Friday, April 28, 2017

Sometimes? I'm Judgmental. Also, Seattle!

I broke down and cleaned Rachel's room myself this morning, because the electrician was coming to install a new ceiling fan and it was too embarrassing to leave it as it was. Her high school's big show is this weekend and next, and there have been a zillion rehearsals, and she's been keeping up with her schoolwork (I think), and overall managing pretty well. So I don't blame her (much) for the mess, but there will still be a housekeeping charge deducted from her allowance this month. I need the money, anyway, after blowing the bank on that train trip I took with Susie.

No granola bars here!
Ah, yes, the train trip. After our tourist-y day in San Francisco, we took the train to Seattle. Unfortunately, we missed seeing the redwoods, because we rode through northern California during the night. Other than that, it was a spectacular trip through the Cascade Mountains, and we saw Mt. Rainier, from a distance. In fact, it would have been thoroughly pleasant, what with the excellent provisions we had laid in for this leg of the trip, if it hadn't been for the parents from hell, right in front of us.

Now, as you can tell by glancing at my profile in the sidebar over there, I have 6 kids, and they have done their share of making us look really bad in public. REALLY BAD. So I didn't think I had it in me to judge other parents. And for the first, oh, 12 hours of the trip I didn't. It's rough, taking a 3-year-old and a 6-year-old on a train. I felt for those people, I really did. Even when the older child woke ME up in the middle of the night, looking for his parents, who for some reason were both asleep in the seats across the aisle, instead of each sitting/sleeping with one kid apiece.

Really, I should have known right there.

And then along came hour 13, when the older one was whining and the younger one was crying, and the older one started hitting the younger one and the younger one started yelling and hitting back, and NO ONE DID ANYTHING. The dad was somehow managing to snooze through all this, and the mom was ignoring them until it got really bad, and THEN she would intervene. Halfheartedly. This happened repeatedly over the next 9 hours or so.


You know, they could have headed this behavior off at the pass, before those poor kids (who really weren't bad) were fighting and crying. They could have taken the kids to the Sightseer Lounge and let them look out the big windows and maybe eat a fun snack. They could have walked around the train with them. They could have NOT BEEN SNOOZING while the rest of us suffered. I swear, by the time we arrived in Seattle, I hated these people more than I have ever hated anyone in my life.

This is yet another example of how train travel can turn you into a person who contemplates murder. I'm not proud of that fact, but there you are...

We stayed in a hostel in Seattle. I'll admit, I had second thoughts about this adventure when we arrived around 9 PM on a Saturday night (via Uber, because I wasn't stupid anymore) and the common areas were full of drinking 20-somethings. LOUD drinking 20-somethings. But Susie had a look on her face that all but shouted, "We're NOT going to pull our bags all over Seattle looking for a real hotel, are we?" The poor girl was traumatized by our California experience, that's for sure.

Our hip room in the hostel
So we stayed, and it turned out that this place (shout out to City Hostel Seattle!) was excellent. We had a private room (with a wall mural by a local artist), and the shared bathrooms weren't communal, and everything was clean, clean, clean. Also, unlike a hotel, it had a few washers and dryers (and free laundry soap!), so we were able to wash our clothes the next morning while we ate the continental breakfast they set out for the guests.

Of course, I did feel like Grandma Moses, sitting there surrounded by fresh-faced young adults, people who you could tell just bounded out of bed in the morning, ready for whatever adventure the day had in store for them. People who no doubt could sleep comfortably even on coach cars in trains and rise refreshed. People who traveled with only a backpack, rather than with 4 pieces of luggage and an 11-year-old in tow.

We went here TWICE.

Carefree, is what I'm trying to say. They all looked so carefree. It made me feel old. Old and careworn. So, yeah, that was the only downside to staying in a hostel. Feeling a hundred years old.

The hostel held our bags for us while Susie and I spent a good 5 hours wandering through Pike's Market. Luckily, Seattle is pagan enough that almost everything was open, even though this was Easter Day. We pretty much ate our way down the street, what with the Russian piroshky place and the Thai place and I can't even remember what all. We saw the original Starbucks. The yarn shop was open, too, and the independent bookstores. There was also the neatest maps store that I couldn't believe was still in business. I mean, who uses maps anymore?

One of the Seven Wonders, I guess

At some point, we decided to look for a grocery store to stock up on food for the train (again), as we were leaving that afternoon. We found an IGA a few blocks away that was notable in that it was actually underground. "This is such a neat city!" Susie said, happily full of pyroshkies as she went down the stairs and into the store. "What'll they think of next?"

And that's the beauty of traveling with an 11-year-old, folks; I'm sure one of my world-weary teens would not have derived nearly that much enjoyment out of Russian pastries and oddly placed supermarkets.

Not to mention that they wouldn't have been caught dead staying with Grandma Moses at a youth hostel...

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Very Best Day

I am TRYING to adjust to normal (i.e., not itinerant train-traveling) life around here, but it's hard. Last night I went to bed at 9:30, exhausted. Which is always a mistake, because then I am wide awake at 1 AM.  Oh, well...

Never knew what these were called before
Also, Rachel basically welcomed me home Friday with "I have rehearsal Saturday morning and then you need to pick me up and take me to buy character shoes. Also, can we go to Target tonight to get the makeup I need for the play?"

Yeah, she missed me. Sort of. So I put those driving shackles right back on and drove to Target, and the next day to the special dance shoe store for the shoes she needs to be part of the ensemble for Beauty and the Beast. She will also be playing the part of a spoon, but thank goodness someone in the drama department took care of those particular wardrobe requirements.

I'm just not that good at silverware costumes.

Surprisingly non-PC for California...
All this driving is making me look back with longing at my days of riding the train and wandering around strange cities, which only goes to show you how deceptive nostalgia can be, right? But, truly, once I called Amtrak from our hard-won hotel room and realized I still had one segment left on my rail pass that was good for taking the bus into San Francisco, our California trip brightened considerably.

The next day we used Uber (FINALLY) to go to the train station and take the Amtrak bus straight to Pier 39 (Fisherman's Wharf). We saw sea lions, which delighted Susie; and we (well, I) enjoyed clam chowder in a sourdough bowl while Susie satisfied her vegetarian self with grilled cheese (on sourdough, natch) and onion rings. Susie bought saltwater taffy. Also, a little wallet that said San Francisco on it that was probably made in China by 10-year-olds locked in a windowless factory 15 hours a day. But Susie thought it was pretty, so there was that.

Literally PILES of sea lions...
Then I looked at the city map and realized there was NO WAY we could walk all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge (especially after what I had put my daughter through the night before) and still enjoy our day. And this, dear reader, was the point where I let loose my inner tourist and plunked down an obscene amount of money for tickets on one of those double-decker Hop-On, Hop-Off buses that will take you around the city.

It was worth every penny.

Free chocolate bunnies from Ghirardelli
We rode to the Golden Gate bridge where we got (nay, hopped) off and wandered around for half an hour enjoying the scenery and also desperately looking for an electrical outlet to charge my phone. Then we hopped back on the next bus, and I managed to persuade heights-averse Susie to ride on the open top where we experienced a fantastic tour of most of the city - the Presidio, the Haight, the Painted Ladies, Chinatown, Union Square - you name it, we saw it.

We finally disembarked at Lombard Street to walk all the way up and see the cars zigzagging their way down the steepest part of the hill (and I have NO pictures of that or of the view because my phone ran out of charge, and really I will regret that forever). Then we inched our way down the hill and over a block or two to Ghirardelli Square, where Susie ate THE MOST EXPENSIVE SUNDAE I have ever had the privilege to buy (she did share a little with me) while I (finally) charged my phone.

Probably, at this point, Larry was sitting at home, watching the credit card charges mount up and regretting he ever encouraged this adventure.

We don't have these at home
And we weren't done! We meandered along the wharf all the way back to where we had started, watched a lady making bunny bread and turtle bread and alligator bread (because San Francisco is wonderful like that), picked up dinner to eat later at the train station, and then spent another small fortune to Uber back to Emeryville. (Yes, there is BART, but one look at the bus maps and schedules and I knew I would never figure it out in time to make our 10 PM train north. Seriously, San Franciso, WTH?)

In San Francisco, even doggies use Uber
Being pros at train travel by this time, we had the Uber drop us at Trader Joe's so we could stock up on food for the ride. Then we summoned another Uber (poor Larry, sitting at home, shaking his head) to get us back to the hotel (where they had held our bags all day, thank goodness) and then to the train station.

Susie was enamored of the palm trees - "Just like Dr. Seuss!"
Seriously, it was a perfect day. We did everything we had planned and we didn't get lost even  once. And then we got on the train for Seattle where we sat directly behind the parents from hell for 22 straight hours, but that is a different story for a different post. Let us leave this day alone in its pristine perfection, one beautiful shining memory, okay?


Monday, April 24, 2017

STILL Talking Amtrak Trip: Part Three

For the past 3 days, every time I wake up (in the morning or from a nap) (yes, I am still exhausted from the trip), I'm confused. I'm looking out the window and thinking, "Huh, things aren't moving out there. We must be at a stop." And then I roll over and think, "Hey! There's a green wall over there! This is my bedroom! Why is it on a train?" Also, the bed is rocking.

This is a little scary. I can see it happening once, but 3 or 4 times?

Donner Lake, in the Sierra Nevadas
Speaking of things rocking, let's talk about California. We got off the train in Emeryville (which is on the other side of the Bay Bridge, which is not the Golden Gate Bridge, and who knew there were so many bridges?); but, unlike all the smart travelers who immediately boarded a special Amtrak bus for San Francisco, Susie and I pulled our luggage about a mile (shades of the Chicago death march, I know) to our AirBnB, because it was so much cheaper to stay in Emeryville than in the big city.

No one was there. So we stood outside while I phoned and texted and Susie marveled at the "weird" plants on the West Coast, and no one responded, so we pulled our suitcases back toward the hotels near the Bay Bridge (because, why? I had never heard of Uber?), which turned out to be further than the train station, and there were all sorts of weird detours for pedestrians (Powell Street, WTH?) until we staggered into one of the hotels I managed to pull up on my phone.

There was no room at the inn, essentially. Only, while I was standing at the desk being told that, the floor was rocking up and down beneath me. Earthquake? I glanced around to see if anyone was running for doorways. No, everyone seemed calm. Maybe they were used to this?

Puzzled, I led Susie back outside and we sat down on a bench while I called all the hotels which we could see from where we were sitting. The bench was rocking, too. I could only stop the rocking by pacing back and forth, which was sort of hard after dragging suitcases for over 2 miles. I finally found a reasonably priced room at a decent hotel. "We just have to walk over there," I told Susie, pointing at the sort-of-distant tower. She looked at me doubtfully. "It will be easy," I insisted. "Look, Maps says it's only a third of a mile!"

Have I mentioned it was now evening rush hour, at the eastern end of the Bay Bridge? Don't anyone be asking me to plan your trips, is what I'm saying.

Proof that we made it to SF eventually...
In short, we spent close to 2 hours wandering around Emeryville (read, NOT San Francisco) with suitcases in tow, looking for a place to stay, while our fellow train passengers rode in comfort all the way into the city and were dropped off near their hotels. We eventually did make it to our hotel room and collapsed. And of course the room was moving as soon as I stood still.

Reader, I Googled it. It had a name! What a relief! But still freaky.

Susie and I dined not-so-elegantly on microwave popcorn and Nestle Crunch ice cream bars that evening, because that was the only affordable food in the hotel. Again, professional trip planner is probably not going to be one of my future careers. But here is the joy of traveling with an 11-year-old: Susie didn't mind. She was too enamored with the large bathroom and the real bed to care much. Also, I think she was relieved we weren't sleeping outside somewhere, huddled together under our luggage. Frankly? So was I.

I'm realizing I skipped right over Salt Lake City here, with its two yarn stores and majestic mountains and awesome food. That's okay, I'll get back to it.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Train Trip, Part The Second

I'll tell the truth - I am regretting my decision a week ago to wait until the end of the trip to blog about it. Because, really, I am seriously overwhelmed now. But, boy, was I tired, plus it was harder to experience the trip if I was constantly processing it via writing about it, if that makes any sense. So I decided to experience it and THEN write about it.

Beautiful, right? No idea where it is. Utah, maybe?
Naturally, the entire trip I had a list of travel tips running through my head, alongside amusing anecdotes of people met along the way, all of which I jotted down on the notekeeping app on my phone, confident that I would turn it all into a brilliant recounting of my travels. Unfortunately, what this means is, I'm sitting here staring at cryptic notes such as "Scottish twins" and "Cheeseburger lady" and wondering what the hell I was talking about.

I bet this never happened to Mark Twain.

Why is "Mark Twain" the only travel writer I can come up with at this point? My brain is completely addled. The trip, which I envisioned as being a super-easy jaunt across the country by rail, actually required quite a bit of energy. I am tapped out. I went to bed early last night (my bed! My beautiful bed!) and headed out to yoga this morning, where it turned out that a 2-week train ride can really mess with your balance. I came home and slept 2 more hours.

This all supports my "I'm not 20-something anymore" discovery that I talked about earlier.

Oh, my Lord, stop gabbing and write already. How about a list?

Train Travel Tips

1. Comfort

Luckily, Susie and I were smart enough to bring blankets - some lightweight down throws that pack down small - but what we also needed were a couple of those goofy-looking U-shaped neck pillows whose purpose I never understood before. All the cool travelers had them. We didn't, so we settled for bunching up our sweatshirts and stuffing those under our heads. This didn't work well. So buy the weird-looking pillows - you'll be glad you did.

2. Irritation

Not a hospitable environment...
Apparently, there is an Amtrak rule that there must be one weird guy who ALWAYS sits in a corner of the sightseer lounge and talks loudly enough that you know WAY too much about his life. Every single train, this happened. It's enough to make you (well, me, anyway) start hating humanity. The first train, it was the guitar guy. The second train (the one from Salt Lake to San Francisco), we had a guy who reminded me of the obnoxious up-and-comer on Scrooged - you know, the one after Bill Murray's job? The one who says, "There's no I in T-E-A-M" in an irritating voice? In addition, he was remarkably self-centered - he believed (in a car FULL of people using earbuds) that there was no problem setting up a small speaker to listen to his music with.

We didn't have to ride with him long to realize he had obvious personality issues - to the extent that, if there had been a sudden train breakdown high in the snowy Sierra Nevadas, he would have been the first passenger to freak out and try to get rid of all the old people - you know, in order to make the food last. And I would definitely have been one of those old people, particularly after I told him to use earbuds so I could hear the train's Park Service ranger give his spiel. The one about the Donner Party, ironically enough...

The regular coach cars had their issues, too. Mostly - MOSTLY - people talked in undertones, so all you would hear was a low murmur all around. Because that's what people DO in public, unless they are unsocialized cretins who have never been told by anyone that they are obnoxious individuals who should never consort with other human beings.

I mean, not to put too fine a point on it or anything...

In our coach from Seattle to Spokane, the entire car had to listen to someone of this ilk discuss finances with his seatmate, then endure his talking LOUDLY on his cellphone to some other victim. The entire car was thinking, "Dear Lord, please let this guy fall asleep. Please, please..." Which he finally did, around 10:00, and we all drew a sigh of relief - until he started snoring. I mean, these were Richter-scale snores. If his seat ticket hadn't indicated that he would be getting off in a couple of hours, there may have occurred a scene reminiscent of the Orient Express.

Suitable for knitting AND garrotting, I'd bet...
This is what extended train travel can do to you, people - it can turn you into someone who wonders how effective a murder weapon her 47" circular knitting needles would be.

3. Food

These taste heavenly on a train.
As noted here before, it took only a day and a half for Susie and I to become heartily sick of granola bars and dried fruit. For some reason, train travel makes you crave fresh food. So, on our second morning, we threw our budget out the window and took breakfast in the dining car (omelettes - yum!). On the train, they seat you with strangers, so they can keep all the tables full. That day we were seated with 2 gentlemen who hailed from Scotland, who happened to be twins, which made me feel as if we were about to be part of a weird Monty Python skit.

I literally couldn't understand what one of them was saying, so thick was his brogue. His brother, who had lived 20 years in England, was more intelligible, to my American ears anyway. I asked them how they were enjoying Brexit (politics at breakfast - what a great idea!) and he said, "Not so much - but you folks aren't doing much better here." So we got along, is what I'm saying, and it wasn't nearly as awkward as you might think dining with perfect strangers at a tiny table would be.

We did this again on our last morning, because we had been living on cheese and crackers for over 24 hours at that point, and sat with an older couple from Indiana. No, Wisconsin, they got on the train in Indiana. No, wait, Michigan - Michigan is above Indiana.

See? Train travel is excellent for learning geography.

These people were dedicated train travelers. I met quite a few of that type on the trip, actually, and it is interesting to note that they all paid the extra money for the roomettes. I would mention that we were traveling coach, and they would say, "Oh, yes, we traveled coach - ONCE." I would like to be rich enough one day to be one of these people.

Was this category about food or people? I'm terrible at staying on topic.

4. Conductors

She earned these.
People, if you are on a train, conductors are gods. They hold all power. You DO NOT want to irritate them. We had one conductor from Seattle to St. Paul who felt sorry for me (I told you I looked haggard) and said, "Grab those 2 empty seats tonight - I won't let anyone else sit there." And I was able to lie horizontally and actually get some sleep. That lady earned herself a pair of homemade fingerless mitts, I'll tell you.

But woe to the people they don't like. One conductor regaled us with the story of a roomette-dweller who buzzed her at 2:30 in the morning because he wanted a cheeseburger. "A cheeseburger!" she said. "I told him, I said, 'Don't you be asking me for no cheeseburger in the middle of the night!' and then I turned off my buzzer so he couldn't bother me. I said, 'You buzz me again, I'll have you meet my 2 brothers - Smith and Wesson!" At this point the other conductor was practically falling on the floor, laughing. "Girl," he said. "You go too far!" And she said, "Hey, I'm very assertive. People think I'm being rude."

We loved that woman.

Okay, enough about the train. Tomorrow (or Monday), we'll talk about the places we visited, once I can decipher some more of these notes. I mean, if anyone is even still reading this...

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Train Trip, Part The First

Whew! It took me 10 minutes just to figure out how to use this keyboard and sign into my blog on this IPad. Maybe not quite as hard as attempting to record the entire trip on pieces of birch bark, but still...and forget about pictures - I can't figure out how to get them from my camera to my IPad.

Hey, Lewis and Clark didn't know how to do that, either.

So, we made it to Salt Lake City. You know, a few months ago, when I read that 20-something's blog post about how easy it was to cross the USA by rail, I never once stopped to consider the fact that I myself am not 20-something. Or that, unlike this devil-may-care traveler with his RailPass, I would have an 11-year-old daughter in tow.

I mean, I'm betting that blogger didn't spend half an hour at one of his stops attempting to contact Amtrak about a lost stuffed elephant, you know?

That guy managed to travel light. My toiletry bag alone weighs 5 pounds, what with the shampoo and conditioner and the moisturizer and make-up - in short, all the accoutrements required to keep my appearance from frightening perfect strangers on the train. So, when we stopped for our layover in Chicago, it was sort of a big deal when we learned that the lockers at the station had been torn out the week before. You see, the original plan had been to leave our 4 bags at the station and meander through downtown Chicago, checking out the Lake Shore, a yarn shop, and of course a Chicago pizza place.

With 2 rolling suitcases and 2 backpacks in tow, this meander turned into something closer to the Bataan Death March. We made it down to the lakefront (I sensibly jettisoned the yarn shop plans), but it wasn't a stellar experience. The way back was, of course, even worse. By the time we reached the station, my legs were shaking.

I believe it was at this point that the refrain "I am no longer 20-something" began running through my head.

It became my constant companion. Turns out, in your 50's? It's no longer so easy to sleep sitting up in a train, even with a reclining seat back and a nifty leg rest. Also, those fluorescent lights in the teeny-tiny bathrooms are not kind to a middle-aged person's face. I'm telling you, there is not enough make-up IN THE WORLD to fix what I saw there. And not sleeping for two nights didn't really help matters. Haggard would be the kindest way to describe it.

Also, applying mascara on a moving train requires a special kind of skill set, I'll tell you that right now.

Still, there were fun parts. There was the lounge car on each train, with the huge windows and swivel seats, where you could sit and watch the scenery. We saw the Midwest, and let me just say right here that Iowa wins the prize for rocking that Americana vibe. I mean, we rode past the farmer on his tractor and the children playing ball and the miles of rolling fields and all the cute little houses and wondered if this were an Amtrak version of The Truman Show, all set up near the tracks for our viewing pleasure.

We drove through miles and miles of flat Nebraska fields in the dark, with the full moon shining down on them the whole time. The sun rose and gave us light just in time to see the Rockies looming in the distance, snow-capped and magnificent. We jumped out of the train in Denver at 8 AM and ran into the (perfectly gorgeous) station, looking for some fresh food to buy for the rest of the day (we were going to be riding until 11 PM). Quite honestly, it turned out that our plan to subsist on granola bars and dried fruit while on the train itself was a VERY BAD IDEA.

I swear, I can't even look at a granola bar without gagging right now.

So there you have it - the first part of our trip, the good and the bad. There's more, but this post is too long as it is.

Saturday, April 08, 2017

Packing Is Hard

Harder to do than it looks
Well, 15 minutes to leave for the train station. I've spent the last 5 hours packing. Yeah, I don't know why, either. I mean, the knitting did take a bit - looking for the right size needles, choosing the yarn - and I had to make sure everything fit and I wanted to arrange my clothes so I wouldn't have to go into my main suitcase until Salt Lake City, but 5 hours? If I had been with Lewis and Clark, they would never have managed to leave St. Louis.

Anyway, I've bought a keyboard for my IPad (oooh, fancy!) so I can blog at you during our trip. And hopefully I will leave this cough behind me at home, because seriously, someone on that train tonight might just kill me if I make the racket that I did last night. But have Robitussin, will travel - that's me. I'm so darn plucky.

Westward, ho!

Thursday, April 06, 2017

Lentil Expiation

You know which part of a cold I love? The part where you think you're getting better, but then the inside of your mouth and your tongue get covered in cold sores. Because, hey, why enjoy a good meal if you can be in constant pain instead, right?

So, yeah, I've been busy kvetching and also running around trying to get ready for this train trip. I am hauling along a veritable pharmacy of OTC medications, so I don't have to spend the one day I have in any particular city hunting for the local CVS.

These were complicated.
Oh, and then yesterday I was reading the Food section of our newspaper and I saw a lentils-and-rice recipe that I decided to try. Which might make sense, except I've never met a vegetarian lentil recipe that I've liked, so I have no idea why I thought this time might be any different. Or why I thought I had the time to mess around with a recipe that instructs the cook to let the sliced onions air dry for an hour before frying them in half a cup of oil. OR... well, you get the picture.

It didn't taste too bad, really. But it was still lentils and rice, and I don't see any of my vegetarians begging to eat it again today. The bright side is that I can spend the next 4 months or so resting on my laurels, as it were. You see, I usually feel guilty (because that's a whole lot of fun) about not trying new recipes. But now I can dispense with the remorse over my disinterest in new cuisines; instead, I can recall this unfortunate foray into fancy-cooked onions and smile contentedly at the thought of my culinary derring-do.

It's like a short-term vaccination against guilt, that's what it is.

Monday, April 03, 2017

Failed Housetraining

In case anyone thought my fears of what would happen to this house during my 2-week absence were exaggerated, I conducted an experiment: I assiduously refrained from reminding the children to take care of the kids' bathroom trash over the weekend. Please bear in mind that, contrary to appearances, I have spent the better part of 25 years instructing my children on the fine art of emptying a trash can. Apparently, my life's work has come to naught.

A few days ago...

Last night

And, yes, I will break down and make sure all trash cans are empty before I leave. Alas, my hopes are not high for after that point in time. Apres moi, le deluge...

And, some prettier pictures - I managed to join my friends for one day of their yarn crawl yesterday (but only AFTER getting up at 6:30 on a Sunday morning to fetch 4 dozen doughnuts for the stalwarts who showed up to deliver the last loads of mulch that day):

My usual awesome photography

2 skeins of fingering yarn - perfect for knitting some simple garter stitch shawlettes/scarves on the train. That and a couple of sock projects should keep me busy, I'm thinking. But check out the name on the one to the right: "Machete Shoppe." I don't know what's weirder, the word "machete" being used in a yarn brand name or the word "machete" being paired with the cutesy "pe" version of "shop." I picture sales clerks dressed as scary clowns. And you?