LAX to Chengdu in 24 Hours

From the hotel’s airport shuttle pickup in Los Angeles to our doorstep in Chengdu, Thad and I logged more than 10,000 miles in almost exactly twenty-four hours. (I suppose it could be worse- much worse. When I just used Google Maps to look up the distance, it told me that walking here would take 141 days and twelve hours. I must applaud Google for them rather exact timeline, as it narrows down the walking time to within half a day. That’s pretty darn accurate! Google also helpfully tells me that my journey on foot will require the usage of a ferry. I think “ferry” might be a bit of an understatement when it comes to a mode of transportation for crossing the world’s largest ocean. Just saying…)

Our itinerary consisted of one fourteen hour flight from LAX to Shanghai, a three hour layover (which became four) in Shanghai and then a three hour flight to Chengdu. What does one do with fourteen solid hours on an airplane? Well, to begin with, one (this one!) is as happy as a clam with her upgrade from the total riff-raff section of the flying metal tube to the semi-riff-raff section, thereby gaining a god-send of five extra inches! (I believe the upgrade was in response to the polite, yet firm, letter I sent to United about my previous travel experience trying to get from Idaho back to Washington DC. I never received anything in my email as a response to my complaint, but our seats just happened to get bumped from the very back of the plane to the oh-so-lovely United Economy Plus section. Those extra few inches are undeniably amazing!) So, with a bit of extra legroom, and still fourteen hours to kill, what is there to do? I passed by afternoon/evening/afternoon/evening (I’m pretty sure we never hit night or morning as we followed the sun) by watching all of the available episodes of New Girl and The Big Bang Theory, making a personalized playlist of as many pop songs as I could find (making the playlist on their system took nearly as long as actually listening to the whole thing!), coloring what has to be the world’s most complex (and now awesome!) picture of a rhinoceros and finishing not only my book about North Korea, but also my book club book. (I know I am *way* behind on book reviews.  Now that we are getting settled, hopefully I will get going on them again!)

What I really want to know is: How is it possible that our three hour flight from Shanghai to Chengdu felt longer than the fourteen hour one from the US to China?!? I don’t think I slept more than about half an hour coming across the ocean, but once I hit that China Air flight, all I wanted to do was sleep! But, of course, I no longer had my miraculous upgrade through United, so Thad and I crammed our long legs into the not very accommodating space between rows and tried, in vain, to sleep sitting straight up.

We were lucky that Thad’s timeline coming here put us in not only on a Friday night, but the Friday night of a three-day weekend. Having that extra day to combat jet-lag before showing up at work was fabulous for him. The weekend was spent wandering our new neighborhood, where Thad took some great pictures of daily life, as it is, in China.

I was thrilled to find that there is an H&M store in Chengdu now! I’ve never been in one in the US, but I promptly skittered in to the one here when I saw it and was thrilled to find clothes with Western sizing in them, some that might even fit me! I’ll be reminding Thad of that when birthdays roll around! We also drove past a Hooters, which is a new addition to Chengdu since we left last time. That one we will not be remembering when birthdays roll around!

After wandering town, both our very authentic-feeling neighborhood and the more touristy JinLi road area, I think we are both ready to settle in and get to work here. My new sidewalk is a bit bumpier than the one in Washington DC (it rained last night and I already stepped on a brick-bomb- the loose bricks that hold water under them, creating a booby trap that splashes muddy water everywhere when stepped upon), but it is good to finally be walking it!

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Searching New Sidewalks

Between the ever-so-trying trip home from Idaho last week (click here if you missed that saga), Friday’s government-sponsored packout and the subsequent organizing and reorganizing of suitcases to go with us to China, the only time I have to blog is at 30,000 feet above the surface of the Earth.  So, with a five hour flight in front of me (okay, four and a half at this point, since I was just cleared to use my electronic devices), I figured now is as good of a time as ever to get an entry logged and star-dated.

I finally made it home, not on Wednesday as planned, but at 2AM on Thursday morning. After falling into the giant king-sized bed, I slept for a few hours, but once Thad’s alarm when off, I was wide awake, not because I was feeling overly refreshed and rejuvenated, but rather because my uptight, must-be-organized genes were kicking in and I knew I had only a day to get the whole mo-partment ready for the movers.

Thursday was spent taking everything out of every closet, drawer, nook and cranny in good ol’ #905 and placing it in one of four piles:

*Suitcase-These are things going with us on the plane to China, including most of our electronics, clothing for both work and weekends for an indeterminate number of weeks, a variety of shoes to go with those clothes, as well as toiletries and nail polish to get me though until the other forms of baggage transportation come through. (I’m currently sitting at a mere five bottles of nail polish to see me through that period. I will be creatively mixing and matching those colors until my box of sixty-some shades arrives in Chengdu. Don’t ask about the shoe situation. It isn’t pretty.)

*UAB- Unaccompanied baggage is a shipment of limited weight that is goes by air, but not with us. It is supposed to arrive a few weeks behind the owners, but I’ve heard in China that “few weeks” can easily stretch to a couple of months. All of our winter clothes are in this shipment, as well as comfy house stuff, like throw blankets and pillows. Thad’s PS3 and video game collection is also in this load, although I am not sure it will do him much good until the TV arrives.

*HHE- The household shipment is truly the slow-boat-to-China load. It will literally get placed on a container ship, where it will trek across the Pacific Ocean, arriving in the Middle Kingdom at some unknown future date. It could be a few weeks after the arrival of UAB , or a few more months. Who knows! This shipment has all of the goodies I bought at Costco about six weeks ago (again, click here if you missed that adventure!), as well as my Christmas tree, a sizable stack of books, and all of the boxes from our house in Idaho that we packed up a year ago. (At this point, I have no idea what randomness lurks in those!)

*Storage- The final pile from Friday morning belonged to storage. These are things that we didn’t  want to take with us to China, but rather wanted put in permanent storage until we are living back in the US. The tricky part of this pile was that the moving company required a minimum of 200 pounds to put a load into storage, but we were well below that level. (This may be the first and only time in my life that I want to see the number on the scale go up!) We had a couple of boxes that were meant to go to permanent storage when we packed out in Idaho, but somehow mistakenly ended up in Arlington with us. (These boxes include such necessary items as the feather pen used by guests to sign-in at our wedding reception, my 7th grade mosaic of a pig made from kidney beans and split peas, and my ginormous graduate program portfolio.) On top of that, we wanted to put our TV in that stack, as we already have one headed to China from the Idaho house. When the packing company representative came to the apartment a few weeks ago to do the pre-pack survey, he estimated that we were about fifty pounds short of being able to do a permanent storage pile, so we either had to up the weight or haul that stuff halfway around the world with us. With no desire to take my bean-art to China, we searched high and low for random junk to add to that pile, but came up empty handed. It was at this point that I remembered that in the activity room of our Oakwood, there is a bookshelf for taking or leaving books at will. The bottom two shelves have been filled with the same pile of books for a year now- tomes of diplomatic history, Norton anthologies of literature and a few technology textbooks that appear to be at least a decade out of date. Sticking with the fashion rule “if you haven’t worn it in the last year, it is time to get rid of it,” I figured if no one had taken them in the last year, no one is ever going to want them, they would be perfect for my pound-needs. It took me two stealthy trips down there to collect the needed weight, but I was able to get within a few pounds of the requirement, which is good enough for government work!

With all of our earthly possessions boxed and hauled off (an entire day of sorting and piling turned in to a mere two hours of work for the movers), we were left with the mo-partment looking eerily like it had exactly one year before when we moved in. After a few evenings of farewells with friends in the area, time has finally arrived to embark upon the trek to Chengdu. We’ll touch down in LA (with cardigan in tow, just like Miley, although I’m not sure I can get Thad to throw his hands in the air if they are playing his song) in just a couple of hours, spend a day and a half in the Sunshine state and then head out for Chengdu on Thursday.

The section of sidewalk I’ve spent the last year exploring was a great one. I saw more of our nation’s capital than I ever thought I would (parts of it more than I ever wanted to!) and was able both spend time with old friends and make some great new ones. With that said, I also feel like I’ve worn that chunk of sidewalk to its core and it is time to take this exploration on the road. I’m excited to search a new section of sidewalk, looking not necessarily for where it ends, but for where it will lead.

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I’ve Displeased the United Airline Gods

I’ve come to a single conclusion today- United Airlines hates me.

My plan for today was simple: try to keep the mascara/eyeliner smears to a minimum as I said goodbye to family in Idaho, fly from Boise to Washington DC, via San Francisco and Chicago, and en route, work on a blog post about my two weeks running around the Treasure Valley. It was an ambitious plan, I’ll grant you that, but doable. Definitely doable. That is, until United stepped in and made one holy heck of a mess of the day!

(You’ll remember, when I flew home to surprise Mom last summer, I also ran in to issues with United Airlines. If you missed that lovely adventure, check it out here!)

After a breakfast of French toast at a Nampa diner (it is close to pre-flight pancakes, so it counts), Mom and Dad dropped me off at the Boise Airport just a bit after 10:30AM. My flight was for noon, so the timing was perfect. I got my bag checked in and headed through a security line that was nearly non-existent. It took me longer to get my belt and shoes off than it did for the line to move through the scanners. At my gate I was greeted with a notice that my flight to San Francisco had been delayed by an hour. Thinking this might cause issues with my connections the rest of the day, as they were all pretty tight, I went to the counter agent to ask about a possible “plan B.” Now, when it comes to inquisitive customers, I think I am a pretty laid-backed one, peppering my queries with pleases and thank-yous and lots of smiles, knowing that working with the public is not always a walk in the park. The gal at the counter, rather than considering I might be facing a dilemma, dismissively assured me that there would be no problem and sent me back to my gray plastic chair to await the cattle call of airline boarding.

With the Boise flight taking off an hour late, I touched down in San Francisco with just twenty minutes to make my Chicago connection.  There was still a chance of getting on that plane; that is until mine sat on the tarmac for another ten minutes, waiting for a gate assignment. Once we were docked (or whatever it is planes to do park) I skittered off the plane as quickly as possible and ran for my connecting area, a mere twenty gates away. Upon arrival, pink-faced from my people-weaving sprint, I was thrilled to see my plane sitting there, with the accordion walkway still pulled up to it, but one look at the attendant told me there would not be good news. Not only would she not allow me to board the plane (keep in mind, the lateness was on no part my fault!), but she hardly looked at me as she shooed me away, telling me I’d have to figure it out with the customer service counter.

Customer service- a term used rather broadly by United Airlines it seems. After waiting a ridiculous amount of time to even speak to a representative, the woman “helping” me seemed more interested in when her shift was over than how I was going to get home today. She initially told me the only choices were flights on Thursday or a flight that arrived at Dulles, so I asked her to check other airlines. She wasn’t happy that I knew they were required to do that, and grudgingly click-clacked on her keyboard until she came up with a red-eye flight that left SF at midnight.  With those options on the plate, I took the Dulles flight, which at least was non-stop, even if it did put me in an airport clear across town, after midnight, when the original airport was just a single Metro stop away from the mo-partment.  At this point, I tried asking where my checked luggage might be, but was told she didn’t know and couldn’t know and that I would have to take that up with baggage claim in DC. (With the movers coming the day after tomorrow, the lack of suitcase/personal items is a pretty big problem, but one that I can’t deal with at 30,000 feet, so it will just have to wait.)

With a freshly printed boarding pass in hand, I wandered to my new gate, only to find that that flight had also been delayed. With another hour delay on the docket, I at least had time to get some lunch. (Grilled cheese and fries- lunch of airport champions!)  When boarding time rolled around, we all herded on to the plane in a rather expedient manner, as everyone was eager to get in the air. Doors were shut, seatbelts were fastened, tray tables were locked and seats were in their upright positions- we were ready to fly. That is, until mechanics decided they needed to do something inside the plane, at which point doors were unsealed and almost another hour passed as we sat in our ever-so-comfortable airplane seats. Now, rather than arriving at Dulles a bit before 11PM, the flight will arrive well past midnight. (I am currently on said flight- looking out the window at what is maybe Colorado, or possibly Kansas.)

Why does this always happen to me?!?  I think Thad may be regretting flying to China with me next week, as it seems I can’t get an on-time flight to save my life. At this point, I figure if I can get home by 2AM, I can sleep for a few hours and be up when Thad leaves for work so that I can start the sorting/organizing process for the movers who are coming the following day. I always knew this last week in Washington would be hectic and a bit stressful, I just didn’t realize that United Airlines would compound the pressure by putting a time squeeze on in true anaconda-fashion. (I considered several Snakes on a Plane references to go with that metaphor, but have maturely decided against it. You’ll just have to go there in your own mind…)

Today is Wednesday. Next Tuesday I will be back on a United Airlines flight, headed for Los Angeles. All I can do is pray to the gods who control those “departure” monitors in the airport and hope for the best! (Maybe a sacrifice of a small clock or a watch would appease them…)


The day may have been a near total disaster, but once I finally arrived in Washington DC, there were a few bits of good news:

  1. Somehow, my bag miraculously ended up on the same flight as me. That means that not only do I not have to worry about it arriving today while I am trying to get ready for our pack-out (which you can see I am clearly doing right now!), it meant that I had a toothbrush this morning when I finally rolled out of bed.
  2.  Super Shuttle was still running at 1AM, meaning I could get a ride home from Dulles! (A bonus- I got to sit the whole way. The last time I was out to Dulles, with Shannon and Joe, we took a packed Metro bus home. Standing with no real support was a great workout for our abs though!)
  3. Not only was the Super Shuttle running (at a cost of $30!), but I was the first drop-off out of nine people on board. That was about the best news I heard all day!!


The Name of This Book is Secret by Pseudonymous Bosch

The Name of This Book is Secret by Pseudonymous Bosch

When I’m not wandering the aisles of a bookstore, filling my arms with more than I can carry, or sitting on the couch in my pajamas surfing library e-book catalogs in search of the next fabulous read, I find book suggestions through the recommendations of fellow bookworms. My latest find comes courtesy of my oldest niece, Kelsey. When we were at the bookstore together the other day she suggested I borrow her copy of The Name of This Book is Secret. What a great suggestion!

The Name of This Book Is Secret is a young adult (on the younger side of the YA genre) in the vein of The Series of Unfortunate Events.  The book tells the story of Cass, a survivalist who is prepared for anything, and her sidekick, Max-Ernest, who finds his way in to her mystery-filled adventure. The tale begins when her grandpas, who own an antique store, find a box containing the Symphony of Smells. From there, she gets herself entangled in a world of magic, mayhem and murder.  She and Max-Ernest (who never goes by a shorter version of that moniker) discover that the Symphony of Smells is a cry for help from a missing magician, and in their quest to rescue him, they end up at a secretive spa where the search for immortality takes precedence over manicures and massages.

One of the things I loved most about this book is the way the narrator speaks directly to the reader. The book starts with an admonition to not read it, as it could be dangerous, which made my mind jump back to one of my favorite childhood books, The Monster at the End of this Book. (If you’ve not had the chance to enjoy this fabulous tale, skitter to your nearest bookstore and get a copy!)  Throughout the story, the reader is repeatedly given instructions to forget certain details that would identify the leading characters and the recipe for making the best “Super Chip” trail mix- made with no raisins!

On top of the direct dialog with the reader, the book is filled with codes to be deciphered, anagrams to puzzle over and mysteries to be solved. While sitting on the sofa reading a book may seem like an inactive way to spend an afternoon, but with this novel there is no such thing as passivity. You are definitely on your toes (at least mentally) from start to finish.  Pseudonymous Bosch’s The Name of This Book is Secret is an amusing way to spend a few hours, and it doesn’t hurt that it includes an aging basset hound.  The smiles and grins produced by this novel earn it:


Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden

Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West by Blaine Harden

Since the death of the North Korea’s Dear Leader last year, the isolated country has popped back up on the radar of the American public, who previously had mostly written it off as unimportant or nominal when it came to world politics. With Kim Jong-il’s passing, and the subsequent handoff of power to his son, a bit of attention has refocused on the Korean peninsula; examinations of the political manipulation and terror that are widespread are starting to be taken seriously. It is in this perfectly suited climate that Blaine Harden’s powerful book Escape from Camp 14 has been published.

Escape from Camp 14 is the tale of Shin Dong-hyuk, the only known North Korean prisoner to have been born in a prison camp and escape the country. While thousands of other North Koreans have made the treacherous trip across the northern border, into an unwelcoming China and eventually on to South Korea, where they are granted citizenship, Shin did so with very little knowledge of the world outside the fences of his camp.

Shin’s childhood was marred by starvation, torture and a constant feeling of fear. Trust, love and friendship are words that meant nothing within the walls of Camp 14. It isn’t until he is thrown into an underground jail for crimes he didn’t commit that he starts to know that there are other countries outside of his own, that there is another way of life than he has always known. Once that light bulb begins to shine, however dimly, in his mind, he can’t let it go.

There have been other books written by survivors of not only the North Korean prison system, but those strong souls who made it through the concentration camps of World War II and other horrible circumstances around the world. For me though, Shin’s story stands out amongst the memoirs for a couple of reasons. First, while many people who endure the horrors of war or oppressive governments knew a different lifestyle before, knew the meaning of love and trust and family, Shin was born into Hell. From the very beginning, he was just another mouth to feed, another form of competition for the already meager rations provided to those living in the camp. He didn’t have memories of better times to sustain him. Camp life was the only life he had ever known.  Second, Harden doesn’t whitewash the tale to make it more comfortable for the reader.  I appreciate that Shin’s story stands as it is. There were times when I was reading the book that I became really frustrated with Shin and the decisions he was making. Like many North Korean defectors, Shin has a very hard time assimilating to a world not ruled by guards. A fictional tale of escape would have the protagonist go through some growing pains and then settle in to a life of freedom and live happily ever after. Shin’s story doesn’t end with a happily ever after, at least not yet, but that is the reality of his (and probably many others’) situation. It is uncomfortable for the reader, but there is no easy answer to how to deal with the psychological turmoil he wakes up to each day.

This recently published book shines a spotlight on a country that has been in the news, but often in a way that mocks it slightly. Its past leaders have been eccentrics who seem clownish to the outside world, but behind the giant glasses and stiffly combed hair are men who allow their countrymen to be beaten, tortured, and to starve and die while the leaders enjoy vacation homes by the sea. While the story can be frustrating to read on an emotional level, it is well-told and serves an eye-opening account of the realities of life behind the electrified, barbed-wire topped fences of North Korea’s prison camps. Blaine Harden’s Escape from Camp 14 earns:



Girl Walks into a Bar by Rachel Dratch

Girl Walks into a Bar by Rachel Dratch

It appears that lately I’ve had a thing for the ladies of comedy. A few weeks ago I read (and reviewed) Mindy Kaling’s new book, then last week I bought Tina Fey’s Bossy Pants (which is currently in a box on the slow boat to China) and then today I finished (somewhere 30,000 feet above the flyover states) Rachel Dratch’s new release. I haven’t read Fey’s book, but I do have to admit right up front that between of Kaling’s and Dratch’s books, Kaling wins without a doubt.

Now, that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy Girl Walks into a Bar, there were parts that made me laugh and parts that made me reflect on my own choices in life. I definitely agree with Dratch on her views of baby showers, (I mean, how many tiny pairs of pants can one oooh and ahhh over in the space of a single afternoon?)but overall I think the vast difference in where we are in life makes the book fall outside my range of interest.

Dratch focuses a lot on the fact that she became a mother for the first time at the age of forty-four. She had always wanted kids, but didn’t want to be a single mother and Mr. Right hadn’t found his way in to her life yet. Her world is turned upside down when, well past the time she thought she would have to worry about birth control, she finds out she is pregnant. The father is a man she had been seeing long-distance for several months, but one with whom there was no set commitment.

Before getting to the pregnancy, Dratch does detail the horrors of her dating life. I couldn’t help but laugh at how many crazies came her way over the years. From the married man who flirted like there wasn’t a wife and two kids at home to the one who casually asked her if she ever wondered what human flesh tasted like, she definitely got her fill of the New York dating scene.

The book references Saturday Night Live and its cast and host of characters pretty regularly, so that may be a draw for some. While I went through a period when I watched it most weekends, it has been a few years since I could be counted on to know the recurring skits. (Even when I was watching often, it was pretty much only for the digital shorts and Weekend Update. The rest was pretty hit or miss for me.)

Girl Walks into a Bar was a quick read and I am sure it will be popular with mothers who feel the pain/excitement/horror/joy/fear/blessing of an unexpected pregnancy, but this just wasn’t the queen of comedy book I had hoped for.  (Fingers crossed that Tina Fey’s book will fall into the Mindy Kaling category and not the Rachel Dratch one… ) With that said, it was the perfect book for a cross-country airplane ride- easy to read and short chapters that don’t require excessive amounts of concentration.  Overall, Rachel Dratch’s Girl Walks into a Bar earns:

Survey Says…

Eleven months ago, as I was finishing up my teaching job at Marsing Middle School, Thad and I were in the midst of a career change that started with a cross-country move. Thank goodness those last days were teacher work days and that I had a personal leave day or two left! I had students load all of my books, files, posters, sweaters, and knick-knacks into a friend’s mother’s car, as mine had already been sold, so that I could bail as soon as possible, getting home to where another set of books, files, pictures and knick-knacks were being stored away as well. (As a side note, it is amazing how a classroom can become a second home. I had as much stuff in room 4 of MMS as I did in my first dorm room at college!)

Moving companies are an integral part of the State Department. They come, look at your stuff, estimate the boxing needs and return a few weeks later and unload your house in mere hours. The actual packing day reminds me of a plague of locust, coming through and devouring everything in its path. The movers come in, move from room to room, leaving emptiness behind. Emptiness is the key word there. If something is in the room, it is going in the box. That means the stuff you don’t want in boxes needs to be hidden away, or you may not see it again for months. Make sure the trash is taken out of the house, or it may end up in a box. Make sure the flip-flops you wear around the yard are not left lounging by the front door or they will be carted away in a crate with rugs and frames. And heaven forbid you forget and leave a load of dirty laundry in the basket on the morning of moving day. Months and months later, you are likely to end up with a lovely, gym-sock smelling surprise that is probably best to go straight from packing box to trash bin!

Over all though, the process is really rather amazing! It is all especially astounding to those of us who are used to moving with the help of anyone who can be bribed with pizza and Pepsi! (I’m looking at you, friends and family! I’ve been on both ends of that deal more times than I can count, and as little fun as moving is, we all tend to show up when the offer is cheesy pepperoni and cold cola.)

Today, we started that moving process again. This morning, I had scheduled a pack-out survey for 10AM. I also had an appointment with the Salvation Army to pick up a donation of clothes that were not going to China with us. So, I rolled out of bed and got dressed much earlier than I have in the last few weeks, waiting for either one of them to arrive. By 10:45, I was baffled to have not heard from the moving company. I knew the Salvation Army would be anytime between 7AM-noon, but I thought the moving appointment was 10AM sharp. As it turns out, after eleven months in Arlington, Thad still doesn’t know our address and sent the poor man to some other random, non-existent address, so he was a tad late. (I got the text from Thad warning me of this predicament as the surveyor was leaving the house, too late to be properly alerted!) The company representative was a bit grumpy when he first walked in the door, but I turned on the charm and soon he was joking with me and telling me horror stories of some crazy moves he had helped with over the years.

I do have to say, it is a bit disconcerting to have someone walk into your house, wander through the rooms, opening closets and cupboards and nightstand drawers, making a mental calculation of how much your worldly possessions weigh.  He had questions about whether our TV is an LED (I have no idea!), what percentage of my clothing I was going to take on the plane with me (as much as possible!), how many pairs of shoes were going to be shipped (uhhh, every last one of them!) and how much more food we were going to buy for the consumables shipment (none, although I am questioning the amount of cereal we have…is it enough?)

The sad part of this is, he walk-though lasted less than half an hour. Actually, thirty minutes is being super generous. I would guess it lasted less than fifteen minutes. This guy knows his stuff when it comes to estimating. He would be a rock star in elementary math class!! (Remember those pictures where they would show you a stack of, say, ten coins and then a huge stack of coins and you had to estimate how many where in the huge stack? I was always terrible at those problems! I still can’t take a decent guess at how tall something is, how far away a landmark is or even how many cookies it is going to take to fill me up. I always tend to guess too tall, too far and too many!)

So now, all of my stuff has been checked off on a spreadsheet, my pack-out day has been set and it is just a matter of organizing and reorganizing the piles before that fateful day arrives. Until then, it is off to Idaho for two weeks to make the rounds, visit school and friends and family and the neighbor’s stacking goats one last time before the move to the Middle Kingdom!