Mookie Betts Garber Quarantine Dog

Mookie’s first photo shoot, photo by Jim McKenzie

In the spring of 2019, Greg made a deal with Julia. If she would clean out the litter box every day for three months, we could get a dog. Greg is not an animal lover, but Julia is easily disgusted, so he never thought she would do it.

But when she puts her mind to something, she follows through.

While Greg wanted to retract his offer after the three months were up, he knew he had to keep his promise, on one condition: the dog had to wait until after we got back from our 2-week family trip over Christmas.

Fast forward to January and looking for a dog was not my top priority.

Early in our marriage, Greg and I had a black lab named Flanders, who lived for 13 years. Flanders was a sweet dog, but a handful. There were countless times he got loose, and I had to search for him, only to find him lurking around a farmer’s pig pen or eating my neighbor’s compost. There were also emergency vet visits – once for eating a stuffed animal; another time for having seizures. His behavior only worsened when we had kids. His favorite chew toys became baby mittens, and in the worst scenario possible, he tore through a pail of dirty diapers.

Flanders & baby Julia

That said, one can see my hesitation in moving forward with a puppy. But we had promised Julia.

I began to fill out applications for rescues and contacted three (!) friends who agreed to serve as references. Slowly, our applications were approved, but in January there were not a lot of small puppies to choose from.

Finally, in March, just as I was beginning to think we may not get a rescue puppy, I applied to adopt through Mostly Muttz Rescue in Pottstown. Their application process required a home visit before approval. By then, I had heard there were a few Covid-19 cases in Philly, but the virus hadn’t made it to our area.

We were approved almost immediately and on Sunday, March 9 on our drive to church, our family brainstormed dog names. Greg wanted to continue with The Simpsons theme and name the dog Wiggum, but the kids refused. We brainstormed our favorite athletes’ names – the kids wanted Phelps and I rooted for Sampras, but we settled on naming him after one of Greg’s and Mitchell’s favorite baseball players, Mookie.

In the afternoon, Julia and I drove to a McDonald’s off the Pennsylvania Turnpike to meet two beagle mix puppies, Cozie and Techie. The pictures of the puppies on the website weren’t clear, but as soon as we saw them, she fell in love.

We decided on Cozie, the puppy with the shorter ears. He was so nervous he shook on the drive home.

Since we didn’t have any dog supplies, we stopped at PetSmart in Lancaster. Other shoppers ogled him as we walked through the store. Carrying a puppy through a store is like walking around while pregnant. Strangers reached out and petted him with no consideration of personal boundaries (or the approaching pandemic).

When we got him home, we determined right away he was a snuggler. Over the next few days, family members and friends stopped by to meet him.

Mitchell & Mookie
Julia and Mookie, photo by Jim McKenzie

Then on March 13, the world shut down.

What I discovered over the next few months was that I thought I loved dogs before, but I never anticipated getting so attached. Everyone commented on what a perfect time to train a puppy it was as we were home most of the time. But it also meant Mookie was not used to being alone and cried constantly when crated.

In typical puppy fashion, he also liked to chew and got ahold of one of Mitchell’s pencils for online school, his school-issued Chromebook charger (not plugged in), Greg’s work-issued credit card, and his new Seahawks hat (the seamstress at Highlander Cleaners worked wonders). While we were potty training Mookie, he also had an accident behind the couch during one of my Zoom calls. Like a custodian, Mitchell came in and swiffered up the mess behind me.

Even with these challenges, Mookie has made this difficult year so much better. Some think I’m over the top, with my “I love my rescue dog” car magnet, my dog pictures on Instagram (I won’t bore you on Facebook), and Mookie’s first Santa visit. But I’ve heard it said – in 2020 all dogs are therapy dogs. And we definitely got a good one.

Mookie, Santa & Santa’s helper

The Midwest Tour

One of my favorite songs by the Cincinnati-based duo, “Over the Rhine,” begins with these lyrics, “Hello Ohio, The back roads, I know Ohio, Like the Back of my Hand.”

Up until the age of 12, I could relate to these words. Born in Columbus, I spent my elementary school years in Bowling Green in Northwest Ohio. We had family in Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati and spent the 4th of July at my grandparents’ house on Lake Mohawk. When we returned to Ohio from road trips, we played the Ohio State fight song on our cassette player and sang along.

But by the time we moved to Minnesota in 1987, our only familial ties remained in Cleveland.

Nonetheless, the rest of my childhood and college years were spent in other small(ish) towns in the Midwest.

Which is why when Greg suggested we take a road trip this summer, I thought of the Midwest.

I realize the Midwest is not most people’s top vacation destination. In fact, when mentioning our trip to local friends, I got interesting responses. One friend said, “Nothing says vacation like Ohio.” Another said, “I’m sorry.”

Of course, when I qualified my explanation by saying we would end up in Chicago, they said, “Oh, Chicago is cool.”

Even my children were dubious. When I shared our plans with a fellow baseball mom from Kansas, she completely understood. I told Mitchell I finally met someone who got it.

He said, “That’s good Mom, because I don’t.”

By the time the end of June rolled around, I could hardly contain my excitement.

Our first stop was Cleveland to visit my mom’s sister, Aunt Laraine (Aunt Raine for short). We have been to Cleveland many times to visit her and my grandparents, but there is much we haven’t seen.

As is my typical M.O., I suggested we start our visit with a trip to an independent bookstore, Loganberry Books. Aunt Raine lives on the west side of the city and Loganberry is on the east side, but my family let me drag them to this delightful store.

My aunt and I walked in first, and Aunt Raine announced, “This is my niece Anne Garber, visiting all the way from Elizabethtown, Pa.” The bookstore was large, with a wonderful selection of new and used books stacked to the high ceilings.

Following our visit to Loganberry, we went to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. While Mitchell and Julia aren’t rock and roll enthusiasts, they both enjoy music and have been subjected to their parents’ choices for years. It turned out they were at great ages to visit.

Part of the enjoyment of the Rock Hall is simply admiring the building, designed by the same architect who created the Louvre Pyramid.

After the museum, we were famished. Greg suggested we go to B Spot, one of Michael Symon’s Cleveland restaurants.

B Spot is known for Burgers, Bologna, Brats, Beer, and Bourbon. The kids especially liked their Bad A** shakes. Mitchell got an apple pie bacon vanilla milkshake, which was surprisingly tasty. I loved my Hoppin’ Frog Shandy, and Aunt Raine declared her dinner the best burger she’d ever eaten.

We had to leave Cleveland early the next morning as we were planning to drive the entire distance to Milwaukee that day. When I suggested the Midwest road trip, Greg mentioned he wanted to go to Miller Park. As with Ohio, Milwaukee doesn’t sound like a vacation destination; however, I’d spent time in Wisconsin during college and became a fan of the state.

The route to Milwaukee from Cleveland consists of taking the Ohio Turnpike to the Indiana Turnpike to Chicago and then driving two hours north. I realized this was a perfect opportunity to stop in Bowling Green so the kids could visit my first hometown.

When I tell people I am from the Midwest, they often mention how flat it is. Well, it doesn’t get any flatter than BG. Most people see this as a drawback, but I love flat. Hills make me carsick, and the flat open country roads feel like home.

Our first stop was my old house. It didn’t look the same as I remembered, but as we drove the narrow roads, so many memories popped up.

Next, we visited my elementary school, which has grown, but was still recognizable. Some of the playground equipment is unchanged.

I had shared with Julia that when I was her age, a friend and I would walk from school to the library for German tutoring. On the way we stopped at a store called Ben Franklin for candy. Julia asked if we could stop there on this visit.  I doubted the store was still there, but it is, and is now called Ben’s.

After lunch, we peeked in the town’s record store, Finders. The store is enormous. What was meant to be a short visit ended up as an hour-long browsing session. During that time, Julia and I walked to Flatlands, a coffee shop nearby, to use the bathroom. Out of politeness, I tried to purchase a cup of coffee. When they didn’t have my preferred roast, the barista insisted on giving me a free cup of coffee instead.

I basked in the Midwest hospitality. Thirty-two years later this place still felt like home.

Following one more stop at Ben’s for Buckeyes and other candy, we left town via the university. Greg admitted he hadn’t been thrilled with the stop-off, but it turned out much better than expected.

Once we left BG, we settled in for the arduous drive to Milwaukee. We arrived around 7 and showed up at Kegel’s Inn, a German restaurant in West Allis, where we stayed in an apartment above the restaurant.

Our only full day in Milwaukee started with a delicious breakfast at Blue’s Egg where we enjoyed an appetizer of monkey bread and caramel dipping sauce, a bananas foster latte, eggs Benedict and French toast.

Our relaxed demeanor gave us away, because the waitress said we “had the happy look of a family on vacation.”

In the afternoon we wandered through the shops in the Historic Third Ward, including the Milwaukee Public Market. We also walked along the lakefront, so I could show my children the beauty of Lake Michigan.

We then headed to Miller Park to watch the Brewers play the Mariners. For dinner, we ate some Wisconsin favorites – brats, cheese curds and custard. Unfortunately, the Mariners won, but we had a fun night, even Julia, who isn’t always a fan of baseball.

The next morning we drove to Chicago to sightsee and visit my high school friend and her family.

Julia was thrilled that our downtown parking spot was near the Nutella Café.

After a dessert-like lunch, we went to the Chicago Architecture Center for an architectural boat tour on the Chicago River. We finished our afternoon at Millennium Park and Maggie Daley Park (see photo above).

Greg and Mitchell needed to fly to Pittsburgh the following day for a baseball tournament, so we couldn’t catch a Cubs game as we had hoped. We did, however, take a stadium tour of Wrigley Field.

A day later, Julia and I said goodbye to our Chicago friends and embarked on our girls’ road trip through Indiana and Ohio. After four bathroom stops, a license plate game, and lots of music and craziness, we arrived in Butler, Pa.



The baseball tournament was a bit of a letdown, with rainouts and losses.

Overall, though, our Midwest vacation was one of my favorites ever, much to the surprise of my doubting friends. And, we only touched the surface of the hospitable, picturesque middle states. Next up:  Midwest Tour 2.0.

A Lifetime Sport


Recently, while rummaging around in the attic, I came upon my high school yearbooks.

A friend wrote in my senior yearbook, “Good luck in life, and I hope you accomplish your dream of marrying a wealthy man, volunteering at the hospital and playing a lot of tennis.”

I relayed this to Greg, and he said, “Well, at least you play a lot of tennis.”

True that.

After taking a 20-year break from the sport, six years ago I ran into an acquaintance at the local coffee shop who I heard was “playing the circuit.”

Julia had just started first-grade, and I had yet to find employment of any kind.

This friend invited me to a clinic at Spooky Nook, a new facility near us. At the time, there were six indoor courts located in the middle of the work-out area. Music thumped in the background while we hit on the courts below.

As it turns out, muscle memory exists. Tennis came back easily. While exercise in general reduces stress, beating on a tennis ball is especially satisfying. It helps when the ball lands in the court.

If you asked me in high school if I would still be playing tennis at 43, I would have said no. While it was an integral part of my teen years, after high school I needed a break. From seventh-grade on, I played several days a week, year-round. I have great memories of traveling in the school van around Central Indiana to play teams like the Logansport Berries, New Castle Trojans, and the Richmond Red Devils. In the summers in high school, I spent my afternoons in a three-hour clinic, traveling to tournaments on the weekends, always stopping at Steak ‘n Shake on the way. One of my closest friends to this day I met in those summer clinics.

After playing for a couple years at Spooky Nook, I heard that the the Nook was getting rid of the courts. I ended up moving to Hempfield Recreation Center where opportunities abound. There are 10 outdoor courts, including two with a grandstand because the club hosts a professional tournament. And players almost always fill the six indoor courts. If I wanted, I could play every day of the week, morning, afternoon or night. I could play on several USTA teams, both doubles and singles, with men and women of all ages. The club holds social events on holidays and other weekend evenings.

In high school, everyone told me that tennis was a lifetime sport, but I didn’t realize I could center my social life around it.

According to a study last year, tennis players live an average of 9.7 years longer than those who participate in other lifetime sports. Experts surmised that this has to do with both the fact that it is a social sport and that tennis is similar interval training, a very effective form of exercise.

In addition to the health benefits, playing in a USTA league can offer travel opportunities as well. For the last two summers, one of my summer teams qualified for the regional tournament in Princeton, NJ. Had we won that tournament, we would have traveled on to nationals.

We didn’t win, but the experience deepened our friendships, provided the opportunity to visit a charming small town, and gave us the chance to compete on beautiful college campus.

While I would love for my children to start playing tennis now, I also want them to choose their activities. Mitchell, who is very much his own person, has followed in the footsteps of his dad and grandfathers, who played baseball. But after making a nice throw at a recent game, the coach asked him jokingly, “Where did you get that arm, Mitchell?” referring to Greg’s dad, who played professionally.

“I get it from my mom,” he said.  “She plays a lot of tennis.”

A Week in Nova Scotia: Beauty, Hospitality, Lobster & Bagpipes

Twenty years ago last August, Greg and I honeymooned on Prince Edward Island. I chose this destination due to my love for the Anne of Green Gables book series, and luckily Greg acquiesced.

As anticipated, PEI was beautiful. In the course of the week, we drove around the entire island and marveled at the flat potato fields that butted right up to the ocean. During that week, a fellow tourist suggested we also visit Nova Scotia, as the topography was completely different.

It has been on my bucket list ever since.

In those 20 years, we’ve also known people who have visited Nova Scotia, including my parents. My great-grandmother came from Nova Scotia and after visiting her hometown and the countryside surrounding it, my mom declared she would like her ashes spread on a sheep farm there.

After sweating it out for 10 days in the desert in August 2017, my plan for 2018 was to visit someplace where we didn’t have to hide in our hotel room when it became too hot. After reading Nova Scotia guidebooks and referring to our children’s summer sports schedule, I determined that June would be the optimal time to visit. July and August are the busiest tourist months, which leaves June to enjoy cooler temperatures, fewer crowds, and cheaper rates.

After hearing about my parents’ trips, I was interested in spending a few days in Halifax before heading to Cape Breton Island. We opted to stay in AirBnBs and found a charming urban loft apartment housed in a renovated church in Halifax.

After a late afternoon arrival in Halifax and dinner, we woke up the next morning and drove to Pier 21, Canada’s smaller version of Ellis Island. Pier 21 wasn’t the original location for immigrants to land when they arrived in Canada, as that pier burned down. However, Pier 21 was the entry point for immigrants arriving in Canada between the years of 1928 to 1971. As with many historical attractions, a short movie aired detailing the history. The film highlighted the openness of Canadians to immigrants, which we found both inspiring and depressing considering the current state of affairs in the U.S.

Following our visit to the museum, we enjoyed lunch at the neighboring Halifax Seaport Farmers’ Market. Greg and I opted for lobster rolls, while Julia chose Chinese food and Mitchell ate fish and chips. We enjoyed a stroll along the harbor walk before trudging several miles in the unseasonably warm temperatures to locate a bookstore and bubble tea cafe.


For dinner, we chose the highly recommended 2 Doors Down. The four of us each chose lobster risotto for our meal, splitting cheesecake and rhubarb pie for dessert. We vowed to make it back to the restaurant at the end of our trip if we were able. On the walk home from dinner, I guided the family to yet another bookstore, the charming, independently-owned Bookmark. At the time, I wasn’t aware of the well-known Halifax Public Library, which we passed but didn’t visit.

We woke on our second morning to find a parking ticket on our rental car. Somehow we missed the street cleaning notice and parked in a restricted area. At that point, Greg was ready to leave the city where my laid-back attitude about driving makes him crazy.

Our next destination took us 30 miles southwest to the iconic fishing village of Peggy’s Cove. There, we spent a few hours exploring the rocks surrounding the lighthouse. Greg and the kids climbed as close as possible to the edge, while I spent most of the time yelling at everyone to move back. Near the end of our visit, a bagpiper appeared on the rocks and played “Amazing Grace.”


For lunch, we found a shack in the village that served the most delicious lobster rolls we’d ever eaten. I regret that I didn’t follow my lunch with rhubarb ice cream, a decision made after excessive spending at lunch and a lack of Canadian cash.


Our afternoon was again spent in the car, as we made the almost four-hour drive north to Cape Breton Island.

Cape Breton became famous in the U.S. during the 2016 presidential election, when a DJ from the island invited Americans to move there if Donald Trump was elected.  That humorous offer, combined with friends’ photos, solidified my desire to visit.

On Cape Breton, I had reserved a 3-bedroom ranch through AirBnB in Port Hood, on the southwestern side of the island. Perched above the water, the home was cozy and spacious, with a lovely deck that overlooked the ocean and a neighboring horse pasture.


We arrived in Port Hood at dinnertime and stumbled upon the Clove Hitch Bar and Bistro. The food was good, but what we found most endearing was the hospitality of the locals. Seating was limited, but when new customers arrived, other patrons greeted them with hugs and invites to join their tables. During our meal, a singer entertained the crowd, but when a customer decided he wanted to sing, the performer handed over his guitar and mike. The playlist consisted of mostly cover songs, and when the guests knew the words, they joined in.

One mistake I made in planning the trip to Cape Breton was that I didn’t research the distances among towns well enough. We chose Port Hood because friends had recommended it, but it was still more than an hour drive to the town of Cheticamp and the entrance to Cape Breton Highlands National Park, which the guidebook calls “the crown jewel” of Nova Scotia.

After hearing this glowing description, we weren’t going to let the distance deter us. On our first full day, we drove to the national park, stopping at the visitor’s center for advice. The ranger advised that no matter what we do in our two days at the park, that we definitely drive through the entire park, as all sides offer differing views.

Total travel time:  one hour, 40 minutes.

We took the ranger’s advice, stopping at several lookout points and taking a few short hikes.img_1466img_0207

The ranger also recommended if we did make it through the entire park that we eat dinner in Ingonish, as it had the best seafood. Our family loves seafood, so we made sure we reached Ingonish by dinner.

Once we were fed and exhausted, we headed back to Port Hood. Unfortunately, we realized that Ingonish was much farther east than Cheticamp, and we still had a 2.5-hour drive.

The next day we ventured back to the national park to conquer the breathtaking seven-kilometer (four-mile) Skyline Trail hike. Despite the gorgeous views, my children increased my anxiety again by climbing as close to the edge of cliffs as possible in 20-mile per hour winds.


That night, we drove to the Red Shoe Pub in Mabou for dinner. Unfortunately, the small pub was full. We added our name to the waiting list and crammed into a corner. While we were waiting, a man who had just paid his bill approached us and told us that he wanted us to have his table. We were overwhelmed by his kindness, especially considering that he and his party could have stayed all night listening to the live bagpipe music.

Sadly, after three nights in Cape Breton, it was time to head back to Halifax.

Julia and I made a muddy stop in the rain at a beach in Port Hood before the drive back.


Our trip home was uneventful, with the exception of a glimpse of the most wonderful vending machine I’ve ever seen.


Overall, we had a relaxing week with many cultural learning opportunities without crossing the Atlantic. While sitting in the plane on the tarmac, I wrote in a rare tweet, “Sad to leave this beautiful province with some of the warmest and most polite people I’ve encountered.”





Glory Days

On a rainy Sunday in May in Ocean City, Md., I sat alone in my in-laws’ beach condo and cried. I had stayed back to clean while my family ventured out to watch the new Star Wars movie “Solo.” Since cleaning is not my favorite activity, I took a break to check Facebook. And when I did, I saw that a friend of mine from high school was in her last stages of Inflammatory Breast Cancer. She was 43. I called my mom and my tears bubbled over.

My classmate’s death got me thinking a lot about high school. Mitchell will be a freshman in August. When my dad asked him if he was looking forward to it, he said no. He doesn’t want to be the youngest in the school again. Also, he dreads his summer reading assignment of To Kill a Mockingbird and the test that follows the first week of school.

I lack sympathy. Compared to my transition to high school, his seems benign.

After moving from Ohio to Minnesota between sixth- and seventh-grade, my dad promised I would graduate from high school there. Two years later, he broke that promise and we headed to Muncie, Ind. To say my mom and I loved Minnesota would be an understatement. It is a beautiful, progressive, clean, albeit cold, state. Indiana seemed like a step back into time.


Goodbye Party, North Mankato, Minn., 1989

Due to my dad’s late decision to change jobs, we didn’t leave Minnesota until the beginning of August. Our house wasn’t ready and hotel space in Muncie was limited because of a tennis tournament in town. We got stuck in a run-down motel on the east end near the Muncie Mall.

For two weeks.

The Muncie Mall has improved greatly over the years, but in 1989, cigarette smoke permeated through the building, and the mall had no decent lighting. I loathed our evenings wandering the mall’s dim hallways, loitering in J.C. Penney while my parents picked out curtains.

Time passed, though, and we finally moved into our house. School started at the large, diverse, public city school I picked. When I say I picked it, I mean it. My parents let me choose what part of Muncie we would live in based on the school I wanted to attend. There were several rural county schools, a laboratory school affiliated with the university (with a wait list), and two city schools. I chose a city school because I thought there would be fewer cliques and because the school offered German.

CentralMuncie Central High School

Although there is nothing more anxiety-inducing than entering a cafeteria full of teenagers and not knowing a single one, my first day went okay. My mom planned to pick me up after school, but since the school was so big, we didn’t discuss where she would pick me up. As I exited the front doors with hundreds of other students, I saw her frantically running across the lawn, waving her arms, yelling, “Annie!”

Apparently, she thought she would never find me.

Despite the depressing first weeks in Muncie and the embarrassing incident on the first day at Central, my four years in Muncie turned out to be much better than I expected. There have been few times in my life when I have met friendlier people than those in Indiana. Midwesterners are known for their hospitality, and of the places I’ve lived, Muncie topped the charts.

Muncie Central wasn’t a top academic school. In fact, my college admissions counselor told me later that in addition to GPA, SAT scores, class ranking, and class choices, students also received a rating for their high school. My school rated at the bottom. There were some less-than-stellar teachers and unfortunately I didn’t retain much from biology, physics or economics. But there were also some outstanding and caring teachers, advisers, and coaches. And even though I live miles away from my high school friends, when we get together, it feels like nothing has changed.

At the time of course, it did not feel like these were the best years of my life. The years were filled with awkwardness, uncertainly around boys, and a few fights with friends. Some kids rebelled with drinking and drugs. My rebellion involved evangelical Christianity and wearing a wooden cross around my neck. I longed to move on to the wealthy, academically-stimulating, private liberal arts college I’d chosen.

But this place and its people seeped into me.

TennisMuncie Central Girls Tennis 1992

In the early years, my friend’s dad drove us all over the state to watch our school’s semi-famous basketball team (winning their 8th state championship in ’88). Our German Club took annual trips to Chicago, skiing trips to Michigan and eventually a trip to Europe. My high school tennis experience is one that I still value and use today.

As Mitchell enters ninth-grade, I can only hope he has as good of an experience as I. He will attend a better academic high school than I did, with several AP and dual enrollment (college course) offerings. The proximity of our town to the East Coast is a plus. He is more athletic than I was. He has good friends, some of whom he has known since he was an infant.

But what I want to say to him is this:


Cherish these four years. There will be stress, no doubt, over school, sports, friends, and girls. But there will also be opportunities. Take advantage of all of them and enjoy them to the fullest. Don’t worry too much about where you go to college. You can be successful no matter what if you work hard, be persistent, be kind, and have a positive attitude. Most importantly, these are your people, and they will always be your people. So enjoy them while you have them with you.

Hoodoos, Churros & Bighorn Sheep: Summer Vacation Highlights

IMG_1125Last March when I started thinking about Mitchell’s 13th birthday, it occurred to me that we had only five more summers left before he went to college. Then I panicked. Only five more summer vacations? It has gone so fast.

And I thought I better get planning. What part of the country do I want these kids to experience before they head out on their own?

I decided on the Southwest.

Despite the fact that my family traveled a good bit growing up, prior to marrying Greg I had never been to the Southwest. For our five-year anniversary, we went to Arizona, because we had friends we could visit in Tempe while also sightseeing. Several years later, the two of us traveled to New Mexico, based on my desire to go to Santa Fe and Taos. But there were still huge chunks we hadn’t seen.

After talking to a friend who traveled to the Southwest a year ago with her family, we decided on an itinerary. We would fly into Vegas, rent a car, drive to southern Utah, then to the Grand Canyon and Sedona, and fly home from Phoenix.

Neither Greg nor I had ever been to Vegas, so I figured we should stay there a couple of days before moving on.

There is nothing like visiting Vegas during the hottest month of the year with two kids in tow.

Our plane landed at almost 10 p.m. Vegas time. By the time we collected our luggage, secured the rental car and made our way to our hotel/casino it was 11:30. Greg and Jules stayed in the car while Mitchell and I waited in a 45-minute line to check in.

When we finally made it to our room at 12:30 (3:30 a.m. our time), it was still being cleaned.

Despite that hiccup, we managed to get a restful night’s sleep, and I woke up ready to explore.

When it comes to traveling, I can be a bit of a slave driver. During my first trip to Europe in my early teens, my aunt gave me the advice to “Take advantage of every opportunity and enjoy it to the fullest.”

It has been my mantra ever since.

On our first full day in Vegas, I decided we should walk the strip and check out the casinos. Unfortunately, the temperature was more than 100 degrees. Luckily, there were plenty of casinos in which to get respite from the heat.

IMG_0289While some people wouldn’t attempt to bring their children to Vegas, I saw it as an education. Some women wearing only G-strings and pasties first approached us to have our picture taken with them outside Excalibur. We saw them again when we ducked into CVS to buy water. Greg was nowhere to be found as the kids and I tried to exit CVS while an employee turned the women away for not wearing enough clothing.

“That’s not fair,” said Julia. “Those ladies are thirsty, too.”

Indeed they were.

A little over 24 hours after arriving in Vegas, we were ready to move on. After eating at In-N-Out Burger on the outskirts of town, we began the three-hour drive through the desert to Southern Utah.

Our destination was the lovely town of Springdale outside of Zion National Park. While I originally had planned to find lodging through Airbnb somewhere between Zion and Bryce Canyon National Park, my friend recommended we stay in Springdale and I’m so glad she did.

The area offered free shuttle rides through the town and into the national park. Lucky for us, in honor of the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, all fourth-graders and their families got in free to national parks last summer. Thanks to Julia, we saved at least $90.

On our first full day in Utah, we decided to make the two-hour trip to Bryce. To get there, we drove through Zion. Several cars had stopped at a narrow curve, so we pulled over, too.  Mitchell, our family photographer, got some great shots of bighorn sheep posing near the edge of the road.

IMG_0481Bryce is the smaller of the two parks and known for its hoodoos, red rock formations shaped like upside down twisters. We arrived shortly after lunch and asked at the visitor’s desk what the best short hike would be for our day-hiking family. The ranger recommended a three-mile hike she claimed “Camping” magazine had ranked as the most scenic three-mile hike in North America.

The hike and hoodoos were spectacular. Unfortunately, the sky looked ominous and the forecast called for thunderstorms. I read in multiple brochures not to get caught in a thunderstorm. Also, we did not have the gear to withstand a downpour. This made for a tense hike while Mitchell stopped for numerous photo opps.

We finished right as the skies opened.

Our time exploring Zion was not as adventurous, as we opted to pass on the popular Narrows hike after hearing numerous rangers inform tourists to hike the Narrows at their own risk due to flash flooding.

We also passed on the steep Angels Landing Trail and opted for an easier hike on the Lower and Upper Emerald Pool Trails. On this hike and at several shuttle stops throughout the park, we experienced the beauty of this park.

IMG_0894After two full days in Utah, we packed up and headed south.

Due to my belated planning, I could not get a hotel near the Grand Canyon, and instead booked a room in Williams, Ariz., an hour away.

On our four-hour drive to Williams, we found ourselves stopped for a bathroom break at Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Kanab, Utah. The barren landscape and small visitor’s center tucked down a curved drive made me feel like we were in an episode of The X Files. Upon entering the building, the kids happily located the gift shop, and Greg wandered over to the display containing dinosaur fossils discovered there.

A five-minute bathroom break turned into a 30-minute stop after which we exited with this souvenir of a sheep in a can.


Sadly, since our visit there, Donald Trump has issued a proclamation to reduce the amount of land protected by this national monument.

Shortly after Grand-Staircase Escalante, we passed Lake Powell, a breathtaking turquoise body of water in the middle of the desert. A former co-worker of mine had rented a houseboat on Lake Powell years ago. At the time, I thought it an odd choice for a vacation, but after observing the lake firsthand, I can understand the appeal.

We finally made it to Williams, a charming town on Route 66. We didn’t have much time to explore, however, as we wanted to spend as much time in the Grand Canyon as possible.

On our first day, we slept in and did not get moving until late morning. That was a mistake, as the Grand Canyon at noon in the middle of August was packed. We waited at least 30 minutes in the car just to enter the park. As we walked the scenic Rim Trail, we dodged fellow tourists the entire way.

Hot and tired, by mid-afternoon we headed back to Williams. We enjoyed a delicious meal at the Barrel and Bottle and made plans to wake up early the next morning for a ranger-led hike on the South Kaibab Trail at the Grand Canyon at 7 a.m.

We reached the park within minutes of seven and waited impatiently for the shuttle to take us to the trailhead. Fortunately, we joined the group in time to make the 1.5-mile hike into the canyon. The weather was cool and the scenery beautiful as we shuffled down the steep, dusty, often slippery trail.

Our ranger educated us about the vegetation and wildlife and identified several California condors flying overhead.

IMG_1087Our trek back up the trail was more strenuous than that on the way down. Partway up, the two child athletes tired of our pace and sprinted up the canyon. They filled up our water bottles, and when we finally reached the top, persuaded us to treat them to ice cream for lunch.

IMG_1162Our last destination in Arizona before heading to Phoenix was Sedona.

The excursion we loved in Sedona during our previous visit was the Pink Jeep Tour, so we were excited to take the kids to repeat this experience.

IMG_1249We also visited the gorgeous Chapel of the Holy Cross and much to Julia’s delight, shopped.

Unfortunately, the abundance of spiders in our hotel room tarnished our memories of Sedona. Spiders don’t usually bother us since we have many in our old farmhouse. But not only did I spy two black  hairy spiders on the bathroom floor, but a third such spider  also woke Greg up by crawling on his back.

Needless to say, we were all ready to move on to our final destination of Phoenix.

My original plan had been to drive directly to the airport; however, the baseball fans in the family suggested we show up a day early to see a Diamondbacks game.

As with any half-hearted baseball fan, besides the field’s retractable roof, the highlight of the game for Julia was the food. During the trip, Julia had become obsessed with churros. She had tried them at camp earlier in the summer and ordered them at a Mexican restaurant in Sedona. She even used her spending money to buy a stuffed cat, whom she named Churro.

Luckily for her, one of the specials at Chase Field is the Churro Dog, a churro placed on a long-john donut, topped with frozen yogurt, chocolate and caramel sauce. It did not disappoint, with the exception of the soggy donut on the bottom.


After the game ended (the Dodgers won), we trudged back to our hotel, worn out from the excessive heat and 10 days of overindulging in Southwestern cuisine and dessert at every opportunity. Overall, we had a wonderful vacation, filled with memorable sightseeing, minimal electronic usage, and most importantly, quality family time. Now the question is — where to travel next?

Slime, Squishies & Steven Spielberg


This past New Year’s Eve I spent a good chunk of time cleaning blue food coloring out of my dryer. Because, if a container of blue food coloring goes through the dryer it not only turns the clothes blue, but also the inside of the dryer. Luckily for me and for all others involved, it came out easily.

The food coloring mess was a result of Julia’s most recent hobby, which, along with much of the tween world, is making slime. Although slime is usually made of Elmer’s glue, Borax, water and food coloring, liquid starch or a combination of contact lens solution and baking soda can be substituted. Julia also likes to experiment with cornstarch, shaving cream, liquid soap, hand sanitizer, shampoo, clay particles and whatever other ingredients she can find.

Our downstairs bathroom has become a slime lab.

Early on in the slime-making craze after Julia had distributed some at swim practice, a friend texted me and asked if this was going to harm her kitchen counters. Answer:  No, although I wouldn’t leave it there for long.

It is, however, difficult to remove from carpet.

Slime is not Julia’s first craft obsession. Last summer she was into making clay charms. She learned the hard way that modeling clay cannot be baked, but polymer clay can. Prior to that, she discovered squishies, which I describe as stress balls, although she may not call that accurate. For a better understanding, it’s best to google squishies. While squishies can be purchased, they also can be made using foam and paint. We searched A.C. Moore for the best foam, but later discovered we already had it in our guest room, in the form of a Memory Foam pillow. After some relentless begging, I gave in and allowed her to cut up the pillow. Our next houseguest is in luck in that s/he will have a brand new pillow to use.

What Julia really wants to do is to sell her creations, but unfortunately she has yet to find the market for them. She tried selling duct tape items and squishies at my parents’ yard sale last year, but she only had two customers.

As a child, I obviously couldn’t search the Internet for ideas, but in some ways I wasn’t too different than she is. My friend and I created the “Neighborhood News,” a one page, typed sheet with information about our neighbors that we would sell door to door for a nickel. The “Neighborhood News” was filled with gems such as, “Joann Smith* shopped at Foodtown this week and Anne McKenzie saw her there.”

To earn a Girl Scout badge, I also started my own business selling wooden animals on a stick, made with the help of my dad.

While my entrepreneurial efforts didn’t translate into a career for me, I appreciate that my parents encouraged my creativity and now they encourage Julia’s. In fact, my dad supplies her with most of her Elmer’s glue.

On days when I get nostalgic for the time when Julia’s crafts didn’t involve paint or food coloring, I keep in mind a story my mom told me about Steven Spielberg. Spielberg once convinced his mother to cook 30 cans of cherries in her pressure cooker until they exploded, so he could film the mess.

While I draw the line at pressure cooker explosions, the story does give me hope that my laid-back attitude about messy creations is not in vain.

Or at the very least, the slime craze will end, right?


*Name has been changed.

The McKenzie Manifesto

This past Memorial Day I spent a majority of my beach time reading the book, “The Matheny Manifesto: A Young Manager’s Old-School Views on Success in Sports and Life” by Mike Matheny. This is not a book I would have picked up five years ago, but with two child-athletes I knew I would find it beneficial. While the book wasn’t completely what I thought, it put some things into perspective for me.

Years ago, I never would have imagined I would be sucked into the world of youth sports. I was not a child-athlete, although I spent much of my childhood going to Bowling Green State University sporting events ranging from my least favorite football games (where I would face backwards reading a book) to my favorite ice hockey (I liked the organist and Zamboni).

I played tennis from age 12 on, but was completely oblivious to parental politics. According to my mom, there were very little. There was one coach she didn’t like, but she never said a word about it until years later.

My entry into youth sports began later on when I was an exhausted working mother of two young children.  Mitchell had so much energy that he would run circles in my kitchen and leap from one couch to another. So when I saw an ad for U-6 soccer, I signed him up. This might be the best way to enjoy my Saturdays, I thought — take the 4-year-old to soccer to run around and use up his energy. Greg was skeptical, especially after the first week when it rained. Mitchell cried and wouldn’t play. But the next week was sunny, and from then on he loved soccer. He started baseball the following spring and years passed in which he played soccer in the fall and baseball in the spring. And then suddenly he turned nine, and he had the option for travel soccer, which was a year-long commitment.

That summer, I signed Julia up for swim team, and I thought Mitchell might as well do it, too.  Because really, it makes a five hour swim meet so much more bearable if one has at least two children to watch. Once my kids tried summer swim, they decided to start swimming in the winter as well.

In fifth-grade, Mitchell added travel baseball to the mix, which brings us to the point where we are now.

As I’m writing this, I’m getting overwhelmed just thinking about my own schedule.

My dad said to me recently, “At some point, Mitchell is going to have to choose,” which is what is so sad about this day and age.  Why can’t he play three sports? What ever happened to the multi-sport athletes of years past?

But it is tough to balance all the sports schedules. He ends up missing a lot of practices and at times is downright exhausted.

Even though I never played the sports my kids do, I love watching them compete. As a parent, one’s child’s ups and downs become the parent’s ups and downs. It is sometimes tougher to watch Mitchell lose a game than it is for me to lose a tennis match. Not because I get my value from his performance, which I know is a criticism of parents, but because I hate to see him disappointed. Failure is a part of life – an important part – but that doesn’t make it any easier to watch one’s kids make mistakes or lose.

For whatever reason, of the three sports Mitchell plays, baseball brings the most politics. I don’t even consider myself that competitive of a person, but I find myself praying (yes, praying to God) that Mitchell has a good game. I don’t even believe God works that way. Surely God has more important prayers to answer than whether my kid has a hit or makes a play in the field!?!

In his book, Matheny says, “Watching their kids play sports becomes many parents’ primary activity. Other parents become their main social group and their entire identity begins to revolve around their kids. All of a sudden, whether or not their kid makes the team can become almost as important as whether Dad or Mom keeps their job.”

There is much truth to that statement. I am not exempt from this group. We have met some of our closest friends from sitting together at soccer games, swim meets and baseball games. Greg often says, “What did we do with our time before we had kids?”

Eat dinner on tray tables and watch “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “Seinfeld” re-runs?

When it comes down to it, I hope my kids continue playing sports. I want them to learn life lessons, make friends, stay out of trouble, and learn to live an active and healthy lifestyle. But as I’ve told them, more than anything I want them to be kind.

I want them to learn the importance of building up their teammates, of doing what’s best for the team rather than for the individual, and of winning and losing with class. These skills will help them succeed in life, which is our ultimate goal as parents.

Our children are not a reincarnation of ourselves as child athletes.  They are not a prize or trophy to brag about at the office, and they are not an achievement to give us self-worth.

As my grandmother used to say, “Our children are on loan to us for 18 years.”

Photo by James McKenzie

All Things Literary

Our family spent this past weekend at a baseball tournament in Johnstown, Pa., and Julia spent both of Mitchell’s Saturday games reading a book. Not only was she reading during the games, but she was also reading in the car on the way to the games, on the way to lunch between the games and during Mitchell’s warm-up for the second game.

All I could think was that she is a girl after my own heart.

A lot of my childhood was spent reading.  Even today, when I walk into a library or a bookstore, a sense of calm comes over me

Some people like to take vacations to sit on the beach and relax; others enjoy hiking and experiencing the outdoors; and others like visiting historical attractions.  To some extent, I enjoy all of these activities.  But, to me a vacation would not be complete without some type of literary tourism.

Wikipedia actually has a literary tourism page, with the following definition, “Literary tourism is a type of cultural tourism that deals with places and events from fictional texts as well as the lives of their authors.”

I would add that my definition of literary tourism also includes visiting independent bookstores, although Wikipedia calls this “bookstore tourism.”

So, yes, I am officially a nerd. But I prefer the term bibliophile.

I became aware of my bibliophilic tendencies during the sweltering summer days of 1987. My friend and I would ride our bikes down a huge hill where we lived in Minnesota to the tiny library below to pick out books and then back up the hill.

While moving across the Midwest as a 12-year-old wasn’t my idea of fun, one of the positives of moving to Minnesota and specifically, Mankato, was that it was the home of Maud Hart Lovelace and the Betsy-Tacy series. And we weren’t too far from Walnut Grove either, one of the childhood homes of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

My interest in literary tourism only grew as I got older and met my husband. When it came time to discuss honeymoon destinations, one of my first choices was Prince Edward Island, home of the fictional character Anne Shirley of “Anne of Green Gables.”  Luckily, Greg was kind enough to put up with my request, and we honeymooned on PEI.

In recent years, my interest has grown into visiting independent bookstores, which have now become an anomaly with the prevalence of electronic readers.

In 2011, I read a news article that Ann Patchett, one of my favorite authors, had opened an independent bookstore in Nashville, Tenn., a city I fell in love with while visiting in the 1990s. I wanted to visit the store, and by 2014 I convinced two friends to make it a girls’ weekend. Parnassus Books turned out to be charming, and Nashville was as fun and interesting as it was in the ‘90s, if not more so.

And then there is the perk of living in proximity to several major cities on the East Coast.

A few months ago our kids had a few days off school for spring conferences, so we took the opportunity to spend the weekend in Baltimore. After visiting museums and sightseeing, I informed my family that I wanted to visit a few bookstores before leaving town.

Back in 1997 a friend took me to dinner at an independent bookstore in Baltimore. Since living in Pennsylvania, I’ve been trying to locate this store/restaurant ever since. My best conclusion is that it went out of business, but that didn’t stop me from searching for other bookstores in the Baltimore area. I’d heard about The Ivy Bookshop and also read that one must-visit bookstore is Atomic Books in the Hampden neighborhood. This bookstore is known for its comic book collection as well as for its connection to the filmmaker John Waters, who frequents the bookstore and receives his fan mail there.

After spending a few minutes in Atomic Books, however, I determined that it was not the best choice to visit with kids. While they do have a small children’s section, the background music was not exactly kid-appropriate unless one is okay with children hearing multiple expletives in every song. As in most stores, Julia found a knickknack she wanted to purchase, an inflatable unicorn horn for our cat. Greg told her no and hightailed it out of there.

Thankfully, The Ivy Bookshop was our next stop and turned out to be as lovely as it sounds, with a large children’s section and classical music playing in the background.

Both my kids found books they wanted, although I cringed when Julia picked out a book from the “Captain Underpants” series. But the optimist in me always feels that it’s better to read what one chooses, even if it’s not quality literature, than to not read at all.

Eventually she will come around, I think.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to push my love of books and all things literary on her and Mitchell. And occasionally, I’m rewarded with the joy they find in reading when I see Julia absorbed in a book or when I find a note like the one below.


Happier Life?

Recently I read a news article stating that having siblings may be the key to enjoying a long and satisfactory life. Some of my Facebook friends shared the article and tagged their siblings. As an only child, I wondered, “Should I be concerned?” Perhaps my life won’t be as fulfilling.

I grew up in a time when having an only child was still questioned, and many myths about only children abounded, the primary ones being that they were spoiled and couldn’t share. My mom was always on the defense when anyone criticized having an only child.

As for me, she always made sure there were plenty of playmates around, so I did have to learn how to share. And as for being spoiled, I never felt I was spoiled with material goods. But as for being spoiled with attention? Yes, definitely. And I did have many opportunities for travel and education that I possibly would not have had if I had siblings.

Did I miss them? A little. I used to lie to my friends at church and tell them I had to pick up my brother from Sunday school. Beyond that, I can’t say, because how do you miss something you never had?

When it was time for Greg and me to have kids, people asked us how many we wanted. I always said one or two, mostly because I worry a lot and can’t handle too much chaos. Some people are just better suited personality-wise to handle bigger families. I cherish my quiet and alone time, and without it, I would not be pleasant to be around.

But after having one, I decided I wanted to experience something different.

There is much to be learned from siblings in the way of competition and compromise, but to this day the childhood sibling relationship baffles me. The other day my two children sat on opposite ends of the couch, doing nothing but goofing around. It started innocently enough but ended in a fight. Mitchell can do something minor, just to get under his sister’s skin, and she retaliates.

They fight daily, and sometimes the competition is so intense that I just can’t wrap my head around it. Not having had a model for parenting siblings, sometimes I feel at a loss for how to handle issues between my kids. When friends and family tell me that they used to fight like crazy with their siblings when they were young and now as adults they’re close, I feel so relieved.

But then other times, they have each other’s backs. Julia always wants Mitchell’s sports teams to do well. According to my mom, when Greg and I are away, Mitchell feels responsible for Julia and tries to parent her himself.

And then there was the time this past Halloween when Mitchell dressed up like Russell Wilson, the quarterback for the Seahawks. We went trick-or-treating in some friends’ neighborhood, where another friend who is an Eagles fan lives. When Mitchell went up to his door, he jokingly said he wouldn’t give candy to a Seahawks fan. The friend posted the story later on Facebook and wrote that Julia then came up to the door and said, “Deal with it, Eagles fan.”

I told her that he posted it on Facebook and she said, “That’s not what I said.  I said, ‘In your face, Eagles fan!’”

Luckily, the Eagles fan had a sense of humor.

Then just a few weeks ago I witnessed another moment of support between them at a swim meet. From my vantage point as a timer at the end of the pool, I saw Julia and her friends cheering loudly for Mitchell during his backstroke event.

Afterwards, I commented to her how nice it was that she and her friends cheered for her brother.

“Yeah, I bribed my friends with donuts to cheer for him,” she said.

Say what?

Although these moments of support are rare at present, one of my greatest hopes is that they will increase with age. After all, who else will have these shared memories of childhood?

For now, I’ll try to remind myself of this when Mitchell and Julia bicker, and when I feel I’m at my wits’ end. The years are speeding by, and before we know it they’ll be adults. Let’s hope the research is right.

Julia & Mitchell 03 best
Photo by James McKenzie