cousin Seth early -- right after West Virginia.  This was good because I got to see his daughter, and we went to Gabriel's horseback lesson.  (I was sooo relieved by this, as it meant I was not the only one who smelled like horse that night.)  We also met up with Cousin Debbie (Mrs. Cousin Seth) for dinner beforehand, and I went back to the house afterwards for tea and chatting like grown-ups do.  (Gabriel sat in; having done his duty in the Escape Room, he earned the right to recount the tale of "Oh, go ahead and touch it.")  I loved that part.  At most family get-togethers, there is extended family all over the place -- I rarely see one cousin's family without several others all crammed in the kitchen.  Tonight was small and lovely and just sort of happened.  I hated to leave, but I'm sure they have the real world to get back to, and I had to drive back to my airport hotel, for a flight out tomorrow.

50 for 50: 3 -- Horseback Riding with Cousin Heath

I am well and truly wiped, but if I don't get today written down, I may forget it.  You know how you sometimes have such a busy day that yesterday seems forever ago?  Right now, 2:15 seems like forever ago.

I hit the road around 7:45 this morning, because I am in Baltimore but was headed out to the other side of the State.  It was about an hour ten minutes of Google Maps saying, "yeah, keep going West; I'll tell you when you're there."  I ended up at Elk Mountain Stables, which is just this side of West Virginia.  More on that later.

It was a gorgeous day for horseback riding.  Cousin Heath had suggested it (and it was on the list!) long before we knew that yesterday would be well over 90 degrees, but today topped out around 80.  It was even cooler in the morning, when we went for our ride.

It was me, Heath and Heath's 8-year-old, Aidan (and 11 other people we didn't know), accompanied by three guides, for an hour-and-half trail ride up through the mountains.  We saw nature!  (Two deer!)  (And a big ol' spider in the bathroom.  Honestly, I'm pretty sure that waiver of liability we had to sign -- which was pretty much how nature can be scary and we think we're in control, but we aren't -- had to do more with using the restroom than actually riding the horses.)

I've been on a bunch of trail rides in my life, and someone always has the "difficult" horse.  This time, it was me.  Sequoia was a hungry beast, and I was warned not to let her eat grass even before I mounted.  And (because I'd actually taken three whole horseback riding lessons which ended up focused on Making Recalcitrant Horses Behave), I did an okay job of keeping her from eating.  A couple times she just used all her strength to put her head down and bite off half a bush -- I'd be yelling "No!" and pulling sharply on the reins, but, let's face it, in a game of tug of war, she's always going to win.  She'd look back at me, mouth full of salad, as if to say, "Try all you want, Monkey Girl; I'm eating this."

There was a secondary problem with Sequoia -- I kept leaning to one side on her.  They had to stop the ride about four times to readjust her saddle.  When I asked what was going on, they said she's so fat, the saddle won't stay on.  At that point, I patted her and called her "Big Boned."  I think she liked that.

In the meantime, Heath was riding ahead of me on Mystic.  (Aidan was in front of him; I missed the name of his horse.)  Heath said he didn't think Mystic trusted him; this may have been true -- it looked like Mystic tried to brush Heath off his back by walking him into some trees.

But between Heath dodging trees and me not sliding off the side of my overweight horse, we had a lovely ride -- the nature really was beautiful (I mentioned the deer, right?) and we were far enough away from civilization (we even loss data signals) that all we could hear is nature -- the whoosh of the breeze, the hum of the insects, the clip-clop of the horses, ... and me yelling, "No!"

This wasn't just a ride; it was a brunch ride!  When we got back, there was cowboy french toast, a rather tasty homemade egg and cheese dish, hash browns (more cheese) and some yummy bacon.  It was all very hearty, and I was pleased to see the strawberries for dessert, because this meal made me think their kitchen had never seen a fruit or vegetable.

Aidan's a good kid.  (He's also a good rider.)  Friendly.  Inquisitive.  When Heath and Aidan arrived at the stables, Heath introduced him to me, saying he didn't think I'd met Aidan before, and I realized THAT's what this 50 for 50 activity was really about -- not just spending time with Cousin Heath, but getting to know his son I'd never met.
I would love to end this entry on that note, but have to add that I had a couple hours to kill before the next activity, and we were so close to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, Heath suggested I drive on over there to fill the time.  I agreed; not so much because I was dying to see Harpers Ferry, but because I'm sick of answering, "Um, maybe?" whenever they ask about West Virginia on one of those "How many states have you visited?" things.  So, now, I've definitely hit West Virginia.  As a bonus, Harpers Ferry has some old stone steps which (according to the sign next to them) are part of the Appalachian Trail.  Believe me when I tell you that "Hike the Appalachian Trail" is not on my list.  But I did walk up and down the steps so I could say I walked a part of it.  How much we'll just keep secret.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

50 for 50: 2 -- Vintage Clothes Shopping with Cousin Michele

I hadn't thought I'd catch Cousin Michele on this trip to Maryland.  (I have a lot of family in Maryland; I'll be coming back.)

I had, however, always been planning to go Vintage Clothes Shopping with her.  (She was not aware of this.  One of the things that has surprised me in putting 50 for 50 together is that I'll have an activity in mind for someone, and then they see the list and pick something totally different.  But I'd had Cousin Michele in mind for Vintage Clothes Shopping from Day One, and when I pitched it to her for tonight, she agreed.)

We met someplace convenient.  (I don't even know.  I just plugged it into Google Maps and went there.)  She met me there and took me to Hampden -- an area of Baltimore with cutesy little shops and restaurants.  Very boutiquey.  

We didn't get quite as much vintage CLOTHES shopping in as we'd hoped.  I tried on one dress -- Cousin Michele wanted to see me model it, but, um, it buttoned down the front, and I would have violated several decency laws if I came out of the dressing room "wearing" it.

We did, however, find vintage JEWELRY, and I can adapt.  :)  I bought a really sweet vintage-inspired brooch which Cousin Michele spotted.  (I missed it while I was focused on the sale shelf right next to it.)  Michele correctly noted that it would go with a bunch of my retro dresses, which just goes to show that posting all those pictures on Facebook does, in fact, pay off from time to time.  (And the nice guy in the shop gave me next week's sale price when we assured him that I would, in fact, not be able to come back for the sale.)

We also tried on gorgeous vintage rings (which were way outside our price range, but fun to admire).

Then we stopped at The Charmery, a hand-made ice cream place.  (OMG, Strawberry Pomegranate Molasses ice cream.  I had thought the molasses was questionable, but O.M.G.)  I like this Eating Dessert First thing.  That way you don't have to bother with the inconvenience of "saving room."

Cousin Michele and I then grabbed some dinner, and she dropped me off at wherever the hell I left my car.  

A great -- somewhat unexpected -- second entry in 50 for 50.  I honestly can't remember the last time I had a meal alone with Cousin Michele, and it's wonderful to have a chance to catch up.  And I'll have the brooch to remember it by.

50 for 50: 1 -- Indoor Skydiving With Cousin Brian

It begins.

I am super excited about this whole venture, even though I've only got 40 things on the list and maybe 10 things actually claimed.  I've got two years to do this and a lot of interest and... screw it, I'm doing this.

Indoor Skydiving with Cousin Brian was one of those things that was fated.  When I realized this was a good week to start the 50 for 50 trips, I contacted Brian to check his availability and offered a few activities I thought he might like to choose from.  When I suggested Indoor Skydiving, he asked where you do that.

This threw me.  I'd assumed there were Indoor Skydiving places pretty much in every big city and Baltimore should count.  I googled it and discovered that iFLY Baltimore was opening that very day.  I cheerfully reported to Brian that, actually, as of the afternoon we were putting this together, there was, in fact, an Indoor Skydiving place kinda near him.  Cousin Brian looked into it and said he's in ... and his wife and kids, too!

This, too, was kind of fate-y.  They have a "family package" for ten flights and five video clips you can share amongst your group.  That we had a group of five was just about perfect.

So, we show up at iFLY an hour before our reservation, as directed.  

This is the reason they have you show up an hour in advance:  When you walk in, they try to upsell you on a high flying add-on.  Basically, on your second flight, the instructor takes you up high in the air tunnel and spins around with you a few times.  They're playing a video of it to entice you.  And you watch the video, and think of all the money you've already invested in the package, and you say, "No, thank you."  And then you have about 45 minutes to kill, when you're in the building and there is pretty much nothing to do except sit there and watch the people in the session before you fly.  Or attempt to fly.  Or delicately crash into the walls.  Or -- and this is key -- gracefully hold the flight position while the instructor takes them high in the tunnel and spins them around.  Because even if you are an adorably flight-suited pile of elbows and knees when you try to fly by yourself, the fly-high-and-get-spun-around add-on is idiot-proof.  

The kids had wanted to sign up for it from the start.  The oldest, in particular, was all over it.  He was disappointed you couldn't do flips on your beginner flights, and certainly wanted to be spun.   Seeing it happen just made him want it more.  Cousin Brian (who had been ACTUAL skydiving before) was not interested in spinning (I think he was comparing it to spinning in actual skydiving, which is somewhat stomach-churning), so he was telling his kids that it wasn't going to happen.

About 20 minutes into the waiting and watching -- when we'd seen a bunch of people have their first flight with varying degrees of success, but all have a lot of fun with the spinning -- me and Cousin Liza cautiously suggest to each other that we're reconsidering the spinning thing.  We share this with Cousin Brian, who reluctantly goes over to the counter to add spinning for everyone but himself ... and then I kinda peer-pressured him into adding it for himself, too.

Before you get geared up (flight suit, helmet, goggles, ear plugs), you get a short lesson.  Five hand commands you have to learn, and a general understanding of the position you'll try to put your body in when you're in the wind tunnel.  Our family was not flying alone -- the five of us were with another group of seven, mostly kids.  (It was someone's birthday.)  We'd been kinda hoping we wouldn't be with the kids, because some of them were a little rude and annoying, but we had a great instructor who kept them in check.

So did the wind tunnel.  It had been our plan to let the birthday group go first; this was our instructor's plan, too.  Worked like a charm.  Because there's nothing like flailing around in a hundred-mile-per-hour wind to make you think, yeah, maybe you DON'T know everything.  The birthday kids wriggled around and kicked (and one of them ended up flying on his back, which isn't exactly how Superman does it) and did pretty much the opposite of what the instructor directed, and they quickly figured out that the perfectly good reason you can't do flips is because your first flights are a minute long and you want to spend that 60 seconds just finding your balance in there.

OUR group, however, kicked ass.  I am proud to report that Cousins Brian and Liza have really good kids -- and the kids were calm, relaxed, took direction well, and FLEW.  So did the three adults.  I was the last in our group, and felt a little bit of pressure to live up to the standard of my family -- but it went really well.  I got to fly around some on my own, which was super fun.   You're just riding on the wind in the tunnel (and pushing off the walls, when you get too close).  At one point, I (slowly) dropped to the floor.  We had been directed to just hold the position if that happened; they'd crank up the speed on the wind, and we'd fly right back up.  Sure enough, more wind.  And the bestest part was that the instructor told me to move my arms a certain way, and I did, and I actually controlled where I was going -- not just (literally) bouncing off the walls.  

When that was done, everyone had a second flight.  The birthday kids (suitably chastened) did a bit better the second time around.  Then, our family got to go, and we had that fly-up-and-spin-around thing, which was a lot smoother than I'd imagined, and a really neat feeling.  

When we finished, we took that "after" photo with our instructor, who really was terrific, and managed to give us (yes, and the birthday kids) a good experience.  We selected our video clips (the rest of the family got their spinny ones; I took the first flight because I really liked the flying alone bits) and headed out.

About a minute after we got in the car, it started raining.  We'd totally dodged it.

A perfect first start to this project.