Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Howler Monkey

Bret call this new trick "Grant's Howler Monkey"
video

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Mexico -- Round Dos

Monday, April 28

Well I've obviously ticked my employer off in a big way, because I find myself marooned, yet again, in Mexico today.

After a whirlwind weekend which involved seeing my cousin's family complete with their new son in Greencastle, followed by a visit to Chicago to see my good friends who are relocating to Singapore, I boarded a plane at 5:45am this morning and arrived in El Paso at 10:00am (noon Indy time).

I dropped my luggage at the hotel, had a quick bite to eat (at a place called Cheddar’s, in honor of my wife having previously waitressed at a restaurant of the same name in Indiana), and then proceeded to the border crossing. After receiving my visa in an uneventful fashion, I headed into Juarez.

The drug wars in Mexican border towns are at a fever pitch at the moment, and many passengers on my flight were discussing various strategies for getting into and out of Juarez in as quick a fashion as possible. After having no trouble with my visa, I had a somewhat false sense that things would go smoothly.

As I headed back out onto the street, I immediately saw six or seven policemen with machine guns tearing some guy’s car apart while he lay handcuffed in the street. Ok, no big deal…Just another day in Mexico, right? Then I stop at the first stop light. Two cars behind me, I see a pickup truck off to the side come barreling toward the guy waiting in line at the light. The truck plows into the guy, obviously on purpose. Both vehicles then pull into oncoming traffic and go racing around me through the red light, causing much dust and screeching of tires.

Now a little more shaken, I made my left turn and headed for the main road to our factory. Two more lights and the previously attacked car came barreling by me, jumped a curb at high speed and proceeded the wrong direction up a four lane road.

I'm not one for swearing unnecessarily, but can someone please get me the **** (choose your own word) out of here?

Tuesday, March 29

After a much needed night’s rest (and a really necessary beer at Logan’s Steakhouse), I awoke this morning and began my trek across the border for yet another day. Today went much more smoothly. I did witness a truck full of Mexican federal agents standing in the back carrying machine guns wearing what appeared to be black ninja outfits. This didn’t seem all that concerning in the grand scheme of things.

I tried a different route to work, which was semi-successful. My goal in altering my drive was to avoid left turns. It seems that in Mexico, you can turn against a red left turn light. I found this out as a semi-truck driver came at the back of my rental car at 80 miles per hour and began blaring the horn until I made my turn against the light. It appears that everyone does this, but it scares the bejeebies out of me. I’m under no delusion that Mexican drivers would stop before hammering into your passenger side door, especially if they saw the Texas license plates the moment before impact.

My new route only had one left turn, so I thought I’d found a master plan. When I arrived at the intersection, it had been designed such that you had to make a right turn and then an approved U-turn to go left. This is great! NO left turns! Except that it took me a moment to figure out the system. I started to attempt a left turn, only to be alerted to my mistake by a police car on my tail whose lights were set to “Stun The Gringo.”

The rest of my new route turned out to be pretty good, although the “major” street shown on Google Maps would qualify as a “major” alley in most places. I will probably continue to use this new, left-less route for the remainder of my visit, as it also avoids the part of the expressway that turns to dirt for a few yards, as discussed in my last visit.

I ventured out to Wendy’s, of all places, for lunch. The dilemma was that none of my Mexican colleagues seemed very interested in going out at 12:45pm, and I was about to eat the table (after I’d thoroughly sanitized it, of course). So I grabbed my Mexican car insurance from my laptop bag (I’ve been advised that you should have this on your person while driving, for if you leave it in the car and someone absconds with your vehicle, you’re up somewhat of a crick) and headed out.

My first thought was that I didn’t have any pesos, so I needed to find a place which took Mastercard. My second thought was that I’d go back to the nice Mexican restaurant I ate at on the previous visit to Juarez. As I approached this restaurant, which is only maybe three miles from our factory, I noticed a Wendy’s. As I approached the door, I took note that they accepted credit cards, so I was good to go.

After lunch, I began the few miles back to the factory. It was chaos. People pulling out in front of me, people honking, more trucks driven by ninjas with machine guns aimed out the windows. Madness. I’ve decided that if I ever want my dad to have heart failure under what will not appear to be suspicious circumstances, a drive through Juarez might just be the ticket.

This evening I ventured into El Paso proper for a meal at Kiki’s, a restaurant I discovered while perusing the web in my free time at the factory. I knew I’d found a restaurant close to my heart when I saw their sign which read, “Kiki’s – We now have silverware.”

I’ll post pictures of all my adventures later in the week. Kiki’s was, as hoped, a brilliant place for El Paso cuisine. My meal reminded me a lot of my beloved Pancho’s in Indy. I had Chicken Muchaca, which was the special. It was chicken, peppers, onions, cheese, and tortillas, but it was far better than the same type of dish would be at a generic Mexican restaurant. I drew some looks as I took pictures, and I ended up spending my meal talking with a couple at the bar who were native El Pas…uh…El Pasians(?) who had been eating there for 25 years. They were surprised that I’d tracked the place down as a business traveler. I explained to them that I’m far more willing to drive all over creation for a good meal than the average business traveler.

And with that said, I think I’ll head over to Outback for dessert…

Monday, April 28, 2008

SOOOOOOOOOOO BUSY!!


We are sorry for the lack of posts lately, but to say that we have been busy would be a gross understatement. Bret's week long trip to Mexico coupled back to back with the week long retreat I led, and we're already hurting. But these last two weeks were just the beginning.

This weekend was madness (in a good way), and there's no sign of things slowing down until mid-June. Every single weekend is crazy booked, which is hard to believe as Bret and I are not popular people. Not even good looking. Or rich. So what gives?

In the next two months, we've got three trips (a Mothers' Day Weekend, a family wedding week in Key West (da beach baby!) and a visit to family in Northern California. On top of that, Bret is on (as of this morning) his second work run to Mexico in the last three weeks. I've got to finish up school (and test and papers and portfolios), throw my school's prom (how did I end up signing the dotted line on that one for a second year?), and let's not even get me started concerts, parties, and camping trips with friends. Yikes!

This weekend started us off on our whirlwind with a bang. Friday night, we had dinner with Grant's birthmom and sisters which is always a treat. We love them so much; they are very dear to our hearts.

On Saturday, we finally got to meet cousin Brakston (heart-melter) and say bon voyage to the members of the Long Family as they head off to Singapore for FOUR years! The weekend included lots of food (a Hawkins' family favorite), a roadtrip to Chicago, Grant's worst hotel stay in history, and a stop--yet again--at the Beef House.

Grant, in all of this, was a trooper (I think he thought all of the parties were for him as each location had new toys with which to play). He gets bigger and smarter and funnier every day... and more willful! He gets so angry sometimes. He almost NEVER cries real baby tears. He cries "I am so honked off right now" kind of tears. It's almost screaming or yelling. Or, at the very least, very, very forceful pouting.

Here are some pics and such to make up for the lack thereof over the last few weeks.

Grant hugs his birth sister; he adores them!


Grant has always loved music, but right now, he could spend all day at our piano or my guitar. They are baby crack!


Grant standing (about to touch something he shouldn't)


To come this week: Grant's howler monkey video and tantrum video!!

Friday, April 25, 2008

"Weirdo" Addendum

Erin informed me this evening that the previous post, while funny, may seem a little, uh, mean.

I'd like to be clear that while I found the behavior of the gentleman in question odd, to say the least, I would have been perfectly friendly if he had approached me in conversation. Instead, he was, shall we say, hostile to the greater Steak 'n Shake environment around him. In other words, he didn't seem like the small talk type.

So here's to you, Steak 'n Shake iPod camouflage guy. If you ever need a hug or just a shoulder to cry on, give me a call. I'll send Erin.

Wierdo

The other night I went to Steak 'n Shake by myself. Erin was off at a conference, Grant was with Grandma, and I was hungry and incapable of feeding myself with goods found in our house, so I went to Steak 'n Shake.

Upon arriving, I noticed a man seated at the rear of the store. He had long, stringy hair, camouflage pants, a camouflage jacket, and what appeared to be brand spankin' new tennis shoes, as bright as the day is long. (Why is it that these types always have one article of clothing that appears to have received all of the care and attention of which the rest of their being has been deprived?)

He also had yellowish-brown tinted glasses, but they weren't just any glasses. They were one step short of being protective glasses like those worn by people practicing firing a handgun. He wasn't smiling, he wasn't frowning. He was staring. Dead ahead. He also had a pair of over-the-ear style headphones, attached to what appeared to be an iPod in his shirt pocket.

As I stood at the entrance, my initial thought was "Geez...So that's where I was headed if Erin hadn't arrived on the scene."

The hostess greeted me and then started back toward this guy's section. Sure enough. She seated me in front of him, and just off to the side. The man wasn't seated "properly" in his booth, instead choosing to sit sideways with his legs sticking out in the aisle. I took my seat with my back to him, but I could still just make him out from the corner of my eye.

Beyond the fact that I'd have to spend my whole dinner wondering if this guy was planning to lop off my head on the way out of the restaurant, I was also disturbed that my addition to his section had created, quite obviously, the "crazy single guys" section of the Steak 'n Shake.

Families would enter. I'd see parents' eyes meet with mine or his. I'd see them look at their children. There would be a brief conversation with the hostess. Then they'd head for their seats on the far side of the restaurant. I had inadvertently been sucked into "the dude's" vortex.

While trying to avert my gaze, I noticed him stand up and approach the waitress' station a few times, sticking his coffee mug out in front of him. He hadn't ordered any food. Only coffee. Gotta stay edgy. He would then ask the waitress to refill his cup, and he did it in the very-familiar-to-me "I forget I'm wearing headphones" voice -- a few decibles above crazy. At one point, one of the waitresses filled his mug, he looked into it, and stuck it back out asking for it to be "completely" filled.

He eventually stood up and walked straight out the front door of the restaurant, leaving nothing but his smell at the table. I thought, "Hmm...Nobody's chasing him to pay his bill. I can't say as I blame them." After about 5 minutes, he returned and took his seat.

All I can figure is that he had to go make sure the bodies weren't thawing.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

A New Haircut

I cut Grant's hair last time, and it was an easy task. This time, my "terrible twos" one year old decided enough was enough. I got a few clips in before I started worrying about seriously puncturing his head.

He was left with large spots of hair all over his head. He looked like a sick puppy.

After what was a "less than fun" event at the local Great Clips, he has a new buzz cut fade, just in time for summer.

Here's the before:


Here's the after (he's saying: "what the heck are you doing?", isn't he?):

Mama misses his curls. Thanks goodness they grow back.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Single Dad

Sorry for the slow week of posts. Erin is on a work retreat, therefore I'm doing single daddy duty for the week.

Things I have learned this week:

1. If your child cannot walk, you cannot let him go down the slide without the second parent present. In other words, you cannot place him at the top of the slide, and then run to the bottom in time to catch him without him incurring some level of injury. Or so I've heard.

2. Poop can act as a kind of "baby alarm clock" at 4 A.M.

3. Chicken and dumplings can be used as hair gel.

4. No matter how much work I put into bathing, feeding, and changing the boy, I am no substitute. It is possible for him to say, "Mama?" several thousand times in one afternoon.

5. If you try to step over the baby gate while coming down the stairs, it will stop you. And you will think twice before doing it a second time.

Please come home, Erin. I understand now.

Bret

Monday, April 14, 2008

Grant's Newest Cousin

We are so thrilled to celebrate (finally, right Heidi?) the adoption and soon to be homecoming of Brakston Lawrence Taylor, Grant's newest cousin.

Heidi and Boomer live just an hour a way or so, and they are currently in Guatamala picking up Brakston (forever family day is today!!). We couldn't be more excited for them. We're also excited that there is yet another adoption in the family!!! What a beautiful boy!



Brakston: we can't wait to meet you!!

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Fly Away Home

Here's a video leftover from our Birmingham extranvaganza...
video

Friday, April 11, 2008

More Factory Days


(Thanks to one of my coworkers for the pic of the previously discussed mural...)

Day two at the factory was only slightly more productive than day one. I wandered around quite a bit, just trying to learn the process and gain some insight into how our products get built. Hopefully it will help me to understgand in the future when the factory dudes call screaming because we used some type of part that requires the line operators to do a handstand while holding a 15 pound piece of plastic with their feet for it to be installed.

We had another great lunch at a Mexican restaurant in Juarez. I'll try to track down a web address for it later. What I really want is the ability to do those "zoom from Earth to an individual car" on Google Earth like they do on CNN, since I can pinpoint these places I've been on those maps. Perhaps I'll get that figured out soon.

For dinner last night we ventured out to a place called Jaxon's here in El Paso. It was good, basic brewpub food with a Southwestern flair, which mostly means that everything came with a chile or some type of extracted rattlesnack venom as a spice. It was too late for me to care whether the food was good or not, and I ended up eating a spinach salad and a couple of beers. I did get some sort of continentally sized brownie with ice cream for dessert. My coworkers marveled that I would pass on another beer in favor of a brownie. How little they understand about me.

I'm now stuck on an hour flight delay waiting to leave El Paso. Given the mess with the airlines over the past few days, I guess I'm glad that it's only delayed because the flight crew is trying to get the FAA required amount of sleep before the flight. My coworkers are/were booked on flights from El Paso to Chicago on the dreaded MD80. They're not expecting to get home on time.

I will say that this trip made me appreciate my Mexican brethren in our factory. They were organized, efficient, and hard working, as near as I could tell. I spent yesterday in a room doing an assembly with four guys and a girl from China, three guys and a girl from Mexico, and me. When the Mexicans and Chinese took their hands off each other's throats, it was a model of world economy efficiency.

(I ended up getting home safely this evening... Good to be back...)

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Factory Day Numero Uno

7 AM

I got up way too early this morning to meet my coworker and cross the border into Mexico. After an uneventful trip across the Zaragoza Bridge from El Paso into Juarez, we only had a few miles of driving before reaching our factory.

My colleague suggested that it was my turn to drive today, which was fine. It reminds you how easy things are in the U.S. though. While the traffic in Mexico is much better behaved than the traffic in China, there are still some oddities. At one point, I was on a four lane road which abruptly turned to dirt. I had to cross a small field of dirt and grass (all in a major metropolitan area, mind you) before the road picked back up again. No explanation. Just no road there.

My Chinese buddies made the Mexico factory guys take them to a local Chinese restaurant for lunch yesterday. Nothing about Chinese food in Mexico sounds appealing to me, so we're headed out shortly for lunch at a recommended Mexican restaurant. Should be fun.

I have discovered this morning that they have an interesting soft drink down here called "Manzana Lift." It's bottled by Coke, and it tastes like a sparkling apple drink. Good stuff!

2 PM

We had an excellent lunch at a Mexican steakhouse. I had a great slab of beef, along with a cheese enchilada. The whole thing was very tasty, and the beef easily would have been up to our usual standards in the U.S.

During lunch, the wind began to pick up. There are 45 MPH winds forecast for today, which have also prompted dust storm warnings. By the end of lunch, you couldn't see across the gravel parking lot at the restaurant. On the way back to the factory after lunch, there were two cars, both inverted, in the middle of the expressway. Apparently they were blinded by sand, traveling at high rates of speed, and ended up entangled. It was VERY ugly.

5 PM

As frequently happens on these trips, the day was pretty useless from a work standpoint. Parts aren't here on time, people aren't ready, etc. I'm lobbying to go out to another local Mexican restaurant tonight back in El Paso.

One thing I noticed today in the factory is that there's a giant mural painted on a wall as you enter. It is a map of the U.S. and Mexico, and there is a giant Chinese flag waiving off to one side. From the Chinese flag there is an arrow pointing first to Mexico and then from Mexico to the U.S., symbolizing the flow of our products in production. For some reason, it seemed a little eerie...

In other news, apparently Juarez is currently Mexico's most violent city. There have been scores of deaths related to the drug trade, and the U.S. is getting ready to issue a travel warning regarding visiting here. Makes me want to set out on foot for lunch tomorrow...

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Hola

"Out in the west Texas town of El Paso..."

Ah, yes. The dust. The heat. The lack of a neighboring city of any size. It can only be El Paso. In reality, El Paso is merely where I've chosen to sleep this week. I'm actually spending my days, starting Wednesday, in our factory in sunny Juarez, Mexico just across the border.

Imagine...Ten Chinese guys, three Americans, and a factory full of Mexicans. It has the makings of the perfect "buddy comedy."

"Follow the zany hijinks of Kwon-Foo "Jerome" Chen, Bret Hawkins, and Javier Blanco as they inhibit production on an entire product line for a major manufacturer. There'll be laughs (mostly bodily in nature), there'll be tears (mostly by company management), and there will be the potential for an international incident. Tune in."

I departed Indy this afternoon at around 3:00pm. I boarded a small plane for a relatively long trip across the middle of the country to my stopover in Houston. There were a couple of notable oddities about the flight, or rather its patrons, that give a picture of how my afternoon went.

First, soon after we took off from Indy, the plane began to smell as though someone had used their colostomy bag as a whoopee cushion. It was really awful. My flights to Hong Kong have rendered me less than sensitive to the smell contained within an airplane seat cushion during a long distance flight, but this was, possibly literally, a whole different animal.

The second item of note was that the gentleman sitting across from me had a monocle. He also had "normal" glasses, but occasionally he would remove them in favor of the shiek Inspector Clouseau look. Where do these people hide in "real life?" I haven't recently encountered anyone with a monocle outside of The Count on Sesame Street. (Sniffle...I miss my boy...)

I'm now awaiting my, already delayed, flight to the land of taco shells -- El Paso. I sat down for dinner during my wait when the gentlemen across from me said a swear in my general direction and then tried to hide. I gunned him down with a stare, and he confessed:

Airport Dude -- "What are you eating?"
Me -- "Uh, a 'stuffed' slice of pizza."
Airport Dude -- "I've never seen anything like that. Is it normally eaten with your hands?"
Me -- "In an airport, surrounded by the likes of you, it is."

I was incensed. Luckily the gentleman departed before I ate a giant chocolate chip cookie and slice of key lime pie.

Bret + Long Layover + Expense Account = B I N G E

More when I cross the bridge tomorrow...

Monday, April 07, 2008

Are you serious?

This car, with the plates "that car," was on the road as we headed down south. See, things do get nuttier the farther south you head.



I don't know if I was scared or amazed.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Chicken Little

Here is Grant talking like a chicken. To die for cute!
video

Friday, April 04, 2008

Spring Break


A week ago we loaded up Big Whitey (our family friendly name for our giant, white, shoulda-been-sold-to-a-retirement-village mini-van) and headed south for Birmingham. Spring Break gives us a great opportunity to go hang out with family, get warm in the 70+ degree weather, and eat everything not bolted to the countertop at my aunt and uncle's house.

This year's visit was no different. We had a wonderful time seeing everyone down there, and I did, indeed, eat most of their food. When I wasn't eating their cupboards bare, they took us out for a couple of great meals. The first was at a place called Dale's Southern Grill. An upscaled version of the classic meat and three, this place provided us the opportunity to try fried pickles, fried green tomatoes, and various other Southern cuisines. I love eating at these types of places while in the South, since we don't have anything similar in central Indiana. How hard can it be to soak stuff in butter and breading, then fry it? I think perhaps someone needs to take the opportunity to open someplace like Dale's in Indianapolis. You could even make Lipitor one of the sides.

The other big meal out was at a place called Newk's. We all had various sandwiches and pizzas, although there wasn't enough evidence of excessive use of a deep fryer for my liking. The crazy part of the Newk's experience for me was that I looked up midway through my lunch and saw a couple of old friend's from high school waiting in line. Given that we were over 500 miles from where all of us went to school, it was crazy running into them in Birmingham. One of them had moved to Birmingham five years ago, and the other one was visiting him. It was great to spend a moment catching up with those guys, although the presence of kids, wives, gray hair, etc did remind me that high school is drifting into the past at a rapid pace. In any case, it was great to see Mr. Keene and Mr. Corbin.

After saying our goodbyes to Birmingham, we headed north to Cullman, Alabama, home of the Ave Maria Grotto. Now I've been seeing the signs on I-65 for this place since I was a kid, but I had no idea what it was. Who uses the word "grotto" with any regularity? "Grotto" always evoked an image of a man straining. I have no idea why. Erin found out about the Grotto on her own and insisted we stop. The basic story is that this monk named Joseph Zoettl created miniature versions of various sites from around the world. They've been collected and placed on a hillside behind a monastery in Cullman. Monks in Alabama. Who knew?

As it turns out, the Ave Maria Grotto is relatively fascinating if only for its scope. There is a whole hillside covered in little buildings and shrines made out of old shells, buttons, hunks of rock, broken dishes, etc. The buildings are literally made out of whatever Brother Zoettl had lying around. If you went to someone's house where they had a front porch stacked with various old appliances, bedding, dishes, and car parts and started having your kids make little buildings, you might end up with something similar. But the work is definitely fascinating, and it's interesting in that Zoettl made so many little buildings. It's definitely worth a stop if you're ever trying to break up the monotony that is northern Alabama.

Part of the Ava Maria Grotto
After departing Cullman, we headed northeast toward Scottsboro, Alabama. Most people's knowledge of Scottsboro ends with the Scottsboro Boys, but as it turns out, they now also have the distinction of being home to the Unclaimed Baggage Center. How this ended up in Scottsboro, Alabama -- hours from the nearest major airport -- is beyond me.

The Unclaimed Baggage Center is a store filled with all of the stuff left in bags which are collected up by the airlines. Seeing the amount of unclaimed baggage lying next to baggage carousels around the world, I expected this to be a cornucopia of untold riches, and to some degree, I was correct. On one floor, they had piles of clothing, shoes, and books to peruse. On another floor they had a wall of golf clubs, luggage, CDs, DVDs, and various other electronics. You could find a cell phone charger for any model from the past 10 years at this place. Somewhat disturbingly to me, they had piles of earbud headphones available as well. My mind replaced the image with a giant pile of flowing ear wax. Ick. There is some unclaimed baggage that should just be pitched, and this would include earbuds and underwear. This place sold both.

Initially I was excited to look through the piles of treasures, hopeful to load the back of Big Whitey with loot. But after I got started, I realized that the trip wasn't going to be as fruitful as hoped. For example, they had a handful of iPods. Most were one generation old, and most looked as though they'd ridden on the floor of the lavatory for the duration of a flight from Atlanta to Kyrgyzstan. Price? Approximately $50 off their original new price. Maybe 25% off.

Now if I'm going to load up my cart with treasures, I want to pay, oh, 10% of the original price, not 75%. Clothing appeared to be the same story. CDs were $6 with no artwork...the disc only. Since I heard several others griping about the prices in the store, apparently my reaction was common. Apparently the place is selling stuff, otherwise I can't imagine it would stay open for long. In the end though, it was a disappointment. I guess the only cheap way to get this stuff is the old fashioned way -- to grab it off the baggage claim carousel and run like mad.

After leaving Scottsboro, we headed for Chattanooga. We had planned to spend a couple of days in Chattanooga, and we had booked a room at the Holiday Inn an the Chattanooga Choo Choo complex. Priceline netted us the room for $45 per night, and the reviews online were good, therefore I was optimistic about our stay.

The lobby of the hotel was very nice, having been restored with a great deal of care. As I was checking in, a manager of some sort came over and chatted with me. He then had the attendent put us in a "new" room that had recently been renovated. He made a big deal of the room being new and in a nice building, so I was grateful.

As we drove to Building 3 at the back of the complex, I became aware that the Choo Choo complex has the feeling of a once great entertainment venue that is now merely staying open. Everything looked a little worn, and places taht looked as though they were begging for crowds of people with drink in hand, were strangely solemn. It was like being in an amusement park when it's closed off-season. We drove across two empty parking lots before finding our building, which had a handful of cars parked out front. The outside of the building was nothing special, but there was a nice pool with a jacuzzi in the middle...again, all empty. (It was in the 50's that day, so this was understandable.)

As we approached our room, we passed a room that was barking. Not one dog, but multiple dogs. This is never a good sign with me. I can appreciate people loving their pets, but I don't need to stay in a hotel with them. Luckily they were well away from our room, so it wasn't a problem, but it did leave me with a questionable feeling.

Our room turned out to be fairly nice. Like much of the rest of the complex, it was nothing spectacular. It had, indeed, been renovated. But there were still plenty of hints that it was an old building. The AC didn't work quite right. The tub dripped continuously. The bottom of the bathroom door was water damaged. We were paying $45 per night though, so it didn't bother us much. In China, they'd be telling me "5 Star...5 Star!"

Chattanooga turned out to be pleasant enough. It's obviously a city undergoing a downtown renaissance, with lots of new buildings and restaurants. We had a good, but not unique dinner at the Big River Grille & Brewing Works. Grant had the grilled cheese and left enough food on the floor to feed the previously mentioned Kyrgyzstan for a year. We had some teriffic barbecue at a place called Porker's. (This might be the only restaurant in America for which I could serve as a pin-up model.)

Our last night we had pizza at a local place called Lupi's. The food at Lupi's was great, but the long wait for our food to arrive didn't settle well with Grant. He spent the majority of the meal flinging various bits of bread and pizza all over downtown Chattanooga. At one point he scowled, grabbed his bib, gave it a yank, and through it on the floor all in one motion, as if to say, "I've had it with all of you."

Our favorite meal in Chattanooga was breakfast at a place called Aretha Frankenstein's. I read a great review of this little place online, so we hunted it down. (Plus the image of the "Queen of Soul" with bolts in her neck makes me giggle. Inexplicably, Aretha's website is titled "So Damn Happy." Sounds like somebody found the Zoloft jellybeans to me...)

The restaurant was situated in a neighborhood, away from the tourist center of the city. It featured only a few tables, but the food was great and the atmosphere was fun. There were lots of music posters everywhere featuring "my bands" so I enjoyed that. The only issue was that, again, the small kitchen meant a long wait for food. Grant serenaded everyone with various shrieks while we waited. He and Erin both fought colds for the entire trip, so he was in no mood to sit around waiting to eat. I do have to love a place that bills itself as featuring "breakfast, lunch and beer." Sounds like the food pyramid to me.

We hit several of the major tourist attractions in Chattanooga, including taking a ride on two trains. The first was an hour long ride provided by the Tennessee Valley Railroad. The other was a trip up Lookout Mountain on the inclined railway.

Mommy and Grant before boarding the train
The inclined railway chugs up Lookout Mountain at a 72.7% grade. It reminded me of the train up to Victoria's Peak in Hong Kong, although it was significantly steeper. Surprisingly, Erin had a much greater issue with this railway than I did. By the end of the trip, she had bent the steel on the rail in front of her. She was not pleased that we had purchased round trip tickets.

The view from the top was great, but it's one of those attractions that you do primarily to say that you've done it. I did find it fascinating that the gift shop featured multiple cookbooks featuring "Hillbilly" or "White Trash" cuisine. These items appear to sell hand in hand with magnetic rocks and fudge.

With a similar mindset, we headed over to Rock City. My knowledge of Rock City was only that the classic "See Rock City" ad was painted on barns all over the midwest, and you frequently see little bird feeders with the same message in our neck of the woods. As it turned out, this ended up being our favorite attraction on the trip. I carried Grant on my back for most of the visit, which meant that I had to pull him out of the carrier several times due to narrow squeezes through the rocks. (In reality, he was merely providing me an excuse. My aunt Karen's chocolate cake was the real culprit.) Erin and I both agreed that Rock City might make a good pit stop while on a drive to Florida in the future.

Daddy packing Grant around Rock City (one of Erin's fav attractions ever)


Upon leaving Chattanooga, we made our way across Signal Mountain to the town of Whitwell, Tennessee. Whitwell is the home of the Children's Holocaust Memorial, as featured in the film "Paperclips." Basically a group of middle school students started collecting paperclips as symbols of each life lost in the Holocaust. They have placed the paperclips inside an authentic German transport boxcar, along with many other related items. It's a touching memorial and was worth the stop.

We next proceeded to Fall Creek Falls state park in Tennessee. A colleague of mine had suggested that this was a very scenic park. We did enjoy the couple of waterfalls we visited, but Erin and Grant both felt pretty miserable, so we ended up heading home. My only comment on Fall Creek Falls was that Tennessee should take a lesson from Indiana on how to present a state park. We had to hunt for an information booth, where I received hand drawn maps of the trails. I never did get a good map of the roads within the park. It was definitely a little tricky finding our way around the hills without a good map.

Some of the Falls at Fall River Falls State Park


Our final stop was at Barren River State Park in Kentucky. We happened to be passing through the area and made a brief stop so that I could show Erin and Grant where I almost died as a 6th grader. My family had descended on Barren River for Thanksgiving. My cousin and I decided to take on one of the hills on our skateboards. The net result was that I spent Thanksgiving throwing up and watching the room spin. (Although truth be told, I probably would have spent the holiday throwing up anyway, due to an excessive intake of cobbler and pie.) I banged my head pretty good, and I was glad to see upon returning to Barren River that the hill was, indeed, a steep one. (I greatly feared that I would return to find a nice shallow grade that even a small child could negotiate on a skateboard. I was vindicated.)

Overall we had a very nice visit with our family, and we were impressed with Chattanooga. It's sort of a shame that Erin and Grant both felt pretty lousy by the end of the trip, but I think we found some places we'd like to visit again in the future. I can now say "I seen Rock City" with pride.

The End