What is Black and Blue and Belongs in My Sock Drawer?

Blue and black.  The most obvious Jeopardy reply would be, “What are the colors of the many random bruises on Michelle’s pasty skin?”  In nearly all cases, this would win you full points and hopefully put you in a comfortable lead going in to Final Jeopardy.  But, with any luck you did not take this chance to go with a true Daily Double, because your digital score bar would be reading all zeros.  Today’s correct reply is, “What colors of passports do Thad and Michelle possess?”

With a Wednesday afternoon off from Chinese studies, Thad decided it was time to shuttle on down to Main State and turn in our requests for our diplomatic passports. While there are several steps to this process, they seemed fairly straight-forward; we had the required documents in my super cute purple and pink paisley Vera Bradley knock-off bag and Thad and his classmate, Ian, who was going with us, were properly suited up for a visit to Main State. Time to roll. (Okay, less rolling and more waiting patiently for the next shuttle to leave FSI, take a tour through the Rosslyn area and finally arrive downtown DC.  Either way, we were on the move.)

Once arriving at the Department of State building, Thad and Ian walked hassle-free in the front door.  I, on the other hand, as a mere spouse, had to go through an odd little addition onto the building, show my Virginia Drivers’ license–for those of you not paying attention, I am now an official VA driver, as it my ticket to motorcycling madness– have my bag scanned and go through the X-ray machine.  (Side note: Since I’ve been in DC, I have gone through the X-ray scanner more times than I had, in total, up to this point of my life. I have to go through it each time I go to FSI, each time we go to Main State, plus on my several trips to the airport this summer. I am beginning to think that this may not be so good for the ol’ cells!)

Once I made it past the extremely friendly guards (no sarcasm there at all- seriously- they were quite congratulatory on my being there to get my diplomatic passport, as if I had actually contributed anything to this endeavor!) , Thad and Ian were waiting patiently inside the building.  Our first stop was to get passport photos taken.  I guess I expected this step to take a bit of time, but we walked in and were whisked to the photo room before we had even finished signing in on the all-recording clipboard. With no time to primp or prepare, onto the stool I went with slightly crooked necklace and a bit of crazy- humidity hair, but at least I remembered at the last second to convert my current four-eye status back into just two!  (LASIK countdown is at four weeks, so it is glasses for me for the next month. If I was hesitant about the procedure before, I am totally on board now, just so I can stop wearing these awful spectacles!)

Not five minutes later, Thad, Ian and I were handed envelopes with four passport-sized photographs in them and it was off to stop number two.  The halls of Main State would make the Minotaur weep.  Labyrinth is an understatement.  After being escorted in the right direction by a friendly fellow headed our way, we walked confidently into the office that said friendly fellow pointed out.  Only problem?  Our friendly fellow was off a few doors.  Our second entrance, while filled with a bit more humility, was into the correct department.  To the passport window we sallied, ready to turn our photos into travel documents.  At the window, we were greeted by a no-nonsense woman, who I am sure has her hands full with the daily parade of first-tour junior diplomatic officers, many who while thinking they have life figured out, are often just confused kids beneath their puffed up egos.

This dear woman promptly asked us for our passport applications.  After glancing at one another, a quick and quiet conference, we blushingly replied that we didn’t have applications.  With what can only be described as a sigh of resignation, our helper woman responded with, “Wait.  I’ll come out there.”  I guess we were her problem children for the day.

Out from behind her window she came, directing us to a wall covered in an array of official looking documents. After grilling us with a series of questions about our current passports and their statuses, we were each handed the correct application (being told that if we hadn’t answered her questions correctly, she would have to start all over with us) we were sent to a table to fill them out.

The application itself was just a routine set of questions about name, address, personal passports, etc.  It didn’t take long until we were back in front of that window, feeling a bit like middle schoolers waiting to be allowed to go to lunch. Thad and I were up first.  We handed her our applications, passports, photos and his travel orders.  She promptly looked at his orders and told him he needed copies of a different set, which we happened to have in the ever-prepared bag of cuteness.  As he scurried off to make copies to give her, Ian boldly stepped up to the window.

Glancing over Ian’s paperwork, the woman behind the glass gave a single nod, which we interpreted to mean he followed directions precisely.  The smart thing, at this point, would have been for Ian to smile, thank her and walk away, meeting Thad and I in the lobby shortly.  But, no . Ian, more than politely, asked her if she would notify him when his passport was ready to be picked up.  With a snort/chortle, she quickly questioned him as to whether he thought she looked like she had time to call him and a hundred of his friends each day to let them know their passports were complete. Then, under her breath, she continued with a mini-tirade about how even if she did, they wouldn’t come any way. Ian, ever-smiling, agreed that she probably didn’t have time to do that and he would just swing by the office and check in a few weeks.

It was at this moment that Thad arrived back with our copies.  In no time our documents were accepted and before I could warn Thad about asking, he presented the same query- when would we be notified to pick up our passports?  Oh no!  With a giggle, I turned and quickly headed for the reception area of the department.  I was not going to be there for the answer.  (Luckily, he got a quick response, shorter than Ian’s and we were out of there.)

The best part about this whole process was that woman.  She was as polite and helpful as is possible, but I don’t know that I’ve ever met someone who can couple that with such a no-nonsense attitude.  I really wanted to suggest to this woman that she become a middle school teacher!  She would be amazing at keeping sixth graders from randomly wandering the classroom, seventh graders from passing notes filled with gossip and heart-dotted I’s and eighth graders focused on Poe and Dickens rather than upcoming dances and football games.

Our day at State ended with a jaunt down to the cafeteria, where I managed NOT to make an ungodly racket returning my lunch tray to the upright bin.  (My last visit was not so successful in that department,  but that story is for another time!) Soon, blue and black passports will be resting neatly in my sock drawer, waiting for April and the next adventure to begin.

3 States + 3 Provinces / 12 Days = 0 Moose

The giant glowing ball in the sky is rising later and setting earlier.  The swimming pool is closed. Cardigans are being sported over lightweight blouses.  Sandals are giving way to closed-toe shoes. These are the unmistakable signs that summer is drawing to a close.  What is a temporarily retired teacher to do with her fall when there are no lesson to plan, students to teach,  papers to grade, or sporting events to attend?  While there are an array of possible answers to that question (some better than others!), this temporarily retired teacher chose to go on a New England road trip with her permanently retired parents.

Since Thad is still busy toiling away at the business of learning Chinese (which currently consists of five hours of instructor-led time in the classroom, study time at FSI between courses and then several hours of homework each night) I figured I may as well use the time to see a bit of the Northeast rather than just the high rise apartment buildings that are Crystal City.

After meeting the parental units in Manchester, NH,  (I much prefer my ninety minute puddle-hopper flight to their eight hour air-trek from Idaho) we embarked on a whirlwind tour of three states and three Canadian provinces. There were sights to be seen, attractions to behold, quirkiness to encounter and many, many places to get off the planned track for the day.

One of our first stops included a visit to Lenny, the life-sized chocolate moose found in Scarborough, Maine.  Lenny was the first of innumerable moose we encountered on our trip.  There were chocolate moose, of course, metal moose, stuffed moose, moose heads, moose prints, moose mugs, moose shirts, moose pencils, moose calendars, moose bags and nearly any other moose memorabilia one could ever possibly desire.  From Maine on into Canada, anywhere that had a handful of trees and a marshy area filled its stores with moose-mobilia.  They dotted their roadsides with bright yellow warning signs, designated crossing areas for the giant mammals and erected miles upon miles (or kilometers upon kilometers, depending on which side of the border the madness was on) of moose fences.  Now, like most travelers, I figured that with so much build-up and hype, there had to be a real moose sighting in my future.  I could not have been more wrong!  After seeing both realistic and cartoon pictures of moose plastered on everything from afghans to yo-yos (nope, no “z” items!), I have come to the conclusion that moose are just a figment of the cold, northeastern imagination.

While the moose-lessness of the trip was a disappointment, all was not lost.  Not lost all the time anyway.  There may have been a few navigational mishaps at times.  If a map says to take Route 2, and as the front-seat guide, I see a road that is labeled Route 2, I am going to suggest that we take it.  As Dad followed said route into Halifax, I thought we were on the right track.  The signs said “Route 2 Inbound” so I thought all was good.  And it was, for a bit.  Then, as we continued to follow the signs, it seemed as though we were making too many turns to the left.  How many left turns before we are going back the way we came?  Thinking little of it, I continued to excitedly point out the next sign, keeping us firmly on good ol’ Route 2.  Soon my wonderful signs were reading “Route 2 Outbound.”  Perfect!  That means we have headed through the city are about to emerge on the far side, just as we had planned. The ridiculousness of the whole situation become entirely clear though, when as we drove down a rather narrow street, we recognized not only the Taco Bell/KFC combination store that we had earlier considered stopped at to get lunch, but also the cart-dwelling folks hanging around outside!  Route 2 had taken us on a lovely loop tour of downtown Halifax, Nova Scotia.

After finally escaping the grasp of Route 2, our trip up the coast did garner us some great sightseeing. Peggy’s Cove is a great little stop where the waves crash up over gigantic rocks.  I was a bit concerned by the signs stating that tourists had died by getting too close to the massive waves, but then as I looked around at my fellow visitors, I realized for many of the tour bus groups, sudden heart failure or hip fractures were a more likely cause of concern for their octogenarian clientele.

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Prince Edward Island was a beautiful place to spend a few days.  It has been years since I imagined its landscape through the pages of Anne of Green Gables, but it every bit the storybook setting I had imagined.  Not only was the island filled with verdant fields and idyllic villages, but the white-washed churches each seemed to be made for nothing but beautiful countryside weddings.

Once back in the US, Boston and the surrounding area was our destination.  A visit to Salem was necessary, as The Crucible was read in my classroom on more than one occasion.  I had to laugh at the disparity of what is happening in that town.  The shops and museums all rely heavily on witch-themed tourism, so they give their visitors what they are looking for.  We saw more than one person dressed in full witch-garb, a variety of shops offering palm readings, tarot card readings and aura pictures and every type of mystical medallion possible.  On the other hand, a short walk across the main plaza, sits the National Park Service building, which is doing its utmost to show Salem as more than just the horrors of 1692.  Their entire building is dedicated to the maritime and military history of the town.  It is obvious that the town has a richer past than what it is known for, but try as the Park Service might, it is still the witches that lure in the tourists.

Rounding out our visit to the Northeast, Mom decided that she wanted to take a short jaunt out to Plymouth Rock.  Edward family legend has it that several of our ancestors were on the Mayflower in 1620 when it docked on the shores of what would eventually become Massachusetts. While the Pilgrims’ journey across the Atlantic Ocean lasted sixty-six days and was arduous to say the least, it isn’t much hyperbole to say that our trek to the rock was only slightly less painful.  I have to say that the Pilgrims may have faced unknown dangers at sea, but we faced a similarly difficult challenge- red lights!  After setting the handy-dandy GPS for the famous chunk of stone, we embarked on this one last side trip.  Our downfall was the GPS setting- never go with “shortest distance.”  Our route ended up taking us through small town after small town, each one with terribly timed street lights, meaning we hit nearly every red light from Salem to Plymouth!  Seriously. While we did not have massive waves to contend with nor did we face the possibility of being thrown overboard  and drowned, we did spend many a passing minute wondering if the small towns of Massachusetts had ever considered hiring a city planning engineer.  What we thought would be a quick trip to see Plymouth Rock morphed into a journey of epic proportions that finally required the procurement of several Hostess cupcakes if we were going to complete it successfully.

With our trip time drawing to an end, it was time to make our way back to Manchester, our alpha and omega. Bags were repacked and dirty clothes shoved to the bottom in the hopes that TSA wouldn’t decide to rifle through our carry-ons. How do I sum up a fall vacation that checked twelve days off of the calendar, spanned six states/provinces and ranged from picturesque landscapes of the Canadian countryside to downtown, modern Boston?  Easily.  No moose!

Motorcycle Mayhem

“Squeeze in the clutch, find the friction zone and roll forward with the bike, letting the engine do all of the work. “  Seven out of eight beginning motorcycle riding class participants followed those instructions with success.   The eighth?  She ended up under a dropped motorcycle, trying to ease her bruised ego and rear end while the instructor pulled a slightly dented, 300 pound Honda Rebel off of her and back into a standing position. Thankful for the full-helmet that shielded the tears of frustration that threatened to overflow, rider number eight dusted off her new boots, gave a thumbs up to her classmate and took a deep breath, more determined than ever to get the motorcycle riding endorsement added to her driver’s license.

While I would like to claim that this anecdote was one I witnessed and was able to honestly retell in a third-person narrative, sadly, my still sore bum says that a first-person telling is really the more accurate one.

A few months ago, Erin was looking for someone to take a motorcycle riding class with her.  Thad and I had just moved to the DC area and I was dying to get some of my own things going around here.  When she mentioned the class, I thought it sounded like a fun little adventure.  Heck, we are headed to Asia in the spring- the land of two-wheeled transportation!  After finally getting ourselves organized, Erin and I signed up with NOVA to take the three-day course over Labor Day weekend.  As September grew closer, I got a bit more nervous about this very out-of-my-comfort-zone undertaking, but the registration had been submitted and my payment processed, so I was all in!

The first night of the course was just classroom work.  With teachers as parents, school has always been  a second home to me.  Early mornings, evenings, weekends and breaks were spent hanging out in their classrooms as they prepared lessons, graded papers, worked on union issues, helped students and any number of other things.  (So much for the myth that teaching is an 8-3, nine-months of the year job, eh?) Starting this little adventure off behind a desk was perfectly fine by me! After reading the manual, watching the videos and answering seventy-five questions in preparation of the eventual written test, I came away from the evening with some very key information.  First of all, I learned that dogs often like to run at motorcycles.  The book was very clear on the fact that a rider should NEVER kick at the dog.  I am going to chalk that one up in the “good rule for life in general” category.  The other spectacular piece of knowledge that I walked away from class with Thursday night was that carrying a passenger on your bike is just like bobsledding.  Perfect!  As an avid bobsledder, this simile has cleared up all concerns I had about adding 175 pounds to the back of my bike.

With class done, questions answered and a series of acronyms memorized, it was time to get to the heart of the training- the motorcycle riding.  Being raised in Idaho, one might assume that I have at least a bit of background knowledge when it comes to motorcycles, but one would be very, very wrong!  Let’s just say that Saturday’s learning curve was less of a curve and more of a vertical line- headed straight up. My only saving grace was I did know how to drive a standard transmission, so the basics of shifting were already crammed in my cranium.  Some of the points on my learning curve graph included the fact that you have to twists the throttle towards you to make the bike go (in my head, it should be a twist forward, as that IS the direction you want to go!) and while it is best to always use both brakes, the front brake is the stronger, go-to brake (exactly the opposite of riding a bike, where a front –brake only earns the rider a rather nice forehead road rash). Leaving Saturday’s session with a smile on my face counts as a success, as I had serious doubts about who this was all going to turn out within the first ten minutes of the day!

Sunday dawned and I rolled out of bed, much sorer than I had anticipated.  Apparently, a 300-pound bike inflicts a bit more pain than my adrenaline-filled body had registered the day before.  With long-sleeved shirt, gloves and boots donned, it was time to see this exploit through its end. First it was back to the classroom for the written part of the assessment process.  The test consisted of fifty multiple choice questions.  Luckily, I remembered that not kicking the dog was important riding advice, as it came up on the exam.  Ten minutes later, Erin and I, having both glided through the questions, sat waiting for the real challenge of the day to begin.

Our riding day started with the dreaded box- basically a painted square in which the rider has to make a giant, tight turn in each direction.  It was an evil way for the instructors to start the day, by far being the hardest skill we would work on all weekend long.  After a few more hours of new techniques and practice and several gallons of fluid lost to the heat radiating of the pavement,  the dreaded skills-test was upon us.  The test consisted of four skill-sets that each had to be checked off, one rider at a time.  The assessment works much like a golf game- at the end, you want to have the least number of points.  A score of twenty-one is a failing score, so anything lower is considered acceptable.  As luck would have it, the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad box-skill was the first on the list.  Doing my best Michael Jordan impersonation, with tongue out and a look of total concentration, I nailed the box!  With a bit more confidence going into the rest of the test, I successfully completed each skill section.  Praying for a score of less than twenty-one, I was thrilled with my final total of five points!  That’s right- five!  Those were penalty points because I went to slowly through one of the sections of the test, but I am more than okay with that.  Not only was this score lower than I had anticipated, but Erin and I both had some of the lowest scores in the class!  (The one guy who had been riding for years and just decided to finally take the class so he could legally, who got a score of zero, doesn’t count!)

What does this all mean?  It means that I am now officially allowed to ride motorcycles.  I went to the Alexandria DMV today (that four-hour nightmare is the making of a whole new blog entry) and in seven to ten days will be the proud owner of my motorcycle-endorsed driver’s license from the Commonwealth of Virginia.  While I won’t be hitting the freeways anytime soon, nor am I even sure I ever want to own a bike (scooters- now there is a possibility!), this was a really great opportunity for me.  It has been a long time since I undertook something that was so far out of my comfort zone, but it was great to complete the course and feel like I had really met a huge challenge head-on.

What’s next?  I’m thinking bobsledding!