Monday, December 28, 2015

Family Fun at Christmas

Crown Candy Kitchen
On Tuesday the 22nd I took Andy and Megan to Crown Candy Kitchen so they could experience for the first time the yummy goodness of St. Louis' oldest candy store. Normally I get the BLT sandwich, which is so huge that I never order any ice cream to go with it. Megan and I decided to split a sandwich so that we could each get a shake, too. For the second time in a row I actually received a BL sandwich - there was no tomato. I really didn't mind as the tomatoes this time of year are usually not that good, but I probably should have said something. Andy noticed that the people in the booth behind us had tomato on their sandwiches. Strange... Megan and Andy were both amazed at the size of the BL, and of the shakes as well. I ended up taking more than half of my chocolate shake home with me.

BLT sandwich

BLT side view

We had barely walked in the door when Jim and Katie arrived from their trip to Iowa. Perfect timing! After spending time catching up, we had dinner and then played some card games.

Wednesday night it was our intention to drive through Tilles Park to see the Winter Wonderland lights. Apparently everyone else in St. Louis had the same idea. The cars were lined up from the park all the way beyond I-64, and both exit ramps on the interstate were backed up as far as the eye could see. When we saw a man's car overheat while waiting in line, we decided we were not going to wait to see what kind of additional back log that created. Instead we hopped on I-64 and went to Candy Cane Lane in the city. Located near Ted Drewes, this neighborhood tries to outdo itself each year. Two other streets, Angel Avenue and Snow Flake Street, are in the competition as well. The area is well worth seeing, with the added bonus of being near our favorite frozen custard stand, Ted Drewes. We stopped there for dessert, which in this case happened to be before dinner.

Candy Cane Lane
Ted Drewes
Gardenland Express
Thursday we headed out early to the Missouri Botanical Garden for one of our annual family traditions of visiting Gardenland Express, the indoor train exhibit that is set up each year at the garden. We all agreed that this was one of their better years. It was not at all crowded, and you could actually spend time admiring each of the different exhibits without a bunch of people in your way.

We decided to see if our lack of crowds luck would hold, and traveled next to the St. Louis Zoo. With the mild weather, I expected it to be packed. But we scored a parking spot along the street right outside the zoo, which indicated that not too many people were visiting the zoo on Christmas Eve. Jim's firm had worked on the design of the new polar bear exhibit, and none of us had seen it yet. It was nice to be able to check it out with the kids along. There is only one polar bear in the pen, but I understand that the males are pretty territorial so he may not have to ever share his space. He seemed content enough, I suppose. At any rate, it was a nice day to stroll through the zoo.

polar bear exhibit
St. Louis Zoo
Saturday I invited my sister and her family over to see the kids in the afternoon. They hadn't seen Katie for several years, so it is nice that the timetable worked out for some of them at least. We took one last family photo in front of the fireplace before Megan and Andy left that night to drive the three hours to her mom & dad's house in Indiana. Then at 6:30 Sunday morning we drove Katie to the airport to catch her plane back to LA. Now the house is all quiet again, and I am catching up on cleaning and doing laundry after having company for over a week. But what a great time we had!

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Bud Light Night

Anheuser-Busch Brewery
The Anheuser-Busch Brewery has put up Christmas lights at its St. Louis headquarters for the past 30 years. Visitors were allowed to drive their cars through the campus to admire the lights. Recently they added a walking tour feature. You can stand in line to get a wrist band, which entitles you to five free A-B products. If you aren't interested in the drinks, you can basically just walk right into the visitors center and then onto the grounds. Andy, Megan and I went on Sunday night as the walking tours are only available Thursday-Sunday. We arrived at 5:00 when it opens, and had a 20 minute wait to get our wrist bands. I have to say, it was well worth it. The evening was pretty mild, but they do have fire pits (you could purchase a s'mores kit if you so desired) as well as portable heaters set up so that you could warm up.

It was crowded, but not prohibitively so, and it was so much nicer to be able to view the lights at a walking pace instead of being in a line of cars. As the designated driver, I did not use all of my drink tickets, but I did enjoy trying the Bud Light Mang-O-Rita. We love the Lime-A-Rita flavor, and I have to say the mango is excellent as well. In fact, I bought a case the next day at the grocery store, so the A-B marketing plan is working well. Our original intention was to purchase some St. Louis cuisine at the visitors center for dinner, but the place was packed! We did not see any place to sit and eat, so we decided instead to go to a neighborhood restaurant by our house. While we didn't have a problem finding a place to park in the brewery lot when we arrived, by the time we left we could have sold our parking space. The line of cars waiting to get into and out of the lot was insane! So here is my bonus tip for visiting the brewery lights. Head towards the east end of the parking lot where the employee gates are located. As you approach the gate, it will automatically rise. No lines, no wait. You're welcome!

Brewery Lights

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

'Tis the Season

decorated mantle
The decorations are up, the Christmas cards are in the mail, and all of the presents have been purchased and wrapped, except for the ones that are still in transit from their various websites. I still need to clean the house, buy all the groceries and do my baking, but I am feeling pretty good about where I stand right now. Katie arrives late Friday night, and she and Jim are making an impromptu trip up to Iowa for a few days to see the grandparents. She has not been with them since her graduation in 2009, and she expressed a desire to go to Charles City. In the meantime, I will finish up things around here and meet Andy and Megan when they arrive on Sunday.

This week is packed with parties and dinner engagements, so I have a feeling time will fly by. The Women in Focus photography group had a party at the president's house. She requested that we each bring a 5x7 or 8x10 of one of our pictures in a plain envelope for a gift exchange. What a fun idea! I agonized over what photo to print as many of the women are extremely talented. I settled on an 8x10 of one of my butterfly photos because I figured that would appeal to anyone. It was taken in a cemetery in Louisville this summer. The lady who got it seemed to like it. The envelope I chose actually contained two 5x7 prints, representing the "Power" and "Light" signs that are etched into the old Union Electric building downtown along the north riverfront. It was fun to see all the pictures that people brought.

my picture 

interesting tree
Speaking of pictures, a friend called me up last Friday morning when the fog was as thick as pea soup and asked if I wanted to go shoot some photos at Bellefontaine Cemetery. Of course I said yes, and it was so odd because while there was a lot of fog on the way there, in the cemetery itself the fog was almost non-existent. The lighting was pretty moody, so I guess it was okay. I did find this tree to be very interesting, with its curly branches.

After we were done at the cemetery we grabbed some lunch at Crown Candy Kitchen. The line to get in was surprisingly short. I have never gotten seated so quickly there. Then my friend drove us to Wellston as there was an old trolley station that she thought I would enjoy seeing. Built around the turn of the century (I have seen 1901 and 1909 dates used), the Wellston Station must have been beautiful in its prime. It is in such disrepair that I doubt it could be saved at this point. What a shame!

Wellston Station

Friday, December 4, 2015

Much to be Thankful For

Lambert St. Louis Airport
We traveled to the Washington, DC area for Thanksgiving this year. We actually did this two years ago as well, and after that trip I swore I would not travel during one of the busiest flying time periods again. I am still a little baffled as to how this trip came to pass. But we had a travel voucher, and the kids had purchased a new home and a new puppy, so there you have it. We flew out on Wednesday, which surprisingly was not a blackout date for the voucher. When I checked into our flights Tuesday afternoon, I was elated that we each got TSA Pre-check. No long lines for us - yay! But when we arrived at the airport and went to check our bags, the place was empty! What the heck? Where were all the people? They certainly were not in the security line either, as we walked right through. No TSA was even necessary. As our flight was delayed and we had planned extra time due to the holiday, I was really grateful that we had a free pass to the Admirals Club. We were able to sit and enjoy coffee/tea, free wifi and snacks while waiting until it was time to board.

The flight was pretty uneventful, and Andy picked us up at the airport. Because there were three of us in his truck, he could use the HOV (high occupancy vehicle) lane, so traveling to his home was a breeze. Before we could check out the house, we first had to check out this guy.

Isn't he adorable? He is a seven month old papipoo - half papillon and half miniature poodle. He weighs all of seven pounds, and is so sweet. Jim and I enjoyed taking him for long walks to nearby Lake Accotink Park. With 493 acres and a 55 acre lake, we did not see it all but really enjoyed walking the hilly trails.

carousel in the park
Lake Accotink Park

Katie flew in from Los Angeles on Thursday afternoon, so we actually had our Thanksgiving dinner on Friday. It was Megan's first time making the full, traditional meal, and she did a great job!
Jim, me, Andy, Megan & Katie

We did some sight-seeing, including going to a couple of wineries, and played some card games in the evenings. Katie left on Monday to fly home, but with our voucher we could not leave until Tuesday. We did not get TSA Pre-check for the flight home, but the security line was not too long anyway. As our flight was delayed two hours, we were thankful to have a second pass for the Admirals Club.

We arrived home to find out that the furnace on the first floor had gone out. Fortunately the house sitter only had to put up with the chill for one day. That was not the case for us, but fortunately we have zoned heating and cooling, so the second floor was nice and toasty. Regardless, it was good to be home.

St. Louis

Friday, November 20, 2015

Meanwhile Back at the Ranch

We were only back in St. Louis four days when my husband left for a conference in Chicago. So of course the dog would choose that rainy, stormy night to get into something in the back yard that necessitated a visit to an emergency veterinary clinic. I let Kirby out for what I presumed would be the last time at 9:30 or so. When he came back in, he was running around the house like an obsessed dog. He has food allergies, but also some reaction to evergreens, of which there are a ton in our yard as well as the whole neighborhood. So sometimes he does get irritated when he is outside. But this time he just couldn't settle down. He was panting like crazy and he kept rubbing his face on every surface on the main level of the house. I thought he was going to have a heart attack, but then the next time I looked at him I noticed that his eye was bleeding. Blood was streaked along the fur on the side of his face.

I looked up where my vet recommends taking emergency cases, and that clinic is kind of far away from our home. Since I would be dealing with the dog by myself on a stormy night, I really wanted to go someplace closer. So I did what everyone does in this day and age - I posted a request for recommendations on Facebook - specifically the page for Webster Groves. Within a few minutes I had several suggestions. And that, folks, is why I love Facebook and other social media! I called the clinic that was the most recommended and explained what was going on. She said that you really don't want to mess around with eye issues, and suggested I bring him in.

We arrived at 10:30 to find only one dog ahead of us. A vet tech did the initial intake, including weighing Kirby. But Kirby was having none of the thermometer up the wazoo treatment, so the gal said she would get another tech to help her in the back. After another couple of minutes they took him into an exam room to see the vet, and I sat in the waiting room listening to an interchange between the vet tech and the latest patient. It was a large dog of indeterminate breeding, and they though he had an intestinal blockage. Apparently he consumes toys, socks, paper - he is a non-discriminating chow-hound. Yikes! Kirby likes food too much to ever be bothered eating something that is not something we would also eat. (Not counting his food, of course, since that is a dish we don't share with him. Along with anything that is a grain, as he has allergies to them.)

Then I was called into the exam room to meet with the vet. He looked like he was about 12. Seriously. Doggie Howser, DVM? I guess the new vets get the late shift at the emergency clinic. Anyway, he advised that they had done a test on Kirby's eye and there was no scratch on the retina, so that was good news. Because Kirby was itching and rubbing so much, they gave him a shot of prednisone followed by a shot of Benydryl. He said the small scabs on Kirby's skin were indicative of skin issues, so he sent me home with an ointment to put in the eye twice a day as well as an antibiotic for the skin issues. Kirby also got the Cone of Shame to make sure he didn't scratch his eye anymore.

Kirby at the clinic
Kirby the Cone Head
We were home by 11:30, so the visit really didn't take too long. I had to wait 20 minutes after we got home to take off the pressure bandage that covered the area where he got his shots, and in the meantime he tried to get a drink and eat. This is not an easy feat with a cone around your head. I ended up tilting a plastic bowl for him to drink out of, and hand feeding him some of his dry food. Then we attempted to go to sleep. Ha! Kirby sleeps in bed with us, and he was quite perplexed as to how he was supposed to stretch out with the cone on. He was up and down and walking around the bed quite a while before he finally figured something out. Needless to say, we were both pooped in the morning!

I called our vet in the morning as a follow-up, and was pleased that the emergency clinic had already sent our paperwork over to them. My vet's office told me that I could take the cone off as long as I was in the same room with Kirby and could watch to ensure he didn't scratch himself. But honestly, I was afraid I would not be able to get it back on him by myself, so I left it on for three days until his eye cleared up. He quickly figured out how to eat and drink, and he slept fine after the first night with the cone. We had a follow-up visit with our vet last week, and they cleaned out Kirby's ear and changed his antibiotic to one that they felt is better suited to skin issues. He is so much better, and we just have one more pill left for him to take. Hopefully that will be that.

Kids and pets - why do they have to get sick after hours?

Sunday, November 15, 2015

New York City Day 5

New York City skyline
Sunday was our last day in New York, and it was pretty much a travel day. Our friends had left early in the morning, so the two of us walked to a deli for breakfast before packing up our suitcases. Our flight was not until the afternoon, but one of the cab drivers we talked to earlier said that with the New York Marathon on Sunday, many roads would be closed. He suggested getting out of the mid-town area before 11:00 in the morning. The hotel staff could offer no better information, so we caught a cab to LaGuardia at 10:45. As it turned out, traffic was a breeze and we arrived at the airport with no troubles and plenty of time to spare. Even the security line was light, which figures since time was no problem for us. We picked out a relatively empty gate area and settled in for the duration.

Our plane had been changed from the one seat - two seat configuration to one that was two - two, but our seat assignments were still the same. The plane left the gate just a few minutes late, but once again we encountered severe turbulence during the flight. In fact, they suspended beverage service for a bit. Once they finally gave us drinks, I almost wish they had not. We held our cups up in the air to prevent spills, and even that was dicey. Eventually the air calmed and we had smooth sailing the rest of the way.

I just can't imagine a better way to begin my sixties. Traveling to a fabulous city, surrounded by good friends and family members - well, it just doesn't get much better than that. I only wish our daughter could have joined us as well. That would have been the icing on my birthday cake. But as I get to see her in a couple of weeks, I won't complain. Until next time, New York...

Thursday, November 12, 2015

New York City Day 4

High Line
The main thing on our list of things to see on Saturday was the High Line. Located on an old railway trestle, this 1.45 mile vertical park opened its third phase in November of 2014. Jim and I had walked phases one and two last time we were in New York, so we were eager to see the latest section. As it was a chilly morning, the four of us decided to go to a nearby diner and eat breakfast while waiting for the temperature to warm up a bit. We were planning out our day when I looked up from my final cup of hot tea and saw a gal come in the front door who looked like our daughter-in-law Megan. There was a waiter in the way, so I didn't see who she was with until he moved. That is when I saw Andy. I could not believe my eyes! They had driven up from their home outside of Washington, D.C. on Friday, and spent the night with their friends in Queens. As we had met Marty and Daniella before at Andy and Megan's wedding, they joined us for the day. I am not going to lie, they made me cry - happy tears. What a surprise!

at the diner
Following breakfast we took the subways necessary to get to the High Line. This park gets nearly 5 million visitors annually, and I think most of them were there on Saturday - ha! It was quite crowded and congested as people were stopping to take selfies, other photos and to admire the views and plantings along the way. The folks that were in town for the New York marathon were easily identified by their running attire - Italy, Mexico, England and many other countries were well-represented. Regardless of the throngs of people, it was nice to stroll along the trail.

High Line
After that is was time for lunch (yes, we ate our way through New York!) After exiting the High Line, we found the Sugar Factory. Lunch, shakes and candy - what's not to love? The decor is adorable, and the staff dressed for Halloween. Unfortunately there was a table filled with 16 girls celebrating the 13th birthday of one. A group of 6 parents sat at the next table, along with the professional photographer. (And I should add that a stretch limo waited outside for the group. Sheesh - what will she get on her 16th birthday?) So what's NOT to love? Having this group place their order right before us. We sat in that restaurant for 2 hours! Poor service coupled with mediocre food put a damper on the whole experience. We had places to go and people to see, so taking that much time for lunch definitely messed with our schedule.

Once we finally escaped our time in the factory, we went to Mood Fabrics. A guilty pleasure of Jim and me is watching the television show "Project Runway", where clothing designers have all kinds of challenges thrown at them each week. They always go to Mood to purchase their fabrics, so we just want to have a quick look at the store. Unfortunately Swatch, the dog, was not in residence that day.

Mood Fabrics
From there we were off to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. This Episcopalian church was begun in 1892 and remains unfinished to this day. It is reported to be one of the largest cathedrals in the world. We arrived too late for an official tour, but we were able to still go inside and have a look around. They say it would take $100 million to complete the church. I am guessing that this will never happen. It is too bad as it is really a beautiful place.

Cathedral of St. John the Divine
It was getting dark, so back to the subway station we went to go to the hotel to change for dinner. Due to the fact that it was Halloween, the subways were unbelievably packed! We had to split up in order to squeeze into different cars. It was fun to see all the kids (both little and big) dressed up for trick or treating or partying though. The kids went store to store to receive their candy. How different from the way we do things in the Midwest!

Jim had made reservations for the 8 of us at Benjamin Steak House. Fortunately he had been able to push the time back a couple of hours since we had such a late lunch at the Sugar Factory. Benjamin's was great, and a wonderful way to end up an incredible and surprising day. The kids got back on the subway around 10:30 to return to Queens, and the old farts went to bed. After all, I had taken 18,579 steps for 8.22 miles, and climbed 20 flights of steps. I was pooped!

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

New York City Day 3

New York subway
Friday's schedule began much earlier as we had 9:30 tickets to go up in One World Trade Center. We met in the hotel lobby at 7:30, grabbed a quick bagel at a nearby deli and walked to the subway. We were not certain what the morning rush would be like, so we decided to err on the side of caution. As it was nothing like the night before, we arrived early enough to visit the 9/11 Memorial Plaza. I have no words to describe the memorial or the feelings evoked when you visit it. But I do believe that having the two fountains sitting on the original footprint of the World Trade Center towers, with water that gets sucked into the holes as opposed to squirting up in the air, was a phenomenal design decision. It is perfect, in my opinion. If a picture is worth a thousand words, perhaps these can tell the story.

One World Trade Center
One World Trade Center opened in October of 2014. At 1,116 feet (104 stories), it is the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere. On the 102nd floor is One World Observatory, an enclosed observation deck offering 360 degree views of the city and surrounding areas. The elevator takes you up in 60 seconds, and during that short period you can watch a time-lapse video of the changing New York skyline from the 1500s through today. Once you get off the elevator, you actual head back down two flights of steps to the observation deck. I think that is because when you leave, you go back to the 102nd floor and have to exit by the gift shop. It's all about the marketing... We enjoyed our time at the observatory, but it got rather crowded as do most things in New York. The views were quite outstanding though.

Our tickets for entering the 9/11 Museum were at 11:30, so we left our high perch and crossed the memorial plaza next door to enter the museum. Descending below the plaza area, I couldn't help but think about all the people who were buried under the debris when the Twin Towers fell. In fact, there is a blue wall inside the museum that speaks to just that:

blue wall for those never recovered
memorial plaque

My overall impression of this new museum is that while the memorial is very informative, the layout leaves a lot to be desired. They are letting way too many people in and by the time you get to the heart of the exhibit, that area is so packed that you cannot get close enough to see the memorabilia, read the signs or hear the recordings. My advice to anyone headed to the museum, or One World Trade Center for that matter, is to get the earliest tickets you can to avoid some of the crowds.

9/11 Museum
We grabbed a late lunch after leaving the museum, and then we made our way to Central Park. Many people were enjoying the beautiful fall weather, and I was able to cross an item off my bucket list when we took a carriage ride through the park. We had a fun, informative driver and seeing the park by carriage certainly enabled us to view it from a different perspective.

Central Park carriage ride
After leaving Central Park we took a quick walk through Rockefeller Plaza before heading over to St. Patrick's Cathedral. Opened in 1879, this Neo-Gothic Roman Catholic Church recently hosted an evening service by Pope Francis. The last time I was in New York the structure was covered in scaffolding, so I was excited to see it post-renovation. The cathedral takes up a whole city block and can seat 3,000 people. It is beautiful.

St. Patrick's Cathedral interior
St. Patrick's Cathedral exterior

By then it was time to head back to the hotel to rest up and change before going out to dinner. It was another good Fitbit day with 19,937 steps for a total of 8.82 miles and 16 flights of steps.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

New York City Day 2

One last airport story before I delve into Day 2. My right armpit alerted the TSA agents at the St. Louis airport. Yes, you read that correctly - my armpit. That meant I qualified for a pat down. What a nice, cheap thrill for my birthday! After she slid her hands up my armpits, the agent told me that sometimes deodorant sets the machine off. Apparently the explosives detectors look for products containing ammonium nitrate, and some deodorants, lotions and make-up contain this ingredient. Who knew? She obviously allowed me to board, but the interesting thing is that I checked my deodorant when I got home (I have a different, travel-sized one that I use on my trips), and it doesn't contain ammonium nitrate. I wonder what set the machine off?

Pershing Square Cafe
Thursday, October 29th was our first full day in New York, and the only thing scheduled with a time was a trip out to the Statue of Liberty in early afternoon. First thing in the morning we walked over to Pershing Square Grand Central Cafe for breakfast. It is located under an overpass, which is pretty cool.

After we ate we crossed the street to Grand Central Station to admire the architecture. Going inside always makes me want to bust into "Don't Rain on my Parade", and strut through the station like Barbra Streisand in "Funny Girl". Out of deference to my companions, I restrained myself. It is a beautiful, busy train station, great for people-watching as much as anything else. I held out a small bit of hope that a flash mob would choose that exact moment to sing, dance, issue a wedding proposal - anything. It happens all the time on YouTube. Alas, it was not to be.

ticket windows

Grand Central Station

me with Jim in Times Square
Our next stop was Times Square, because no trip to New York is complete without rubbing shoulders with tens of thousands of your best friends. I don't remember ever being so accosted by hawkers in the past - play tickets, comedy shows, bus trips, bicycle rides - you name it. I guess the big DSLR hanging around my neck pegged me as a tourist. I had better success evading the sales slugs when I put my camera in my purse. But then it was a pain to drag it out every time I saw something I felt was photo worthy, which was often for a shutterbug like me.

We hopped on the subway for a ride down to Battery Park where we stood in a long line waiting to go through security prior to boarding the ferry to the Statue of Liberty. It was similar to airport screening with the exception that you could leave your shoes on. And the fact that I did not have a deodorant malfunction with their screening machine.

Statue of Liberty

Statue of Liberty
Manhattan from the ferry

Our tickets to the Statue of Liberty only entitled us to go up to the pedestal level. While it would have been great to go all the way to the crown, those tickets were sold out until January, 2016! We decided to walk the 215 steps from the lobby to the pedestal instead of taking the elevator. Burn, baby, burn! It was quite crowded when we finally exited the doors at the top of the steps. Did I mention that in addition to normal New York crowds, there was the addition of World Series fans as well as New York Marathon participants? There were 50,000 people running in the marathon that Sunday, not to mention the family and friends they brought along with them. To say that the typical tourist spots were packed is an understatement.

Once back on Manhattan soil, we took off in search of some New York style pizza. Taking the advice of a couple of New York's finest, we enjoyed a slice at Masterpiece Pizzeria before working our way over towards Wall Street and Trinity Church. Completed in 1846, the church is a wonderful example of Gothic architecture.

Trinity Church exterior

Trinity Church ceiling

Trinity Church interior
Getting back on the subway at Wall Street we encountered our first (but far from last) taste of rush hour, subway style. Oh my! Squished together and hanging onto a pole for dear life, I got a true sense of what the working class deals with on a daily basis just getting home from work. It sure makes you appreciate the more laid back life style here in the Midwest. After relaxing at the hotel for a bit, we walked a few blocks for a late dinner before retiring for the night. Fitbit counts: 16,289 steps or 7.21 miles including 38 floors of stairs. Yay for the 60 year old me!