Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Great Lakes Vacation, Day 4

We started the day at the visitors center at Hill Cumorah. I thought about it on this trip, and I decided the name "Hill Cumorah" is a misnomer that perpetuates a false understanding of Book of Mormon geography. I think we should call the place something like Restoration Hill. If anyone cares to hear more on the subject, let me know.

Anyway, we started at a visitors center. I asked myself, "Are visitors center missionaries such inefficient time-wasters because that's how heaven operates and I need to make my peace with it, or is God on my side and He's saying, 'I know! Not everyone needs to see the 40-minute video!'?" Our kids used to watch The Restoration several times each Sunday and can quote large portions of the movie verbatim. (When my wife was younger, she was the same way, but with Rocky IV.) I appreciate the film (back to talking about The Restoration now--I don't really appreciate Rocky IV that much), but I didn't drive to New York to see a film I've seen a billionty times at home.

The first sister missionary we met told us to get to town by driving up "the 21." I said, "Are you from California?" She said hesitantly, "Yes, how did you know?" I said, "You used the definite article to refer to a highway." We assured her that we were from California, too, so we weren't making fun of her. She said, "How else are you supposed to refer to it?" I said, "Twenty-one." She said, "That just sounds weird."

We walked to the top of the hill and saw the memorial, then we went to the Smith family farm and the Sacred Grove, then E.B. Grandin's print shop. Every place we went, the missionaries said to us, "You picked a great day to visit." (Seriously, every place we went. Like, we heard that at least ten times in the print shop alone.) Evidently there were 15,000 visitors two days before.

I have a lot of pictures to include and I don't want to set each one up with its own paragraph. If this blog post was an 80s movie, this would be the video montage portion. Cue the Loverboy song.

We left Palmyra and headed to Buffalo. We saw Millard Fillmore's grave (and the Millard Fillmore history lesson tied in well with the Mormon history lessons from earlier in the day). We've now seen the graves of George Washington, James Monroe, William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln, Rutherford B. Hayes, James A. Garfield, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson, Warren G. Harding, Harry S Truman, John F. Kennedy, Gerald R. Ford, and Ronald Reagan (19 of 39 dead presidents). On our drive to California, we'll see Dwight Eisenhower.

We skipped the Theodore Roosevelt Inauguration National Historic Site and headed to Canada. The kids were very excited to visit a new country. They immediately decided that everything in Canada was better, and they all want to move to Canada when they grow up. Which should make my job easier in two years when I try to convince them to move to Australia instead of returning to America.

Since our four children are minors, we were unsure how to handle the fact that they are required to sign their passports. The U.S. State Department website says minors who can sign their own passports should, and for minors who can't, a parent should sign and write in his relationship. So we had Crazy Jane sign her own, but for the other kids we had my wife sign and write "mother." Evidently that crap don't fly in Canadia. The Canadian border guard said he could "send us to immigration" (whatever that means) for not complying with Canadian law with our American passports. It scared the crap out of us that China might be as big of jerks about this as he was. We checked the State Department website again to make sure (actually, my wife checked because she was less confident I had correctly interpreted it).

We went to Niagara Falls. Everyone loved it. So much that we stayed forever. Well, almost forever. When we first got within sight of the falls, Jerome had to pee, so we had to rush around looking for a bathroom, ignoring the giant waterfalls. In the middle of this, Screamapilar noticed the waterfalls and flipped his lid. He was, like, "Why the crap aren't we looking at THAT?!" After the bathroom emergency, we did spend time looking at it.

I pointed out American Falls and Horseshoe Falls. Crazy Jane asked, "Where is Niagara Falls?" She was very disappointed to learn that that's just the collective name. In fact, she commandeered my wife's phone to tweet her displeasure. "I went to Niagara Falls yesterday. The only disappointment was that my whole life I had been led to believe there where [sic] three falls." (She wants her own Twitter account and so periodically tweets on my wife's phone. I guess she's trying to show us what we're missing by not following the tweets of an almost-twelve-year-old.)

A deaf guy tapped me on the shoulder and tried to sell me a card with sign language stuff on it, but I didn't have cash. Remember that deaf guy.

Articulate Joe is big into road signs, so he absolutely loved this sign.

He thought it was awesome that the fence in the sign was an actual depiction of the fence bearing the sign. It was like they were saying, "Hey idiot, we're not speaking in generalities here. It's not like we don't want you to climb all fences, or some hypothetical fence. You shouldn't climb this exact fence, right here." All said with only the word "danger."

To avoid paying an international ATM fee on every transaction, we were going to get cash out of an ATM, pay one fee, not have to deal with exchangers, and be done with it. When we got to the ATM, I didn't have my wallet. I thought, "Crap, I've been robbed in a foreign country." This didn't look good for me. Here I was, about to move overseas for two years, and my first trip "overseas" in over a decade begins with being robbed. I'm responsible for my wife and children, and allowing yourself to get robbed is a crap way of meeting that responsibility. I thought back to the deaf guy and I thought, "I bet he robbed me while tapping me on the shoulder. Or else he had a compatriot." Strangely, it made me respect him more. Selling sign language cards is resourceful, but using sign language cards as a front for robbery seems infinitely more resourceful. My wife used her debit card to get our cash (she hadn't managed to be robbed within her first hour because she's an AMATEUR!) and we went back to the car to see if my wallet was there.

It was not in the first three places I looked. Which was enough to make me think, "Holy crap, it really was the deaf guy." And then it was in the fourth place I looked. So that little bit of excitement ended.

If you think the speed limits in New York are low, you should go to Canada. They trick you by using made-up measurement units of smaller size, so you go, "Wow, I'm going 100!" And then you think, "So why is that senior citizen riding a Rascal keeping pace with me?"

Everyone loved Niagara Falls so much that we were even later, then the crazy-ass speed limit slowed us down even more. The sun was setting as we reached Hamilton, still hours from our campground.

We saw Lake Ontario, our second great lake of the trip. And across the lake, very tiny, we could see the skyline of Toronto. But we kept losing time, getting closer to setting up our tent in the dark. And then I remembered the rule I created for myself when I was in that landlord-tenant dispute in 2011: if something is causing stress in your life, stop doing it. So since our commitment to camping that night was causing stress, I declared we'd be staying at a hotel, instead. My wife was disappointment because our campground reservation for that night was the most expensive of our three, and she wanted to see if it was expensive because it was just an awesome campground. Instead, we got a room at a Courtyard Inn in London, Ontario. Which was totally not where I told the Canadian border guard I'd be going. I felt like an outlaw. And then I went to sleep.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Great Lakes Vacation, Day 3

We drove to the Finger Lakes region of New York. It rained a little on the way there, but by the evening it had cleared up. The drive consisted of a lot of Mandarin instruction and looking at trees. I got 15 new counties (Armstrong PA, Clarion PA, Jefferson PA, Venango PA, Forest PA, Elk PA, Warren PA, McKean PA, Cattaraugus NY, Allegany NY, Steuben NY, Livingston NY, Ontario NY, Yates NY, and Seneca NY). Armstrong County borders the county where I was born, but I had never been there before.

We stopped at a gas station where I bought Clark Bars for my kids to try some authentic Pittsburgh cuisine. The package said it was made in Revere, Massachusetts. I was a little worried I was misremembering, but it turns out Clark has been sold several times, and in the most-recent transfer of ownership, production of the candy bar moved out of Pittsburgh.

We drove through Bradford, a one-time oil boom town that was the home of a possible relative*. Then we crossed into New York, where the speed limit is painfully low and one of the first warning signs you see is about bears. This raised my wife's curiosity, as we would be camping that night.

The rest of my family demanded I turn off the Chinese CDs, so we started cycling through the radio. One of the stations was airing a live broadcast of a NASCAR race. My son wanted to listen, and because I'm a kick-ass dad, we did, even though the rest of us wanted to scream. But I learned something valuable: there is something more boring that watching a NASCAR race.

Livingston County, New York, was my wife's 1,000th county visited. Even though we knew that before we started the trip, we didn't notice it at the time, so she didn't get a picture to commemorate the event.

We stopped at Peter Whitmer Farm in Fayette, New York. This was where, on 6 April 1830, the Church of Christ (now The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) was formally organized.

We camped at Cayuga Lake State Park, which was nicer than we expected. However the ground held our tent stakes so securely we had to abandon four of them the next morning.

My wife wanted a selfie of us. The first attempt was photobombed by Jerome, who is an expert at such things.

Jerome's first photobomb.

(We once walked past tourists having their picture taken and Jerome said, "Man, I wish I was photobombing that picture.")

* = My great-great-great-great grandfather died in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, in 1848. When the newspaper printed his death notice, it notified the newspapers of Chester County. I can find many records of people with his last name in Chester County, but no connection to my ancestor. So I assume I'm related to the Chester County line, and the man from Bradford married a woman from that family.

Great Lakes Vacation, Day 2

About 30 years ago, my grandparents bought a vacation shack on an island in Allegheny River. They spend most of their summer weekends there. So when we woke up Saturday, we headed to the island.

There's not really anything to do there but sit around and watch the river. When I was a boy, you could listen to Pirates games on the radio; they have a TV there now. We visited with them for a long time. My grandmother's been sick the past few years, so I didn't want to overstay or wear her out if she needed to rest, so we went in the afternoon to ride the incline up Mount Washington.

Because it was a train, our kids loved it. I don't get why they demand exact change when the ticket window has a cashier. She makes sure you put the correct exact fare in the fare box. Couldn't she also give change?

Crazy Jane has a fancier camera than my wife and I have, so she can do cool things like panorama shots.

When we were in Pittsburgh last December, we walked around PNC Park, but it was so cold that we couldn't bring ourselves to walk all the way to the Bill Mazeroski statue. This time, like true Americans, we drove there and didn't even get out of the car.

We went back to the island and visited some more, then went to my uncle's house for supper. We had a fire in their yard and made smores. My cousins (who are much younger than I am) played soccer and football with my boys.

Great Lakes Vacation, Day 1

Two weeks ago, we went on a bit of a trip. It began on a Friday morning. We woke up and ate breakfast with my mother, who would be leaving while we were gone and not returning until after we left for California, so this would be the last time we'd see her for two years. (She might come visit us in China, but it seems like they might only come if they will be meeting us in Australia. So they're not adverse to flying halfway around the world to see us, they just really don't want to see where we live?) After breakfast, we entered our pre-packed car (word to my wife), and left.

First stop: Marion, Ohio. Our family keeps track of its visits certain places, and the graves of presidents are among those places. So we stopped at Warren G. Harding Memorial.

Several years ago, I read The Strange Deaths of President Harding by Robert J. Ferrell, which begins with a story of the author driving laps on the memorial lawn while in college. We had a bit of a history lesson regarding President Harding, and Crazy Jane was intrigued by the idea of President Harding being poisoned. Everything else I mentioned, she'd heard in her history lessons last year. (When I was in school, all I knew about President Harding was that he was the subject of this rap song.)

The last time I visited the memorial, it was an early Saturday morning in January and the gate to the graves was locked. This time, they were still locked. Perhaps they're never unlocked?

As we drove, we listened to Mandarin instruction CDs. I wanted us to listen to Chinese all day in the car on this trip, but everyone else revolted and demanded something else after a few hours.

In Canton, Ohio, we stopped at William McKinley Memorial.

It turned out to be the place to run in Canton. The place was lousy with runners. For some reason, many of the women runners finished ascending the stairs by lying on the courtyard pavers and doing abdominal exercises. Who does sit-ups on concrete?

We had another history lesson, and again Crazy Jane had heard it all in history this year. Sixth grade K-12 history is very comprehensive.

It was while inside the memorial that Jerome decided to remove his shoe because his foot hurt.

We headed north out of Canton, passing the Pro Football Hall of Fame, which was about 1/3 the size I expected it to be.

When we got to Akron, we started getting Cleveland radio stations, and all everyone was talking about was the news of the day: LeBron James was returning. It was very sad; the radio people were all, like, "I knew he loved us! He only hurt us because he loved us so much!" I wanted to call in an anonymous tip to the county.

We stopped for lunch in Fairlawn, Ohio. By the end of the detour, Fairlawn was the third city to make our list of Worst Cities in the World (previous honorees are Tonopah, Nevada, and Cynthiana, Kentucky). One street had about 100,000 cars on it. Every intersection was a traffic light that was not synchronized with its neighboring traffic lights. Every possible eating establishment had massive lines (drive-thrus backed up onto streets and sit-down restaurants with crowds outside the doors). We spent over an hour getting two smoothies from Robeks and some sandwiches from Jimmy John's. Because of this, we didn't have time to stop at Cuyahoga Valley National Park or drive through downtown Cleveland. We headed straight to Lake View Cemetery to see James A. Garfield Memorial. As we drove along Euclid Avenue, we passed Case Western Reserve University, where a friend from high school now works, and a statue of Mark Hanna, about whom we'd talked in our William McKinley history lesson.

Some of my grandmother's cousins are buried in Lake View Cemetery, but we don't think we saw any. (Crazy Jane said she saw one Swartz as we drove past, but she doesn't think it was spelled correctly.) The memorial crypt smelled, in the words of my wife, "like someone smoked a pipe down there once when you could smoke inside buildings and the smoke's been trapped there ever since."

But there were stairs to the roof, where one could see Cleveland in all its crapulence.

Our next stop was Kirtland, Ohio, scene of much early Mormon history. Because of Fairlawn, we didn't have time to really tour anything there, but that was okay. I feel I know enough about the places we go and the things we see that our kids can get a fairly robust picture of things with me as their tour guide. I'm not saying I'm better than the average tour guide, but I think I'm better than the worst. So instead of spending an hour listening to someone drone about minutiae (and invariably say something I know is wrong, which then makes me question everything else he's said), we take care of it on our own in 15 minutes.

For some reason, although City of Kirtland has one building in town that everyone comes to photograph, they maintain about fifty utility lines running down the street in front of it, so any somewhat-attractive photos have to come from an extreme side angle.

It would have been nice to see the inside, but we didn't have an hour and it couldn't be done without paying for a Community of Christ tour (the modern incarnation of The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which currently owns the temple--perhaps by refusing their tour we contributed to the future sale of their Kirtland sites to our church).

We stopped at the LDS visitors center to use the restrooms. A senior sister missionary asked if we wanted a tour. My wife stepped on her toes by motioning to me and saying, "He pretty much knows all of it already."

The story of Kirtland is the story of apostasy. Once back in the car, we got to have a family discussion about how people become disaffected and how to ensure it doesn't happen to us. (Hint: don't have false expectations of what a prophet should say and do and then you won't freak out when he doesn't meet your false expectations.) We also talked about our responsibility to help others not have false expectations, and how our kids should respond when their Primary teachers tell them Joseph Smith only had one wife.

We stopped to eat supper at a turnpike rest stop. It had a Panera Bread, where, after six months of trying at a handful of different locations, I finally got a Panera card linked to my Panera Rewards account. Just in time to move to China, where there are no Panera locations.

We came into Pittsburgh from the north, which is not as photogenic. In fact, I think if I ever move back to Pittsburgh, I'd have to refuse to live in a northern suburb. But I don't even know if the southern suburbs are crap or not. What if the only way for me to drive through Fort Pitt Tunnel every day is to live in a crack den?

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Another Undeniable Truth of Life

This one is courtesy of Daniel Kahneman. "Nothing in life is as important as you think it is, while you are thinking about it."

Saturday, July 05, 2014


We leave home in three weeks. So, comma, I'm quite busy at the moment. My blogging will be limited for a while. But this isn't the end; my blog will remain active after the Great Leap Forward (which seems like an appropriate blog name for our move to China).