Monday, November 30, 2015

Fun in France

The place we stayed last night was a horse farm, which raises Icelandic horses. So we started our day today out in the barn, loving on the horses and dogs. With all our traveling yesterday, we didn't get to properly celebrate Ruth's half-birthday, so that was on the agenda today, and a horse barn definitely seemed like a good place to begin. We then had lunch in Bordeaux, at a wonderful sidewalk cafe Ruth picked out. The food was delicious, and the weather was gorgeous, so we enjoyed sitting outside. After lunch, we went out to a winery, because we didn't feel like we could pass through Bordeaux without doing so. It was a beautiful estate, with a lovely castle, an iPad tour with an accompanying questionnaire, a juice tasting for kids, and a wine tasting for grown-ups. Jeff and weren't crazy about the wine, but we all enjoyed the experience. After that we stopped to pick up groceries for the week at the largest Walmart-type superstore (Auchan) I have ever been in. I went in alone and quickly became overwhelmed by the size of the store and the French language everywhere. I have been too long in English speaking countries, I guess, and didn't properly prepare myself for the experience. We finally made it to our home for the week, just outside of Bordeaux. It is a quirky old house that is in the process of being renovated. There seems to be a lake across the street, which we will have to check out tomorrow, since we arrived after dark.

The boys exploring the garden at our previous house

Ruth and her new Icelandic horse friend

Clay also made a friend at the barn.

The half-birthday girl, with her decadent chocolate mousse

This medieval castle and its moat sit at the heart of Chateau d'Agassac.

Fully engaged in the iPad tour

Roses are frequently planted with grapevines
as an early warning system for diseases.
Though the vines at Chateau d'Agassac were already bare,
the roses still had some showing off to do. 

Our tasting set-up

Clay was very careful with his fancy glass.

Max approved!

Sunday, November 29, 2015

A harrowing ferry ride and a peek into history

We left our long-term home in Duncannon yesterday and boarded a ferry for France, where we proceeded to endure possibly the roughest sea passage in history. It was kind of like trying to eat and sleep and do other normal things on a seemingly endless carnival ride. As always, the brunt of the seasickness fell on me, but Max and Ruth were slightly green, as well. Frankly, my head is still spinning. But, we survived and disembarked around 1:00 this afternoon. We then had an opportunity to visit a fascinating D-Day museum at Utah Beach, before making the long drive to our home for the night. Our rough night on the ferry gave us some perspective about how many of those soldiers probably felt when they reached the shore, which made us respect them all the more.

Tanks are always a big hit with my boys

The war plane of David Dewhurst Sr. 

Guess who was excited to see all the statues?! 

Utah Beach D-Day Museum

Friday, November 27, 2015

Irish Thanksgiving

Yesterday was a big day. It was Weston's birthday AND Thanksgiving, so we partied all day and consumed almost more calories than the human body can handle. The challenge of trying to prepare a typically American meal in a foreign country is thrilling. It's even more thrilling when your kitchen is equipped only with basic food prep items and lacks things like electric mixers, measuring spoons/cups, and an abundance of baking dishes and mixing bowls. We had so much fun hunting for ingredients and coming up with creative solutions to some of our meal preparation conundrums. The last time we prepared Thanksgiving dinner in a foreign country was in 2008, in Brazil. This time, it was considerably easier, though still interesting. We managed to put together a decent feast that tasted mostly the way Thanksgiving dinner should taste. We had turkey, ham, green bean casserole, dressing, sweet potato casserole, pink salad, fruit salad, and pumpkin pie. And, we were so very thankful that we have a dishwasher in this house, to make cleaning up much simpler. We did miss getting to spend the day with our extended family and getting to nap to the sound of football on the T.V. after the meal (though we were able to get a game later in the day, which made the day complete, particularly for our football lover birthday boy). But, otherwise, it was Thanksgiving as usual. We are blessed beyond belief and have so much to be thankful for, on this day and every day.

It wouldn't be Thanksgiving without pumpkin pie!
(Pumpkin was one of the most difficult ingredients to find.)

Thanksgiving Feast
(And, the all-important dishwasher!)

Thankful and Blessed

Thanksgiving Sunset

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Double Digits

Dear Weston,

It's your 10th birthday, which is so very hard for me to believe! It doesn't seem that long ago that you were just a little boy. Now, you are a young man. This year, your birthday falls on Thanksgiving, and we are certainly thankful for you. You are smart and funny and talented in so many ways. You fill our days with joy and make us so proud. You are rough-and-tumble, but also sensitive and thoughtful. You are a hard worker, but you also love to relax and have a good time. You are the best of everything!

We are currently traveling around the world, and you have eagerly and enthusiastically embraced all of the new situations and experiences we have encountered. You always look forward to trying the local cuisine, no matter how ridiculous or unusual it seems, and you always try to learn a phrase or two of the local language. You have been most looking forward to our visit to China and have taken it upon yourself to try to learn as much Mandarin as you can before we get there. I have been particularly impressed with the care and attention to detail you show when you practice writing the seemingly complicated characters.

You have also, not surprisingly, been very interested in local sports--both as an observer and player. For your birthday, we gave you tickets to a Rugby World Cup match in Wales, which you thoroughly enjoyed. We also got to see a shinty match in Scotland, which was very interesting and exciting (not to mention, rough). You may have enjoyed that even more than rugby. You have played every sport that has presented itself, with anyone willing to play, on playgrounds and campgrounds throughout Europe, proving not only your athleticism but also your ability to quickly and easily make friends. One group of boys you played football (soccer) with in Wales even came up to Dad and me to tell us what a good "mate" they thought you were. Your true sport love still remains American football, though, and you look forward to watching games (even Aggie games!) when we can get them. And, we were able to get a pro game today, in honor of your birthday, which you were very excited about. You are continuing your tight end training (with a few tweaks to particular localities), as it's possible to do so, while we're on the road. When you are training, you are singularly focused and unquestionably dedicated.

Your love of sports doesn't keep you from also exercising your brain. You are tremendously smart, and it is such a joy to get to participate in your school days and watch your amazing brain in action. You were a CC Memory Master again in the spring, which is such an impressive accomplishment. You also got to go to State in PSIA Storytelling, which was something you had been aspiring to do for a couple of years. You won 6th place and brought home a coveted State medal. You absolutely LOVE Math and look forward to that class above all others. You just recently started the Pre-Algebra book and are thrilled with the new challenges it presents. You also play with numbers and number puzzles all the time and can often be found calculating on some obscure problem, just for fun. You are considering participating in Math Counts when we get back to the States. And, though Math is your true academic love, we have also seen you blossom in many other subjects this year, as well. For instance, you have developed a genuine love of reading and have read all the Percy Jackson and Harry Potter books in the last six months, and you are currently working your way through the Chronicles of Prydain. Honestly, there was a time a few years ago when I didn't know if you would ever read a book purely for your own enjoyment. I'm so glad you have discovered this love and that you have become a such a voracious reader.

You are starting to play around with ideas for your future, and though you don't have any specific plans, you've talked about maybe wanting to work on cancer research or bringing back wooly mammoths, when you're not playing football. You definitely seem to gravitate toward math and science disciplines, at least at this point in your life. I can't wait to watch your passions develop in the next few years. I know that whatever you become, you'll be a great one!

You are a very hard worker and are committed to taking care of business before indulging in pleasure. You make it your goal each day to be the first one up, so that you can knock out a couple of school subjects before the official start of the school day. You also very often get busy working on the dishes after a meal, without being asked. And, sometimes you even volunteer to give Clay a bath. You are very good at looking for ways to help, and we all appreciate that quality in you.

It's hard to put into words how much I love you and how proud I am of you. You are a delight and a treasure, and I'm so thankful to get to do life with you. You make every day more fun and interesting, and you give really great hugs. I hope you have the very best birthday! Double digits looks good on you!


Two whole handfuls

A new watch wrapped in coffee filters.
Because that's how we roll in our minimalistic world.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

A reason to smile

When I was 8 or 10, my friend and I were playing around in a golf cart. We were seeing how fast we could go around corners, and for some stupid reason (possibly the same stupid reason that had me participating in this activity in the first place), I was waving my hands in the air like I just didn't care instead of holding on. But, as I slid across the gravel road on my face, I began to care very much. Once we got the bleeding stopped, it became clear that half of my front tooth was missing. Our family dentist was able to repair it with a crown, and that was that. Or so I thought.

About two years ago, I started having intermittent intense pain and random swelling in my face. A year after that, I finally found out what was causing it: The root of the injured tooth was seriously infected and beyond repair. So my dentist and I decided it would have to come out and an implant would have to be placed and a new permanent crown installed. Without going into too many of the gory physical and emotional details, I can tell you that the final step of the process happened today. I got my new tooth, just in time for Thanksgiving. It feels ridiculously odd in my mouth right now, and I am still in some pain from the procedure, but I am so thankful to have it finally and firmly in place. I am also thankful for the two dentists (one in Marble Falls, Texas and one in Dublin, Ireland) that worked hard to accommodate my crazy travel schedule in order to get it done. I truly have many reasons to smile.

Bring on the turkey! 

My sweet family presented me with flowers and chocolate
to celebrate my new tooth. Another reason (or five) to smile!

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Winterval in Waterford

This afternoon, we took the short ferry ride over to Waterford (as in Waterford Crystal), to take in the sights and fun of their winter festival (that's winter + festival = "Winterval," see?), where we ate junk food, rode carnival rides, and found a little Christmas cheer.  Our first stop was a night club/bar that has given itself a day job during the holidays. They have free showings of the movie "Elf" throughout the day while Winterval is going on. If popcorn, hot chocolate, and a giant elf named Buddy can't put you in the Christmas spirit, then nothing really can. From there, we headed over to the Helter Skelter slide--a twisty slide two stories high, which the kids descend on a mat, to maximize velocity. I couldn't even look at it without thinking of one of my favorite scenes in "A Christmas Story."

"Ho. Ho. Ho."

When Clay and Max had finished on the slide (of their own volition, and not because Santa kicked them down with the two of his boot), we all took a ride on a vintage Ferris wheel, which was a huge hit with all the kids. After that, we allowed ourselves a quick peek in the Waterford Crystal showroom...from the outside, because contrary to how I sometimes feel or act, I have not quite lost my everloving mind. Our last stop was the tiny carousel, that just happened to be sitting in front of the churro stand, which we felt obliged to patronize. It was such a fun outing and just almost more fun (and junk food!) than we could stand!

Little Clay with a big Buddy

Winterval Fun

Zooming down the slide

Ferris Wheel Riders

These two goofs deliberately refused to look at the camera.

 My Ferris wheel partner and I, getting ready for lift off

Look, but don't touch!

Riding High

Silly Clay on the carousel


Warming up with hot chocolate in a very odd seat

This sign at the ferry landing made us laugh.
Fortunately, we made it onto the boat, without driving into the water.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Mandi's Highly Nerdy Virtual Bookshelf

Here are some of the things sitting on my virtual bookshelf right now, in various stages of completion. I'll be the first to admit that it is a bizarre, overly academic combination and probably not one Oprah will be recommending any time soon.

  • The Arabian Nights by Andrew Lang--I just started reading this with the boys in our History class. I picked this version because it was free and because it was a bit more kid-friendly in language and content than some others.
  • A handful of BOB books by Bobby Lynn Maslen--I'm going through some of these with my youngest reading student.
  • The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan--This is for my own edification and education--my "fun" reading, if you will. It is very eye-opening and thought-provoking. It's definitely making me rethink some of my family's food choices. (As an aside, I am curious to hear from any of you whole food advocates about how to make whole food eating work for a relatively large family of big eaters, that is not wealthy and does not have the desire or propensity to farm or garden. I'm interested in finding out more about co-ops, farmers' markets, and small, local whole foods type stores, as well as options for making this type of eating affordable. So if you have any info or advice about these things, please pass it along.) 
  • The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, retold by Geraldine McCaughrean--The boys and I just finished this easy-to-read, kid-friendly version of these classic stories, and we really enjoyed them.
  • Grammar-Land by M.L. Nesbitt--Max and I just finished going through this in his Grammar class, but all my kids love this story and barely even realize that they are learning important English Grammar lessons along the way. Weston even wondered aloud why someone didn't make it into a movie.
  • Search for the Pirate's Treasure by Gerry Gaston--This modern day choose-your-own-adventure story for young readers is Clay's current favorite. 
  • The Republic by Plato--I just finished this in preparation for Ruth's literature class. I found it very interesting, especially in the beginning, though I felt that it got a little tedious and convoluted towards the end. 
  • Openstax College Biology--This is prep work for next year's high school biology class (but is also secretly fun for me). 
  • National Geographic--I certainly don't read every article on the National Geographic site, but at any given time, I usually have a least a couple of tabs open with articles to peruse. Of course, I also enjoy skimming through the photos and uploading my own

Thursday, November 19, 2015

A Walk on the Beach

We love having the beach to ourselves!

Duncannon Fort

Brothers and Best Friends

On the rocks

The Beach View Townhouses
(Ours is right in the middle.)

Our beautiful Waterford Harbor

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Duncannon's First Ever Texas Appreciation Day

The other day, Jeff and Weston went to the tiny grocery store in our little bitty town. The man behind the counter had on a UT shirt, and so a conversation ensued. This man has traveled to Texas several times and loves the state like a native. He insisted that we have a party to celebrate our collective Texasness. His brother runs the pub (where we went for Jeff's birthday lunch), across the street from the store, so we all met up there this evening to eat chili, BBQ, chips, guacamole, and queso. Our new friend, John, proclaimed it Duncannon's "First Ever Texas Appreciation Day."

Texas Appreciation Day at The Strand

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Seeing the good

Bad news seems to bombard us every day. And, sometimes it's hard to see the good in the world. The sensationalistic media is eager to get us worked up--to make us angry or afraid or outraged or entertained--but it rarely takes the time to report on the helpers and the givers and the positive outcomes. But, this good is real. Maybe even more real than the bad. These are the stories we need to hear, so we can be encouraged and challenged and blessed. These are the stories that renew our faith in humanity and in God. They are the stories that give us hope and propel us forward. I have one that hits close to home that I'd like to share:

Two weeks ago, my sister's house was hit by a tornado. She and two of her kids were inside at the time. They took cover in the pantry, and even though a portion of the roof was relieved of its duties and the house moved off its foundation three feet side to side and 18 inches front to back, she and the kids thankfully came out without a scratch. The insurance adjusters declared everything a total loss and promised full insurance payments.

Friends and family and a few strangers immediately came to their aid. People worked around the clock taking care of their kids, bringing them food and water, wading knee-deep in mud and debris to salvage anything that could be salvaged, taking clothing and dishes to their homes to wash and store, taking in their horses and dogs (which all made it through the storm), offering them rent-free places to live until they could get another place, and loving on them in lots of other tangible and intangible ways.

My brother-in-law works for a construction company, and the company donated the use of an excavator, a bobcat, two 18-wheeler dump trucks, and two drivers for the trucks. Chad (my BIL) was able to do most of the demolition work himself, beginning the very next day. Combined with the generous donations from the company, this allowed he and my sister to save about $10,000 in demo costs, and they are weeks or months ahead of many of their neighbors who also sustained damage to their properties.

Jodi's glasses and contacts were lost during the storm, and her eye doctor gave her replacements for free. The students at a rival high school raised a significant amount of money for Hailey (Jodi and Chad's oldest daughter, who lives with them and was in the house when the tornado hit). And, the daycare my nephew attends gave him a $100 gift card.

Ultimately, they were able to recover about 85% of their possessions. And after they had sifted through everything, they unselfishly offered some of their own salvaged possessions to neighbors who were hit harder and lost more. My sister and her family are currently living in a rental house and are making plans to rebuild.

This story has a happy ending. But even in tragedies more significant than this, there are opportunities to see the good, if you're willing to look. Sometimes it's in the midst of tragedy that we find the most faith, hope, and love. Sometimes, that's when we find the really good people. Or become them. Sometimes, that's when we see the most blessings, because that's when we know exactly how much we have to be thankful for.

Friday, November 13, 2015

JFK Arboretum

It has been raining here all week, and the wind has been blowing between 35 and 45 miles per hour constantly. So, needless to say, we haven't gotten our quota of outside time in, though we have tried to brave the elements a few times. My boys have literally been bouncing off the walls, and I've been ready to pull my hair out. We were all so thankful that today dawned clear and bright and that we were able to get out of the house and do some exploring. Apparently, JFK's ancestors are from this region, so there are a couple of memorials honoring he and his family nearby. We decided to go to the JFK Arboretum, where we found a fantastic playground, lots of lovely trails to explore, and plenty of fresh air and wide open space. I think we are all better equipped to face tomorrow now!

The Keeper of the Trees

Bunny Buddies

A walk in the woods is good for the soul.

There were trees of all kinds in the park, but the maples put on the best fall colors.

A beautiful day in a beautiful place

It's a jungle gym. It's a merry-go-round.
It's more fun than you can stand!
(And, not the least bit unsafe, I'm sure!)

These two were so excited to find a hedge house to play in.
It quickly became a fort, with a stockpile of stick weapons.

The immature hedge maze was pretty easy to navigate,
but these two "hunters" did it over and over!

Throwing lessons

Tossing the ball around is one of this kid's love languages!