Monday, February 23, 2015

The Great Escape - Boston to DC

So I've been quiet the last week; has anyone noticed? No? Well, in case you were feeling cut adrift from the latest in my repatriation faux pas (faux pases? faux pase?), it's not because I had nothing to say. That happens no time ever. The silence was because last week was Winter Vacation for the Weston schools and I try really hard not to "work" on vacation.

Since late last year, we had planned to go to Costa Rica. My kids were nuts with excitement for the last two weeks before we left--shoveling snow, thinking about the rainforest. Breaking icicles while talking about learning to surf. Telling everyone in their school who would listen (at this point they might be down to the custodian. Or not. Maybe the stuffies in the kindergarten classrooms) that they were going to Costa Rica, a country they studied for a couple of weeks earlier in the school year.

Our scheduled flights were the cheapie flights. Yes, I refused to pay $100 each more to go on Friday night,  so we were flying to DC at 7 pm on Saturday the 14th, spending the night in a hotel near Dulles airport, flying to San Jose from DC,  then flying back through Houston, again overnight and arriving Sunday the 22nd back here in Boston. Or so we thought.

As you may know if you are friends with me on facebook, I am obsessed with watching the weather predictions. Starting about Wednesday the 11th, I got pretty nervous. Another storm (Neptune, apparently) was trying to dump a whole lot of white stuff on Boston. And, as the weathercasters love to say...this one was a Nor'Easter. Oh yay. The forecasters went back and forth on timing, but finally settled into an early Saturday night arrival for the storm with the worst of it coming on Sunday morning. 

I called United on Thursday morning, right after BH arrived from Brazil. No, they said, no waivers have been issued. I could change my flight to earlier in the day on Saturday to DC, but it would cost $300 per ticket to do so.  I decided to stay with our flight.  Two hours later I changed my mind and was willing to pay the fee--I called back United and said we could fly anytime Friday or Saturday but United told me that now there were no seats left.  I asked them what would happen if we drove to DC on Saturday and just picked up the Costa Rica flight on Sunday. They said "just let us know, and we'll charge you the change fee." Change fee? What?

Given the forecast, I decided to reserve a rental car in case we made a break for it on Saturday. Even though DC is a seven hour drive on the best of days, I was DESPERATE for this vacation. 99 inches of snow in Boston, people! I put a good face on it but I wanted sun! I wanted beach! I wanted little rainforest creatures at my window! I wanted to see my stepdaughter and her boyfriend who were flying up from Brazil to Costa Rica to meet us (that's halfway for each of us. Cool, no?). We decided to make our decision on Saturday around 1 pm (car rental reservation was for 2 pm).

At 6 am, our kitchen sink broke. Yep, the kitchen faucet had not a drop of cold water in it. Our wonderful neighbor came over to see if he could figure out what 9:30 am, he had left but we had called the plumber on a possible valve problem. At 9:45 am, I had checked in for our flight on United's site. At 10:00, the plumber arrived. At 10:09, United canceled our flight from Boston to DC.

While the plumber worked, I fed kids and BH packed. We decided to drive down. Now we had to shut down the house for our departure--not totally because we did have a college student house-sitting, but it's amazing what was left to get done. Finally, after a $200 plumbing bill pay, dogs settled, United advised of our change, housesitter called and generally freaking out left behind, we waited for a taxi (40 minutes!! Freakin' 'burbs!) to take us to the Waltham Avis car rental.

I had called Avis earlier in the morning to see if our car would be ready a little earlier than 2. The guy said "sure, come on down whenever." So we did. As I am handing over the documents a little distractedly in the miniscule Avis office inside the Westin Hotel Waltham, he says "hey, I have the same birthday as you!" And I said "wow, this is the first time I have ever met anyone with my birthday" (December 28 is not a popular day to get born). And he said "I am giving you an upgrade to a luxury full-size car because you're my twin." So we got ourselves a nice Lincoln something or other for what would be our 10 hours of hell.

Well, that would be an exaggeration. Not the nice car part. It was a nice car; all 10 hours were not hell. About 2 of them were. BH started driving through Massachusetts and all was snow-free until Connecticut. Clearly Connecticut still harbors some resentment that I moved away, or the Whalers moved to Houston or Charlotte or someplace warm, or possibly that they are a tiny state, and started blowing snow towards us just as I took over the steering wheel at the border. 

Light fluffy snow bothers no one from Connecticut. We were doing the speed limit all the way to NYC where we started having some problems with traffic getting on to the GW Bridge. But still making good time. It was then around 4:30 pm when we crossed into New Jersey and began our trip down the NJ Turnpike.  Things were going so well that we stopped for dinner just before crossing into Maryland. Where things got hellish.

There are many jokes about southerners giving up when the snow gets to 2 inches thick. It turns out that this is not a joke. For two hours we crept through 2 inches of snow at 40 mph (photo at top is from Maryland). We saw about six snowplows total in all of Maryland and DC. Nothing was happening in taking snows off the roads.

I knew that the big wind gusts were expected later in the evening so I was starting to get very tense. As night fell, I had to ask BH, the poor jetlagged boy, to keep driving until we were about an hour (theoretically) from DC. Then he was too sleepy so I took over.

And then passed the hairiest driving hour of my recent memory. I had one other white-hair-causing trip 7 years ago in Michigan due to black ice and freezing cold. But that was with drivers who knew what they were doing. No offense, south, but you do not. 

The gusts came up, the light fluffy snow flew across the highways, pushing the luxury Lincoln and whiting out my vision. I am not a good night driver. I just got night driving glasses but of course I had left them in Boston because I did not expect to be driving through the night in a white out.

Suffice it to say, I was terrified. Totally. The kids behaved as well as you could expect--by the last hour they were tired and just wanted to get there. I just wanted to get there. The last hour took us two hours. I pulled into the parking lot at Summerfield Suites Dulles and burst into tears. Fortunately the kids were sleeping at this point.

Wonderful BH took charge of the kids and the luggage, and I took charge of getting two Sam Adams at the little store attached to the reception desk. I am forever grateful to Summerfield Suites Dulles for saving my life with a Sam Adams.

Finally we were in our room. And the kids fell asleep. And I stayed up all night worrying about our flight from Dulles to Costa Rica the next morning at 9 am...would it be cancelled from all the gusting winds? The hotel wasn't even made for winter--the gusts blew through the air conditioner all night, we slept in our clothes to keep warm (no clue how the heat worked in that room). But we were on our way. We had escaped from Boston. 

The lovely God-given land of Costa Rica will be my next was all worth it. But even now, at 3 pm on a Monday afternoon, the telling of the tale has me wanting a Sam Adams. It's a good year to be a Boston beer brewer.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Boston Strong - Boston, MA

So while I've been sitting out here in Weston complaining about snow and plows and shoveling, I forgot what the snow means for the "city" of Boston (I grew up next to "THE city" -- that's NYC, folks -- and came from a city of 11 million people most recently. Metro Boston has around 4.5 million people, but the actual city has less than one million pop). For Boston, winter 2015 is out-and-out warfare. 

As I have mentioned, we currently have around 6 feet of snow in Boston. And we've had it since late January. While I have joked about this quantity of snow, the stark reality is that there is nowhere else to put it. People are getting fines for not shoveling out their front sidewalk but where in the world would they put the snow? In Weston, our main concern is peering around the huge piles of snow and pulling out slowly in intersections but in Boston, you can't even move a car. Or possibly, you don't want to. 

I did some reading up on the Boston parking page, which has a whole page of Do's and Don'ts for snow. If you're interested, it's here at this link. The primary rule is that you cannot park on a major artery (as defined by the parking lord) during a snow emergency. For obvious reasons--emergency vehicles and snowplows have to get through somewhere. 

For smaller streets, they suggest people move their cars to local parking garages where apparently you can park free if you arrive within two hours of a snow emergency being declared, and leave within two hours of it being lifted. Which means you are going to be shoveling out the space in front of your house so that you have somewhere to park when you get booted from the garage (you won't want to overstay your welcome--parking garages in Boston routinely exceed $30 for a couple of hours of parking. There is not an overabundance of parking in cute ol' Boston). 

And this is where I start to be amused. If you shovel out a parking space, you have the right to park there for 48 hours. There is an ordinance for this. It's on the parking page for Boston. So if you have to leave your space to drive to work, or go to the store, what do you do? You leave space savers.  And these can be literally anything. If you want to be amused by what people leave to save their spaces, do a google search, or go to this link for 25 Things People Value Less than a Parking Space. 

(actually from Chicago)

Now, as much as this makes me laugh, you have to know that this is serious business, especially during a February full of snow. I have heard stories of people who ignore the space savers getting their cars keyed or windows broken.  And having shoveled for 20 of the last 23 days, I understand it. I do. I think we should all be glad that Massachusetts has strong gun laws because at the level of crabbiness that is rife in the "city" these days, people could die. Not kidding. 

I have to tell you that things are getting a bit rough with another blizzard expecting to dump a foot of snow here on Sunday. Our level of amusement is going down. And the level of danger is going way up. Several towns have canceled this week's school as they fight to get thousands of pounds of snow off of school roofs. Why do almost all public schools have flat roofs? I wish I knew. Must be cheaper to build--one of Weston's new schools (opened this year) has a flat roof. Those need to be cleared. 

Yesterday BH was at Home Depot where there were workers up on the roof clearing off the snow--flat roof.  Several building roofs have collapsed in the area. My brother's historic building near Boston Common had to hire snow removal trucks and men to take off the snow from the fifth floor flat roof--and you don't want to even consider that cost.

Teamworks Auburn roof collapse (photo credit: Auburn police)

Our public transportation has ground to a halt. All subways and trains were shut down for a day this week to get the snow off the tracks. It's crazy. I have to tell you that a lesser "major city" would have given up by now. So as of now I'm going to take the quotation marks away from "city" for Boston--we are definitely a city. Boston Strong, I think they call it. 

Folks, it's hairy out there. If you are in the Maine, Mass, RI, NH areas, please please be careful. I hope that Sunday's storm is the last of it for the season, but I don't have high hopes. 

And for those of you in warm places in the US, I suggest that now is not the time to make wisecracks. We're close to disaster level out here and I think you'll find that New England rarely mocks tornado, earthquake and fire destruction. You can mock us in mud season, promise.

Monday, February 9, 2015

S'now big deal - Weston, MA

Snowplow hill at dead end of our street.

So we've reached that part of the winter where in general we're all just done with the white stuff. I am probably the last of the lovers of snow and even I have had my crabby moments. Like when I shovel out the walk for 12-year old labrador Haifa to get out and the town plow comes behind me (literally!!) and chucks a whole mountain of icy snow up behind me again. I might have cried. There were no witnesses. 

Other things I'm done with: black ice. I slid through a stop sign in my All-Wheel Drive monster truck like no one's business. Fortunately no one was coming and I played off with my kids that fish-tailing is fun. It's not. 

Otherwise, I am still amused. It's such a crazy dang winter here and we are so unprepared for it that it's comical. The other thing that is comical is the media coverage. We went from arctic blasts to polar vortexes to the completely unpoetic "ocean enhanced jackpot." According to a friend in New York, we have a "polar plunge" in temperatures later this week. I can hardly wait for the next superlative. I just read that Boston has now broken the 30-day snow 16 days. We're #1! Let's have a victory parade in duck boats!

Image credit: CBS Local, Boston

I have enjoyed my southern and western friends thumbing their noses at me about the temperatures. I used to be a southerner (Miami and Brazil), and here is root of the root as my friend ee cummings would say -- I would not trade. Nope. Not for the warm temperatures of February. I don't want to live in Houston, San Antonio, Miami, Dallas and anywhere else from where I have gotten cute notes. I want to live right here.

I want to live here because I had the best snow day ever. Oh, okay, best since I was maybe 13 years old. When we lived pressed up to the radio to hear if school had been cancelled. And ironically, it started on a lonely note. When the call came in last night close to 5 pm, I was here at the house, and my kids were tired and cranky from a busy Sunday.  I admit I finished off the white wine (it was technically 5 pm at this point, and only one glass left, promise) and said to myself, screw this. After checking with Friebor (remember my friend-neighbor bestie) about my sanity, I sent out a note to the neighborhood moms saying send the kids over for the Embrace Winter Olympics at my house at 1 pm today. And then texted the 17-year old babysitter for help. I envisioned games of knocking cans over with snowballs (what is that weird Olympic sport of rifles over the shoulder cross-country skiing? Kind of like that only no guns and no skis. Okay, not like that) and 100 yard races through four feet of snow. Find the tennis ball before Finley the wonder dog does.

And then I went to bed. The snow started during the night. Six inches were down by the time I got up at 6 am. I went out to shovel for the first time at 7 am, and then I thought, what am I doing? I just want to curl up on the sofa and read. But the kids don't. The kids need to run around.  

As I stood there at the end of the walk thinking all this, another neighbor came by. With the huge pick-up truck he drives that I envy. King cab, cool looking racks and stuff (yeah, I don't know what you use those for) and an engine that rumbles the asphalt. I would look cool in that. The environment would not thank me but I would look cool. 

Anyway, this neighbor rolled down the window and we chatted and laughed about the freaky weather. He had grown up on our street in the house right across from ours--he now lived one house down with his family. And he told me that this was the worst winter he had ever experienced--at least since his daughter (now 14) was a wee one. And he offered to front-loader out the snow from our driveway, lend us a roof rake (clearly insane, he mentioned that roof raking is "fun") or whatever help we needed. This offer came after last week when another neighbor took pity on me digging out and snowblew the front mountain where the Weston bulldozer had made me cry another day.  Neighbors are awesome. I love neighbors. I should write a blog about neighbors. They take care of our betta fish, watch the house when we travel, snowblow, lawn mow, feed me and my kids and make me sane. Most days.

Joe the snowplow guy who was having a wicked good "stahm"

Then, as I went back inside to make cookie dough for the roll cookies I was planning to make with all the kids for Valentine's, the snow plow guy came (hooray!). I have a love-hate relationship with the snow plow guy. I love him when he shows up before 11 pm. I hate him when he doesn't. He doesn't seem to care either way. Can't really tell because I can't understand his Bah-ston accent.

After watching him pile up the snow to 15 feet in front of the third garage (when is this going to melt? July?), I made the cookie dough. Then stared at the kitchen sink faucet which broke two weeks ago. And as I am giving it the evil eye, Friebor texts and says she has sent her husband over to fix it for me! And let me tell you it was a devil to fix--it took almost two hours.  And did the neighbor say "wtf am I doing here in the middle of a storm fixing this crazy lady's kitchen faucet?" No. Did I mention I love my neighbors?

Suddenly it was time for all the neighbor kids to come over and I wasn't ready.  I hadn't planned the games, and I hadn't made the cookie icing. But it didn't matter. The kids leaped on the mountain of snow in the driveway, sledding and rolling, then playing snow hockey. And the dogs played and the kids played with them and they all looked for tennis balls lost in the snow. And ran through four feet of snow.

Then one by one the kids trooped in and we made cookies. Flaky funny fat cookies with sugary frosting. And the adults talked and laughed. One of the middle schoolers helped roll the hard dough. Friebor made the frosting. All the cookies were eaten. Every single one. At one point we had 10 kids crowded around the table slopping and dipping each cookie. Coal, the puppy lab, ate all the sugar on the floor. So clean-up was more than easy.  Haifa, the senior lab, sniffed all the snow clothes left in a huge pile on a beach towel and lay down on top. It was chaos and it was impromptu awesome. That's my media soundbite: today was impromptu awesome. 

The kids then played in the basement and finally went out in the snow once more.  Then the babysitter (the same one who teaches my kids tennis and is the goalie to Lalo's million shots in the backyard--when we can see the backyard, the ball or the goal) decided she was going to shovel out the walk. She was at the end of my driveway when the town plow came and created a huge mountain (the ones that make me cry) and because she is 17, cute and blonde,  the public works plow stopped, backed up, and cleaned out the driveway--she waved joyfully at him. We know because all the moms gathered in the window to watch and marvel.

Finally all the kids wandered home two hours after the impromptu awesome Embrace Winter games began. Every one a winner. And I opened the mailbox and found a postcard from Nico from Antarctica--there are fairy penguins there I learned. 

So sorry all those who wish that I were suffering. Snow days are fantastic--gathering neighbors and kids for simple fun. Cookie fun. Snow fun. Fun with dogs. Fun. 

It's snow big deal. 

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Big Yellow Bus - Weston, MA

Photo from first day of school...remember wearing shorts? Me neither. Scott the friendly bus driver...

One of the reasons that I most wanted to move my kids to the US was giving them the chance to attend public school. Not because I didn't like their private school in Brazil--loved it--but because I am a product of the public school system and I've appreciated the greater diversity of many of these schools. Now of course when I mention that I attended New Canaan CT public schools, most folks roll their eyes. In order to attend public school in New Canaan, you must be able to afford to live there, which not everyone can. Frankly, Weston MA is much the same. But this educational diversity conundrum is for another day. Today I want to talk about the big yellow bus.

I love the big yellow bus. Instead of having to drive my kids to school each day, they get to take the big yellow bus. The BYB if you will. In our case, we live in a neighborhood of two dead-end streets, one of which I live on, and one of which I don't.  No, that's not my point--the second dead-end street is the one that comes from the main road and has only 5 Weston houses on it--after that you drive into Lincoln (or walk into their lovely conservation trails). So the Weston public school bus goes up the street four houses, stops twice (why we need two bus stops in 20 feet, I really don't know, but I'm not walking any further than I have to) and returns to the main road where it still has about half of its stops to do.  We walk about two houses down to the other road to catch the bus in our neighbor's driveway.

In addition to the main BYB for Weston, there are two other features to the dead-end road bus route. One: a minibus that comes by with all the kindergartners and a mix of kids from places that the BYB can't get down the street. There are about 10 kids on the mini-bus, and apparently in the depths of winter, kids at our stop used to get on it to stay warm waiting for the big bus. But now that has been ruled uncool by our first through fifth graders and they all hang out at the neighbor's driveway waiting for the bus.  The minibus pulls up across the street and waits, engine running, for the BYB.

There are routinely six kids at our bus stop--for a while they lined up with one kid always getting to be on the bus first on a given day of the week. Now they just run for it, slipping on ice and shoving other kids out of the way to get into the warmth.  The minibus kids troop nicely off the minibus, pause and watch our six kids like you would unclean zoo animals, and then nicely get on the big bus. Twice one of my kids has almost impaled himself on the little metal bar that comes out in front of the big bus (put there to get kids to walk farther out around the bus? Dunn). He can learn fractions, but he can't seem to remember the bar of doom.

The second feature which you have probably forgotten that I even mentioned, is the Lincoln school bus, aka Nutball on Wheels. There is a curve and a downhill right before our stop and he seems to like to see exactly how close he can come to rear-ending the minibus so that it will fly into the big bus. I keep telling myself that I have to call the Lincoln bus barn and complain about this lunatic but somehow I keep forgetting. I have priorities on my complaint list and right now Lincoln is safe. 

Okay so now you know the buses. And I love the bus. But this was not the point of this blog but since when have I written one without digressing? More than the bus, I love the bus stop. If you are so so lucky as I am to have a cool neighborhood bus stop, you will know what I mean. The kids all get along or well enough to not throw each other into the deepest snowdrifts. I love seeing which kids are exhausted and yawning, which forgot their backpacks and the parents have to fly home (oh, oops, usually that's me and mine), which kids want to show me what they're bringing to school. 

But the best part are the adults. The sleepy adults/neighbors/friends who wander out with coffee cups, wet hair (yes, even in winter, but with a pom-pom hat on top), pajama bottoms some days, dogs on leashes, dogs not on leashes, work trousers tucked into Bogs boots, it's hilarious.  And we talk about the weather, or after school plans or the latest babysitter traumas or nothing at all. I love the five-minute conversations of the bus stops that go until someone has to run off to get ready for work, and also the 40-minute ones like this morning where it wound up with me eating birthday cake at my friend's house because we weren't done yet with our conversation. The same friend who baked birthday muffins for my kids back in November and sang to them at the bus stop.

Then there are the dogs. The dogs play and jump and annoy each other and play again, and retrieve and knock down kids and avoid the Lincoln bus (so far). Coal the overgrown puppy and Finley the wonder dog leap through the three-foot snowbanks, dive into the snow in search of tennis balls, and run around like crazy while Haifa the 12 year old lab sits with her big ol tush in the snow and watches from cataract-blinded eyes.

And eventually we notice the time and rush off one by one back to our daily lives and stresses and shoveling (maybe that's just me). Life is better with the big yellow bus.