Monday, September 29, 2008

Home exchange: hamburger falls into the fire

It is not easy to get a visa to stay in Europe for longer than 3 months, regardless of where you go. In order for us to get German visas, we would need to fill out a million papers in a certain color ink and get a letter from our bank stating we have enough money to sustain us without getting jobs. We would have to show that we had purchased plane tickets home (which struck me as funny for some reason). We needed to make an appointment to bring this big stack of papers, along with a letter from our exchange partners proving we had a place to stay, to the German consulate in person. The consulate is 6 hours away. So when I got the email from the German family that they needed an interview in Berlin to get a visa, I felt lucky. They, however, felt unwilling to go to such lengths, and wanted to reduce the exchange to under 90 days so they wouldn't need visas. No problem, let's make it 11 weeks. Cool, they said, stand by for the plan. Well, the plan, as it turned out, was a big fat cancellation. We have heard stories about people getting their laptops confiscated at US customs, we don't want to take that risk, and it is so complicated to get a visa, we are so sorry but we've decided to exchange somewhere in Europe. What?! Um, didn't we already have an agreement that we were just waiting to finalize with specific dates? Moreover, didn't they look into any of these details before spending 2 weeks of their life talking with us about a specific exchange??? Very uncool. I wasn't looking forward to breaking the bad news to the kids.

image: Chick-fil-A

Driving while fishing?

This morning I was thinking about a topic I heard on morning radio last week. The DJ was ranting about what people do while they drive, he had seen a woman reading a book as she drove down the interstate! On the way to school this morning, the kids and I looked for people multi-tasking behind the wheel, and we spotted a bunch of texters, no surprise there, and some cell phone chatters. I saw one woman applying eyeliner, but she was stopped at a red light so I had to add a few points for that. There was nobody reading a book, but we did find a winner: a woman eating cereal and milk from a spoon. While driving. I have enough trouble eating cereal and milk while sitting at my kitchen table (the whole dribble down the chin problem), so I was amazed to see someone actually doing it while driving. It reminded me of something my old friend said about why he loved his iPod so much. He never had to miss an episode of his favorite TV show, he could watch it while he drove to work. Aack! What do you do while driving?

photo: Kristian Stokholm

Sunday, September 28, 2008

I'm not going to get political, but this is important...

Would my sister Beth make a good Vice President??

Vote for your favorite now...


I am always giving my sister Beth (above, left) a hard time because I think she looks like Tina Fey (and she does), so despite her protests I'm unable to resist a little fun with the recent Tina Fey as Sarah Palin sketches. My sister doesn't think she looks like Fey at all (but she does), so I wonder what she will make of this! What do you think?

Friday, September 26, 2008

Hi, bowling!

Sam is fascinated with bowling. Every day when we pick him up at school, we drive by the local bowling alley where he had his 4th birthday party. He usually says "Hi bowling" and waves, but lately he has started to ask me to take him bowling again. It's tough when he is so young, since he can't hold the ball very well and slips around in those funky shoes, but he loves it. I have to admit that my favorite part of bowling is the pitcher of beer, so I haven't taken him after school yet. It's fun as a family activity, but I am not sure I want to tackle it with just Sam. He is so cute that he might convince me...I'll keep you posted.

Home exchange: Hamburgers and hotdogs

I'm sure you saw it coming, but I didn't. The German house was immaculate and spacious, with a large sweeping lawn and beautiful back yard, and we were more eager than ever to solidify an exchange with the family. After exchanging a few emails reassuring them that the house looked great and would be perfect for us, the husband sent us an email asking specifics on the type of copier/scanner we have. I may need to scan some images while we are at your home, he said. Jon sent him the details on the computer equipment, and we continued to swap emails about local schools, attractions, and the like. It seemed to be a great fit, and they understood that we needed to end the exchange in late April to correspond with our exchange with the British couple. We discussed possible start dates so I said that we are ready to commit to an exchange with them, and I proposed the beginning of January (depending on flight prices). They replied that early January looked good on the surface, and they would look more into the logistics and get back to us right away. Things were looking up, so we started to look into buying plane tickets to Hamburg!

Mrs. Robinson pulls a fast one...

I know, I know, it's sort of mean...but way funny!

Home exchange pictures shock me!

image: James Martin for

After a few days, I received a note from the German family letting me know that they had posted some pictures of their house on their listing and that they had added some information about their town. They asked me some thoughtful questions about our area, and told us about some local sightseeing. They said that they were really hoping that we would find their house to be suitable, and that they would continue to post more information to their listing as soon as they could. They wanted me to let them know what we thought of their home, and hoped after seeing the pictures that we'd still want to exchange. Yikes! I braced myself for a hideous house or a catastrophe of some sort, and looked up their listing to see the updates. I was shocked by what I saw.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Congratulations to "The Waiter" on Book #2!

As you know, I am a huge fan from way back of the blog Waiter Rant and of its writer, Waiter (aka Steve Dublanica). Steve just announced that he will be writing a second book for Ecco, a division of HarperCollins, about all elements of the service industry that rely on gratuities to earn a living, and what happens when those gratuities are...uh... overlooked. It should be a good one! His first book, Waiter Rant: Thanks For The Tip, was on the NY Times Bestseller List for over a month. Congratulations, Waiter!

The best short story ever written!

I was super excited to find the full text of my favorite short story, "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson, on this site. This piece was originally published in the New Yorker magazine in 1948. If you have a few minutes, grab a coffee or a glass of wine, and settle in for an amazing read. Let me know what you think once you're done. Enjoy!!

Home exchange tip: no pictures is not a good thing!

I had sent an email to a family in Germany who were listing their home for exchange on the original Home Exchange website, the one from the movie. I was getting progressively more dissatisfied with that website, since there is no way to know if the listings are current and I sent many, many emails during my search that were never returned. I like to think that the listings must have been old and the people never got my message, but I know enough to realize that many people don't have the courtesy to reply to an exchange offer if it doesn't interest them. Weird, since most people who exchange their homes are generally very nice and open people, but it's true. What I started doing was just assuming that if I didn't get a reply after a week, the listing was "dead." So, I was surprised to receive a late, but apologetic, email from a bilingual family in Germany who were looking for a long term exchange in the US. Like us, they work from home and have the flexibility to travel for a longer period of time than just for a vacation. They sent a long and enthusiastic email expressing great interest in a swap with us, told us a bit about their home and location, and promised to post photos of their home on They were new exchangers and had just joined the website and had not had time to update their listing. This should have been a big clue, but I was too eager to find an exchange and wasn't looking at all of the warning signs.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

And the bathroom fun continues...

After Sam's successful bathtime survival game, I was having a hard time thinking of another adventure for his next bath. Sure, we had toys he could play with, but that's not exactly playing a survival game, is it? So I finally settled on moving the game to the shower, and we decided that he was in California where wild fires burn and need to be put out by special survivalists. I gave him some special "fire extinguishing foam" in a red can (yes, the can color is important because all kids know that red = fire!) and got his goggles to protect his eyes. After a quick wash, I gave him the can and closed the door with the only these instructions: don't spray your face, and put out those fires! And put them out he did.

Stop and smell the daisies!

Sometimes there is nothing more beautiful than artwork done by a child. Look at the amazing job that 4 year old Sam did on this milk jug turned vase. With foam brushes and some craft paint he was able to mix colors and go crazy. We filled the painted jug with some water and added my favorite flowers, gerber daisies, in cream and light peach. Amazing!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

But wait! Is smaller actually better?

OK, so you all have been thinking about how expensive gas has gotten, and how you should definitely get rid of that SUV (or, worse, Diesel Truck) and get something...well...cheaper, and more environmentally sound. I know you've been looking at specs, maybe you've even started thinking about a Prius, but then you've heard that the carbon footprint of a hybrid car is not the way to go, either. So what can you do?? Don't panic, just take a look at some of these options that Dark Roasted Blend put together. Now I just have to convince my husband that we should get that Mini convertible!

photo: BBC

These pants were made for travelling

Ok, I admit it, I am a bit of a Man vs. Wild freak. Yes, Sam and I use our survival skills to stay dry in the tub, and even Jon gets into it playing camera man in the pool. By now, you should know how I feel about those amazing pants that Bear Grylls wears - the ones with the reinforced knees. Part of my planning for the home exchange requires some clever packing, since we are only taking one bag each, and I was looking for clothes for the kids that are designed especially for travel. Perhaps it's because I am not...well...sporty...but I had no idea that this stuff existed. There are shirts that wick moisture away from you to keep you dry in hot weather, we all know that, but these have long sleeves! Apparently the long sleeves keep you cooler (!!) than wearing short sleeves. There are pants with zip-off legs to convert into shorts (good for little kids and extreme campers but not so great for anyone else) and shirts with bug repellant built into the fabric. There are even all kinds of clothes made of a special fabric that doesn't stink after you've been travelling all day - I am getting some of that stuff! But the most fun discovery guessed it...the pants with reinforced knees for kids. They even have reinforced butts! I am definitely going to get a pair for Sam.

Just like my sister!

Yesterday Sam was playing with one of my favorite DIY toys, the "dig station." I took a disposible aluminum baking pan from the grocery store, the small square kind that you might make brownies in, filled with dried lima beans that are about the size of a dime, and there you go - instant fun for his little cars and trucks. He fills up his little pick-up trucks and makes deliveries, and goes off road with his mini ATVs. Fun and not too messy, but don't try to get all creative as I originally did and buy dried peas to add color because they just end up on the floor and they are too tiny for little hands to pick up! So he is digging around, and then he starts his favorite new activity, writing his name on everything with a dry erase marker, and I hear him start...S...A...S...A...S.A....S.A...Essay...I am going to write an essay! Just like Sara! So cute!

Monday, September 22, 2008

Winter home exchange put on ice

With two home exchanges set up for the spring and summer, I still wanted to find something for the winter. I had been in contact with a family from Norway who were looking for a long term exchange, and while we had traded a few emails back and forth, they let me know that they had 2 offers that they were considering, ours and one from Australia. We loved the pictures of their house, and we wanted to be in Scandinavia so their location was perfect. Of course, I don't know a thing about Norway, but I discovered that their house is in western Norway which is where the famous fjords are located. It is absolutely gorgeous in western Norway and there is snow there for Sam! At first, they seemed quite interested and had lots of questions, but then their messages came less and less often, and it seemed as though they were favoring the other offer. We hoped that they would decide to exchange with us, and I tried not to get my hopes up, but I couldn't help it. When we hadn't heard from them in over a week, Jon said that we might as well entertain other offers if they come our way (even though I had turned someone down in Denmark already!). I resigned myself to the fact that Norway wasn't going to work out, and hoped to get an offer. That's when we heard from the family in Germany, and that turned out to be a disaster.

Bored with your run-of-the-mill RV?

photo: Kacey Shoemake

For those well-heeled adventurous types for whom money is no object and the flashier the better (you know who you are), check out the Unicat Unimog 5000. This bad boy will let you and your pals (or trophy wife/boyfriend/whatever) travel in style without having to compromise your wild itineraries because you just don't have the right set of wheels. I heard about this originally from my friends over at Apartment Therapy and then became fascinated with the whole idea. But don't just run out and buy one - be smart, shop around a little, and you can pick up a sweet deal on a used one for around $200K.


Emmy and Tony award-winning actress and cancer survivor Christina Applegate looked gorgeous and healthy at this year's Emmy awards last night. Applegate, 36, underwent a prophylactic double mastectomy as treatment for breast cancer that was found in one breast in July. Applegate told Good Morning America in August that she is now "100% cancer free!"
photo: AP/Chris Pizzello

Sunday, September 21, 2008

This is genius!

This is truly excellent work. I am in awe of the guy, Rob, who cut this masterpiece.

Hula? No, Hulu!

Want to watch an episode of your favorite TV show that you missed, but you're too cheap for TiVo? Are you the only one in your town without a subscription to Netflix? Good news, cheap peeps, you are in luck. Check out Hulu, a free and safe way to watch telly on line. What's the catch, you ask? There isn't one. Sure, the shows do have some commercials, but they're minimal - and you're probably still watching commercials anyway because you don't have TiVo or a DVR! So go sign up for a free Hulu account and start catching up with the rest of your friends.

Disney for free, you say?

You can be a kid again on your birthday! As part of it's "Celebration" promotion for 2009, Disney is offering free admission to any one of its parks on your birthday next year. You just go on line and register for the promotion, and then show a valid ID once you arrive on your birthday. This is a great opportunity for those of you living close to Disney World (Florida) or Disneyland(California), but note that you cannot apply this offer to an existing annual pass. It's more fun to grab an inexpensive flight on Southwest or JetBlue and spend a long weekend celebrating your special day!

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Envelope, please!

Forbes Magazine just released their list of America's 10 Most Stressful Cities, and I am not a bit surprised to see that my former city, Providence, RI, was number 9! Providence boasts a very high unemployment rate (7.9%) and an expensive cost of living, and the best kept "secret" is that the government is run by the mob. For real. The former mayor of Providence, Vincent "Buddy" Cianci, spent almost 5 years in federal prison for his thumbs-down choices, as my son would say. During his 21 years in Providence politics, he was booted after 11 years as mayor due to an assault conviction. The story was that he had his driver and bodyguard restrain his wife's lover while Cianci burned him with a cigarette and urinated on him. Yep, nice guy. He was re-elected (!!) seven years later, only to be charged in a federal court with 27 counts of racketeering and corruption and all that good stuff. He was convicted of only 1 felony count ("corruption"), and spent almost 5 years doing his time. The Fox sitcom "Family Guy" even named their fictional junior high school after him: Buddy Cianci Jr. High. And there are 8 other cities more stressful than Providence?? Wow!

Friday, September 19, 2008

Speaking of retirement...

I recently read Early Bird, a very funny memoir written by Rodney Rothman, a guy who used to write for the David Letterman show. At the age of 28, he gets totally burned out by the stresses of being a TV writer and decides to take what he refers to as a "premature retirement." Rothman moves to Boca Raton, which in itself is sort of a caricature of the Florida retirement community, and becomes somewhat obsessed with learning how to play shuffleboard. It's funny and weird, and definitely worth a look.

Herb Alpert, Self Portrait, 1998. Acrylic on canvas.

So the other day I was driving home and I got stuck behind a van for an retirement center, one of those expensive places called Sunlake Mountains or Stratford Gardens or something hopeful like that. The van seemed to be picking up people, perhaps to go to a cooking class, or maybe even the theater, and as we were driving into my neighborhood it got me thinking. Is this like the ice cream truck for old people? When the van drives into the neighborhoods, does it blast some kind of elevator music instead of the carnival music ice cream trucks play? What kid of music would it play, exactly? Some Sinatra classics? Perhaps a little Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass? It would drive slowly down the street, but unlike the ice cream trucks for younger, more sprightly folk, the Stratford Gardens van would have to go around twice. By the time it made its second pass, the customer would have made it from the living room to the curb. And speaking of Herb Alpert, did you know that he donated $13 million dollars last year to charity, making him the second most philanthropic celebrity of 2008, second only to Oprah! That's right, you know him as the Grammy winning trumpet player, but he was also the founder of A & M Records. Guess we know what the "A" stands for now...because clearly the "M" stands for money!

Thursday, September 18, 2008

"It's still's still there..."

This is THE funniest moment on television. Period. Listen carefully to the husband!

Home exchange redux: would you Adam and Eve it, mate?

On the heels of our good fortune in finding a Swedish exchange, I sent out 2 or 3 million new inquiries (well, maybe only 1 million) and decided to include countries that speak English. Initially we had limited our search to non-English-speaking countries, but after our disappointments with the Swiss and French exchangers, we wanted to keep all of our options open. Besides, we already had a Swedish exchange planned and would at least have some exposure to a foreign language. I was looking through the listings for the UK, and thought that London might be interesting, or even Ireland, as my father's family was originally from Ireland. I looked at a few listings from Ballymena, the town where his family came from, and while it seemed very beautiful, it seemed a bit too...well...boring. I like places where I can explore around and see new things all the time, not just new green hills. So ixnay on Ballymena, and I decided to look in England. I kept unintentionally clicking on this one listing over and over again, and even though it looked a lot nicer than our house, I decided there might be a reason I kept coming upon it and so I inquired. Amazingly, I received an immediate response with great enthusiasm from a lovely retired couple, and they said that they have never been to the States and would love to exchange with us! Their grandchildren visit them often and they have a Spiderman bedroom that Sam would like, and a guest bedroom that Sara could use. I liked them immediately, and we have made arrangements for a 4 week exchange to end a week before we are due in Sweden. Their house overlooks the deep blue water of northern England and they have a huge lawn that leads down to the cliff side. Their pictures remind me of books that I read in the 8th grade, sort of a "Heathcliff goes to Manderlay" or something written by a famous sister. Interestingly, they will be visiting Florida in November for a short exchange to the Orlando area, so we have invited them to dinner to introduce ourselves and to swap keys. Maybe we'll even include my parents who live nearby, so they can befriend our guests and take them out for a sail. Little did we know that this would be the end of our smooth sailing for a while.

Sam versus wild!

So for something new and different during last night's bath, I decided to follow in Jon's footsteps and get Sam set up to play his favorite game, Man vs. Wild (remember the pants??). Normally Jon and Sam play this game in the pool, and Sam likes to switch back and forth between playing Bear Grylls and being the camera man. Jon wrestles with the raft and Sam laughs his infectious belly laugh, and they have a great time out there. So last night we tried something a little different, and I cut a rain poncho down to his size and he pretended that he was crossing a river and trying to keep dry. Ultimately the poncho tore a little, and then he switched into poncho destruction mode and basically ripped it into pieces. Game over? No way! We tied the smaller pieces to make a bag, and then Sam filled the bags with water to transport his fish that he caught for his dinner. I will need to make a fire, he told me, to cook my fish. It is amazing what kids can do when they use their imaginations. He wants to have a shower tonight instead of a bath, and I am going to have to come up with something pretty good after last night's adventures. Any suggestions?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Is this your cup of ambition??

photo: Dez Pain

Last night as we were driving home from visiting some great friends, Jon and I had to stop at the toll booths to pay with cash since we left our pre-paid transponder in our other car. We're not used to navigating toward the cash lanes, and had to pay more attention than usual to the toll booth system. Oddly, all of the lanes in the middle were closed, and the only open cash lanes were on the far ends (not cool!). Do you think that at the beginning of their shift, the toll booth guys get together and goof around, looking for a way to break the monotony? Hey Bob, know what'd be funny? Let's just open up the end lanes tonight. You take 9 and I'll take 1. We'll watch all the cars scramble to get over. It'll be hilarious! Is there such a thing as toll booth humor? Maybe all jobs have their own camaraderie and humor that's only appreciated by others on the job. I know it happens all the time in the technology business, more than you'd like to think. Do you have "inside jokes" like this to pass the time where you work?

No more bad blood...

Larry, my father-in-law, has just been admitted into the hospital halfway across the country, and his doctors are not sure what is causing his illness. Right now they are giving him some tests and trying to determine what keeps causing his blood to be so uncooperative. When you read this, please send him some good thoughts, and join me in this song of encouragement: Larry, Larry, Bo Barry, Banana Fanna Fo Farry, Fee Fi Mo Marry...Larry!!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

This is just so unsettling...

Check out this new disaster from one of my favorite websites, Cake Wrecks. It takes a special kind of person to create something like this, but who in their right mind would give it as a gift??!!

Who needs Craigslist anymore?!

As the summer fades toward autumn, advertisers on television and in print have started to change strategies and we're starting to see an increase in the number of ads for dating websites such as and eHarmony. Is this a coincidence? Absolutely not - 'tis the season to start looking for romance, and advertisers are not letting anyone off the hook. So I decided to do a little peeking, and checked out the king and queen of online dating. is the largest site with over 20 million members, according to their website, and caters to straight and gay dating. eHarmony is a Christian dating site, and thus it pairs straight couples who tend to share the same religious values. That would make it the queen and king, I guess. Both sites offer a similar guarantee that you will become partnered or you can renew again for free (I'd prefer my money back, but whatever, I'm married). There are many other sites that cater to specific types of dating: a personal favorite is Jew Glue ("where Jewish people schtick together"). I kid you not - click on it. But I have to say that I am completely freaked out by Ashley Madison, with over 2 million members (!!) and the slogan Life is short. Have an affair. I don't even know what to say to that,, thanks.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Aww, shucks...

I just wanted to take a minute to say thank you to my readers who have been with me this first week during my blog launch. I have gotten a lot of great responses and I really love your feedback, as long as it's positive. I'm kidding. Please keep commenting and thanks for reading!

Home exchange found!

my niece Allie

After the disappointments with the Swiss family and then the man in Paris, I have to admit that I was getting discouraged about finding a suitable exchange. There didn't seem to be any way that we would be spending the 2008-2009 school year abroad, so we settled on finding whatever we could find, and not worrying about trying to coordinate with the school year. The school doesn't like it, but I don't worry about taking my kids out as long as they are getting equivalent experience and don't fall behind. One year the kids and I went to California with my husband Jon, who was sent for a few weeks of training for his job. All of his expenses, plus a rental car and hotel room were paid for, so we just paid for the extra plane tickets and had a great vacation. I had to help Sara catch up with her homework, but we had plenty of time and she returned to school ahead of her classmates. So when we realized that we might have to take whatever we could get for an exchange, we stopped being so particular about the dates and started having better luck. One Swedish family offered us a month at their place in the summer, but that seemed so short, and so far in the future! Many families wanted to exchange with us over the Christmas and New Year European vacation (they get 4 weeks in practically every European country in December/January!!), and some people even offered us 2 weeks in October (um, no thanks). We finally found a Swedish family with a nice, comfortable house in a suburb of Gothenburg and they offered us either 4 weeks in December-January, or 10 weeks in the summer. Wow, 10 weeks was the best offer we had gotten, and although 10 weeks doesn't sound very long, 2 and a half months sounds pretty great. We decided to accept the exchange with the Swedish family, and they are very nice and the husband speaks perfect English. I like him very much, and we are even going to care for their 2 dogs. He suggested trying to find another exchange that could be consecutive (remind you of anyone?) and so I got started on finding a winter/spring exchange as well. We will be in Gothenburg from May 30 to August 1! The Swedish guy and I have been emailing back and forth to go over details, and I am relieved and encouraged by this good omen: their young son has the exact same birthday as my niece: November 5, 2007! Pretty cool.

Red hot publicity stunt?

So by now I'm sure you've all heard about David "X-Files" Duchovny entering rehab for his alleged sex addiction. Rumor has it that he messed around on his wife, actress Tea Leoni, for the last time and she gave him the ole Hollywood ultimatum: check in our get out. Old interviews reveal that sex addict is not a new moniker for him. An April, 1997 article from Playgirl (no, not my particular copy, you pervs!) reveals Duchovny's sardonic wit when he responds to a question about what he is currently reading with "I'm just finishing up two books called Out of Carolina and The Selfish Gene, which is this book by Richard Dawkins dating back 25 years. It's about Darwinian biology. Of course, my sex addict's 'How To' handbook is also lying around, because I'm not a very good one." Hmmm. So do we think it's a coincidence that Duchovny's character Hank Moody on Showtime's new series Californication is a bit of a californicator, or is this a publicity stunt gearing up for the September 28 launch of season 2? See for yourself! Subscribers of Cox digital cable can see the the entire season 1 for free from September 14 - 24. Verizon FIOS digital subscribers can check it out on HD on demand.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

No comment?!

Just some quick housekeeping. I have fixed the comments section of this site so you can post comments without having to create a user ID. You just select "Name" (the URL field is if you have your own website you'd like to display with your name - otherwise, leave it blank). Bring on those comments!!

Speaking of things that feel like dating...

photo: BBC

One of my favorite TV shows, House M.D., is coming back for its new season on Tuesday, 9/16 (Fox, 8 p.m. for those of you without a DVR) and it got me thinking about doctors. Not sexy English actors who play doctors and, incidentally, who have re-negotiated their contract to the tune of $400,000 an episode, making them among the highest paid TV actors, but real doctors. Medical professionals. Over the past 3 years I have been to more than my share of doctors and I have liked all of them as people (well, except one who was kind of uptight but she is a great doctor so I didn't mind all of the humorless exchanges) and I have a great deal of respect for them. I hit it off particularly well with one of my doctors - she is my age, we have similar backgrounds and interests, and she is really funny. So just the other day I had an appointment with her, and I had been thinking that I would ask her if she wanted to have a drink sometime, or maybe get together for dinner. It seemed like sort of a strange idea, like asking her on a date, but how else do people become friends?? I've asked a million people if they wanted to grab a beer, no big deal. At the end of the appointment she was telling me the nurse would be coming in and she sort of paused at the door, and said It was great to see you. Really great. Pause. Yeah, I said, you too. Pause again. Um, awkward! The nurse did her thing and as I was checking out, I started to think about it more. There's no reason to be so weird about it, it's just another person. It's not like I am asking her on a date! So I booked my follow-up appointment and did the only mature, logical thing a person could do...I wrote her a secret note!

My so-called dog's life

So for all of you who have entered to win the HGTV Dream House a million times and especially for those of you who put a reminder on your calendar or phone, I found an amazing home that's being given away and have...get this...added it to the bottom of this page so you can enter to win everyday! This house is in Windmark Beach, FL, and I know it's amazing because we recently went on vacation to the neighboring and idyllic town of Cape San Blas. We chose to vacation there because I found a condo to rent in a small little community that is off the beaten path, with a tennis court, 2 pools, and a 2 minute walk to one of the best beaches in Florida. OK, that's not really why we chose it...I picked it because the beach is a dog-friendly beach, one of the few in Florida, and we were bringing our dog. She ended up hating the beach and staying in the condo the whole time (lesson learned the hard way), but we discovered this little community that is stuck in time. No big retail, no theme parks, no fast food, no mini golf...just a family-friendly beach town for the ultimate in relaxation, circa 1975. My daughter and her friend rode their bikes the 8 miles roundtrip to the country store to buy candy (remember my 16 cent chocolate gum??) Pretty cool. So don't forget enter to win the house in Windmark Beach (scroll all the way down), and I will hook you up with details on that great condo if you leave your email address in the comments.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Home exchange on the rebound?

photo: Leila Haj-Hassan

One morning I sent a home exchange inquiry to a posting in a French town with a name I didn't recognize, letting them know (in English) that I was looking for a year-long exchange. A gentleman responded almost immediately that indeed he was interested, but I didn't quite understand the rest of his message, which was in English. We switched into French and he let me know that he would like to exchange for 6 months, and that he and his wife could also offer us 2 weeks of hospitality to show us the sights before they went to our place. I looked up the town and it's a suburb of Paris, about 6 miles from the city center. Wow! I had a million questions: where are the nearby schools, do they have reliable high-speed internet for my husband's work, how does the public transportation system work, are any of the schools English-speaking? He, on the other hand, didn't have a single question. Not a one. He wanted to exchange starting the following month, which was much too short notice for us, so we settled on a 6 month exchange for the 2nd half of the Parisian school year (February to July). Because we wanted to spend the whole school year abroad, he suggested we find another family in Paris and arrange a consecutive exchange with them, starting off the school year with the other family and then moving on to their place. Excited to find something, I told him that I would start looking for the "first" exchange and would keep him posted on my progress. I emailed him again and told him I would be happy to answer any questions about our home or about our area, but he just said he didn't have any questions, he and his wife were just looking for relaxation. I thought it was odd but figured he was older and maybe that's just his way.

So after about a week, I emailed the French exchanger after to let him know that per his advice we were still looking for another exchange, but we hadn't forgotten about him and wanted to know what the next step was. Yay, we were very excited and Sam was starting to ask me about France. He responded back that unfortunately, because he was due to leave for the States within 2 weeks, he would have to decline our offer. What!!?? I read and re-read his message, and then copied it into Google's translator just to make sure I wasn't totally crazy. Nope, I understood it - he was blowing us off. Tempted as I was to send him a nasty message, I didn't want to blow the exchange so I said that I didn't understand, I thought we had agreed on an exchange in February so why was he coming to the States in 2 weeks? Was it for a different exchange? No, he said, we did have an agreement for February but he didn't want to wait any longer for us to make a decision, and so he would give us one week to decide if we still wanted to exchange. Huh?? I referred him back to me original message, and again said that yes, we are on board, ready to go, and would like to take the next step toward fixing exact dates with him. I apologized for my poor French, and hoped he understood. I didn't hear from him for 4 days. 4 days! I wasn't sure what to think, when he finally replied back to me:

Je ne peux plus vous attendre. Malheureusement, je dois décliner votre offre pour septembre. Cordialement.

I can't wait for you any longer. Unfortunately, I have to decline your offer for September. Regards.
September? This guy wasn't making sense in his own language, no translator was going to help me with this problem. But this was Paris. Paris!! So, of course, I started writing back to him. We are prepared to purchase plane tickets for your offer of a home exchange from February to July. Are you still interested in making this exchange? But before I sent the email I started to think about it. If this man didn't seem trustworthy, or even coherent, over email, did I really want to set my kids up for disappointment and set myself up for non-refundable plane tickets? Would I want this man staying in my home even if the exchange did work out? I knew the answer was no, but like a bad relationship, I just didn't want to let go. I didn't know at the time that a great opportunity was just around the corner.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Afternoon delight

Speaking of things you'd do for money (just kidding, Jay!), I heard from Shawn Kelly, the amazing EP (that's Executive Producer for all of you non-nerds) of the Jay Thomas Show on Sirius radio. Remember my quest to find out who works from what city? Well, now I know for sure, and so do you! Apparently Jay works out of a studio in Santa Barbara without a team of producers, using ISDN technology to create a seamless show across multiple sites. Not only does he not have anyone to bring donuts, he also doesn't have any way of communicating non-verbally with the other people on the show while on the air. It might not seem so impressive, but believe me, it is: the show is quick and clever, and definitely worth checking out (but NSFW!). If you don't have a Sirius radio in your car, you can sign up and listen on line. The Jay Thomas Show, Sirius Stars 102, weekdays 3 - 6 pm ET.

Last call!

photo: Ken Thompson
So I had to get a procedure done today at the hospital called a CT Enterography . I won't go into all of the delightful details, but when I checked in to radiology I was given 3 bottles of barium liquid that I had to drink. One every 15 minutes. These were not tiny bottles by any means, more like the paper-bagged bottles of Old English beer that I used to see littering the train tracks of the Long Island Railroad. Okay, maybe not that big, more like soda can size. The guy asked me if I wanted a straw and I tried to figure out a way to drink out of the straw so I couldn't taste anything. I remembered something about holding my nose and standing on one foot, but I was too embarrassed to try that in the waiting room. After 45 minutes, I was still trying to calculate how much of this stuff I really drank (does anyone know how to convert cc's to ounces??) and I started thinking about the nasty things people will eat or drink for money. First there was Survivor, pioneer of the gratuitous bug-eating, followed by Fear Factor, and now there is Man vs. Wild. Remember Bear Grylls, of the amazing pants? Well not only does he eat freshly caught "meat", but he also drinks some of the most disgusting things I have ever seen in the name of hydration. The difference is that on Survivor and Fear Factor, critter dining is entirely for shock value whereas Bear Grylls is teaching survival skills. But, when you really think about it, none of these people are actually faced with life or death situations, they are making television shows. How far would you go? What would you drink or eat if it could lead to you a million dollars?

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Not just archery and bug juice anymore

This summer my daughter Sara spent what she calls the best 2 weeks of her life at Swedish language immersion camp in Bemidji, Minnesota. The camp is at Concordia Language Villages, a total language immersion camp designed for kids aged 7-18 run by Concordia College in Moorhead, MN. Sara decided that she was interested in learning about Sweden after watching a television show on Scandinavian music, and soon developed an interest in learning the language. Unfortunately, there aren't many opportunities to study Swedish in the States, so she started out by using the Rosetta Stone language software. Remember learning about the Rosetta Stone in 8th grade? OK, neither did I, but thanks to the internet I was ready when she asked me exactly what is a Rosetta Stone, anyway? (I know you're looking it up's OK). So this year was her first time at overnight camp, and we wanted to find something very cool for her to do. When we found Concordia Language Villages, we were super excited to see that they had a Swedish program and that it looked excellent. We quickly signed Sara up for the 2-week session and figured we would have months to prepare her for the potential frustration of an immersion program. Amazingly, Sara embraced the study of all things Swedish with full vigor, to the point that she drove us a little crazy with it, and by the time camp started she was already singing their national anthem and having short conversations with herself. Even Sam knew a few key phrases, just by listening to Sara. My Mom and I flew halfway across the country to attend the parents' day at camp and see what Sara had gotten herself into, and I was just blown away by the positive energy and enthusiasm of the staff and of the campers. They were on cloud 9, even though they were hot, sweaty, and not smelling too terrific. I was moved to tears watching the kids sing in Swedish while Sara had a huge grin plastered across her face, something I hadn't seen in a long time. As soon as we got home, I set to work immediately on finding us a home exchange with a Swedish family. Tack så mycket, Concordia! Vi kommer alltid att minnas dig!

And the worst boyfriend award goes to...

I'm sure you all know the story about the Italian businessman Raffaelo Follieri who was dating The Devil Wears Prada and The Princess Diaries star Anne Hathaway. Apparently he misrepresented himself as a representative of...get this...the Vatican (!!) and used these fake connections to swindle a great deal of money out of investors who believed him to be getting unearthly deals on real estate. Not only did he misappropriate over 2 million bucks, he also used some of this money to buy his actress girlfriend lavish gifts of jewelry and watches (the good ones) that she recently had to hand over to the FBI. The Smoking Gun has all the juicy details of the gifts. Can you imagine?? Impersonating a representative of the Vatican: $2.4 million. Pretending to be a generous guy to his girlfriend: $300,000. Spending the next 3 - 5 in the clink: priceless.

In memoriam

Today is September 11, 2008. It has been seven years since almost 3,000 Americans were killed in what is the most horrific event of my lifetime. I wanted to take a moment to remember the man I knew personally, Shawn M. Nassaney. Shawn was with his girlfriend, Lynn Goodchild, on United flight 175 that crashed into the south tower of the World Trade Center. They were 25 years old, and going on vacation to Hawaii. Along with Shawn and Lynn, two pilots, 7 crew, and 54 other passengers lost their lives on that flight, two of them were toddlers. Today my heart is broken again.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Paper Doll Heaven?

photo: Davide Guglielmo

Remember making these paper dolls as a kid? I used to make these all the time with my Mom, and then we would decorate each of the dolls with crayons and even glitter (!!), and sometimes even make clothes for them. I don't remember how to make them anymore and I want to make them with the kids. Does anyone know how to do it??

Home Exchange, Part Don't

photo: Nathalie Dulex
One happy morning a while back, I got an email from a family in Switzerland who wanted to know if we would like to exchange our home with theirs for a year. Their home is set in an Alpine hillside, overlooking a small town in the Valais region of Switzerland (think thermal baths and chocolat chaud), and from the pictures it looked to be right out of a postcard. Originally we hadn't really wanted to exchange in a French speaking country since I already speak French, but these people were very interested and they had contacted us, so we decided to pursue it. We looked up information about the locale and decided it would be quite nice, and I emailed back that yes, we would like to exchange with them as well. Over a series of emails back and forth, the woman and I chatted about one of my favorite meals called Raclette, a Swiss cheese that is melted on a special table-top cooker and then traditionally served over boiled potatoes with sausages and pickles on the side. She proposed a date beginning November, 2008. I accepted, and we exchanged photos of our respective Raclette cookers. She replied that actually January 2009 would be better for her family, and I accepted again, even though we would be cutting the year short to return in August for the kids to start school the following year. She sent me links to local restaurants, but then said that actually, January 2009 would still be bad and that August 2009 is the earliest they can exchange. What?! We had made it very clear from the beginning that we wanted to be back in the states by August 2009, so this was not going to work, even though I had developed a serious Raclette jones. Sadly I said no, but I was mad about it because she had made the offer to me, not the other way around. She was the one who proposed the dates, and we shuffled our plans around to accommodate her. Twice. This ordeal left a bitter taste in my mouth about the whole home exchange process, but I was able to get rid of it with a good meal of...yeah, you guessed it.

Laughing so hard

My favorite blog these days is Cake Wrecks, a hilarious site that shows what happens when professional cakes "go horribly, hilariously wrong". The first time I read this blog, I laughed so hard that I literally cried, but I couldn't stop!! There are pictures of some really crazy/shocking/hideous cakes, but the sweetest part is the writing. There are some really funny set-ups, describing what the customer had in mind when they placed their order, followed by what they really got. The best one is the olympic rings cake. You cannot make that up!


Lately I've been fascinated with Sirius radio, especially some of their talk radio programming. The best and funniest is The Jay Thomas Show (remember Eddie LeBec from Cheers? Jerrry Gold from Murphy Brown? That's him.) One of the cool things about the show is that Jay is in the Sirius studios in LA, and a bunch of the staff are in the Sirius headquarters in New York. I have been thinking about how that works. I understand the technology allows for a seamless show, regardless of location, but have you ever been in a radio studio? There are a million people in the booth, producers, interns, more producers, people running the boards, people eating donuts, the whole shebang. I never knew that Jay was in LA while the others are in NY, so they are obviously making it work. Sirius uses space in a well-known recording studio in Hollywood, so I imagine they don't have a whole crew with them. Do you think Jay is alone out there, or are there a bunch of producers out there with him, bringing the donuts? I am on a mission to find out!

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Home Exchange, Part One

Well, we have finally pulled the trigger and have settled on a very interesting series of home exchanges for 2009. This will be our first time exchanging homes, and I'm not exactly sure what to expect! I originally researched the idea, and found that there were two major home exchange websites, each a little different but both around a hundred bucks for a listing. I read and read, and then read again, and scoured the listings to see if there were actual homes for exchange that were of interest to us. I didn't want to join both, so when I finally fell upon a blog by an American woman from Arizona who decided to spend a year in France on a home exchange, I couldn't get enough. I read her whole blog and finally decided to join the one she joined, as she found the type of exchange that we were looking for.

I wrote up my listing, and took a million photos of our house and then re-took them until they were perfect and posted them right away. I wrote carefully-crafted personalized messages to the most promising listings, letting them know that we were looking for a long-term exchange, ideally a year, in a non-English-speaking country in Europe. We didn't care which country, what type of home, inland or coastal, apartment or two story house, it didn't matter. We were looking for new experiences, foreign language knowledge for our kids, interesting new foods. We were looking for culture! Hours passed, then days, then nothing. A whole lot of nothing, no replies, no offers, just nothing. This isn't supposed to happen like this. Then, one morning, I had an email from someone looking for an exchange! Finally! The email said:

Dear exchange partner:
We would like to exchange our home with you this summer for 3 weeks. We have a nice home in Ireland, close to the coast and to shopping, that you will like very much.
Please respond right away, thank you.

Hmmm. Alas, this was the way it would go for a long time, and I did receive a few very lovely replies from families who were not available for long-term travel, or who had already found exchanges. However, the promise of finding a perfect home exchange after only a matter of weeks was out of reach and the process started to feel more and more like internet dating. Why aren't they replying to my email? Maybe they don't like the way I decorated? Maybe they appreciate my sense of humor in my listing? I'm funny, aren't I? My house is nice, isn't it? Finally, after a few months of little to no interest, I decided my house could no longer suffer these indignities and I decided to take a drastic step. I joined the other website. Things were about to look up.

Speaking of missing things...

Earlier I was writing about childhood, and it made me think about play-doh. Remember the way a brand new, never-been-touched-before can of play-doh felt between your fingers, the way it squished out of your fingers as you squeezed it so tightly? I wanted Sam to have the same experience and was looking for a way to make it a fun thing we could do together. I found a recipe for DIY play dough courtesy of Instructables and got to work. Instead of using food coloring full of dyes and other nasty bits (I don't know why but I've started using more and more British phrases lately), I bought some individual packets of Kool Aid and once I finished making the dough, I divided it into 2 sections and added a packet of Kool Aid to each. It takes a quick kneading to incorporate all the Kool Aid crystals into the dough, and the Kool Aid also scents the dough with memories of childhood summers. The dough felt amazing between my fingers and I was transported back for a minute...until I almost burned myself on the sauce pan that I had used. In any case, Sam and I had a fun time making our dough and it was so easy and inexpensive that I am pretty sure some of you will be getting this for Christmas this year.

I can't believe I am going to miss this!

One song on my iPod that I can't stop listening to is Turpentine by Brandi Carlile. She is just starting to get well-known, and she is joining an unbelievable line-up on Cayamo 2009, an amazing music themed cruise out of Miami. Not only will Brandi Carlile be there, but also fellow acoustic folksters like Indigo Girls, Lyle Lovett, John Hiatt, and Shawn Colvin, to name a few. The "Journey through song" experience is taking place February 28 - March 7, 2009 abord the Norwegian Dream, one of the ships belonging to Norwegian Cruise Line, home of freestyle cruising. I am so jerked that I am going to miss this amazing event, but we are going to be in Europe so that softens the blow a little. Just a little.

Being a kid

photo: Nick Cowie

Yesterday I went for a walk with my 4 year old son, Sam. Momma, he asked me, if I step on a crack, will your back get broken?

My heart melted and I started thinking about the innocence of childhood. I can remember looking forward to being old enough to ride my bike across the street alone. If I made it, I would be able to buy a pack of the coveted chocolate gum for 16 cents. I remember being so proud when I turned 10 that I was finally a "double digit." I wouldn't be able to sleep the night before our family left for our annual month-long beach vacation because I was so excited to see my friends again. I didn't worry if they would still like me, or if our rental home would be clean enough, or how I would pay my bills after taking a month off from work. All I needed to think about was finding my friends and when I would get my chocolate gum. What a luxurious vacation!

Lions and tigers and Bear Grylls!

So I recently became a fan of a show on the Discovery Channel called Man vs. Wild. You have probably already see in but in case you haven't, you really should check it out. It's basically a lesson in survival skills by a former SAS guy who, as it turns out, holds the world record for being the youngest man to climb Mount Everest. I watch it in HD on my huge bedroom TV and am amazed at the photography and become sort of mezmerized by the images and the British accent of the host, Bear Grylls. (OK, I actually thought it was a weird coincidence that the guy on the show about surviving in the wild is named Bear, but it turns out to guessed it...a childhood nickname that stuck. Sort of makes for a cool show, though, doesn't it?)

One of my favorite parts about the show is Bear's pants. Not in the way that you think (pervert!), but he wears these cool adventure-guy type pants with reinforced knees. Those pants justs seem so...professional. I would never, ever, in my wildest dreams find myself in a situation where I would need pants like these. It seems that many women like the part in the show when Bear inevitably takes his pants off and dives for some dinner in the frigid waters , but I don't know, I think I prefer the cool pants.

This is it!

Okay, so I finally decided to take everyone's advice and start a blog. When I say everyone, I mean the unfortunate friends and family who end up with my annual holiday letter, and the old friends from college who remember that I am a writer. Oh, and the occasional person from my past who wants to stay in touch without having to actually talk to know the type.

So bear with me as I iron out the quirks of blogging and get my page up and running with something you'd actually like to read. Stay tuned!