Sunday, July 2, 2017

Mississippi's Spell

MI-SS-ISS-IPPI. Mississippi was one of the first states I learned to spell, with its sing-song double letters, but one I had yet to visit. In my quest to visit all 50 states before I turn 50, this isn't the first time Paul has been my travel companion for an unconventional vacation destination.

Sign of true love:

Me: Where would you like to go on vacation this summer?
Paul: The beach.
Me: I was thinking Mississippi.
Paul: Of course.

So, while our friends' Facebook and Instagram feeds are full of toes in the sand and relaxing by endless sunsets, we headed down for views of the Mighty Mississippi River and some Civil War history to check state #39 off the list.

We stayed in the Anchuca Historic Mansion and Inn. Anchuca is a Choctaw word meaning "happy home" and we were definitely happy to take in beautiful surroundings, friendly pets, and interesting history of this antebellum home. Even the birds were happy. So happy, in fact, that they woke us up at 1:30 am chirping loudly. Paul walked outside in his pjs to greet them...or shake his fist at them...depending on your perspective. Finally morning arrived and we fueled up on a big Southern breakfast of eggs and grits. We were ready for our Mississippi adventure!

Let's be honest. Mississippi isn't usually on anyone's Top 10 list of destinations. And as you will read, the whole trip wasn't sunshine and roses. More like sunshine and magnolias. Honestly, what sticks out most are the friendly and helpful people we met along the way. Take Leo, for example. We rented bikes from Battlefield Bicycle and Leo went out of his way to make sure we had everything we needed--water for the ride, helmets, directions to get to Vicksburg Military Park the back way to avoid traffic. Beyond the bike rental, he offered us sandwiches and cookies for lunch and advice on where to eat an authentic Southern Plantation style dinner. (Walnut Hills for fried chicken and pecan praline pie, yum!) I get the sense that we could have sat in Leo's office and chatted with him all day. And maybe we would have, if we had known about the heat and the hills that awaited us. But no, we blissfully rode away, leaving Leo waving and smiling.

I could tell you everything I learned about the 47 day siege and the importance of the Battle of Vicksburg as a turning point for Union troops during the Civil War but what I really learned is that Vicksburg is hilly. In fact, our 18 mile bike ride around the park began at the aptly named Fort Hill. Those hills were tough. And hot. Paul said it helped him better appreciate those soldiers in their wool uniforms fighting in the summer sun. Our ride along the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers totaled 1,555 feet in elevation. I had to dismount and walk three different times!

By the time we finished, we were ready to cool off at the Museum of Coca-Cola. After a long bike ride in the sun, a sensible person might have driven to the museum, but it looked like a short walk on the map. Little did I know, it was a half mile trek down a steep hill with no shade. So, as we learned about Joseph Biedenharn, the first person who bottled Coca-Cola, we had the return hike uphill to anticipate.
I loved the history and memorabilia, which included years worth of advertising campaigns and an authentic soda fountain on display. I did not, however see any "delicious homemade candies" as the museum promised and we were a bit underwhelmed. The museum is owned and operated by the Vicksburg Foundation for Historic Preservation. Maybe they should consider partnering with a business who would like to operate a modern soda fountain and candy store.  Full disclosure: we drove our air-conditioned rental car to Rite Aid for our ice cold Cokes.
On the way back to our B&B, we stopped to look at the Riverfront Murals and found one of Joseph Biedenharn himself. We also found one of Willie Dixon, one of the Blues' greats. Mississippi's slogan is "Birthplace of America's Music" and we were looking forward to hearing some live music in Vicksburg. Vacation planning lesson: Vicksburg Music Society lists live music but shows usually occur Thursdays-Sundays. We were in Mississippi Monday-Wednesday. So, we had to be content with taking Willie's picture on the mural.

Day Two: We said goodbye to Vicksburg and headed deeper into the South to the city of Natchez. Here we were lucky enough to get a tour of the Melrose House with the world's greatest tour guide.
As I mentioned, we loved meeting the friendly people in Mississippi. Barney, a park ranger at Natchez National Historic Park, was one of those people. Barney's infectious personality and in-depth knowledge of history made our tour of the Melrose House one of the highlights of our whole trip. Do you know why the house was on an estate, not a plantation?  (There was no farm on the land.) Do you know why the sofa has a center divider? (It was a courting couch so there was no accidental touching.) Do you know how the owners were inspired to install indoor plumbing in the 1850's? (They saw toilets in England...and if you see flushing toilets made by Thomas Crapper & Company, they've got to be good, right?) Barney obviously had a true passion for history, both about the house and Mississippi in general. However a question about increase in output after the cotton gin was perfected was trickier. "That's math," he joked. "I was never very good with math. At Alcorn State University, you know how I passed Algebra II? I found out my professor loved fried chicken. Here's some math: one order of fried chicken and one biscuit in one greasy paper bag equals me passing Algebra." We loved the Cypress pond and the magnolia gardens but Barney was definitely the highlight of this visit!

Next, we headed into downtown Natchez to walk along the Mississippi River and enjoy some barbeque at the Pig Out Inn. You know it's going to be authentic when the cashier records your order on the side of the plate like its a Starbucks cup--only instead of code for mocha frap, its Pulled Pork Dinner.

After lunch we drove up the Natchez Trace Parkway to Jackson. The Old Trace was first used by Choctaw and Chickasaw Indians and then in the 1800's it was the main return route for Ohio Valley traders who floated down the Mississippi, then sold their flatboats as timber in Natchez and walked home. Now it is a 444 National Scenic Byway with lots of historic sites, campgrounds, and hikes along the way.
 We stopped at milepost 41.5 to walk along Sunken Trace. As the guidebook told us, "In fading sunlight within these high earthen walls, you are looking at the effects of time, hooves and feet. If you linger, you may sense the spirit of those who trod here before you."
We arrived in Jackson to satisfy one last bucket list item--live music. Thanks to the Jackson Free Press, I found out the New Bourbon Street Jazz Band was playing at a local bar. Due to our extremely early morning flight, I thought it would be easy to return the rental car and take the hotel shuttle to and from the airport. Unfortunately, even though the Hampton Inn Pearl is billed as an airport hotel with a shuttle, the short window of 5am to 11am didn't suit our needs. But before I had a chance to be too irritated with our Hilton property, we hopped in a cab with Isaac.
"200 Commerce Street," I told him. Isaac seemed confused.
"200 Commerce Street? That's an industrial park warehouse district. Why do you want to go there?"
"That's the address of a restaurant called Hal and Mal's," I said, unsure now. I mean, all I knew about this place was that they had a band. Was it in a sketchy part of town?
"Oh, Hal and Mal's! That's all you needed to say. Everyone knows Hal and Mal's." Isaac proceeded to take us there directly, all the while telling us about the daily specials (he likes roast beef on Thursdays) and the crowds for the live bands.  So on our last night in Mississippi we enjoyed some local brews & local blues. 

So there you have it--a successful trip to Mississippi. If you go, here's a little advice:
1)Bring earplugs for the "nocturnal" birds
2)Definitely find Leo, Barney, and Isaac...or engage in conversation with some other friendly Mississippi locals
3)Take your camera with you to the bathroom at Hal and Mal's.



Monday, February 20, 2017

Dear Granny Amy

Dear Granny Amy,
Yesterday, I attended your Memorial Service. So many people shared remembrances about the positive impact you made on so many lives and I am honored to be one of those people. Hearing the stories--some funny, some touching, I began to see the pattern how my interactions with you fit into the beautiful mosaic of your life.

Importance of Connection
Once, you came to my home for dinner and I served a summer salad. I seem to recall it had nectarines, walnuts...maybe some goat cheese? Sharing a meal with friends and family was one way you focused on the importance of connecting with others. You were so flattering and complimentary and asked for the recipe. Yesterday, I learned that you often asked others for recipes. You would recopy them into your own hand, noting who gave it to you, and lovingly store them away. At your service, I skimmed through so many recipe cards, each of them a meaningful memory of a meal shared with a friend. We were invited to take a recipe...after much consideration, I chose Sombrero Dip. It sounds fun--just like you. I picture us dressed festively, wearing sombreros while eating it, and laughing.

Another recurring theme was your laughter. I wasn't surprised to learn you chose the Jester costume for the Henry VIII Ball because that is how I remember you--laughing, colorful. I remember your holiday earrings, your colorful beaded necklaces, and that you always seemed to be smiling. At another table, we were invited to take an item of your costume jewelry. I chose some whimsical earrings made of bottle caps, painted with chickens. They remind me of a blog that Debbie and I love about a metal chicken reminding us that we need to have a sense of humor and that everyone needs some whimsy in their lives. You had so many whimsical collections ranging from hedgehogs to all things Elvis. I think you would approve of a metal chicken collection if I ever started collecting anything.

I remember Katherine and Maggie once got into loom weaving potholders and you brought them several bags of craft loops. Yes, you were generous with gifts, but I was also struck by how many stories were shared of you reaching out to help others. You were generous with your time and your talents, and your values to stand up for that which is right, even when it is difficult. These stories of generosity, to me, are far more valuable than any material gift. Every day, I notice how you passed along these traits of compassion, love and service to your daughter and my dear friend Debbie. She is the most selfless, generous friend I know. I know that she mourns your loss, and lies awake thinking, "I don't have a Momma anymore." I hope she feels and knows that your spirit lives on within her, and within all of us. That, in fact, she has an infinite number of Mommas now, because you have touched all of us, and we carry a bit of your spirit our hearts too.

Love, Allison

"A little less fight and a little more spark, close your mouth and open your heart."--Elvis

Monday, January 2, 2017

Ready for Reentry

A few years back, my friend Donna gave me a little journal called "One Line A Day." It is a five year memory book with just enough room for a sentence or two for each day, although I like to write small and squish in three or four. It's now full of almost three years of memories, and I love to look back on prior entries to see what was happening on the same date one and two years ago.  This type of journal helps me notice the patterns and cycles in my life. Good days follow bad days. Good to know.

One trend I noticed is that the first day back to "reality" after winter break seems to be particularly challenging. In 2015, I wrote, First day back. Started with a local screening meeting and ended with diagnosis of flu. Sitting by the fire with Tamiflu and hoping I feel better soon. Snow tomorrow? Then in 2016, I wrote, First day back--made it through feeling unprepared. R worried about high blood pressure. I'm worried about S making good choices. Paul sick with cough. I go to bed at 8:00.

The perspective of noticing patterns is helpful because I take comfort in the knowledge that history repeats itself. I can look through the pages and remember that I do survive those first few days back and slowly get back into the groove. However, I'd like to take it one step further this year and break the pattern. Instead of lamenting the end of my winter break, and dwelling on all the things I won't have time to do, I'm going to try making a conscious shift in my attitude about that first day back.

I'll take it easy on my expectations--lesson plans may be a little loose and dinner might be a pot of spaghetti and that's OK. I'll consider how great it is to be back in a routine instead of home with so many cookies. I'll think about the people I haven't seen in almost three weeks--my teammates and my students. I'm going to remember that they may be feeling a bit shell-shocked too, and to try to smile extra often tomorrow.  I may still go to bed at 8:00 pm tomorrow night, but before I do, I'll write in my little journal, First day back... and I'm looking forward to seeing what comes next.
Looking forward to seeing my teammates...what should we wear tomorrow, ladies?

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Birthdays and Butterflies

“The butterfly effect is very interesting,” Pop Pop tells us as he heaps a serving of potatoes onto his plate.
“I’ve heard of that,” Jack chimes in. “It’s the idea that a butterfly flapping its wings could alter the path of a hurricane.” You just never know what the topic of conversation might be when you visit with Pop Pop and Grammy Carolyn. One day it’s quantum physics, the next day it’s baseball. Today is my birthday and, as I reflect on the past year and look ahead, I’ve been thinking about our conversation about the butterfly effect, in which small changes in initial conditions can lead to big and unpredictable results.
2017 is shaping up to be a year with quite a bit of wing fluttering. Katherine is learning to drive while Jack considers his college choices. I am hoping to complete my Endorsement in ESL this spring, so I could look for a new job teaching English Language Learners. Big Pa will start radiation to fight the cancer tumors in his body. Our niece is planning her wedding. It’s a lot. It’s exciting, and scary, and exhilarating to move into a year with so many milestones and unknowns on the horizon. It makes me teary-eyed with gratitude and sappy with nostalgia to reflect on how short, and precious, life is.  
That may be why the little book of “150 Love Notes” caught my eye as I was shopping for gifts at The Paper Source. I bought it as a birthday present to myself. One of my New Year’s Resolutions is to deliver these notes throughout this year to friends and family. To help them realize that, whether they know it or not, they fluttered their wings, and made a difference in my life. 

A little birthday fun at Mount Vernon. 

Monday, September 26, 2016

Smoke Alarms and Flip Flops

I took the day off today and by “off” I mean pack lunches/ physical therapy/ school sub plans/ eye doctor/ bank/ oil change/ grocery store/ clean house/ respond to work emails/ laundry/ unload dishwasher/ take Katherine to dentist/ drop off and pickup Katherine from cross country/ cook dinner/ clean kitchen/ plan lessons. It felt SO GOOD!
As this is my 10th year balancing teaching with parenting, the challenges of September are not new to me. (Remember September vs. Allison?) And as much as I try to prepare, each year’s challenges are unique. This year, I have 29 amazing fifth graders to love. The good news: to help support all the different levels and learning styles, our class qualifies for two special education teachers and an ESOL teacher. The bad news: these three positions have yet to be hired. This is out of my control, so I just keep doing what I can do, one day at a time.
I love this bunch!
I spend a lot of time trying to balance work and home and I distract myself thinking about it all. Last week I drove to Physical Therapy to run and realized I was still wearing my flip flops. This week I tried to get a jump start on dinner by roasting a chicken while preparing for work. I opened the oven to check in and a huge poof of smoke came billowing out. “Please don’t set off the smoke alarm,” I thought as I started frantically fanning the cloud.

Beeeeeeeep, beeeeeep.   Too late.

So, when Paul ran out to the kitchen at 6:00 am to find me in my PJs waving dishtowels in the air, I could only turn, smile, and say, “Dinner’s ready!”

One of my teammates is back at work this September for the first time since having a baby. It’s not easy. “I just feel like a failure,” she mentioned as she stuffed her bag full of papers that needed grading. “I don’t understand how everyone else does this.”

Pssst—here’s our secret. We don’t. We try, but we end up burning chicken and running in flip flops. We make choices and prioritize. Sometimes that means eating Fritos and a candy bar for dinner so we’re not late to our son’s game. Sometimes it means falling asleep at 8:00 pm instead of folding laundry. We support each other and we laugh and we drink too much coffee and too much wine.  We lose ourselves in the moments that really matter--with our students, our families, and friends.

And sometimes, we take a “sick” day to stay healthy.

Monday, September 5, 2016

72 Hours in Minneapolis

My friend Chrissy is amazingly energetic, adventurous, and fun. She's also got a bit of a competitive side...which is why I really should of thought it through when I sent her a list of 21 possible ideas for our trip to Minnesota.  She took it as a challenge.  So, over the course of 3 days, we really got to know and love quite a bit of what Minneapolis has to offer. If you are headed that way, we highly recommend the following:

1. Relax on the patio of Tugg's Tavern at Saint Anthony Main enjoying a local brew and a stuffed burger while taking in the riverfront and skyline views.

2. Rent bikes from Tangletown Bike Shop and complete a 14 mile loop around Lake Harriet, Lake Calhoun, and Lake of the Isles.

3. Stroll through a Japanese peace garden and the country's second oldest public rose garden.
stopping to smell the roses and count the sunny days

4. Enjoy lawn bowling on roof of Brit's Pub. (Well, we didn't actually bowl. But we enjoyed seeing others "roll the bowls.")

5. Dine at Monte Carlo under the festive patio lights.

6. Sit under the stars and watch a movie in Loring Park...such a cool concept to have a live band playing during the silent 1929 black and white film, Man with A Movie Camera. We lasted about 10 minutes.

7. Sip fancy schmancy cocktails at a "secret speakeasy" (well, it's on Trip Advisor, so not really) at Prohibition on the 27th floor of the W at Foshay.

8. Check out happy hour at a few local hot spots within walking distance of our hotel.

9. Travel via Minneapolis Skyway System--those handy enclosed pedestrian footbridges get lots of use in the winter, I'm sure!

10. Flagship Target Store...because who doesn't love a good trip to Target

11. Minneapolis Institute of Art...otherwise known as Mia. We loved seeing some favorite artists here.

12. Play mini-golf at the Walker art museum. This may be the first and last time I ever beat Chrissy in anything.

13. Contemplate modern art at the Walker. Some of the art took more contemplation than others. Like the drywall we thought was part of the construction, which was actually part of the exhibit.

14. Sculpture Garden (sorta) The famous garden is under construction and looks like it will be amazing when it reopens next year. In the meantime, we managed to peek through the construction to find the iconic spoon and cherry sculpture.

15. Minnehaha Falls...because I just couldn't wait to hike up and down another flight of steps as part of my knee surgery recovery plan.

16. Mill City Museum--we rode in a grain elevator to tour this old flour mill

17. Arch Bridge--bike, walk, or just enjoy the view

18. Betty Dangers Country Club...where you can eat dinner on a ferris wheel

19. South Pacific at the Guthrie Theater

20. Mall of America. I must confess that I wasn't initially excited about this one. I mean, we have Tyson's Corner...why would I want to shop at a mall on my vacation. Fast forward to 5 hours later and we were like Odysseus' men in the land of the Lotus Eaters. We shopped, we ate, we played with Legos, we even went to a theme park in the middle of the mall.

21. Dueling Pianos at The Shout House..and it was 90's night!

I'm so thankful to Chrissy for making this adventure with me to my 37th state. I'm recovering well from knee surgery but am still not 100% and she was a patient friend as I hobbled around. As much as we were able to enjoy in our jam-packed three days, we still couldn't see everything. People kept suggesting more places to see, to eat, to explore. And we returned home on the day the fair began, although locals insisted it would be worth it to postpone our flight and stay another day. Minneapolis, thank you for your friendly hospitality. I'll be back again someday, you betcha!