Friday, December 7, 2012

Merry Christmas 2012

I can never believe how much the kids change in one year.

December 2011:

October 2012 (I've barely taken pictures the past two months!):

We're spending this December as we have the past few, with a special treat or activity each day that we wouldn't normally do the rest of the year. Today was a surprise Mass (LOL)... because I nearly forgot it was a holy day.

The kids are still very involved in activities, but we try to find lots of downtime for them also. Our one instrument/one sport per season rule helps. Zachary and Bella are both still playing piano and swimming in the winter and summer. Bella plays soccer in the spring and has Girl Scouts during the school year. Zachary has played (and really loved!) baseball in the spring and fall. He's outside practicing with Joey about every other day and has come light years from where he started a year ago. Annie is going to start dance and gymnastics after the new year. She still wishes she could do everything Z&B do, though. Zachary and Bella are amazing students and have had nearly perfect report cards every quarter. Learning is fairly natural to both, for which we are grateful!

Heather is still busy with PTO activities at school and has just started working from home on a very part-time basis, but it allows for the kids' routine to stay the same! Joey is still at his same job (he's a lifer!) and coached both Zachary and Bella at different points during the year. He can also be found quite often with a timer in his hand at swim meets.

We loved traveling to the Southeastern U.S. states this past summer. Next August, we're off to Michigan!

Wishing you lots of love and peace at this lovely time of year!

Friday, August 17, 2012

Mexican License Plates

(written by J)

It is not often that you see Mexican license plates where we live.  H and I were absolutely fascinated by the Mexican license plates that we saw on this vacation.  We had to take pictures of a few.  I hope you enjoy them.  I can't promise that this will be an annual feature of the vacation blog though.

Both of these were at Sea World San Antonio.  Apparently, Mexicans love Sea World.

Mexicans love Elvis as well.  The above plate was in the Graceland parking lot in Memphis!  That's a long way from home for them.

J's Road Sign Mania is Back and Better Than Ever

(written by J)

This was a great trip for quality road signs.  Without further adieu, let's begin.


Excellent use of the state shape as their state route sign.

This sign is rather generic.


The least imaginative of the state route signs.


Another good use of the state outline as their state route sign.  Also, notice how on the interstate sign that the outline of Louisiana is white but on the actual route marker, it is green and says "LA."


Texas had lots of fun different kinds of roads and signs.  Here's the sign for a Farm to Market Road.

Notice how on the interstate, the Farm to Market Road sign is just a rectangle with "F.M." on it.

Here's the regular Texas state route sign.

Here's a sign with both a Loop road sign and the regular Texas state route sign.  On the interstate, they place Texas above the number and on the actual route marker, Texas is below the number.  Very interesting.

Texas is a big state.  Only 857 miles to El Paso from this point in Eastern Texas.


Once again, great use of the state outline for their state route sign.  Also, Arkansas puts the state name and uses small numbering for pretty much all of their interstate signs that we saw.

Look, it's Arkansas Route 1 to the Bth power.


This sign was at a weird angle but it is the primary state route sign of Tennessee.  Underneath the route number is the state outline with "Tennessee" inside it.

This is Tennessee's secondary state route sign.  It is totally different looking than the primary sign. 

This concludes the latest edition of J's road sign mania.  I hope that it brings joy to your day.

Monday, August 13, 2012

J's Random Vacation Observations

(written by J)

As we traveled by car over 3500 miles on this awesome vacation, I took some mental notes of things that I found amusing, interesting, sometimes even bizarre.  Let me share a snippet of some of my observations.

Driving down from Mechanicsville to Alabama
At the Love's Travel Plaza in Fair Play, South Carolina (just a few miles from the Georgia border), I saw a VCU T-shirt inside for sale.  Yet another perk of going to the 2011 Final Four.

The front desk clerk at the hotel we stayed at was Stehanie (according to her nametag).  She was a real peach (note the sarcasm) who told us at 5PM Central time that our room was not ready yet.

For the short time we were in Biloxi at the beach, we walked down this pier to take a good luck at the Gulf of Mexico.  While walking, we noticed a man just sitting on a bench on the pier.  No big deal, right?  Well, on the pier at this gentleman's feet was a pool of blood.  I guess he gutted a fish because he didn't look like he was in pain.  It was just very strange.

New Orleans is a fascinating city.  In a 10 minute walk from our hotel to get dinner on Sunday night, H and I saw both a child relieving himself on the side of a building and a potential fight between a group of youths and a young professional.  Also, Louisiana uses the word casino very loosely.  On the drive from New Orleans to Houston, pretty much every exit claimed to have a casino.  We stopped for gas and low and behold, the gas station had a "casino" which was a door that probably lead to 2 electronic slot machines.  Restaurants had casinos and also shacks on the side of the road were casinos allegedly.

H mentioned in the Texas post that we got barbeque for dinner in Houston.  What she didn't mention was how we found out about the barbeque place.  H asked the front desk clerk if there was a good barbeque place nearby.  He said that the place he liked wasn't very close.  But 3 Texas businessmen who were relaxing in the lounge overheard the inquiry and they were very helpful.  One of them said "It's right past the MacDonald's."  Not to be confused with McDonald's.  That was humorous enough but when you add the fact that all of them also sounded just like the Houston Astros executives that George Costanza worked with in that one Seinfeld episode, it was downright hilarious.  You know the one where the Astros execs say "How you doing, you son-of-a-(you know the rest)."  Speaking of the Astros, we enjoyed an evening at Minute Maid Park watching the Astros/Nationals game with roughly 1000 other people.  I really enjoyed 2 things at the game.  First, the Astros celebrate their home runs with a very loud gun blast (it startled us all at first) and a cowboy featured on the wraparound little scoreboard blasting off his six-shooters.  Second during the 7th inning stretch after Take Me Out to the Ballgame, they played Deep in the Heart of Texas and what crowd was there enthusiastically sang and clapped along.  We spent the most time in Texas so there were more fun observations.  Just outside of San Antonio, we went to this really cool Old West ranch about which H blogged previously.  At the ranch, there was this wagon that H wanted the kids to sit on for a picture (it is actually pictured on the Texas portion of the blog).  I put B on the wagon and then A on the wagon.  They were sitting happily as I put Z on the wagon.  He asked me if the wagon was going to fall and I told him no.  As soon as he sat down, the entire wagon tilted downward sending the kids to the ground.  Fortunately, all of the kids were fine and will have a story to tell their kids someday.  Finally, A got to see Elmo in Sea World San Antonio later that day.  We had to wait in line and go in this room where Elmo was waiting with an employee ready to take a picture.  We don't pay for pictures like that and H was setting up to take a picture of A and Elmo.  The Sea World employee shot that down quickly.  "No pictures in here."  H tried one more time and got an even more terse "No pictures in here."  No money, no Elmo picture.  Who does Elmo think he is charging children to take pictures with them?  Abby, Cookie Monster, and Zoe happily stood with A while H took their pictures for free. 

Arkansas takes their road construction very seriously.  We went to eat dinner one night and I noticed an electronic message board on the interstate saying "Road construction ahead.  Expect massive delays.  Consider an alternate route."  That sounded very ominous to me especially considering that we had both the Clinton Library in Little Rock in the morning and Graceland in Memphis (2 1/2 hours away) in the afternoon scheduled for the next day.  It turns out that 1 of the 2 lanes on I-40 was closed for 12 miles.  No big deal and it didn't delay us any.

B really enjoyed making bird calls the last few days of the trip.  She decided to make some bird calls as we were walking from our hotel to dinner in downtown Memphis.  It startled one gentleman who yelled out, "Who's making those bird noises?"  Also, our hotel was apparently the official Northern European hotel of Elvis Week.  Breakfast Saturday morning was fascinating as we were the only English speaking people eating it seemed.  I believe I heard Swedish, Norwegian, and German as we chowed down.  Finally once we left Memphis, we had to stop for a bathroom break at a McDonald's (not a MacDonald's) in Jackson, Tennessee.  As we were walking in, a slovenly gentleman was walking out.  As our paths crossed, he burped really loudly.  It was so unexpected that we all burst out laughing. 

Friday, August 10, 2012

Arkansas and Tennessee

These two states were bookended by full days of travel.

We woke up this day in Little Rock, within view of the President Clinton Library. A just wanted to run around, but the rest of us enjoyed the replicas of the Cabinet Room and Oval Office, pictures, interactive exhibits on policy, and gifts from around the world that the First Family received.

Z also got a kick out of the St. Louis Cardinals exhibit and had to have his picture taken with the World Series trophy.

The library overlooks the Arkansas River, and H took quite a few portraits of the kids on the bridge.


Once we arrived in Memphis, we went to Beale Street and ate at, essentially, a bar. With the kids. Feel free to judge. It wasn't busy, though, and we sat by a window at a table, not on a barstool. It did have GREAT barbecue, though... remember me, the b'bque snob? LOVED it, and so did the whole family who kept asking for more from my plate!
Memphis is very different from what I imagined. The trolley-only Main Street, the buildings... beautiful, and pretty peaceful for a city. I hope this isn't the last time I'm here!
We found out a couple months ago that we planned Graceland for the first day of Elvis Week, so we bought our tickets in advance. There were definitely a lot of people there, but nothing like what I imagined. We got a parking spot pretty close to the entrance, didn't have to wait terribly long for the shuttle, and didn't get pushed through the mansion (B would tell you that it was NOT a mansion, but I'm going to argue that in the 50s, it was).

The kids (all) had a blast with the audio tour headphones. There's something about Graceland, even from someone who likes Elvis but is nowhere near the world's biggest fan. The house itself was nice, but what really impacted me was the room in the raquetball building that had a huge room with his awards from just the 70s ALL over the walls. A.MAZ.ING.
One of Elvis' first big concerts was in Richmond in 1956!
After dinner, J took Z to a Memphis Redbirds game, which is apparently the nicest AAA stadium ever.

So, we started the day with a president and ended it with a king. How often do you have the chance to do that?


When you cross into a state and see that the first exit is number 880, it's a bit daunting, even if you aren't going that far. Seeing that the speed limit is 75 makes it a little better.

Houston. Traffic. Is. Insane.

Nothing about it makes sense to me.

We got to town mid-afternoon, so there were a lot of cars since it was getting closer to rush hour, but the roads that require use of an electronic pass to use and the frontage roads (I had never heard that term before and hope to never hear it again) make no sense.

We didn't really plan to go to Houston early in our trip planning. It was really just a stop to break up the New Orleans to San Antonio drive. J decided that since the Nationals were playing the Astros, it was a sign that we should go to a game.

Apparently Houston residents didn't see that sign because there were probably less than 8000 people at the game.

Our seats gave us very pretty sunset views (yay for the roof being closed on a hot day!), and MM was a nice park. Too bad more people didn't take advantage of it!

Forgot to mention the Texas barbecue that we had for dinner. It just wasn't my style. I'm a NC barbeque girl forever!

I went to San Antonio as a child, so I was excited to go back the next day. We went straight to the Alamo, which had way more detail than I remember. It was neat to see some actual relics from some of the heroes of that battle. The kids were also fascinated by the cactuses and cannons.

Naturally, we had to have Mexican food for lunch.

Our hotel was on the riverwalk, so we decided to go on a riverboat cruise, which was awesome. The driver showed us some great sights and was funny to boot.

The hotel, by the way... AWESOME. One of the best hotels I've ever stayed in. I love that they not only provide breakfast but also dinner. It was just hot dogs, mac n cheese, and salad-type things, but what a great perk!

We randomly realized when taking the kids to the rooftop pool that our hotel had amazing views of the city, so we had to go up to the Terrace deck a few times to take it all in.

Texas day 2 was probably one of our favorites, though most tiring, of the trip. We planned two very big activities and fit it all into 9 very fast hours.

I didn't think we could go to Texas without going to a ranch, and we happened to find one, The Enchanted Springs Ranch, that also had a old west town. It was beyond cool to walk through the town and go on a covered wagon ride to see zebras, buffalo, kangaroos, Texas Longhorns, and more.

The second part of the day, we spent at Sea World. We took Z & B on the 3 big rides that they were tall enough for (only one could they not ride), had A spent a lot of time in the Sesame Street area (including a show, rides, and character meet and greet... boy was she starstruck), and saw the Shamu and Beluga Whale shows. The Beluga show had high-divers and synchronized swimming, which compeltely baffled J, but the rest of us found very cool because of the Olympics.

We've had fun looking at all of the Mexican license tags in Texas... maybe J will share pics of those in his road sign post.


Holy bridges, Batman.

Going to New Orleans and leaving were the longest bridges I've ever been on. They really should warn you about the long amount of time before you hit land again so that you know how paranoid to be if you can't swim, like me.

Our first day (late afternoon/evening really) in the city, we planned to go on a ferry ride across the river, where I read there was a little neighborhood undamaged by Katrina with shops, cafes, and great views of New Orleans. Once we walked down to the Riverfront, though, it was clear the only thing across the river was a former? factory and not much of anything.

Isn't the internet supposed to be right about everything?

We were all tired from the drive the day before anyway, so we just took in the views from our side of the river and picked up Cajun food- 2 kinds of gumbo, a po-boy, and alligator balls.

Z didn't feel well this night or the next... I'll leave it at that. It wouldn't be a trip for us if someone was under the weather at some point.

Sunday was great. We went on a trolley ride that started in the French Market, which we were told was a 15 minute walk. It was more like twice that and the trolley was initially hiding from us, but whatever. We still made it on time. The owner of the trolley was onboard and is a New Orleans native, as was the driver, so we got a great overview of the city. I love the architecture here... I don't think there's anywhere else in this country like it.

After the tour, we bought pralines and beads, and beignets and coffee from Cafe du Monde.

We then went across Jackson Square to the Presbytere, which had exhibits on Hurricane Katrina and Mardi Gras. The kids learned a lot and were very interested in the first and loved the fun of the second. We took our time going back to the hotel afterwards, looking in shop windows, watching carriages, and just enjoying the city.

After Mass that night, J and H went back to the French Quarter for a drink and ended up back at the hotel before 9:30. How unlike the last time I was here. I'm feeling very old now.

Alabama and Mississippi

Sigh... So, tomorrow night is our last one away, and I'm just getting started on Day 1. Shoot me. I'm tired.

We woke up at 2:18am on Day 1... 2 minutes before the alarm went off thank-you-very-much-A. We finally left town around 3:30am (half an hour after we meant to) because it was too early to think.

Dude. We made amazing time, though. We were in Georgia before 11am. Thank goodness for car DVD players. This was our longest travel day this year!

Alabama greeted us with a very cool "Now entering Central Time Zone" sign, which I totally appreciated, even though I keep thinking to myself, "It's really ___ at home," as if wondering whether our cat is on schedule.

Our Alabama activity was the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery. We technically went on two tours here... a "kids" tour where a robot bus driver guided you from before the Civil War to just before Rosa's infamous bus ride and the regular tour that covered the day of her arrest. The kids loved the robot bus ride and came away impressed with Rosa's bravery.

The museum building is on the site of the theatre in front of which she was arrested. It was surreal to stand in that very spot.

From there, we drove down the street past the State Capitol and could not believe how little traffic was in this downtown area. Did every have the day off?

We closed out the day with Gigi's cupcakes. I've never seen so much icing on a cake. None of us could eat it all, but YUM.

Day 2 started with a compared-to-day-1 short trip with a stop in Biloxi. We wanted to step foot in the Gulf of Mexico, and, man, was that water warm! The sand was white and soft, too. The kids totally wanted to full-on play in the water, and I can't blame them, but it would have been a huge hassle to bring a bunch of beach towels and toys with everything else, so we settled for a bit of water, a lighthouse, and walking on the pier.

The beaches were almost empty for summer, and there really didn't seem (to us) to be as much as there should have been in a tourist area. Much of what was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina still hasn't been rebuilt, so there are a lot of empty lots. That's really sad 7 years later!

We had a great lunch at Margaritaville and spent (lost) a little money in the casino there, but it was a needed break from being in the car.

After lunch, we pointed the way towards New Orleans.

I'll give Louisiana it's own post...