Sunday, December 30, 2007

All Grown Up

It was uneven. It was kinky beyond kinky. It was starting to collect small pieces of food that could not be removed. It was time.

Without a tear (surprisingly) from Mommy, Grant had his first haircut today. We took him to a special place just for kids. There are slides and video games and TVs blasting cartoons at every station. It was kid bliss.

The stylist was fearful that Grant was going to lose it. She had to comb out his entire afro (which hasn't ever really been done). But, in classic Grant fashion, he didn't shed a tear... he didn't even whine.

He looks so different. But, I knew he was the same kid when at the end of the haircut, he blew a big fat raspberry for the stylist. I need to teach this kid how to flirt better than that.



A short video

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Just a few more pics

From Christmas Eve!

We were the official "greeters" at church on December 23. Here's Grant looking dapper in his Christmas best (garage sale purchase = 75 cents... I'm proud of that find). He rubbed his eye red, but he's still just deliciously cute.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Drum Roll Please

I know you've been waiting for this moment with such anticipation (ahem, Kathy!). You probably couldn't sleep. Probably couldn't eat. You might be hyperventilating right now at the mere thought of it.

Yes, it's time for the unveiling of the 2007 one gift a year Christmas ornament exchange. There were some mishaps this year, and I am approaching near litigation with the internet store where I purchased my ornament to Bret, but still....

Baby Grant's first ornament from us:

My ornament to Bret:

Why the near litigation over this ornament? Because baby Grant is white on this ornament, and the whole reason I picked this ornament, after months of searching, is because baby Grant was suppose to be a black baby with a baby afro. The "personalization department" obviously thought I made a mistake. Every "family of #" ornament has white people or snowmen, so I was so excited to find an ornament that would accurately represent race. I should have known that there would be a snag. A replacement ornament should be on its way.

Bret's ornament to me:

This picture doesn't do the ornament justice: Grant doesn't have a huge shiny circle radiating from his forehead. This ornament has a bulb that goes down into it and back lights Grant's picture. Without the bulb, Grant looks possessed.

Another year of sweet memories...

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

December 26

The tree is back in its box. The lights are down. The downstairs of our home has been restored. I'm not itching to be "done with Christmas," but the last few days have been overwhelming. Travel + a zillion gifts + three or so different family get togethers + an 11 month old baby = 1 tired mamma.

So, the fastest way to gain my sanity was to put it all away and resume semi-nomral life. I couldn't let the holidays escape without comment about the world's cutest baby. Grant, even though a bit young for it all, liked Christmas. He loves being held, talked to, played with, and so you can imagine that he considered the week long love fest a real winner. He has more toys and clothes than he knows what to do with... he needs another room just to house his gear. I think I need to have a talk with the grandparents about his birthday...

Here's Grant in new pjs (1 of 3, mind you). He is sitting in Bret's old toddler chair. He thought he was hot stuff.

Here's Grant in new pjs (2 of 3) playing with some of his new toys in his new igloo tent.
Overall, it was the best Christmas ever. Nothing beats a baby in new pjs, snuggling up with you under a blanket in front of the fire. Nothing.

Bonus footage: Here's Grant's famous scoot. He kind of forgets how to get to his knees from a sitting position, so for the last month or so, he has scooted everywhere. Here's the real deal (sorry it might be a bit dark).

Monday, December 24, 2007

Good Night, My Baby, Good Night

I love this Christmas song, and so I made it our Christmas Eve card to all of you!

We love you friends and family. Those of you far, far away, we miss you!

Merry Christmas!

One Gift a Year: 2006

We, again, both had the same idea: baby Grace. Baby Grace became a reality in March of 2006 when the Chinese government logged us into the baby line.

My ornament to Bret is a fortune cookie:

Bret's ornament to me is actually from China (purchased on business):

Sunday, December 23, 2007

One Gift a Year: 2005

We both had the same idea: our 14 day, 4,000 mile car trip to the edge of Eastern Canada and back. States we hit: Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. And let's not forget that most of the trip was in Canada.

My ornament to Bret is a sand dollar from Maine with the Maine blueberries on it:

Bret's ornament to me is the classic Maine lobster (I swear it is the actual size of a lobster):

Update: Bret and I just finished a SIX HOUR baking marathon. We take goodies as gifts down to family in Bedford. This year's menu: butterscotch pecan cookies, black and white cookies (like our family!), homemade slow pokes (it's a sucker for my Cali family), Bailey's Irish Cream fudge, Kahlua Cookie Creams, and rosemary shortbread. We're exhausted, covered in flour, and ready for bed.

Family Christmas: Take 1

Last night, we headed to Rachel and Troy's (Bret's sister and brother-in-law) house for our first family Christmas. Troy's family was there too, so it was a fun, crazy, festive time. Troy has a nephew who is 3.5, so it was fun to watch a child, who really gets the whole present thing, get into it.

Grant, who doesn't quite get the whole present thing, was a quick study. Before we all knew it, he was tearing into his gifts and playing quickly with all of the knobs, buttons, lights and other electronic craziness that comes on toys these days.

Here's Grant playing with his new baby grand piano (first thing this morning). For five whole minutes, he pressed the same stinking key, and it kept saying "red, red, red." No kidding, by the end of it, Grant said "red." He has no idea what he is saying... but... it shows he loves his new toy. I'm sure if he could stop playing for one second, he would say, "Thanks Aunt Rachel and Uncle Troy."

He also got a toy that makes all kinds of car sounds (including emergency sirens) from his great grandparents. Did you know--that if you sit on one of those--the siren just keeps sounding and sounding and sounding? Nothing says Christmas like the feeling that the police are in your house. Thanks Mamaw and Papaw!

On Monday, we are heading down to Bret's parents and then down to the big family celebration in Bedford where there will be a whole new brand of craziness (yes, you know who you are).

As a side note, I know you're all just riveted by our look back at Hawkins family ornament past, so don't worry, another post will come. You can go about your day now.

Friday, December 21, 2007

FFFF Challenge

Thanks to Lissa at Loving Lydia for another fun (and super easy this time of year) FFFF challenge. This week's challenge: O' Tannenbaum.

I give you the only picture of Grant actually looking at the camera (and not the tree) that we have.

If he's not looking at the tree, he is dismantling it, tearing open presents or trying to get the the nativity set to chew on baby Jesus. Ah, Christmas with an 11 month old baby. Wouldn't trade it for the world.

One Gift a Year: 2004

Here is my ornament to Bret to commemorate our trip to Germany (Bret on business, Erin on pleasure). It's direct from the Black Forrest and spins over heat.

Here is Bret's ornament to me. It's a quilter. I don't quilt. I laughed pretty hard. I had made several baby blankets that year, and Bret was trying to get me a girl with crochet stuff, but he didn't really know the difference.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

One Gift a Year: 2003

My gift to Bret to commemorate the grant I received where Bret and I hiked ALL OVER Indiana. It was cuter online. Not so cute in person.

Bret's ornament to me: an angel to commemorate how angelic I was during the year (ahem, ahem).

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Turn on the blue light for the holidays

The other night while grocery shopping, my wife said to me, "Your mom stopped by the WalMart on our side of town to pickup a DVD that was on sale." I explained that driving across town for a sale item was normal behavior for my mom, in stark contrast to my wife who wouldn't drive across the street to save $4 if she was already at a store that had what she wanted.

And thus were laid the foundations of our discussion regarding my mom's perspective on consumerism. Now I don't want to say that my mom is cheap, because that wouldn't necessarily be accurate. It's more that she's, shall we say, bargain obsessive.

You see, I believe I grew up with an uncommon perspective on the way people shop for groceries, home goods, gasoline, haircuts, etc. It is simply not in my mom's ability to make a purchase at a given price at a given store if she knew that the same item (not necessarily the same brand, size, or quality...hence my diet of generic canned goods) could be purchased within approximately 35 miles for a lower price.

Now the obvious hole in this logic involves the value of one's time and/or the value of the wear and tear (and gasoline, strangely) used by the vehicle in chase of such bargains. It was common knowledge in our house growing up that in the grand scheme of the shopping universe, my mom's time was a "buy one get one free." Therefore her willingness to stop at three grocery stores on the way home from work (one for milk, another for bread, and a third for a $0.25 off deal on Kleenex) was understandable. While I appreciate the zeal behind such a quest, I'd sooner buy all my groceries at the local Quickie Mart than go through such a hunt on my own.

As a child, I developed a vocabulary not common in a five year old. I understood the "buy one get one free." I could distinguish between a 12 oz box and a 16 oz box. I was the only kid to graduate from Glenns Valley Elementary who knew what a "rain check" was.

I mentioned to my wife that I grew up with other quirks of my mom's "system" as well. For example, I can remember standing in line #2 at the local grocery store with two pounds of bacon and a $5 bill in hand. I could look down the store, if I stood on my tippie toes, and see mom in line #5 (the rule is there must be at least two lines in between). The exchange at the register was always the same:

"Hey there big fella. Just getting the bacon today?"
"Sure you don't need a Zagnut or some Vics Vaporub while you're here?"
"No, ma'am, just the bacon thanks."
"I see you got two pounds -- the limit per customer. That's a heck of a deal."
"Sure is. I do like my bacon."

At this point, the cashier would turn from 5 year old me and have a look down at mom, also carrying her two pounds. I was never prevented from completing the purchase, but every store in town was onto the jig.

My mom had a good working relationship with all of the clerks at the various clothing stores in our local mall as well. My mom goes to the mall at some point during each and every week, and usually she returns home with at least one item -- a new pair of pants, a sweater, etc. Yet you will only see my mom in a new outfit on the rarest of occasions. This is because of the returns.

My mom has the worst case of "buyer's remorse" in all of history -- on clothing items under $20. She returns items so frequently that she knows the cashiers by name (I'm fairly certain some of them get a Christmas card.) I'm convinced that when she checks out with her purchases, they don't actually do anything with her credit card. I think they just make a sort of "Zing!" noise and hand her card back to her. Anticipating the return, they probably just make a note of the item and wait for it to be returned for restocking in the next few days. It just saves everyone a lot of paperwork.

The other thing I remember clearly as a kid were the coupons. My mom had a year's supply of coupons torn from various newspapers that she kept in a little plastic baggie. The baggie was a prototype Ziploc product from the late 70's, and all of the text on the outside was worn off from being carried around for so long. Each trip through the grocery store involved mom stopping occasionally and shuffling through that baggie, until she found the clipping she needed. She knew exactly what items she had coupons for, and if she found expired coupons along the way, they were held out to be tossed at the end of the trip.

The cashiers at the grocery stores in town recognized this baggie, and on many occasions, we would return to the store hours later to retrieve the baggie from the clerk.

"Here you go, Mrs. Hawkins. We saved it for you."

Mom would clutch the wrinkled and torn plastic baggie, breathing a sigh of relief as if it had been me or my sister who had been returned to her. I would frequently look through the baggie in boredom, and there were all kinds of amazing products represented in there, most of which I had never tasted. Why she clipped things that we never ate or used, I'll never understand, but she did develop an amazing agility with scissors. Ne'r a Sunday went by that my dad didn't pick up a section of the paper, only to find it already in tatters; the story he wished to read decimated by an ad for lean ground beef on the flip side.

To this day, my mom can tell you the price of milk or gasoline at any location on the south side of Indianapolis. It's an amazing gift; one that we've suggested multiple times could probably be turned into a website.

I write this not to taunt or make fun of my mom (at least not entirely). I find her quirks endearing, and I appreciate that I grew up with someone who didn't just toss money around carelessly. So as Christmas approaches, and I go shopping for baking supplies and egg nog, I think of my mom and those Christmases long ago...spent gathering groceries at Kroger, Marsh, Mr. D's, Lowell's, IGA, Speedway, Big E, Osco, Meijer...

P.S. It takes a real piece of work to post this a few days before Christmas when the mother in question is trigger happy to return things to the store... Love ya mom!

Monday, December 17, 2007

Funny Funny

Our friend Angie sent us this today. The kid not only looks a bit like Grant, but anyone who has met our little tike will understand that he's got the same kind of spunk in him. Thanks for the laugh, Angie.

One Gift a Year: 2002

One year of marriage. One broken arm off horseback. One redone honeymoon to Florida. Not an easy year.

My ornament to Bret to commemorate the horse-arm incident and the first year of marraige:

I thought it was laugh out loud funny.

Bret's ornament to me to commemorate our trip to DisneyWorld during honeymoon part 2 (it even had real gold on it).

His choice was sweet.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

One Gift a Year

Bret and I have taken some serious heat over the years (primarily in the form of Aunt Barb) regarding our "one gift a year rule."

That's right. Bret and I only get each other one gift a year: a Christmas ornament. At birthdays, we go out for a great dinner, a concert, a movie. For our anniversary, the same. We do give each other cards on birthdays and anniversaries, and they are among the sweetest keepsakes I have.

We go on great vacations, sometimes multiple trips a year. But, gifts, just one. Wrapped in paper. With a bow.

And here's the absolute truth: we wouldn't want it any other way. I don't want to toss Bret's present to me out in the Goodwill bag in five years. I don't want to ever forget what he got me. I can get a sweater from anybody. I can buy one myself. But... a personalized ornament that Bret picked out for me to commomorate our year together... it can't be topped. If we had a fire, those ornaments would be the first non-people things I would grab.

We've had our share of flub ups with the ornaments, but that is what makes it so cute.

So, in honor of our time honored tradition (this will be our sixth year together), I will showcase our ornaments in the coming days (and I'll post our newest ornaments once we open them up on Christmas Eve). You can vote on your favorite:)

We'll add a third new ornament this year to the tree: one for baby Grant. That photo will come later.

Here is the first set of ornaments from about two months after we were engaged (year 2001):

This is the one I got Bret

This is the one Bret got me:

It's the sweetest of traditions.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow

We are expecting up to 12 inches of snow. We've rented movies, stocked the pantry (I already have enough food in there to feed the entire city), and the rest of my presents are going to get wrapped.

With any luck, school will be out on Monday. Fingers crossed. I love Indiana!

Friday, December 14, 2007

Now what kind of music is that?

Everyone that knows me knows that I spent a great deal of my childhood with a Walkman in my hand and the largest set of earphones I could find on my head. Since high school I've gone to dozens of concerts and bought hundreds of CDs. With the advent of the iPod, I've finally gone completely digital, but I still listen to tons of music.

With that said, I'm always getting asked "Now what kind of music do you listen to?" I never really know how to answer that, but recently Blender did a review of "The 100 Greatest Indie-Rock Albums Ever". As I scrolled through the list, I realized that I own roughly half of the albums, and their #1 pick, Pavement's Slanted and Enchanted is one of my favorites. Also making the top ten were R.E.M.'s Murmur (mistakenly listed as "Mumu" on the site, and frequently cited by yours truly as my favorite album of all time), and albums by the Pixies, The Replacements, Velvet Underground, My Bloody Valentine, Big Star, and The Smiths, all of which are personal favorites.

So I guess this list is as representative of the "kind of music I listen to" as anything else. Although I suspect my wife and parents would still more simply classify it as "a racket."

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Pacers Game

Last night I took my Asian work companions out for an Indiana Pacers ballgame. We got primo seats from work, ten rows up from the floor, and to complete the tourist package, we ate at the Hard Rock Cafe downtown.

The Pacers haven't been worth a lick this year, and to make matters worse, about half the team insists on spending each and every weeknight at seedy strip clubs getting shot at in their Rolls Royce's. In any case, I was still shocked when we arrived at the start of the game. I'm guessing more people attend those dog shows you see on Animal Planet than attended last night's ballgame. The official attendance was in the neighborhood of 10,000, but I'd bet that even that was high. You could have easily moved every person in the arena into the lowest level and still had free seats.

Our seats were positioned only a few feet from Larry Bird and the Pacer's ownership, and my local colleague and I wondered throughout the game if any of those guys are worried about the money being lost on concessions and such, not to mention the fact that the franchise itself has been watered down to a pretty dismal state.

The Asian guys still got a kick out of the game. I was impressed when one of them asked, "Where is Reggie Miller?" a few minutes into the game. I suspect many others in the stands felt that same sentiment. The game was against the Chicago Bulls, and each time the Bulls hit a bucket, my Chinese friend let out a loud "BOOOOO." It was entertaining.

They were also mesmerized by the various shows during the game, including a debut by some Pacemates in training. The show was broken into an "under 11" group, which was cute enough but a little disturbing. I'm fairly confident none of our kids will be joining this troupe, unless they can perform in burlap. The other group was ages 11-15, if I remember correctly. Their moves were far more disturbing, and I fully expected a "This portion of the show brought to you by Planned Parenthood" announcement.

Despite the lousy crowd, thugly team, and mediocre Hard Rock Cafe food, we still had a good time, and my colleagues will get to take a little piece of Indiana back with them to China and Japan. I offered them each a chunk of limestone as well, but didn't get any takers.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Lunch for tree?

As Erin mentioned, I have been hosting a gentleman from China for the past week at work. He's 26, easy going, and digging getting to spend some quality time relaxing in the slushy wasteland that is central Indiana in December. Yesterday another colleague from Japan arrived to join our little party for the remainder of the week.

Quickly becoming the intro to a bad joke, myself, the Chinese guy, and the Japanese guy headed for lunch yesterday at Panera. (I tried to take them to our favorite Chinese buffet here in town, but it's closed on Mondays. The Asian guys we host always marvel at our Chinese buffets, and more specifically, my ability to eat a four plate lunch.) Panera was nearby and relatively quick, so I thought it would be an easy choice.

I immediately knew I'd made a potential mistake when we entered, and I took a look at the menu. Before you could say "bok choy," I heard the following:

"Bacon.....turkeeeeey....bravo? What bravo?"
"Panini? What a panini?"

This final question was followed with "What a turkey?"

It occurred to me at this point that virtually nothing on Panera's menu reads "chicken sandwich" or "salad and fruit" or "fried duck livers." It's all in this suburban-washed, Americana styled lingo that makes no sense to me, let alone two guys from Asia.

In the end I asked them what basic ingredients they wanted and then ordered for them. It all turned out alright, but I'm not sure it was their cup of tea. (Perhaps they were missing the added flavor of food being cooked in a lead-lined pot.)

Tomorrow night we're going to a Pacers game. That should be equally entertaining.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Hawkins Family Life

Baby Grant is back to his happy self. A bad cold coupled with several teeth coming in made for a grouchy baby for weeks. I was fearful he had entered the terrible twos a little early, but rest assured, once he was sleeping well again (read: could breathe at night), he was back to his charming self.

We had dinner with Grant's birthmom and birth sisters the other night. It was so great to see them. Grant's birthmom said that the girls (ages 2 and 4) are starting to ask questions like "how come our brother doesn't live with us?" My heart went out to her... her decision was so hard, but she tells us all the time how she feels so blessed to have met us because she knows that we truly love Grant. We, of course, feel blessed beyond measure. We look forward to many more dinners out with her.

We've had our first snowfall of the season, and being from California, snow is still a novelty, so I have high hopes for a white Christmas.

I am knee deep in grading, and Bret is hosting a guy from China and another from Japan for two weeks at work. We're busy, busy right now, so it's a good thing that all my Christmas presents are bought and wrapped and under the tree. I hate that my busiest and craziest time at school is right before Christmas. It doesn't allow for a much time to reflect.

Here's a recent "conversation" with Grant. It's long (about 5 minutes), so only the most dedicated members of his fan club should undertake it.

Here's a little message that Grant typed:
vwey7n7n7 u.'; gcwvvdcccccccc yggggg nninnnnn

It says: I love you all very much!

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Grace Update

As we gear up for our best Christmas ever (thanks to the addition of Grant Nicholas [who makes everything better!]), we have not forgotten about baby Grace this holiday season. There is a good chance that she was recently born (or will be born very, very soon) and is spending her first Christmas season in an orphanage. Talk about heartbreaking!

We hope to have Grace by next Christmas, but we still don't know. The Chinese government takes about 1 month to get through about 8-10 numbers. How many more numbers to go before we can go get Grace? About 90. So, hopefully, we will get her referral in about 9 months, travel about two months after that (which would be right around Thanksgiving 2008). Of course, it can all change (thank you Olympics in China). It could slow down. It could speed up.

So when we kiss Grant goodnight on Christmas Eve, we will also send a special prayer and Christmas kiss flying across the ocean to a little girl baby in China.

FFFF=Real life Christmas

How to sum up the Christmas photo shoot with an 11 month old baby boy??? One word=impossible. Grant is always on the go, and simply will not sit still. We have more photos of the back of his head than anything else this holiday season. If it's not the back of his head, it's him on all fours... can't quite keep him sitting up for long enough to snap a pic. For more Christmas photo sessions gone bad, check out Loving Lydia.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

A Christmas Greeting... of sorts

From our family to yours...

With a special thanks to the Long family for the idea.... sorry that our execution (embedded video) is not as strong. Click here. Work warning: music will play.

Monday, December 03, 2007

"Night and Nibbles Express" in Madison

It seemed like a delightful idea -- a Christmas home tour and progressive dinner in historic Madison, Indiana. You could smell the pine and cider in the air last spring as we discussed taking the "Nights and Nibbles Express" tour that was being promoted by the Madison Area Convention and Visitors Bureau during our annual trek to Madison in Bloom. Given that the spring tour is a highlight for us each year, we decided that surely the Christmas tour would also be a delight.

So the wife and inlaws boarded Big Whitey, and we drove down to Madison last night with tickets in hand. We felt fortunate, at first, because the weather was unseasonably warm despite the rain. We figured that we would be going in and out of houses and restaurants, so the rain would only be of temporary discomfort. Our first stop was at the Madison visitor's center to pickup our reservation. We were told to meet at the Madison Table Works at 3:00pm for our tour departure. It was only 2:00, so we wandered about for a bit, anxiously awaiting the evenings festivities.

Madison Table Works is housed in a building that is the former site of an old wagon and carriage company. The current occupants hand craft beautiful custom tables and chairs, and we enjoyed checking out their wares -- for the first 15 minutes. There were cheeses, crackers, and a small sampling of salamis available for the taking, so I crafted a quarter pounder out of cold cuts to keep myself entertained while avoiding mingling with the others present for the tour. My father-in-law made quick friends with one of the ladies who had helped organize the tour, and my wife and mother-in-law made quick friends with the ladies serving glasses of wine.

After 45 minutes or so, they called for the first group to depart. This was a group of senior citizens from Columbus, Indiana, and it seemed fair for them to go first, given that by 6:00pm they would need to be tucked soundly in their sheets. (Actually, this hold true for my mother-in-law as well, but alas.) The rest of us continued or assault on the deli trays and awaited the next carriage to arrive, which it did around 15 minutes later. Our names were, again, not called, so we continued to snack and anti-mingle. My inlaws contemplated how to steal additional glasses of wine, but their son-in-law, a beacon of moral virtuosity, intervened and prevented such an act. Finally, around 3:30pm, our names were called in the final group, and we headed out to our carriage.

Now having seen the departures of the first two carriages, we immediately noted that we'd gotten the proverbial shaft on the transport. The first two carriages were essentially buses used by the city to give guided tours. Our carriage was of the open-air tour carriage variety and featured no windows. This is well and good during an 85 degree summer afternoon, but when it's 45 out with a chance of showers, this does not bode well. Luckily the rain was holding off as we made our way to the first display house.

We arrived at the first house (the Flanigan House in this photo of tour sites), and already the three groups were bunched up. We had to wait to get in, and at the end of the tour, we had to wait to board our carriage. The house itself was picturesque enough, situated on a bluff overlooking old Madison. It was recently renovated, and while the decorating did nothing for me personally (because I'm a good judge of such things), much care had obviously been taken. Toward the end of the tour, I saw a gentlemen with long, flowing blond Fabio-ready hair, bedazzled with many a sparklin' jewel, cowboy boots, and some of them ultra-trendy jeans with the holes built in. He also had a giant jewel encrusted belt buckle declaring some sort of Texan allegiance. He clearly was not from Madison, Indiana. As it turns out, he was the owner and decorator of the house, and he works as an interior designer in Los Angeles. (We later discovered that he's got a second career as a country music star, hence the jingle janglin' spurs.) We overheard him explaining that this was merely a weekend home and that he was looking to host weddings and parties in the house, which seemed like a good notion given that the house didn't feel very "homey" to any of our party.

After waiting for the old people from Columbus to stow their canes and reboard their bus, we began to lineup for our carriage ride to the next eating location. By this time, our open air bus had begun to function as more of a rain guage than a transportation device, and as we reboarded, we were confronted by soaking wet seats and a steady downpour within the vehicle. The tour organizers had generiously begun wrapping the open windows with cellophane to stop the flood, but it was of little use. My inlaws chose a particularly damp seat and ended up riding with an umbrella over their heads.

One of the gentlemen who was on the tour with us provided much comic relief throughout the evening, whether we wanted it or not. He was the kind of guy who couldn't just "make a funny" to his wife and accompanying friends, rather he had to share each and every line with the entire bus, waiting at the end of each delivery for the applause and guffaws that would surely follow. His first act was "Man, did you see the guy that owned that last house. CUCKOO!" We all sort of chuckled, and then he continued. "He did NOT belong in Indiana. I guess he was from California" and here's where he served up the old mixed company chestnut. "And you KNOW what they say about California? It's like a box of granola. It's full of fruits and nuts and whatever is left is flakes."

I know my wife well, and I quickly realized that her Los Angeles upbringing would not allow this to go unnoticed, so she served up a quick "Ouch...that hurts" to the guy and then explained that she was from California. Instead of apologizing and shutting his trap like a decent human being, the incident seemed to fuel his comedic fervor. He quickly responded that he'd now only offended a couple of people on the tour and that surely more would follow. Delightful.

The second stop on our progressive dinner was supposed to be for soup, but apparently the aged ones from Columbus couldn't eat a quarter cup of beef barley in under 45 minutes, so we were diverted to a mercantile on the main drag through old Madison. Since our first stop was in the newer part of Madison overlooking the old town, we began our descent down the cliff in our rain soaked bus.

Apparently the woman driving the carriage was not accustomed to driving the vehicle, because she drove as if she were piloting a Honda Civic and not a tour bus full of soaking wet, increasingly agitated, tour patrons. Coupled with the fact that the descent into Madison is on a very windy road, soaking wet from the thunderstorm, and you can understand the terror developing in Erin and me. Our seats for this part of the ride were directly across from the door, if one had been present. Part of the open air charm of our ride was that it had no door, so we were able to watch as we descended the hill on wet roads at 60 miles per hour. I thought perhaps we were just overreacting as people not accustomed to this particular road, until the woman guiding our tour leaned over to us and said, "Geez, did you see how close we came to hitting that guardrail?"

Upon arriving at the mercantile, we gathered ourselves up and began looking at their wares. By this point we were sopping wet, hungry, and generally not enjoying ourselves. My father-in-law saw a tewnty minute demonstration of a coffee machine that primarly consisted of the owner reading the manual trying to figure out why it wouldn't produce coffee. Finally it came time to reboard our soaking bus and get our soup.

The soup restaurant was a lovely little lunch place on the edge of town called the Red Pepper Deli and Cafe. We've frequently discussed stopping at this place for lunch, so we were glad to get to sample something warm from their kitchen. Upon arriving, the owners promptly made an excellent decision and handed each of us another glass of wine. About the only thing holding our hopes up for the tour at this point was alcohol. We were then served a cup of beef barley soup which had been written up in the Louisville newspapers for it's fine flavor. Perhaps it was just the mood, but none of us were terribly shaken by the soup, although the owners seemed like genuinely delightful people.

We reboarded the Titanic (a quip I've lifted from my previously discussed comedic friend) and headed for our next tour stop, a condo overlooking the Ohio River. The condo was pretty enough, but there was nothing particularly special about it other than it's view of the river. By this point, all of us would have gladly traded this stop for a quicker trek to our main dinner course. We reboarded the bus and headed for the salad station in the progressive dinner.

The salads were prepared by a local bakery and were served, rather strangely, in the basement of the local Christian church. The church itself was in no way decorated for Christmas, so it felt rather like we were merely breaking and entering as we descended into the basement for salads. We discovered upon entering the dining area that we'd again caught up with the Columbus Octogenarian Track Team and were forced to wait.

After being afforded twenty minutes to drip dry, we were served a lovely salad with crusted pecans and other salad-esque thingeys. We sat at a table a few feet from Robin Williams Lite, and the longer I listened to the guy, the more ignorant he got. I finally just put my head down and barreled through my salad. At some point, my father-in-law asked, "What time is it? Is it still the same day?" It did, indeed, feel as though we'd been touring for days on end. I remarked that it felt as though we were being punished, rather than having paid for this outing.

The next home on the tour (the Garber Courtney home in the picture) was lovely, and it was one of the few stops that was both a lovely home and beautifully decorated for Christmas. A soaking "hats off" to the family that hosted this stop on the tour. They apparently got the memo.

Fearing that our friends from Columbus had not yet started, let alone finished the main dining course, we next proceeded to another home. We were startled to find that at some point, we had been given a new tour bus, and this one actually featured windows and a door. Why you would allow patrons to soak for two solid hours before handing them a proverbial towel is beyond me, but I wasn't going to complain.

This next home was a renovated duplex along the Ohio River. The owner had rescued the house from demolition, and despite being very small, it was very warm and inviting. Actually, it was about 95 degrees given the roaring fire, 800 square feet, and outside temperature of 55. The owner was very nice and obviously very talented, given the work that had been done on the home. After departing his side of the duplex, we were shuffled into the other side of the home which he rents out.

The difference on the northern side was immediately noticeable. There was none of the historical ambiance that the other side contained. We walked into a somewhat dated looking kitchen that flowed into a bedroom. The bedroom contained a fascinating collection of Matchbox cars. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of little cars. There was also a wide array of firearms mounted about the room, as well as a large collection of marbles in a large jar. I could see in my wife's eyes that the lack of "Christmasiness" was distressing to her, let alone the look on the owner's face which screamed, "Please, whatever you do, do NOT open THAT closet.") In hindsight, I'm not sure why this side of the duplex was included on the tour, as the renter appeared to be somewhat distressed by all of these snooty people rummaging past his various collections of racing and hunting memoribilia. He did have a rather delightful set of deer hooves donning a Santa hat holding up another rifle in the front room, and alas, more marbles, but this did little to raise our spirits.

Upon exiting, we boarded our new, dry bus and headed for yet ANOTHER house. I was crafting a continual stream of jokes about the elderly patrons from Columbus in my head by this point, but I was beaten to every punch by our onboard comedian who chose to make the jokes out loud. It was like nails to the brain listening to this guy all night. And to add insult to injury, he was from a town just down the road from our home. We could only be so fortunate!

The last house (or last holdup before I get my stinking dinner), was a recently renovated bed and breakfast. Upon entering, we were whisked into a lovely parlour featuring a billiards table and many old photos. The one prominently displayed next to the pool table featured several men in lab coats looking over a decomposing body. I kid you not. It wasn't a pile of bones. It wasn't a guy on his way over from the funeral home. It was a dude who had been restfully rotting for some time, laying on a lab table with his shoes and pants hanging off of him like the Incredible Hulk, while a bunch of guys in lab coats stared at his grizzly visage. The scene was made that much stranger when the guide announced that one of the upright men in the photo was the owner's grandfather, who had helped ROB THIS GUY FROM THE GRAVE for use in a medical class of some sort. Let me tell you. Nothing says "Merry Christmas" like a decomposing corpse, but some how, it felt right in place on this outing.

Finally done with the home tour, we headed to a local winery for the main course of the dinner. It was about 7:30pm, and we were all tired, a little damp, and generally road weary. It literally felt like we'd been touring for days. Noting the name of the tour, my wife inquired as to when we'd be seeing the "express" portion. When we arrived at the winery, the other groups were occupying all of the dinner tables, so we were seated at some small cocktail sized tables. I thought that perhaps this was a temporary positioning, but the next thing you know, the bread was served, and it was apparent that we were seated for dinner.

Glasses of wine were served (and for the most part, immediately depleted), and the chef soon emerged with plastic plates laden with our dinner. There was no room on the tables for them, so we were left holding the plates which contained rice and what looked like pork barbeque minus the barbeque. I immediately began eating and discovered that my initial assessment was mostly correct. It was slow cooked pork and rice with very little flavor. I would have killed for some barbeque sauce. Or a towel. Or a muzzle for our standup comic.

The chef eventually came over and announced that we had been served two dishes. The first was slow cooked pork rubbed with a number of spices. (It needed more rubbing with some more exotic salt...) The second was a rice recipe he claimed he'd acquired from an old plantation in the south. I leaned over to Erin and told her that I thought he'd gotten the recipe from his uncle...Uncle Ben. The meal was truly nothing special, not even average, given the progression of the evening.

Despondent, tired, and fighting a headache from wine drunk too hastily, we reboarded the bus for our final stop. The dessert station for the evening was at our favorite restaurant in Madison, The Downtowner. We stop every year in the spring for their wonderful sandwiches and desserts, so I was dreading being served something potentially awful which might wreck my high opinion of the place. The waitress came by and announced that we had three choices -- Double Chocolate Cake, Red Velvet Cake, or Italian Cream Cake. She then explained that Italian Creme Cake was a sort of white cake with nuts. I quickly ordered my fix of chocolate, and Erin ordered the same. Now it was my father-in-law's turn.

It's understandable after the evening we had all had that he might have been flustered by the dessert options, so some level of confusion is forgiven. At first he wanted to visually see the options, but the waitress had no way of making that happen in short order with 40 people waiting. Then he asked about the ice cream, and she told him there wasn't ice cream. Then he asked about the Italian Cream thing, and she re-explained that. Then he asked what Red Velvet was, and did it feature ice cream? My mother-in-law was only slightly more skilled in her ordering, only momentarily adrift in the sea of three cake options.

In the end one ordered Italian Cream Cake and the other Red Velvet Cake, but I think it was mostly out of frustration. By the end of the ordeal, I considered ordering them both some thickened apple sauce and a sippy cup full of ice chips. I wasn't sure we were ever getting out of there.

Luckily, the desserts were the best part of the evening, and my opinion of The Downtowner remains high. We made a beeline for our car and drove home at high speed in a driving wind, arriving around 10:30pm. In the end, we all agreed that next year we will take the home tour on our own and simply have dinner at The Downtowner. It was worth trying the "Nights and Nibbles Express" tour once, but without some intense retooling, I suspect this will be our last ride on that bus.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

You've got some s-plaining to do...

He wasn't horrified. Didn't cry. Didn't smile. He was stunned at first, mesmorized for a while, and then he played like he was dead. Stoic baby. Walmart was doing it for free, so it was fun to watch Grant say with his eyes, "Mom, you've got some nerve."