Category Archives: holidays

How I Hope to Survive the Pandemic


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March 16 rush hour traffic in San Francisco.

I know, I know. Although I’m over 60 years old and have moderately high blood pressure and a persistent old-man cough, so I’m more at risk than you healthy young people, I am not at serious risk.

I’m not over 80, and despite my cough I don’t have an underlying breathing or serious health issue that is likely to complicate the disease should I be unlucky enough to get COVID-19.

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End of walk Sunday. Shadows on the sidwalk.

My chances of surviving are excellent, though not 100 percent. I hope, like I’m sure everyone else does, that I don’t get sick. I pray that if I do, it’ll only be a mild case.

And mostly I don’t want to get the virus because I don’t want to be a vector for it—despite the mostly positive prognosis for me, I don’t want to be part of chain that infects a person whose body cannot fight it off.

So, I think I’ll physically be OK. I am more worried about my mental well being. I gambled a lot by traveling to the San Francisco area—a hot spot for the virus—during the outbreak, and in the short time I’ve been here, things have gotten really odd and scary.

I’ve been walking at some famous places—by the bay, for example. While there were some crowds on Market Street on Sunday, mostly the streets have been much quieter than one would expect. Today, Monday, the mayor announced a ban on any unnecessary travel, and ordered restaurants to switch to strictly takeout or delivery business.

My wife and I went for an afternoon walk today (the mayor specified walking outside is OK) at what would have been rush hour. San Francisco looked like Ely, Iowa, at 10 a.m. on a particularly quiet Thursday. In other words, very quiet.

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Spanish-American War memorial in Union Square, pretty empty on a weekend.

Except grocery stores. My son and I had, earlier in the day, make a quick trip to Safeway. We anticipated crowds and craziness, and the grocery store did not disappoint. I am pleased to say most Californians were being polite—although one woman sprinted through the store, cursing at everyone for not maintaining a 6-foot distance. Lady, we were pressed in the aisles like sardines. We were stiffly formal and careful to not actually touch, and I heard no coughing—but 6 feet was a physical impossibility in the canned goods lane of Safeway.

Actually, I held the shopping bag and let my son, with his son strapped to his chest, do the hunter-gatherer thing in that crowded aisle. I waited in the empty potato section, but even there I was not as isolated as guidelines call for.

On the way home, we noticed that another neighborhood grocery store was limiting customers by having an entrance queue. Not sure if that was effective—by preventing people from crowding in the store, you were having them crowd on the sidewalk.

Well, we do what we can. I washed my hands as soon as I got back to the apartment. And, while waiting in the long line at Safeway, I felt the familiar tickle in my throat. My old man cough, ready to roll.

I’m happy to say I deliberately salivated (try that sometime) and was able to use nature’s cough drop to prevent discomfort to those around me. Success! We exited Safeway with no social embarrassment.

And not all the groceries we planned, either. No flour, for example. We would have bought potatoes if we saw any, but honestly weren’t optimistic about seeing those scarce spuds. In this time of crisis, there may not be potatoes, but there was corned beef. There was no green cabbage, but we got some purple. As the resident Irish person, I am prepared to prepare Tuesday’s official holiday meal, and if there are not potatoes, there will still be corned beef, cabbage, carrots and soda bread (my son is not totally out of flour), so our suffering is pretty muted.

I am not sure my trip, made because it’s my wife’s and my first chance to see a young grandson, was a great idea, but the travel advisories changed daily and the travel ban was not in place when we boarded our plane.

When we get home and self-quarantine, the brave new world of online teaching awaits. The newspaper I advise is done printing for the year. Meetings and events are being reshuffled. All of our lives are being upended. Having to induce salivation in a grocery store line is, on the whole, pretty small potatoes (and metaphoric potatoes are the only ones to be had, at the moment).

I’ll roll with it. It’s a blessing to be around to take part in the struggle. May your struggle in the time of corona virus not be too bad. I hope all of you heed health advice, and don’t fret too much. Most of us will make it through, and more of us if we behave ourselves.

Now, go wash your hands.

UPDATE March 18: There were potatoes on St. Patrick’s Day! Daughter-in-law went to neighborhood store in the morning and found some. A small victory during troubled times.

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St. Patrick’s Day meal, bread by my son, rest cooked by me, including …. POTATOES found at local store that morning by my daughter-in-law.

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Filed under Grandchildren, holidays, Science, Travel

My 2019 Letter to Santa Claus


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Santa with marketing crew at MMU at Christmas Club Friday this fall semester. Image by Audrey Sheller.

Dear Santa:

How are you, big guy? Good luck on the deliveries this year. You’ll need to wax the sleigh runners even more this year, there is not a lot of snow to land on these days in our area of the world. Of course, snow is only a 50-50 shot for Christmas in this part of Iowa anyway, but global warming is changing those odds.

For me, asking for a lot of stuff for Christmas makes little sense—my life is brimming with things, and I’m at a time in life when, while I do appreciate a special gift, mostly I don’t have lots of objects to desire.

So, I’m going to go the Amy Grant route and make a more grownup Christmas list.

What would I be asking for if I could ask you, as if you were a magic genie, for anything?

Well, world peace, naturally. Humans have a shocking capacity to tear at each other. Our literature is full of monstrosities that we can fear (if you don’t ever catch Dr. Emily on the PBS Monstrum YouTube channel, check it out), but most of the time, the most fearsome monster that humans face is us. I not only would like us to stop killing each other, but not eliminating other species and trashing the only planet in our neighborhood we can inhabit would be nice, too.

Item one, then, is to achieve world peace partly by humans recognizing the value of the world we have and learning to act together to preserve it.

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Volunteer helps to plant a new pollinator garden at Mount Mercy campus in 2019. May there be more of this in 2020.

I would ask for peace at heart, too. For myself, naturally. I do get too stressed at times, and have a natural ability to look at the dark side. When my phone blings with a message tone, I almost always imagine some catastrophe, which the message, thank goodness, almost never is. The imagining is irrational, but that doesn’t make it go away.

Still, I’m blessed, for the most part, with decent mental and physical health. Not everyone I know and love is in a happy zone in their life right now, and I would wish for peace at heart to all my family and friends.

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Digging this chick more and more all the time. If the caucus were tonight, I would be standing in the Amy corner. Not a formal endorsement, I am still playing the field, but I”m feeling more like I’m on Team Amy. Image from Wikimedia Commons, a 2019 picture of her by Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ.

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From The Gazette’s web site, the “Impeached” front page.

I have a few more practical items on my list. We have a president who has been impeached, but the Republican Senate is unlikely to convict and the party of Lincoln can’t seem to free itself from the destructive hypnosis that seems to have descended on it.

I want Trump to not only not be re-elected, but to be soundly trounced. Only a thorough thrashing is likely to help renew our poisoned politics. So, Santa, put a landslide defeat for Tangerine Hitler on my list, please.

Right now, I’m liking Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, so if I get to add more results for the voting in 2020 to my Christmas list, it would be great to have the Senate flipped so that incoming President Klobuchar can look forward to fights within her party rather than being constantly blocked by the GOP.

I have a few smaller-scale items on my list, too. I hope to do better as a professor, to find strategies to communicate with and teach my students to the best of my abilities. I know that their success or failure is not primarily due to anything I do—it’s decisions that these young adults make—but to the extent that I can, I want to be a better role model and mentor to students and help them to decide to succeed. Not sure how to write that on the list, but Santa, I think you get the idea. Or at least I hope I am communicating it clearly enough. Help me get through to my students, but most of all, help me to understand what I’m trying to get through.

I am a biker, and right now the bicycling world in Iowa is riven by civil strife: Iowa Ride v RAGBRAI. I’m on team RAGBRAI in that fight, by the way, and I hope that ride can find a way forward. I also think that it needs reforming, and maybe the current crisis will lead RAGBRAI to be better—but I don’t want it done away with.

So, a successful RAGBRAI 2020 is on my Christmas list.

We welcomed a new grandchild in 2019. I won’t wish for another in 2020 (although I would also be thrilled if it happened)—I think my own children should guide those kinds of big life decisions for themselves—but I hope to see and have fun with all of my grandchildren, somehow, in 2020. Some are at a distance, and how and when I will see them isn’t 100 percent clear, so mark it down, big guy. Joe wants more grandpa time.

Have I been good enough for this list? Hard to say. Unlike President Trump, I can think of things in my life I could do better or should apologize for. And, while many items on my list are beyond my control (world peace), others are more aspirations that I can have an impact on.

So maybe that’s the final item on my Christmas list. A sort of version of the Serenity Prayer. If I can’t change it, help me to deal with it, and if it’s in my power to change, help me do the best I can. And may I and more of us flawed mortal creatures act in 2020 to achieve a place on the “nice” list.

Yours,
CRGardenJoe

PS: And let’s let Dr. Emily get us into the holiday spirit:

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Filed under Grandchildren, History, holidays, Mount Mercy, politics

Celebrating My 61st Birthday


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Aug. 31–Just in time for family birthday party, the Monarch caterpillars have a party, too.

Another year on the globe. Besides mowing the lawn, I’ve also dedicated part of this Labor Day weekend to celebrating my 61st birthday. The actual day was Friday, while a family party was Saturday.

It’s been good. My wife got me a cool GPS bicycle computer and an interesting-looking grammar game. My children got me a copy of the class board game Risk, a hibiscus bush which should have huge, pretty pink flowers next year and a birdhouse for my backyard nature oasis.

Friday featured some breakfast scones that my wife got up and made for me. Lunch was in the school cafeteria at the university where I teach—which does not sound all that special, but I take my lunch most days and consider eating in the cafeteria a special treat. Supper was Thai food at a nearby restaurant we like.

And Saturday’s birthday feast featured the last summer day meal—brats, hot dogs, potato salad, macaroni salad, baked beans—and brownies and ice cream for dessert.

I thoroughly enjoyed the day. It was great to have my youngest son, who is headed overseas for a couple of years for a post-doctorate position at a university in China, home for it, and it was great for my other nearby kids to make it.

Thank you, universe, for another year. I’m not much into resolutions, I don’t typically make them at New Years, but I think birthday resolutions make as much sense as any others, so here are some resolutions or goals for my 61st year on this planet:

  • Vote for a Democrat who wins. That way Tangerine Hitler can fade into the trash heap of history. Really, I know, suddenly this happy birthday post got all political—but the Dunce-in-Chief said today that he’s not heard of a Category 5 hurricane before. Someone please check his meds? And vote him out.
  • Re-watch a substantial part of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” I started with season three the day after my birthday. I won’t be able to re-watch much more during the semester, but these are annual goals, right? And that show just so often make me smile, even if it is very ’90s.
  • Learn something new. I just downloaded a new language ap, and plan to work a bit on my rudimentary Spanish. I also may try to learn to count in Hungarian—my father’s family were all Hungarian, and I would like to visit that country. Can’t make that visit a goal yet for this year—it probably will be a retirement trip and I’m not there yet—but I can start learning a bit of the language. And I’ve already visited some Spanish-speaking places—it seems like I would not be hurt at all to improve on language skills.
  • Get some kids to like Tessa Violet. To be fair, not all college students go crazy when I start playing my Tessa tunes in the newspaper office—one editor a few years ago learned to love Tessa when she went through a tough breakup and saw herself in “Sorry I’m Not Sorry.” But I’m always a bit surprised so few of the new generation listen to her I like the idea of her.
  • Learn to appreciate some new cuisine. I like many international foods—Thai, Chinese, Ethiopian. But there’s a lot of the globe that, culinarily speaking, I have not explored. I like to try new foods and want to find the next taste. Any suggestions, readers?

Well, that’s it, for now. I may be getting older, but I enjoyed myself this weekend. But I still want to have more fun. Maybe it’s time for the next episode of Buffy.

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Filed under Flowers, Food, Garden, Grandchildren, holidays

What I Will Recall About Norwich


England just fell to the United States in a World Cup women’s semifinal match as I write this. As an American, I’m OK with that.

But women’s soccer aside, it’s easy to love England. It’s a place where it an American can feel at home and in an alien place at the same time. I’m close to wrapping up a three-week visit with my daughter, son-in-law and their three children in Norwich, England. I’m not sure when we’ll see each other again—but soon, I hope.

Anyway, I will remember a lot about Norwich. We were lucky with the weather, but the reserved English people can also be quite warm, too. As my daughter notes, they may not make eye contact at first, but are curious and friendly once a conversation starts.

There were a lot of highlights this visit. Of course, the chance to spend them with family ranks number one. But there was a lot more to this visit, too.

In particular, the food has been wonderful, both that which we’ve eaten at local restaurants or from the neighborhood fish and chips shop, and that which my daughter and son-in-law have prepared.

I also enjoy that we’ve seen many new things—touring Blickling Estate, visiting the Norfolk Children’s Book Centre, walking by the lake at Whitlingham Country Park. I rode a rented bicycle 20 miles into pretty English countryside on Marriott’s Way alone, and cycled to a nearby city with my son-in-law.

Norwich is a university town that is not that different in size than Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Both cities boast about 132,000 residents, for example. But Norwich seems more compact and is much older, however. The scale of things is all different here—sidewalks and streets here are much narrower than their American counterparts. Sometimes it feels a bit odd to me—sidewalks are so tiny here, and yet so much more used—walking is what many British people do. It’s nothing to stroll half a mile to downtown and to see hundreds of people at a time striding about.

When I rented a rode a bicycle here, I felt both safer and in more in danger than in the U.S. Bicycles are way more common here and used by a much larger percent of people as transportation, not just for recreation. Thus, auto drivers here are not so hostile to riders—bikes are too normal. However, narrower streets also mean way more proximity in traffic. To ride a bicycle on an English street is to be frequently, unnervingly close to both walkers and motor vehicles.

Well, I survived the experience. More than that, I really enjoyed it, all of it.

The reticent politeness of the English—strangers not making eye contact, but happily saying “cheers” if you open a gate for them. The odd assortment of fashion when parents drop off children at an elementary school on what seems to an Iowan to be a cool morning calling for a sweatshirt—some are dressed in business suits, some in winter wear, some in skimpy summer shorts. It feels like the parents were all collected from different climate zones.

Norwich! I’ve only really explored two English cities—London and Norwich. I did not make it to the capital during this visit, but that’s OK.

Norwich has been more than enough this summer. I’m not gone yet, but my departure for Iowa is only a few days away, and I honestly feel like I’m missing you already. Of course, it’s not just the place, it’s family, too. Time with my loved ones is precious and always too short.

The summer of 2019 has been one of diverse adventures—a wonderful trip to California followed by this respite in Norfolk. RAGBRAI is next, followed by “real” life.

Is there a point to this post? If so, I suppose it is to enjoy the journey if you are lucky enough to get the chance to travel. Let your family know that you love them. And never forget to try sticky toffee pudding.

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Filed under Grandchildren, holidays, Travel

England Days 3-7: The Impact of Jet Lag


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Granddaughter and wife on stroll to school. We are going with her on a field trip.

I started off this visit with a short burst of energy that allowed me to write daily blog posts for the first two days of my English trip, but then jet lag kicked in. Each evening, I would edit and post a few images to Facebook, intending, after that, to write a blog post about the day.

And I failed each day. Except that today, when I checked my blog, there were three recent nonsense posts, one just the numeral 5, while the rest weren’t even words, just strings of letters.

Wow. Jet. Lag.

Anyway, the visit to England has been better than the blogging. Let’s see, what have I missed telling you about?

Wednesday, June 19—Walked grandkids to school, went to City Centre and arranged to rent a bicycle next week. Matt went on business trip and I borrow his bike—first short bike ride.
Thursday, June 20—We drove to a nearby village for book shopping and visit to nice outdoor gardens. Longer afternoon bike ride.
Friday, June 21—Audrey and I are “parents” on a school field trip, Lizzie’s Year 4 class walks to East Anglia University campus for nature hunt in green space by a river. Sunburn.
Saturday June 22 and Sunday June 23—We agree to watch the grandchildren so Matt and Amanda can celebrate their anniversary with a weekend getaway to London. It seems to be going well (knock on wood, it’s several hours before they get home). It’s not as much work as it could be, Juliet was gone for much of Saturday on a Brownie excursion to a zoo, and Elizabeth had a sleepover birthday party, but still, we get some good karma for being brave grandparents.

I complained about the UK a bit on my bike blog, because navigating the streets for a bicycle ride was more challenging that it should be in any organized universe. This post will be way more positive, because there is a lot to enjoy about England.

I can’t claim to be an unbiased judge of that. With my oldest daughter and three of my grandchildren living here, I am predisposed to have good thoughts about the place that pleasantly houses some people I love. Still, biased or not, I can judge when I want to, and isn’t that what a blog is for?

So here are additional good points of the UK.

First, the school system seems good here. I don’t know too much about it, but the Friday field trip was a positive experience. For one thing, it’s a bit of distance from the middle school Elizabeth attends to the university campus. Google maps says it’s 1.1 miles, but that seems like a lie, because that would be like waking from our house to the Collins Aerospace duck pond and back—and we walked a lot farther.

Of course, Google may not be accounting for the walk across the University of East Anglia campus to get to the site of the nature hunt, but that was not a great distance. I am not sure many American schools would walk four classes of fifth graders as far as we walked Friday—and that’s sort of a score one for England.

The day seemed mildly well spent. The teacher and aides seemed to know the children well and to anticipate and deal with issues. There was one allergic reaction to pollen, one girl with sunscreen in the eyes (luckily, not Elizabeth), and so on—normal school stuff, which was dealt with calmly. I imagine many American teachers and aides would have done as well, yet it was still good to see.

Rounders, by the way, looks like a drunk person tried to plan baseball and failed.

A second positive aspect of England is that walking and biking seem fairly normal here. On a weekend in City Centre, for example, there are crowds of people and hundreds of little shops open and bustling. The English are not hidden in their houses watching TV or playing video games, they are out and about. And using their feet and their pedals, many of them—auto traffic is heavy, too, but it’s startling how many people you just see walking downtown contrasted with what a comparable American city is like.

There is also the food. You can find plenty of bland and bad food in the UK—the British are known for it. But that has not been our experience. Of course, part of that is that my daughter is a much better cook than I am, and feeds us grandly. But the meals out we’ve had have been local, quirky and quite good. For example, on our art trip Thursday to the Norfolk Children’s Book Centre and the Alby Crafts and Gardens, we ate lunch at a tea room at the craft place.

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Tea room lunch. We were very pleased with it.

I got a chicken salad, as did Audrey, and we shared an order of fries at the table. It was a leafy, fresh salad with a tasty dressing—somehow, despite all of their reputation otherwise, it seems many Brits have learned not only to cook, but to cook well.

Granted, we made the mistake of buying store meatballs to feed the family Sunday for dinner, and they turned out to be very bland and made us miss American store meatballs—but that was a culinary exception. For the most part, eating here has a been a joy, and we haven’t even had proper fish and chips nor sticky toffee pudding yet.

England! I could eat you up.

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Filed under Blog, Grandchildren, holidays, Travel

England Day 2: Art and Dead People


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Daughter and grandson on our cemetery walk.

After leaving the grandchildren off at school, my daughter suggested a walk through a cemetery.

We’ve been there before, but not this year. It’s a pleasant place to walk, an old cemetery with fading gravestones, at least the part we walked in. I understand it has modern areas, too, but this old part is part burial ground, part urban nature preserve, and it’s a peaceful, interesting place for a stroll.

At one point, my toddler grandson wanted me to pick him up so he could bat his hands at low-hanging leaves on trees. He has an infectious chortle, and we heard it sounding out a bit in the quiet among the dead. It was a good place to be alive.

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Another view of the cemetery.

Following the cemetery stroll, we decided to walk across town. Rain was in the forecast today, but not until later in the afternoon, and we gambled we could cross the distance to the rail station and return before the rain set it. It felt very muggy today, but was a bit cooler than yesterday, so it was a nice day for a walk.

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Art in the church.

Along the way, when we got downtown, an old church used as a civic center was advertising an art exhibit/sale, so we went in. It was nice to see the church, even if it being filled with contemporary art felt a little dissonant. Much of the art was several hundred pounds in price, which was one discouragement—and also was bulky enough that fitting it into a carry-on could be an issue, so we merely viewed the art and church and then moved on.

The walk across town felt like several miles, to me. I’m hoping it was good cross training for RAGBRAI—and being comfortable walking some distance isn’t just cross training, it’s also training, since RAGBRAI can involve a fair amount of walking, too.

We have a bold plan—we are to care for the grandchildren this weekend while our daughter and son-in-law enjoy a weekend alone in London. The walk today was so that our daughter could get her train ticket.

We also stopped at a bike shop downtown where I arranged to rent a bicycle for next week and also purchased a biking map of Norwich.

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One display in the church was a table set as “The Last Brexit Supper,” which was not exactly pro-Brexit.

Lunch was at a falafel eatery downtown—my daughter got us a group platter that could have fed four or five. The three of us, plus the toddler, gave it the old college try, but we ended up with a significant take-home box of leftovers, too. The platter was falafel and pita sandwich veggie fixings, including nice humus. It was filling and delicious.

We arrived still dry back at my daughter’s house about 2 in the afternoon, and I skipped the walk to school to pick up granddaughters so I could nap. I’m struggling a little to say awake right now, but the sunny walk today hopefully helped reset my bio clock, so I may not be blogging at 3:30 a.m. tomorrow morning. Knock on wood.

So today featured a long walk in a pleasant English city, including art and a cemetery stroll, a great lunch and the promise of future adventures—biking in the UK!

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Filed under Food, Grandchildren, holidays, Travel, Weather

England Day 1: A Pleasant Zombie Walk


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On the walk to school–pretty, familiar looking northern hemisphere sky, somewhat less familiar street scenery.

The luggage showed up quickly, and that was a blessing.

We flew from Detroit to Amsterdam to get here, and then from Amsterdam to Norwich. We had a fairly tight layover in Holland—but our overnight flight landed a few minutes early, and the connecting gate to our next flight to the UK turned out to be in fairly close proximity to our arrival gate.

But our bags did not make it with us, and we were not alone. At the Norwich Airport following the morning flight, there was a bit of a queue at the lost baggage desk. Sigh.

Still, entering the UK these days is pretty easy. There used to be an odd little customs card to complete, and a separate line for non-European passports that involved a bit more questioning. Monday, we were in line with all the British passports, there was no customs form and the questioning was concise.

We were picked up by our daughter, and met the toddler grandson who we have seen before, but mostly know via WhatsApp video calls. He was a little confused at first—those people from the computer can step out of cyberspace? —but quickly warmed up and even allowed me to carry him about the house a bit in the afternoon.

Our daughter had to leave on an extended errand, which was OK because my wife and I had at best only dozed on the long overnight flight, so we both took a 3-hour nap. And in the afternoon, we walked with her and the grandson to go meet out two granddaughters, who attend two different nearby schools. I felt a bit fuzzy headed on the walk—I’m afraid I was a bit of a living zombie—but the sky was pretty, and company pleasant and it was nice to be out. The strong cup of coffee my daughter made for me did not hurt, either.

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Bikes at school as we arrive to pick up granddaughter. It is nice to be in a country were bicycles are “normal” transportation.

I’m not yet used to the local geography. I sort of knew my way around Norwich before, from a previous house that my daughter and son-in-law were renting. They have since purchased a house. It’s in the same general neighborhood, but right now the streets are a bit of a confusing mess in my jet-lagged mind.

Still, despite being very tired, it was exciting to again see our Norwich family. The grandchildren didn’t appreciate my dad jokes, but nobody does, and that’s OK. After all, a dad joke (my oldest granddaughter is studying the Romans, which I suggested were named for their penchant for oars) is at best measured in a scale from “I don’t get it” to outright groans.

England is an interesting mix of familiar and alien. Roses are blooming here, as they are in Iowa. I saw bees among very familiar flowers—my son-in-law and daughter have very pretty foxglove in their tiny back garden, nice colorful blooms you can see from the kitchen window. At the same time, everything is different here. They speak English, but it’s not American English—you can understand them, but there is a bit of work to it. I suppose they feel the same about us. Their tiny row houses are all crowded together, which seems like a more space-efficient way to construct a city, but is not the familiar American ranch home on individual quarter-acre lots. When we were waiting at one of the schools, I looked out over a nearby hillside in view, and the rows of chimneys we could see looked very “Mary Poppins” or “Yellow Submarine.”

We were blessed with a nice day, warm and sunny, and are even more blessed with the warmth of familiar familial re-connection. The grandchildren are bigger and older, and I’m betting we will have some fun over this visit. The luggage, as it turned out, made the afternoon flight from Amsterdam and was delivered to a neighbor while we were doing the zombie walk to school.

UK! I’m tired, and I’m typing at 3:30 a.m., but that’s OK. We are here in Norwich, and I can’t wait to see what adventures await us.

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