Sunday, February 27, 2011

On my own turf

We're in our car hurling down I-90 at 65 mph to Rockford, keeping our eye on the cloud of pink ice moving toward us according to the iPhone. Tonight we sleep at my Dad's. Tomorrow we'll be in our own beds. :-)

Saturday, February 26, 2011

It's a Small World

MacTroll was reading a tourist guidebook last night in bed. It said that 52 percent of dwelling occupants in Paris are single people living alone. Mmm, I thought. Maybe that's why they're so grumpy, they're lonely. I decided that since all the wine, pastry and chocolate wasn't enough to get France in a good mood, I'd try something different. We'd go somewhere where people were paid to be the happiest people on Earth. That's right. Disneyland Paris. And you want to know something? It was the best idea I've ever had.

MacTroll looked into the tours offered through the hotel desk, and they were kind of expensive 98 Euros each to just go to one of the two Disney parks with a bus that would pick us up and drop us off at the hotel. But we'd have to be on the bus at 7 a.m. Mmmm, the park doesn't open until 10 a.m., so that was lame. Plus, it was expensive. But we were going to Disney so we knew we were in for using up some cash. Instead, we walked a half mile and picked up the train for under 7 Euros each. The Disney stop is the last stop on the train. You literally tumble out halfway between Disney Village (their Downtown Disney) and the two parks (Disneyland and Disney Studios). Of course, it was raining when we got there, and I was feeling cold, so we picked me up an extra sweatshirt (40 Euros) to wear under my rain coat and then we went off and stood in line for tickets.

A one-day park hopper was 68 Euros each. One park ticket was 52 Euros each. So we decided to bite the bullet and go for the hopper. I was already feeling happy about the decision when our train was full of kids with excitable giggles and parents laughing. It made me miss my kid, but I was so happy to be around other people with children. Finally, lightheartedness and humor.

Suddenly, in the ticket purchase line, this woman with two friends and their six kids, turns around and asks me if I speak French. I answer, "Non" honestly. I know enough not to starve. Turns out she knew as much English as I knew French. So we made a go of a discussion. She was a Disney pass holder and had a coupon that she was using for her two friends, but was good for up to four adults. Two one-day park hopper tickets for 15 Euros each and would we like to buy our tickets with them to use the coupon?

Hell, yes!

We were very grateful, and as far as Parisians go, she just totally proved that our experience in the city is probably entirely a city thing. My friend Robin loves everywhere else in France outside of Paris. She also likes to refer to Paris as "NYC with a baguette up it's butt." It's a fair assessment from our experience. But when you get into the land of the minivans (suburbs) something happened. People got more relaxed. They were enjoying their kids. And MacTroll's look of "I can't effing believe my wife brought me to Disney when we're in Paris" went away, and he became much more amiable and open to the idea.

MacTroll before the nice lady gave us 106 Euros back in our pocket... (This is his, "I can't believe I'm here" face.)


After the most awesome French woman in history gave us use of her coupon. (See a distinct difference?)



We were in Disney for the day, on a rainy day, for less than the cost of lunch.

Speaking of lunch. MacTroll also read last night that Paris has recently become the most expensive place to live in the world. It costs more than Tokyo, which if you think about really is mind boggling since when MacTroll was in Japan in 2005, he often had to eat his breakfast and lunch out of vending machines because his NYC level per diem wouldn't cover food at even a fast food place. Lunch at Disney at a Planet Hollywood at Disneyland Paris was much less than lunch in actual downtown Paris at a Bistro. It was insane. How Disney can be cheaper than anything makes no sense to me.

We went on a few rides. The Star Wars Tours was much more fun in French than in English, especially when the guys says, "May the Force Be With You." :-) We also went on the Aerosmith roller coaster, which was a long line, but made me scream and laugh, which MacTroll always love. Their teacups had been altered so they didn't really spin. I wondered if it was to prevent vomiting, but we did our best to keep the saucer turning faster than everyone else. Most of all, people from all over Europe were smiling and laughing. They were, admittedly, much happier when there were younger children around. Once we were in line for the grown up roller coaster, the happiness went away and there were more sullen faces, but hey, such is puberty, right?



We were there from 11 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. When we were done, we picked X-man up a Disney Pixar long-sleeve t-shirt (12 Euros). (He's growing out of the one I got him in February 2008, which was an XS.) Then we got on the train and headed back to the city.

Now we're relaxing before we head out for our last dinner in Paris. Tomorrow, we get on the bus and head back to the airport before flying home to Chicago to see our boy, who apparently has a bit of a cold and a cough.

This whole week, I've enjoyed being child-free, but one thing was certain: Every time I looked at my husband, I felt like something was missing. Sometimes at home I wonder if I ever should have become a mother, particularly when I think I'm royally messing up. But after being here, I know it couldn't have happened any other way, and that we have exactly what we want.

Love you X-man. Can't wait to give you a big hug. And I'm so much happier in the middle of nowhere than I ever could be living in an urban mecca. It's okay to visit. But I adore my home.

Friday, February 25, 2011

WTF Paris -- Loosey Edition

1. Remind me the next time I'm in Paris to hang out on Rue Malakoff. They clearly know how to party. (Yes, the green container is recycling for the neighborhood.) 


2. Yes. This is sugar to put in my coffee...called Daddy.


3. I know I mentioned it before... but these are churros next to the ferris wheel. In a land of amazing pastry, why must you have this kind of crap?


4. At 35, my boobs don't stand up (not that they ever did). I guess it's a good thing I can get a silk screened t-shirt that will make me look like I'm 20. :-)


5. I'm sure all French people are rushing to Abercrombie and Fitch for a University of Wisconsin Badgers shirt, so they can run out and play American football -- in the spring...


6. I've seen people flock to the movie theater for Harry Potter, but the movie posters don't show anything uber exciting. So why were the four movie theaters we passed at 2:30-3:30 p.m. on a Thursday this packed?


7. This ad for a Wesley Snipes DVD was on EVERY street corner news stand. Why? Is Wesley big in Paris the way Germans love the Hoff?


8. Elvis is everywhere on the right bank near the Louvre. Yes, it's where there are a lot of American Hotels, so I get that they have an American diner with him, the Blues Brothers, etc. across the way from Hard Rock Café, but this is a store, down a side alley 1/2 mile away that sells only Elvis memorabilia. 


9. I love when the French rename American films. They're so much better at it than when we rename French films. I went to see this movie in the states where it's called, "No Strings Attached," but I like that the French cut through the bullshit and just called a spade a spade. :-)

 

9. These two go together, because, well, I live in the middle of farm land. And I have to say, apparently, we're doing it wrong. Gentleman Farmers of Illinois, you're supposed to dress like late 1980s early 1990s pseudo preppy college students. You know, that era just after the up collar polo but before the grunge plaid?


10. Why are public toilets in France always closed when I need to use them? And since I'm a tourist, why is it always at all the major tourist attractions, where at least 50 people need to pee every hour?

The Walk Around

We've been heading up and down the River Seine every day this week. Day one, since we just got here, we managed only 3 miles. Day 2 was 7 miles. Day 3 was 7 miles and 3 hours at the Louvre. Day 4 was 10.5 miles and standing around in line to see the Eiffel Tour at night. I had mittens on, but I was still so cold when the sun went down that my thumbs went numb. Day 5 was 5.25 miles back and forth to Napoleon's Tomb.

We managed to get back to the hotel to collapse and then head down the street to a pretty decent Sushi dinner a block from the hotel. We've kind of covered all the places that we wanted to go together. Today, we went somewhere I'm not wild about. MacTroll is a giant history buff. I adore history, but I don't really get excited about military history museums. He does. So today, we went off to Musée de l'Armée to see a history of military weapons, armor, canons, uniforms, etc., and Napoleon's Tomb.



Here's the thing about Paris, in my point of view, the whole city is surrounded by death. Everything is a historical marker from hundreds of years ago, lists of names of those that have died working for the greatness of France. I get it. Tradition. Recognition. But you mix this death and war obsession with the overall glumness of the people, and it gets downright depressing. If I were 18, I would love it. I could be all moody and wear black all the time. Seriously, it's no wonder these people had so many revolutions. You can tell in the other blog entry that I wore bright pink leggings to counteract the overall "urban black" that is everywhere. But after 5 days, I'm dying for something a bit more light hearted. So, tomorrow, I'm taking MacTroll on a train ride. Cause, why not get out of the city proper? Plus, I endured three hours of war museum today without complaint. I even engaged and asked questions about the history so, MacTroll could school me with his new found knowledge. Tomorrow is a bit of Loosey-style fun.

Tonight, I got a sample of lightheartedness when we took a cab to dinner (our first cab ride here) and he ran us through the Arc de Triomph circle. I giggled and held onto the handle looking out as little cars and motorcycles slipped through and around us within a foot of our taxi. MacTroll looked concerned. I thought it was awesome. I think, if I was here longer, I'd just hire someone to drive me in and out the stupid circle a half dozen times to take the edge off.

Our fancy dinner out, where I wore my long, silk, Calvin Klein dress (Thank you, Karen's Kloset) and 5" heels was less than 2km away, but in those shoes I wasn't up for walking it. We ate at a trendy restaurant called Pershing Hall. The reviews on google were either that people loved it or hated it. The atmosphere was a bit of an ultra lounge, but the other diners were well over the age of 45. And you'd have to be to afford it. We ate sparingly. We shared an appetizer and then we each got our main dish. And my scallop risotto was good, but it wasn't 42 Euros good. Ya know? Nor does a beer of any kind really improve to the 13 Euro level just because the restaurant has a very romantic and relaxing atmosphere, so while MacTroll had Heineken, I had water.

But damn, I looked pretty. :-)



We also ran into three groups of English speakers this week. The approached my husband when I ran back up to the room for sunglasses. "The Irene and Ed Show" (that's how they introduced themselves). They were from Toronto and were spending a lot of time on little bus trips out of Paris. The we ran into a family from New Jersey in line at the Eiffel Tower. They didn't bother to introduce themselves. :-) Then there were a slew of high school girls hoping to get to make out at the top of the tower. Sigh.

The best food of the day goes to the raspberry doughnut (or beignet de framboises) I had today. Seriously, you think how different can it really be? But the cake part of the doughnut was so soft and squishy that I literally started to suck on it to make it last longer. And the raspberry wasn't just Smuckers squirted into the center. It was a handmade filling, not a jelly or a jam. I loved it.

Notre Dame and The Eiffel Tour

We did a lot of window shopping yesterday all the way down the left side of the river. I'm cueing up a WTF Paris Blog for tomorrow that is pretty much all photos. But since Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tour are two of the biggest tourist items, I thought they could stand alone.

Notre Dame is on an island across the Seine River from the Louvre. And with all things this old and ancient I am as frightened by it as I am impressed. To go into the church is free of charge. But there are a lengthy set of rules you have to follow. The church houses a perpetual silent prayer. But they still have sermons of some kind in there because for a building that was built over a 200-year period, finishing in 1345, it had been crazily updated with large flat panel screens in areas where viewing the pulpit would be difficult. You can pay 10 Euros each to wait in line to take an elevator up to the top of the building for a view of the city and the river. We skipped that, since we were going to the Eiffel Tour later.



You can also pay a few Euros to get an audio tour of the building in various languages, too. Why does a church frighten me? You have to look at this sucker up close to really understand. Two hundred years of commitment, vision and hard work to sculpt (there is no other word) a building in commitment to God (with the big G) is awe inspiring. Really, this wasn't one man's vision. This was a collective community's devotion. But at the same time, it's totally not some place a carpenter would think God heard more of you than anywhere else in the universe, ya know? There's nothing modest about Notre Dame. There is only money, and the long list of atrocities through history that have been committed in the name of God that begins to flood through my head when I go into places like this. That and since it's Catholic, being told upon entry what all the rules are was kind of funny. They're on the door in big bold letters in many languages with pictorials. No hats, no flash photography, no food, etc. My favorite: Beware of Pickpockets.

Ahhh, Paris and pick pockets. It's definitely still an issue, because there were signs at the Eiffel Tower everywhere, too.




We arrived at the Eiffel Tower around 6 p.m. and by the time we got to the summit (13 Euros each), it was dark. The spot lights at the top of the tower had come on, and we got to see the vast view that is the city. From the Empire State Building in New York, you see a multitude of other buildings with height -- just height that's not as big as the one you're standing on. In Paris, you see all the old. You see how a height restriction makes the city sprawl out instead of up. And in that sense, it's a lot like Washington, D.C. (Thanks to L'Enfant.)


The first floor of the Eiffel Tour has an ice skating rink in the winter... and a restaurant. It's that big. The second floor has a little snack shop, some souvenir stands and two levels.  MacTroll is standing at the second level in the photo above. The summit is much smaller and has one guy, standing in a closet which has the neon words, "Champagne Bar" over it. Yes, for a few Euros you can buy a plastic cup of champagne and toast yourselves at the top.



I took this photo of the regular lights on the walk back to our hotel. This area was flooded with immigrants trying to sell everything Eiffel Tour from statues to key chains.

But once an hour for 10 minutes, they light up the tower in giant sparkly lights. We caught the tail end of it when we got back down to the ground. Sorry that it took me a minute to realize I wasn't taking a photo and had to turn the camera.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Eating in Paris

Usually when we vacation, I try to rent some kind of apartment so I can control food. But due to the awesome "free" that is our hotel, we're eating out, every day. Although, it's only been twice a day, because let's face it.. we woke up at noon today. Nice, right? I definitely haven't done that without being drugged post surgery or down with 104 degree fever since pre-X.

Anyway, we've eaten lunch at a couple of cafés this week. Day 1 was Le Terminus near Notre Dame on our walk back toward the Eiffel Tower. We had nixed a café on the corner, when I turned my head and saw this one. It was going to be our first sit down experience, and I was dying for someone friendly. The café itself is quite simple and cozy. So, we went in, asked to be seated in the back and ordered drinks, sandwiches and a side of fries to share.

One thing to consider: the exchange rate right now is $1 US to $.73 Euro. That means, one Euro is worth almost 30 cents more than a U.S. dollar. A single can of "coca light" (yes, this is for you Quigs) is somewhere between 4.5-7 Euros. So, yes, you're paying over $5 for a can of coke. Coffee is only 3.5 Euros, which I've switched to for now (because water sometimes is poured for free from a carafe and sometimes comes in a $12 Evian bottle, depending on where you eat). I'm also figuring this is the reason, I'm having so much trouble sleeping, since I'm not a coffee drinker by nature I'm high on caffeine.

In addition, I'd always heard that the reason French people are so thin is because their meals may contain a lot of butter but they're so small in comparison to American meals. Um -- no. My sandwich was as big as a 12" at Subway, on a real baguette. MacTroll was, of course, very happy. The plate of fries, easily two large servings from McDonald's. Sure, they were cut fresh from potatoes, but really, fried is fried. This is just a little less processed. Plus -- doggie bags, not really a thing here. The Lonely Planet Guidebook says so, so I'm going with it.

A 15% tip is automatically included in your check, so it's not really a reward for good service...

Last night for dinner, we at Le Galvacher. It got some good reviews on Google, was close to our hotel and had a giant cow on the sign for my beef-eating husband. We ordered off the prix-fixe menu. That is you order an entree (appetizer), a plat (main course) and a dessert or a cheese plate for a set price. Ours were $25 Euros each. Then we got a bottle of wine for $32 Euros and coffee afterwards. I ordered a vegetable entree with balsamic vinegar to start and then the salmon for dinner. My dessert was a small scoop of pear ice cream with a bit of brandy on top. MacTroll had french onion soup followed by beef hash with potatoes on top (basically meat loaf) and the creme brulée for dessert. It was a lovely dinner and we walked home happy in the rain.

Today for lunch we decided to eat closer to the Louvre. We went inside the Carrousel (which is a mall outside of the museum) to see what they had. At 2:30 p.m., we entered a very crowded food court. "Uh, this isn't why I came to Paris," I told MacTroll. So we strolled outside and hit Café Marly, an eatery next to the glass pyramids. In warmer weather you could sit outside and people watch, but in this cold weather we sat inside on some comfy pink couches. I had a tomato and basil penne. MacTroll had a chicken caesar salad. And we congratulated ourselves on the fact that while our French is terrible, it was a lot better than the poor Australians seated next to us, who were, for some reason, obsessed with NOT getting snails for lunch.

On the way back to the hotel, we stopped in a patisserie (bakery) for some snacks. I got a petite éclair and a biscuit (cookie). MacTroll got the black forest cake (admittedly I stole three whole candy cherries from his cake, because you know I have things for cherries).


The one theme that we seem to notice in Paris is that regardless of the type of eatery we sit down in, we always have to ask for the check. It isn't just a given that you want it delivered to you when your plates are clean. You always have to ask. And if you don't, you could be sitting there for hours. At the patisserie, we were seated by one of the guys behind the baked goods counter, this apparently angered the server (it also had a café element in the back of the restaurant), so she ignored us. I'm sure it didn't help that we were American either, since all the French-speaking tables got their service timely and with a smile (and even freaking hugs at one point).

Tonight for dinner, we did the prix-fixe meal at Le Verre Bouteille. They get high marks for being very friendly and welcoming, but the food was mediocre. I ordered the tomato salad and slow-cooked lamb on kidney beans. MacTroll got a walnut-encrusted goat cheese salad followed by a giant piece of beef and a potato layer casserole. Everything seemed overcooked, limp, without taste and just - meh. The wine made things go down easier though, as did the chocolate mousse that followed. :-)

It's late here. I had been hoping to make it up for breakfast at least once, but I don't think that'll happen now. Our room doesn't have any kind of way to make hot water, so I can't make my oatmeal. Instead of having coffee machines in the hotel rooms like in the states, they have a coffee vending machine down the hall by the elevators, and hot water isn't an option, even in the tea setting.

Below is MacTroll crunching on the last of his sandwich on baguette at Paul, Paris' version of Fast Food, since there aren't many places you can carry out (or take away) here.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Paris -- Day 1? Day 2? What day is this?

In true Loosey-travel style, there were some hoops to jump through in order to actually getting our butts "across the pond."

The first issue was that there was a winter storm warning on Sunday when we left Rockford. My mom had e-mailed to say maybe we should spend the night in Milwaukee because of the impending ice that was supposed to come our way. Except dropping off X-man in a semi-strange place after we told him we'd be with him the first night, wasn't going to work. Instead, we decided we'd just leave earlier for our flight the next day.

So, we rolled out of the driveway at 8:15 a.m. and drove to Milwaukee. Why did we fly from Milwaukee and not O'Hare? Tickets from Milwaukee were $854 each. Tickets from O'Hare (on the exact same flight crossing the Atlantic) were $2k each. You do that math. Even with the $1,200 in vouchers we had with American Airlines, it was still a deal to drive an extra hour to Milwaukee.

Except when we showed up in Milwaukee, all the United flights to Chicago were already canceled. All the morning flights from American were canceled. Our 12:40 p.m. flight was still up on the board, but when we checked in the agent warned us that it was "highly likely not to go -- or at least to be very late."

They gave us a bus voucher to go to Chicago. But, MacTroll thought it would be nice to, perhaps, see if because of the circumstances they'd just let us drive down and fly back and end our trip in Chicago (saving us four hours, but still giving us the tickets for the lesser price). He called the Executive Platinum Desk and voila -- done. It was only 10 a.m., so we had basically 7 hours to drive to Chicago before our Paris flight left. Snow was coming down in flakes the size of our fists, but it was wet and warm, so we figured, no problem. We did see a couple cars that had crashed due to slippery conditions, but both were heading north on 94. We were fine heading south. Not sure why.

We arrived at O'Hare at 11:45 a.m., parked in Economy E at $17/day and checked our bags inside before making our way to the new sushi place between the American and United Airlines terminals called "Wicker Park." It was good, but as all things in the airport are, pricey. I had the Hawaiian roll (mango, tuna, salmon) and MacTroll had some spicy tuna and some maguro. The miso soup was good, and we're both big fans of edamame.

After lunch we headed to the American Airlines International Flagship Lounge. It's at the end of the K gates, and there is an unimpressive glass door with the eagle logo on it. MacTroll was very excited. He hadn't been in since he went to Tokyo, six years ago. We walk in, the ladies at the desk basically kiss his ring, and then we head into the lounge area. It's all old 1990's leather chairs. "What's the big deal?" I think.

Then I come upon the "free" buffet. In order to get into the Flagship Lounge, you have to be flying first class or be Executive Platinum on an international itinerary. All the free fresh fruit and vegetables I could eat. There was also soup, sandwiches, chips, coffee, espresso, and an open bar that you served yourself with tons of different wines and liquor and beer. "Oh!" I exclaimed, thinking, Why did we just pay for lunch somewhere? Sonia, one of the employees, looked at my face light up at the pineapple and strawberries, and was nice enough to make me a cup of it to take on the plane when we left. (My guess is she doesn't get too many people who aren't used to the lounge, so she spoiled me.)

But between my surprise when we walked in and 4 hours later when we walked out to catch our plane (which was 30 minutes late loading), I was exhausted. I don't normally sit around on my ass. I'd read an entire book. I'd found another book I brought along unreadable and now felt stupid for having it in my backpack to lug across an ocean.

When we arrived at the gate, there was some kind of glitch in the system because the flight wasn't listed on the screen behind the desk and the screen in the hallway said that our flight had left an hour before we were supposed to board. Nice. Gotta love technology. It was still running on time, and the gate agent looked as confused as the passengers to all the weirdness.

Because of MacTroll's status with American, he cashed in his upgrades. He gets six or so each year, and usually lavishes them on my parents when they travel. Every once in a while a friend goes somewhere like Hawaii or South America, and MacTroll will put his name into their code and apply for an upgrade. It's not guaranteed (it depends on availability), but often times just having his account touch someone's trip will mean they don't have to pay for baggage check in. Go figure. So, MacTroll had applied for upgrades for us on the trip. According to aa.com, we'd gotten them and had seats, but when we changed our itinerary in Milwaukee, it had revoked my upgrade, so I had an invalid seat on check in. It wasn't a problem to fix because the plane was only 1/3 full. But it was just another thing to fix. It was also my first chance to sit up in business class on an international flight.

I'd never been on a 767 before. MacTroll and I sat down in these giant seats with controls that can adjust your seat to lean back like a La-z-boy or to lay "almost" flat to sleep in. The plan was: board, eat dinner, go to sleep. Except we sat in line waiting to take off at Chicago for 2 hours. Nice. No electronic items were allowed to be used during that time frame, so I started book 2.

Then when we got up in the air, I was not anticipating a four-course freaking meal. So, I watched an hour and fifteen minutes of a movie while dinner was served. After the movie, I changed into a pair of sweats, turned on my iPhone to some music, lowered my chair into the bed position and tried to sleep. Yeah, not so easy. I took a tylenol PM. Still not so easy. It was only 8 p.m. It took me an hour and 15 minutes to fall asleep, and then I slept for 4 hours, waking up at least once an hour to adjust my position or my seat. My back and my hips were very unhappy. Probably would have been easier just to lay flat on a floor with a sleeping bag and a yoga mat under me. But I was trying to avoid the Jet Lag of Sweden 2004, where I slept for 3 days straight before I finally figured out how to be awake when it was light and sleep when it was dark.

I woke up to breakfast being served. I didn't want to. I figured I had another hour to sleep. But it was noisy, and some people had opened their windows. So, I woke up and had some fruit and yogurt. The fog was extra thick when we landed at Charles De Gaulle. There was nothing to see, and then there was concrete. The other problem -- my feet had swelled to a point where I was lucky I was wearing my ballet slipper Keens, because I wouldn't have been able to put any other shoe on my foot. Plus, they give you bottled water before you try to sleep. I thought that was weird because it was just one more thing to have around. And then I realized it's because when you wake up every hour, your mouth and lips are completely parched on a plane. Ugh.

We got off the plane and entered a "special fast pass" lane for immigration for people in business class. But immigration was very quick for everyone. No questions. Just a very, very grumpy French girl stamping passports. It took 20 minutes to wait for the baggage, so by then, what was the point of getting through immigration faster? We got our bags and left the area-- no customs forms, but also, no welcome of any kind.

We walked down to the information desk, found out where the Air France Bus was that would take us to our hotel and got some Euros from an ATM. Then we waited 45 minutes for the bus, which took another hour to fill up at other locations around the airport. It's not a nice airport. It's very old and dirty. Maybe from the sky it makes sense, but from below it's a total pain in the ass to get around.

The bus was $24 Euros round-trip, which isn't a bad deal. Particularly when the sucker drops you off across the street from your hotel. What struck both MacTroll and I though was the number of poverty-stricken high rises between the airport and downtown. It was all very Cabrini-Green-esque.

We're staying at Le Meridien Etoile. They had a big check-in counter for the "Starwood Hotel Club Members." Since MacTroll was using points for us to stay free for six days, we strolled up and were met with a giant fanfare. They gave us a fruit basket, shook our hands, told us where we could use the gym (they have a deal with the Club med gym across the street) and ran over the other amenities, like free internet, etc. Then the general manager came out to welcome us. (Yes, this is a bit strange to us, too. I mean, MacTroll needs me to remind him to zip his pants before we go out, and I keep calling him X-man or Riley.) Anyway, afterwards, we go up to our room and then I start to notice how tired I am.

We both shower, because we're feeling gross from the travel. Then we get into new clothes and decide to walk down to the Arc de Triomph. It's about a mile from our hotel through what MacTroll likes to refer to as the "Scooter district." Every other shop is a scooter store. Seriously.


A cold wind kicked up and it started to drizzle, so we walked back to the hotel. Our hotel is across the street from a little mall that has a gourmet grocery in the basement, which is very handy. We headed over there and picked up some fruit and veggies to nibble on and then got an early dinner of MacTroll's favorite meal -- sandwich on baguette. That's when we started comparing notes on the travel experience so far. And outside of sleeping for 14 hours last night, that's what we've been doing on our trip. People watching.

It's funny how American Cinema has either made the French the devils (in war movies) or made them some kind of shining example of all that is romantic. I halfway expected to see what I see in the summer in Montreal everywhere in Paris. Pretty girls, short skirts, sky high heels. but no. It's still too "winter" around here for that. In fact, there seems to be a line. Most young French people tend to fall in that very pretty, feminine category. And then the segment of 30-40 seems to disappear from the city. My guess is because that group might be somewhere mothering in the burbs. And then there's a high rate of women in their fifties and older. In fact, all the panhandlers, minus the one guy from Yugoslavia who tried to "make" me today and a little girl who tried to approach MacTroll for money on our 7-mile walk, were all elderly women holding cat food cans.

Indeed, I don't know if it's the cold of the 40-degree winter, or just big city living, but most of the folks around here walk around with really somber looks on their faces. No one laughs or smiles. The crosswalks have the little guy in green to walk and a little guy in red to stop. The epitome of the French people we've seen so far is the little red crosswalk guy with his hands on his hips looking pissed off and impatient while he has to wait to cross the road.



Julia Childs talks a lot about her search for the warm and welcoming French people among the more traditional and stern folks in her book, My Life in France. Not mean, just -- stuffy.

The one girl panhandler who approached MacTroll asked if he spoke English, before she tried to pass him the little card asking for money for her immigrant family. He walked away asking me, "Do I really not look like I live here?"

I laughed. I didn't mean to be cruel. But it was very funny, and his cluelessness was entirely endearing to me. So I started a list of behaviors/characteristics MacTroll has that anyone can see he's not French.

1) You're blonde. And not a fake blonde. It's you and small children here with naturally blonde hair. Oh, and the one other guy who was clearly speaking German. (MacTroll has decided to answer all English questions now with "Nein.")
2) Your shoulders are twice as wide as everyone else's.
3) You're smiling and laughing too much.
4) You're looking around too much.
5) Your jeans are too blue.
6) You have a map in your hands half the time.
7) You read the names of buildings and then say things like, "Oh look, it's the Assemblée Nationale, that's where the National Assembly must meet."
8) You bitch about carrying around coins.
9) You give the thumbs up, like the Fonz, to symbolize that everything is good to wait staff.
10) You don't chain smoke cigarettes.

This is a list I'm sure we'll add to over the next several days, but I find it adorable.

On the other hand, there are some WTF moments.

Like, WTF is behind the idea that if you have a large open space in Europe, you need to put up a ferris wheel or a merry-go-round? Our favorite though, WTF is behind the churro portable snack booth behind the ferris wheel at the Champs-Elysee? (You know they didn't get that idea from Mexico. That's stupid American influence. WTF goes to Paris for churros?)

Or WTF is up with dumping your small car in the middle of the street?

Right now, MacTroll sighs every time we walk by someone carrying two baguettes home or if there's a woman with a short skirt and a little poodle. I guess in his mind, that's what everyone does here. And there does seem to be massive bread consumption (celiacs beware!), but mostly, they just smoke, and litter their butts, a lot.

Yes, this is the world's longest blog post. Tomorrow is Wednesday, meaning another 7 mile walk, now that we know where everything his. Hopefully we'll get into the Louve, the Carrousel (where the Apple store is at the Louvre) and Notre Dame.

I'll also try to do some more photos.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

By the numbers

I've been feverishly working on a blog for 24 hours. But every time I reread it, I can't hit post. It's about a subject that no one likes to talk about. And it falls into realms that people in olden days would never consider discussing in "polite" conversations. And if I thought I was smart enough to actually write about what I was thinking with any sense of coherency or understanding, I'd be a lot more likely to post it. But it's all raw emotions and observations.

But I'll think about it. And revise. And research. And maybe I'll come up with a way to present it so that I don't feel like I'm embarrassing myself.

Until then, I filled out my paperwork for Unit 4. I am not taking part in the early Magnet School registration period. But I am listing a Magnet School on my list. Go figure.

In order of choice:
1. Carrie Busey
2. Bottenfield
3. BT Washington
4. Kenwood
5. Southside

I know some people have a thing about how you shouldn't put schools on the list that you know you won't get. But I visited all of the schools and when I put all of my eggs of preference into my basket, these came up with the most bounty. So, we'll hope that stays true for however long we're in Champaign. In good conscious, I couldn't not put whatever small chance I might have to get X-man into those schools over the others on my list. But it also just so happened that two of my schools aren't usually in high demand. (We'll see if STEM changes this or not.) And to be honest, one of the leading factors that eliminated some schools was early start time.

In addition to finishing my list, which I won't actually turn in until X-man has his 5-year-old physical next month and I get a hold of a certified birth certificate, I scheduled a tour for the University Primary School on March 3rd. Because -- why the hell not? I've been everywhere else non-religious in town. Well, except Countryside and Montessori.

I don't know why. For some reason I was okay with paying ridiculous amounts of money to keep X-man at Next Gen. But that's because we have a history with the school. With somewhere else, I'm like -- whatever. And obviously religious-based schools aren't something we'd ever feel comfortable turning to.

In that vein, I should probably look and see when Montessori has its registration period. But I'm kind of feeling "satisfied" with the public schools right now. But I feel like I should for some reason have back up -- and that's what lottery does. It makes you paranoid. Even for those of us who aren't normally paranoid.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

BT Washington STEM Forum Review

Well, shit.

I mean it. Shit.

I went to the forum with X-man in tow and listened to various Champaign School District representatives and University representatives talk about the new-to-us Magnet School opening in the updated BT Washington building. I expected it to be blah -- like when I left Garden Hills. But it wasn't.

In case you don't know, STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.

Upon walking into the room, we were handed two different schedules. One was a "sample" week (actually it was 4 days, and I've put in a question about what happens on the 5th day) of how a day might run for K/1st graders.

8:45-9 a.m. -- Arrival
9-11:20 a.m. -- Logic Block (reading and math time)
11:20-11:50 -- Lunch
11:50-1:40 -- STEM Block
1:40-2:20 -- Rotating Special #1 (PE, Library, Art, Music)
2:25-3:05 -- Rotating Special #2 (Art, Music, PE, STEM)
3:05-3:15 -- Dismissal

The second flyer was a sample of what each of the students would be learning at each grade level broken down by quarters.

Each grade level would have a Science Unit and a Social Studies Unit. If you are familiar with project approach, that's pretty much what this is. So first quarter the whole school will study Systems and Cycles, but the kindergarteners would study the system of the five senses in science and "our classroom and school community" in social studies. While the third graders would study things like the system of a prairie in science and then families, communities and the national face change: Westward Expansion.

In second quarter, they'd change to studying Structure and Composition as a school. Kindergarteners would focus on Water and States of Matter as a science unit and "Families Past, Present and Across the World" as a Social Studies unit. While second grade would do something like Rocks and Minerals and then "Attempting Fairness and Freedom in Colonial America."

The third quarter would focus on Force and Motion. Kindergarteners would study balls and ramps, while fifth graders would study Atmospheric Science and "Opportunity and Inequality: Land Ownership, Expansion and Housing."

The last quarter would be studying Human Impact and Sustainability. This quarter makes me squeal because it shows the students how what they're learning about matters to the world around them. For example, kindergarteners would learn about where food comes from and then studying "The Community, Neighborhoods and Community Helpers." While second graders study Recycling and "Organizing for Fairness and Freedom -- In Our Lives, the Early Nation and Across the world."

Each of the project approach sections would be integrated into the math and reading elements of the day. They'd also be integrated into the specials. Since it's a new school, there will be all kinds of special bells and whistles including desktop and laptop computers, smart boards, iPads, digital cameras, flip cameras, the fancy STEM science lab, community learning environments, etc.

In addition, although BT Washington will continue to have gifted programs, they're really envisioning a school-wide change in education. They want students to be more communal and learn from each other and inspire each other. That means, the word "self-contained" really goes out the window.

Another interesting element -- they won't be teaching toward No Child Left Behind tests directly. I asked the panel, and their response was that a child that is curious and interested in learning and engaged in their education will learn the elements needed to test well naturally rather than with sit-down focused test taking instruction.

Really? Because it's my wet dream to hear a public school official say that. That's what they said is their philosophy.

They also said that after the first year there will be a full evaluation of the program that parents and students will help complete to find out what changes they'll need to make moving forward. And although there is no current plan to create a STEM system in the middle school level, if the magnet school is successful, they can see that this type of learning will likely continue down the road into higher-level educational environments.

The school also will be using something called Renzulli Learning as a way to keep parents, teachers and students on the same page moving forward. I looked over the site and it appears that children are able to create "learner" profiles and online academics can be tailored to how the student learns the best. Parents can track how their students are doing, provide additional enrichment activities at home and communicate with the teachers. I like all things student-focused, and supportive for parents, so hooray.

The administration is working on solidifying partnerships with the University of Illinois as well as the University Laboratory High School. The idea is that BT Washington students will hopefully be at the university enough times each semester that they won't think of the trips as "field trips" but rather an extension of their own school.

The issue of funding was raised and the principal stated that right now the district has the money to fund the premium cost of STEM because they want it to succeed. This is in the district's budget and is not dependent on primarily state and federal monies. They're committed. Down the road? Who knows.

What are some of the issues that the audience were worried about? Mostly that gender could be an issue. The assumption from the crowd was that most of the people that would try to get in early for the program would be boys, and there is no "gender" consideration in the lottery.

In essence, they said a lot of words that I wanted to hear:

Community.
Balance.
Integrated.
Unified.
iPads.
Coach.
Future.
Available to all.
Experiments.
Measurement.
Future Jobs.
Individual learning.
Real world.
Curiosity.
Learning.
Collaboration.
Equality.
Assistance.

Now here's the question. Do I get excited about the bright, shiny new thing in local education? Or do I pick another school and watch BT Washington develop for a while and reconsider it if my child tests into gifted at second grade so they can work the kinks out?

My strength, as a person, has always been in my ability to make something great out of nothing. As a parent, I think I could be a real asset here as they get their feet on the ground. But I'm also nervous. I don't trust the school district. I hate that so many new schools have so much, while so many older schools have so little. I know it's the difference in capital budgets and operating budgets (as my sister reminded me tonight). But I still find it frustrating and down right offensive, really.

What do I do? I have a kid who has been using the project approach forever. He's a science geek all the way... My gut says to keep Carrie Busey as my number 1. But my brain said, "Look into this more. It might be more "X-man" than "Loosey," but I feel like I'm balancing his intellectual needs with his emotional needs." Does that make sense?

Unfortunately, I don't have that many more days. Early registration for the Magnet School ends on Feb. 28. I have today, Friday and Monday, Feb. 28th, since I'll be in Paris.

And then there's the fact that I haven't been able to get my spouse on the phone all night, and my poor sister had to listen to my bewilderment as I literally gnawed through my concerns over not one but two 18 Rabbits Cheeky Cherry Chocolate granola bars.

I've given the lecture that Granola really isn't all that good for you, right? Yet, I love these bars. Love them. Sigh. I still feel like gnawing.

***MacTroll just called. And he pointed out to me something we have to think about. "Remember when Master Hyong told you that he missed out on just playing blocks with his son because he was at work all the time. Maybe we should think about how much we liked meeting Mr. Scott and Mrs. Carswell and how they made us feel good about the idea that he'll still be a little kid in kindergarten. Maybe we should just let him enjoy being a little kid in a neighborhood that he loves."

The Big Melt

I know this week is "preview" week. You know, the time period where the weather warms up to well above freezing to remind you that spring is coming. I grew up in Illinois, and although my childhood was spent further north where we had an occasional snow day off school up until the last week in April... I've come to assume that warm weather won't actually be here until May 1.

It's not that I'm not thankful to not have six inches of ice everywhere any more, because I am. But this weekend I'm taking part in the Kennekuk Road Runners Fat Ass Trail Run. It's my favorite run of the year because it is untimed. I love things that are untimed. Wanna know why? My whole ChiRunning comes out in untimed events and practices. Put that bib on me and a chip on my ankle and I start to stress. I feel like I have something to prove to myself. Saturday, I just have to get up, drive to Danville, drop off my contribution to the food fest, check in at the board before I head out and go run. My hope is to do two laps -- 14.2 miles. But this isn't some flat track like my most current long runs have been on. This is up and down, haul your ass up the side of a hill using small tree trunks kind of a run. And, thanks to the melt, it's going to be extremely muddy.

Last year we got six inches of snow. I got to the race a little late, so all the other runners and mushed down the snow enough that you could see the tree roots and such under it. But on the downhill segments, the snow was either an ice shoot or a mud shoot, and the only way to really get down was just to sit and ride it like a water slide.

This week, as I watch the snow go away, and see the mud everywhere I have images that the race is going to be a lot like the mudslide scene in Romancing the Stone.

Either way, if I get the 14.2 done -- I don't have to do a long run in Paris when I'm there. Instead, I can do a few 3 to 5 milers next to the Seine and call it a day.

That's right. On Sunday, MacTroll and I fly out to Paris for six days. X-man gets to hang with his Papa in Rockford. Riley gets to head out to Doggie Days on the Farm, and the cats have a week of Fetch! in a dog-free, kid-free house. (Of course the way Nyssa and Luke are lying on me right now makes me wonder if they're actually getting crazy enough to miss their awesome cat beds that also feed them.)

I hope to be updating the blog from France. Yes, I am totally a lucky woman. Seriously. I've never been there before, so we'll see how this goes. On my list today is to find my passport...

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Hitting the 4-year-old Brick Wall

"Mommy, I really want fairydust. I want to fly."
"Fairies aren't real."
"Why?"
"Because they're not."
"I got an idea! You can go to the fairy museum and get some."
"No, I can't. Fairies are make believe."
"Why?"
"Because someone wrote a story about them, so they're not real."
"Mommy, are princesses real?"
"Yes, some princesses are real, but the Disney princesses aren't real."
"Why?"
"They were made up."
"By who?"
"Walt Disney and his writers."
"What about Neverland pirates?"
"They're made up, too."
"Why?..."

I feel like I've been having this conversation for the last 3 hours, but really I've been having it for the last two years. It's just not usually repeated every 30 seconds about a different topic for hours in a row.

Monday, February 14, 2011

I have no pictures, only words

Yesterday, MacTroll, X-man and I drove to Bloomington to Upper Limits Climbing Gym to meet Sox. Sox is a friend of mine, who also enjoys running. In fact, she's one of the friends I'll be doing the Disney Wine and Dine 1/2 Marathon with in October (that is if they ever open registration today!).

Last November, we both purchased Group On's to the climbing gym. Then in January, we took the 2-hour long class to learn climbing safety. We're now certified to climb there. They gave us some coupons, so we decided to meet. We got rechecked and then took turns belaying and climbing for two hours. We were all pretty tired and sore when we left, particularly in the forearms.

But it worked out pretty well, particularly with X-man in tow. He did not want to climb in the silos, they were too tall. But he did a great job traversing in the smaller room. He completely enjoyed watching the men get to points where they were hanging upside down too. He said he'd like to go back, but I think we'll wait until next fall before we take him again. See if he gets more daring than going 4 feet up on the wall. Either way, I was glad that he was happy to be there, rather than bored and whiney.

I didn't take any photos, but I think Sox was the only one who made it to the top of the silo to touch the roof. I made it 1/2 way to 2/3 of the way, up but then I started getting shaky. Silos are tall. And clinging to the side of one worried about falling (even though I know I was tied to my partner) was a little strange. But Sox and I are going to try to give the one at the Arc a try some time. And I think MacTroll and I will go back to Bloomington one day by ourselves.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

35

Today, I turned 35, and I only cried once. Not because I was 35, but because I was bent over toweling my hair and my child somehow managed to stand up and smack his giant, hard as a rock head into mine. And christ, it hurt. Apparently, enough for a tear or two and some silent swearing as I rubbed my head.

If you know me, and the history of my birthdays, this is a remarkably awesome birthday. Plus, the only one who sang to me was my kid. And, well, that's the kind of personal attention I can deal with.

I know a lot of people freak out as they get older. But in the last year, I've really kind of realized that I just don't have time for that kind of anxiety. I'm me. I try to be a good friend. I love kids, animals and elderly people. I'm neighborly. I'm also dedicated, hard-working and smart. So, you know, I'm going to be okay, no matter what happens in my life. I'm solid. I'm a little disappointed that it took me 35 years to figure that out. On the other hand, I wouldn't trade any of the 35 years in for anything.

I hope everyone else had a great Saturday! Tomorrow the whole family is headed to Upper Limits, again.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

To be or not to be -- in Rotary

Today, I got to eat lunch at the Windsor of Savoy with 20 or so Savoy area professionals. I was invited by Tiffany DeSpain, the director of the Savoy Recreation Center, to come as a guest and find out what being a Rotarian is all about. Rotary is a service organization made up of mostly professionals. Savoy's Rotary is pretty small next to the ones in Champaign and Urbana. Most members in the Savoy Rotary are either late 50's to early 70's or they're in their mid-to-late-30's.

Savoy is a small town only 7,100 people. And walking in, I knew I would see Fancy Nancy, one of my awesome neighbors who is the director at Windsor of Savoy. Her son and my son are buddies. And she's one of those people I always wish I got to know better. The other person I knew was greeting everyone for lunch. It was Master Hyong. I bowed and said, "Hello, sir."

There comes that point in one's life as an adult where you realize you get to call people older than you by their first name, because you, too, are an adult. This realization came to me in college when I was invited by two professors to call them by their first names. As a student, you only did that, normally, to other students. "Oh, Brian gave us an 8-page essay today." And at the bar, over a pitcher of $5 Miller Lite, that seemed fine. But to certain professors, even if they offered to have you call them their first name -- decades later, you will always call them "Dr. Mihm." There's just something about that person. Master Hyong is one of those people. He will always be Master Hyong, even when I'm done being his student. I will probably always bow. It doesn't mean I respect other instructors less. I just have a totally different relationship with them.

Anyway, lunch was a buffet. I had a salad, and a bit of pasta and some asparagus with a glass of water. Then I met the other 30-somethings at my table, and our guest speaker for the day who was from the Mahomet Rotary. She was talking about a weekend camp that Rotary sponsors for young leaders at Allerton the last full weekend every April. It's for sophomores and juniors. They do a series of leadership activities that include ropes courses, talks about how to interview for jobs, the highly effective habits of teens, life coaching, etc. There are scholarships to go to the camp that folks can apply for. But a rotary member has to nominate you to apply. So, if you're interested, let me know and I'll see if I can connect you to Tiffany. Anyway, we sat, we chatted and we ate. Then we listened to the speaker, chatted a little more about membership and left.

Other members of the group that I know -- but don't know personally -- included the Mayor of Savoy and the owner of Marble Slab. Joan Dykstra, who sits on the village board, was also in attendance as a guest.

The group says the pledge before meetings. And I can't remember the last time I said the pledge. They also say a little mantra at the beginning about making change and the importance of community service. Like Junior League there is an attendance requirement, but you only have to keep your numbers above the 50% range. And they're always looking for speakers and new members. Once a month they volunteer with a service project, and once a month they try to have some sort of social so members can become better acquainted.

Dues for the group are $160 a year, some businesses pay them. Mmm, I wonder if JODA Productions, Inc., can pay mine. :-)

I have to talk over making the 12:15 lunch time with my boss at work (since I'm hoping to work M-F next fall), but I think if she'll let me out a few minutes early, I'd really like to join the group.

Review of Garden Hills Elementary School

Garden Hills Elementary is on the north end of town. It's located between Bloomington Road and Paula St. just south of I-74. If you've ever been to the Cake Artist's Studio you're 1/4 mile east of the school. Currently, Garden Hills is building on an addition. When the addition is completed this March, crews will start to update the existing building.

Garden Hills is a 4-strand school. They currently have over 420 students, and with the new addition, they'll have over 500 seats. That's a large elementary school. The kindergarten classrooms will be moved to the new section of the building and will be very large. 

Lloyd, the assistant principal, took me on my 15-minute tour. It's a very low key school. Staff was usually in jeans and button down shirts or sweaters. The hallways were quiet even with tons of kids moving through them. The plus, for folks coming from the south of town, is that school doesn't start until 8:45 a.m., so if your child has to get on a bus early in the morning, it won't be before 7 a.m. 

Garden Hills has their own computer lab with very new PCs. They also have a laptop cart  that can be taken into the classrooms. They have large spaces for music and art and even larger newer ones coming with the new building. 

I asked Lloyd, how the day-to-day will change for students at Garden Hills next year once they become the International/Fine Art Magnet school. And the answer I got, made me go "Mmmm." However, later in the tour, he told me that one of the elements being built into the school will be a brand new recording studio. So, I think in terms of investment, although kids won't have any additional times in music and art, the wealth of resources available to them will increase greatly. 

As it turns out, children won't have any more actual Art time in their day (that is they'll have art, like everyone else in the district at least twice a week), but how they approach art will be different. Similarly, the International component I would have assumed would have more than one language available for children to learn -- and Lloyd pointed out that even now, students at Garden Hills have speakers who are fluent in over 30 different languages. But as part of the magnet school, a child will only learn Mandarin Chinese -- "probably once a week." A large component of the ESL programs are moving to the renovated Garden Hills, which means there will be a number of Spanish speakers at the school, but there will be no formal instruction in Spanish. 

The whole thing seemed very limited to me. So I came home and looked up the International Baccalaureate program online, since this is the certification the district is trying to achieve. From the curriculum it appears as if what you learn is the same, but how you learn it is taught differently. So just like other schools might use different learning tools and theories, Garden Hills will use the IB curriculum approach to teaching. Oh -- okay. It's a teaching method like Montessori or Project Approach. Got it. 

I've also decided that touring Columbia School where BT Washington is currently housed, isn't really necessary, since they won't be in that building next year and will have all new stuff. But what is necessary is for me to go to their public meeting on February 16th, to learn more about their magnet program: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). The University of Illinois is apparently going to play a big role in how that curriculum works out. So I'm hoping to hear about an average day that is some how -- different and more focused than what was conveyed about Garden Hills.

In terms of feel: Garden Hills is really two long hallways in an L shape. The kindergarten playground that I saw attached to the lower grades was really more appropriate for 3-5 year olds than 5-7 year olds. I didn't see a bigger one, but I wonder if it's just going to get erected after the construction is finished. They are situated next to Garden Hills Park, which has some old swings, a soccer field and some open space. 

Right now only six classrooms at Garden Hills have smart boards. But when the renovation is done, they will all have them. 

The school is situated in a lower income neighborhood. There are small homes to the east and south of the school, and some older, more run down apartment buildings to the west. To the north is Bloomington Road. The school is set very, very far back, from the busier street. It was pretty quiet at 9:15 a.m. But the staff at Garden Hills was very welcoming. And although Lloyd admitted he wasn't that great at giving tours, he was very friendly and answered the questions I had honestly and as thoroughly as he could.  


Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Animal House

Last week in the middle of snow central we came home to find Riley in our bare living room with his tail between his legs. I took a closer look and noticed a puncture wound on top of his head. What the hell? I thought, as I inspected it. There was a little blood, but it was pretty recent. I ran around the house looking for whatever he might have bumped into. It looked like the corner of a picture frame or something sharp might have fallen on his head.

But nothing in the house was out of the ordinary. 

Then I noticed he also had a similar mark at the end of his nose. But instead of being a hole. This looked like a cat scratch. Oooohhhhh! Really? Huh. Well, okay then.

I treated the cuts and then applied antiseptic to them. But -- within 24 hours the areas began to swell. Then on Sunday, a bunch of black on my dog's nose literally fell off. It was pretty disgusting. So, on Monday, I took him to see our vet, Dr. Mary Welle. He's on antibiotics now, and we're putting Vaseline on his nose to try and keep the area most, which is hard, because my dog is a licker. 

Anyone who knows us, or read the paper last Saturday, knows that we have five geriatric animals. They're all rescues. Our three black and white cats: Clawdio, Nyssa and Luke were all adopted over a decade ago from Fancy Cats Rescue Team in Fairfax, Va., when MacTroll and I served on their board of directors and volunteered between 5-30 hours a week doing adoptions, the newsletter, the volunteer schedule, etc. Later, after we moved to Champaign in 2003, we adopted Maya from the Champaign County Humane Society.

In 2001, we adopted Riley, our dog, from the Washington Humane Society in Washington, D.C. His prior owners had been arrested and incarcerated on drug charges. Riley was six months old at the time. And his name was Sergeant when we got him. As a puppy, Riley was very curious about our cats. And all of our cats pretty much ignored him, stayed up on the counters and out of his way. Until one day, Riley got too close to Clawdio, and Clawdio didn't like it. He flicked his tail at the dog, meaning, "Get away Blockhead!"

In puppy lingo, flicking your tail is a wag. It means you want to play. He moved forward trying to play with Clawdio. Clawdio puffed out his fur, hissed and opened his paw (but didn't use his claws) and smacked Riley on the nose. Riley got scared and ran. (Keep in mind, the two had been living together for over 4 weeks at this point.) Clawdio, much to everyone's surprise, PURSUED Riley. He chased him around in a circle from the living room to the dining room to the family room of our little condo twice, hissing and smacking Riley on his hind quarters the whole time, before I was able to intervene.

That is the one -- and ONLY -- cat/dog confrontation we have ever had in my house in the last 10 years--before last week.

Riley isn't talking about which cat kicked his ass. As far as I know, since the dog's pretty much always been at the low end of the dominance totem pole in the house, his interactions with the cats haven't changed. He's not going out of his way to avoid anyone in particular. I know it wasn't Nyssa because she's the only cat we have that's declawed. And, of course, the black and white mafia aren't selling each other out.

But this is what my dog looks like today. 



I guess it's a good thing we got that living room furniture yesterday. Here's Riley enjoying the oversized chair. :-) I'm pretty sure he wants to claim it as his own. 





Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Addictions

Today, I picked up X-man at school a little later than our usual 3:45 p.m. Tuesday time. When I walked in he was sitting on the floor watching Ms. Shari play his favorite game (Trouble) with some of the kids. He saw me and looked sheepish.

Then he came forward ever so slowly put out his hand and opened it. In it was a X-man handful of little pieces of white thread. Apparently, he's been tearing apart his socks at school and hiding them under the carpet near his group spot. The teachers caught him doing it today...

My child, who has been told that if he continued would have to purchase his own socks with his allowance, apologized. Then he said, "I keep trying to stop, but I can't. I can't stop. I need help."

I'm going to remember this in case he ever suffers a drug addiction. Or -- more likely if he's like his mother -- a food addiction.

It's a nervous habit, kind of like the nose picking. But he's learned that no kids make fun of him for the sock thread pulling. Instead, it just annoys his mother who loves him no matter what. So, really, it's a much better nervous habit.

How bad is the habit? I've thrown away over 20 pairs of socks since November. He's got three pairs left. So, we'll be taking the $4 and whatever change he has in his piggy bank to Wal-mart so he can buy some more socks. I kind of have a feeling the only solution to this issue will be sandal season.

The happy part of my day was that after two hours of waiting, Carter's delivered our new sofa and oversized chair for our living room. We didn't get anything fancy because we have pets and a kid and well, we're the kind of people who are stupid and spill. But it's microfiber and big enough to cuddle on, which is awesome. Tonight, X-man and I cuddled while watching Kipper.



Monday, February 7, 2011

The Third Post in a Day

But this one is actually about my day.

Things I saw:

1) A person do a "farmer blow" while walking down the street on Prospect at 8:45 a.m.

2) The black part of my dog's nose fell off. Literally, the skin just oozed off. He apparently got into it with one of our cats last week for the first time in almost 10 years, and all the Neosporin and antiseptic wipes couldn't save it. He ended up at the vet today for antibiotics, where we all pitied the poor, old, sad, shaking dog. Who also gained like 4 pounds since August. So back on the Light Science Diet he goes...

3) My first birthday present arrived from my favorite folks out East. It was an awesome REI top, some honey-based protein bars (the chocolate almond cherry one got devoured on the spot!) and some special socks to wear with my Vibrams.

Things I heard:
1) A person coughing up phlegm and spitting -- repeatedly in the shower at the Urbana Aquatic Center at 11:40 a.m.

2) Ring! My doorbell at 7:45 p.m. It was the UPS man. He must be getting crazy overtime due to the fact they couldn't deliver in the snow last week, or something.

Things I thought about:

1) Do the folks at Bottenfield who qualify for the gifted program not move because they're at their neighborhood school and it's convenient? Because they don't want to send their kid to a different school once he/she have gotten used to their current school? Because they don't want to send them to schools in poorer neighborhoods? Or all of the above?

2) How awful it is to realize your parents are human when you're a child. No matter how often you try, as a parent, to make them understand that even though you make mistakes... You're still the parent. There's still some sort of idealization there. Some sort of "Because you're in charge of me, you must be the smartest person in the world who knows best." My child gets really upset when I tell him I'm doing the best I can, but that I also make tons of mistakes. He tells me that's not allowed. I tell him it's not how the world works. But he so wants to put me up on that pedestal. It's just interesting because without kids -- when you mess up -- you can walk away or run away. You can break up and fall apart, and it affects you, but not too many other people. With kids -- you get to know that not only are you an idiot (and maybe even an asshole) but that you've now just completely jacked up their lives, too. It's a high bar to try to be a super parent. One you can never really hope to master or achieve. But one that is, obviously, demanded by the little person you love so much.

Review of Bottenfield Elementary

So here's the thing about Bottenfield, it's kind of like when I read Harry Potter. I didn't want to like it, but even after only 20 minutes in a question and answer period and a brief tour of just the art and kindergarten rooms before I had to leave and take my dog to the vet, I understood why it's one of the most requested schools in the district.

To be blunt, comparatively, Bottenfield has its shit together. It's not perfect, but the aura of the place is very different than most of the other schools I've been in.

The cons first: 1) This is the school that told me when I called for an individual tour that I could not go in the rooms because I would be a disruption to the learning process. This annoyed me.

2) The principal came off at the parents night as kind of -- self-important. I'm pretty sure it was just stress about figuring out how to tell someone about your school in the six minutes you have before you have to repeat the same schpeel to the next demanding and clueless parent. But in the library with the parents engaged and bombarding questions, Matthew Foster and Jaime Roundtree, the assistant principal, did a great job of giving facts and using humor to make the situation a bit less bewildering for parents.

3) Bottenfield, like many of the other schools, is crunched for space. Like Westview, they're in line for an expansion down the line because right now they have gym and PE in the same room, their music room is a portable that requires kids to get on hats and coats and walk outside to the other building for class, and they have a number of social worker/one-on-one help that takes place in the hallways rather than in classrooms. Band is in the church next door for heaven's sake. And the art room isn't on a cart, but realistically, the art teacher has an oversized closet as his space. The space issue is also evident in the classrooms. The kindergarten classrooms have stacks of materials parked everywhere.

4) Drop off and pick up, like Carrie Busey has to deal with Kirby Road, is on Prospect Road. They have a police officer out there directing traffic, but it's still a hassle.

Which brings me to the pros:

1) Eighty-five percent of the students in the school qualified for gifted program last year. Most of them chose to stay at Bottenfield.

2)The PTA members, similar to Westview, gave us our tours of the buildings. They all had multiple children go through the school and volunteered often.

3) They have a later start. They start at 8:30 and let out at 3:10 p.m.

4) I could throw a ball from my work at Mother's Morning Out to Bottenfield Elementary, which makes that situation kind of nice.

5) There is an aura about the building that says -- professionalism, respect, and investment that a lot of the other schools really need. You don't get a feeling like there's a handful of parents showing up to help out at this school. You get more of a feeling that the folks who chose this school are all heavily involved with their children's education.

6) They appear to have the attitude that they are the little school that can from the top down. They figure out ways to make it happen.

7) Male elementary school teachers were everywhere. I tripped over three of them in the 7 minutes I got to go down the hall. The art teacher, a first grade teacher and a kindergarten teacher. I hadn't seen that anywhere else.

8) The kindergarten rooms still have centers and lots of them.

9) They'll have air conditioning in the building by next Fall.

I was impressed, and since I didn't want to be, you know that says something. But there's this lingering issue I still have in my head. It's my issue alone, and other people on the tour might not have noticed it like I did or may think that I was smoking something because they didn't see this at all... but outside of Barkstall, this is the first school I'd been in where it was clear that the majority of students came from higher socio-economic homes. The teachers dressed impeccably, as where the administrators. The rooms were full of materials that were really high quality stuff, and you could tell the teachers kept them around as treasures because they knew the materials worked and engaged kids. One of my favorites was that the kindergarteners were studying oceans and they had a slew of not just shells but parts of sea creatures out on the table, including a whole shark's jaw. As I looked at all the tubs of items, I got excited about the number of project approach units the students could do.

But I hate that some schools still appear to have so much while others have to fight tooth and nail for just the basic items. Bottenfield doesn't compete with the new buildings like at Stratton and Barkstall, but it's doing just dandy in the academic framework as well as communicating and involving all families.

I can see why so many parents are so excited when their children get in there.

Review of Westview Elementary School

This morning was the second morning of touring schools. Since my tours of Bottenfield and Washington got canceled last week due to weather and migraine, I'm running behind on seeing the schools, which is a bummer. And since today was crazy, I picked two schools that were convenient to the appointments I had today. (So sue me. :-)

This morning I started at Westview Elementary School on John Street (near Mattis). I had been inside Westview before for a couple of FunFests. My friend Freak sends her children there. So I had her experiences in my ear when I went into the building.

While we were waiting, we were able to peek in the gym where a class was doing Dance Dance Revolution. Each student had a pad to record their score and they all stood in two lines behind the massive TV to take part. It was really cute watching them all stomp around. I'm not sure it's really exercise, but it definitely engaged them mentally and physically. And as you get better at DDR, it definitely gets more physical.

The first thing you should know is that the principal did something very different than all the rest of the schools I visited on a tour day. He let the children tell us about what they liked best about the school. The parents were ushered downstairs into the little library, which was decorated very nicely for a basement room with no windows (a bit like Doc Howard's). We were invited to sit. There were snacks and beverages laid out for us while we waited and then the principal introduced himself. After he was done, he invited our attention to the television mounted at the ceiling, where two fifth graders (the morning news crew) came on LIVE and welcomed us to the school.

When they were done with the broadcast, the students came down to the library and gave us a PowerPoint presentation about the school.

They told us about after school clubs including the Green Club, the Spanish club and Karate. They told us about the Gotcha reward system where kids that are great behavioral and academic role models earn gotchas for the classrooms, which then get prizes.

They told us about the special activities the school has like Retro Night, funny hat day, etc. And they discussed enrichment, PAWS (30 minutes extra kids get to focus on either strong areas or weak areas in their days).

It was a nice change of pace to have the kids there in front of us. It gave more of a face to the school. But I also learned quickly when we got to the question answer part with the principal and the assistant principal, there are just some questions that they didn't know -- that got deferred and answered by the kindergarten teachers, of course. But the fact that the principal wasn't sure exactly how a kindergartener's average day would go for a "mostly" kindergarten crowd was interesting to me. (That and holy cow the guys need to get paid more, both of them were sporting some seriously damaged shoes.)

As for the rest of the tour, it was wonderfully pleasant. We were sent around the building with members of the very active PTA. I noticed something really wonderful about Westview. Art was displayed everywhere, and it was beautiful. There were some drawings of monsters and dragons and snowmen in the hallways that I was really impressed with. The art room featured a Van Gogh replica the art teacher had made out of chewing gum!

Westview is one of the schools that is on the wait list for expansion. Apparently in three years they're going to give Westview extra space so that the music room isn't in a portable classroom and a separate gym from the lunch room. Once Carrie Busey moves into its new building, schools like Westview will vacate their homes for desperately needed updates and construction and them move back to the revamped school.

Right now the PTA is raising money for each of the classrooms to have smartboards. We were in one kindergarten room that already had a smartboard. The teacher really loved it. The kids were excited about it. Another teacher was eagerly awaiting hers. She had the projector up, but needed the screen (which was in a box in the office).

Westview is home to one of the ESL programs, too. So if you have any ESL needs, they're one of your choices.

The neighborhood around the school is quiet. John is a wide street, but they do all of the drop off and pick up on the smaller road out front. Westview starts at 7:45 a.m. But they said they had their own buses, students would only come to Westview, they wouldn't have kids get dropped off at one school and then take the rest to another, for example.

The kindergarten teachers gave me a very different vibe. One was very relaxed, laid back and talkative. She was very upbeat and positive. Her room was a bit noisy, but the kids looked engaged and happy. In another classroom, the teacher didn't really seem happy that we were visiting. She was in the middle of a lesson at a table, and was trying to focus the kids to her, rather than addressing the parents at all. The other teacher was exactly in the middle. She was structured, but very kind. She answered a lot of questions, welcomed us into her room, but the children who were finishing snack, including the smallest Freak family member who waved at me, and another one of her Mom's friends eagerly, and doing their "read to another" period were less crazed than across the hall. There were two grandparents working with kids in the classroom, too. I thought that was awesome. Oh, and the kindergarten rooms definitely still have centers. :-)

Overall, I've always liked that Westview is a building built for little people. The grades are mixed up and downstairs, but the classrooms are pretty bright and welcoming. I was there for almost an hour and was glad I got to experience it.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

An Anti-Social Mommy

Pre-pregnancy I was one of those horrible bitches who criticized people in the checkout line at Target. "Holy shit, if that were my kid, I'd go ape shit on his ass. Spoiled little brat."

Fast forward almost 5 years. And, um, my kid is frequently that total spoiled brat. MacTroll promised him they'd go swimming today. Except, apparently, he didn't check the time of the pool and let X-man keep putting him off. X-man was in "lie about" status. That is, he was splayed out on his back in his underwear on a Toy Story blanket in the middle of the family room watching "Busytown" and "How to Build a House." 

After I shoveled the walk and the drive and accepted my three extra large packages of The Company Store allergy-friendly reading pillows for the master bedroom and my Loosey room in the basement, I went inside and asked. "Are you guys going swimming or not?" 

There was no answer. So I got in my car and I drove to North Prospect where I dealt with crazy Target in disarray and picked up some household items. Afterwards, I went and laid down on some mattresses at Slumberland. They were having a giant sale on everything (such a shame most of their furniture is brown and I hate brown). So I picked up a full-sized mattress for the Loosey room daybed. 

When I got back two hours later, they were still in their jammies. X-man was doing a Spiderman puzzle. Then he wanted to do a Despicable Me puzzle. And then he announced he was ready to go to the pool at 4:30 p.m. The pool closed at 5 p.m. Too late.

Sob, cry (really it was a fake cry), screaming, demanding. I ignored it. Eff that. Seriously, there's a freaking hot tub in the backyard. You have your own HEATED swimming pool kid. Go use it. 

So, instead of getting the house to myself today for two hours to do some massive cleaning projects I wanted to get to, I had to leave the house to get things done.

Why? Because when I'm home, my child does one of two things. He either walks up and grabs onto me physically and refuses to let go and wants to make me his insta-playmate OR he ends up messing up everything I've just cleaned. And do a toy purge when he's around? Yeah, that's not possible. So, MacTroll was supposed to have my back here. But he was too busy trying to layabout on his own Saturday to really motivate the munchkin to go.

"He really isn't that bad," MacTroll says. "He hasn't thrown a fit in a store in a LONG time."

"That's because I don't take him to the store," I respond.

"Ooooohhhhh..."

The truth is that he really isn't that bad. It's just I go through periods where I want to be alone. I'm  not extroverted by nature. I'm rather introverted. I wish I was a wildly popular, social kind of gal. But the truth is that I am very careful about how I set up my schedule. Outside of work (which is work talk), I spend a lot of time alone, or in one-on-one or small group settings where I am most comfortable. And when one of those anti-social periods coincides with multiple snow days where I get no down time -- I get cranky. Hence the sudden, "What budget timeline?" situation with the Loosey Room in the basement. I want some furniture down there -- stat. So that the next time this happens, I can go hide in my little basement hole with my earphones on in a nice, warm, bright bed and a fun book and mentally check out for what little amounts of Loosey-only time I get. 

And I swear, since my child turned 10 months old I have NEVER, EVER thought badly of a mother in the checkout line at Target. If anything, I've tried to help the few times I've noticed others had trouble by entertaining the kid or picking up items a two year old has thrown on the ground in protest of not being able to put items on the belt. 

Seriously, I'm all for helping out other parents. Call me crazy, but I hope it comes back ten-fold, because there are days when I need all the help I can get.