St. Croix vacation – driving, diving and 4 books

For the last several years my husband and I have taken a vacation before the busy holiday season starts in my retail job.  The timing is such that we hit the end of the hurricane season which means it is the S-L-O-W season for the tropical islands.  For example, we just got back from a week at the Divi resort in St. Croix, a hotel that boasts 200 plus rooms and we were 2 of the 12 guests that were there for one of the days of our trip. (I think at the end of the week the guest count may have hit about 20.) We love being there when it’s slow, it means lots of special attention from the hotel staff.

We usually rent a car because we love to drive around and explore the beaches and restaurants on the island; this vacation we rented a really cool jeep.  There was so much to see on the island.  We travelled to the east side and visited Port Udall which is the most eastern point of the United States and a great place to watch the sunrise. We heard about a rainforest on the northwest part of the island so we decided to visit there.  Wowza! Suddenly there is an incredible rain forest right in the midst of all the sand and sun. But for me, my favorite part of the island was the west side with it’s gorgeous sunsets and rugged coastline.

Another way we like to explore is through scuba diving, and the diving here was exceptional.   The water temperature was 86 degrees and the marine life was robust and healthy.  We saw turtles, eel, and even a few sharks.  The experience was made even more enjoyable by the company we kept:  we dove with an incredible mother daughter team, April and Erin from California who were fun and very knowledgable.  Those two paired with Michele and Michelle from Dive Experience made for an unusual group on our dive boat – almost all women!  For those of you who dive you know this is very much a male dominated hobby, I have to say my husband also enjoyed being around all of us ladies too!

A week away from work and family responsibility also means lots of time for me to read.  This trip I tackled the following 4 books:

  1. “A Man Called Ove” by Fredrik Backman.  Many people recommended this to me, most importantly my Auntie Terry who is a voracious reader.  This is a sweet book about a grumpy old man with a soft inner core which for some reason I have a soft spot for books with this type of character.  I am glad I read it and I do recommend reading it, however I will say  it dragged on a little too much in the middle for me.  It will probably become a movie, so if you don’t have the same soft spot for grumpy old guys you can just wait for the big screen version to come out.
  2. “Miss Peregrines Home for Peculiar Children” by Ranson Riggs.  This one already IS a movie.  It’s about a boy who is very close to his grandfather.  After his grandfather dies he sets out on a mission to learn more about his grandfathers tall tales of his childhood on a deserted island.   It has great photos, many “peculiar” characters and reminded me of Harry Potter. It’s not my usual genre but I’m glad my book club picked it.
  3. “Beautiful Ruins” by Jess Walter.  It’s about an American actress in the ’60’s who is sent to a small Italian village because she is pregnant.  It flashes between that time and the current day Hollywood crowd and is a great little beach book.
  4. “Everything I Never Told You” by Celeste Ng.  This one was recommended to me by my friend Stephanie and also has been getting a lot of buzz.  It’s about a young Chinese American girl who mysteriously dies.  It’s heart wrenching and dives deep into family relationships.  I liked it but it also left me a little bit sad.

So I’m back home ready to hit the holiday in my retail job and take on my family responsibilities because I am refreshed from my wonderful visit to St. Croix.

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“The Song Poet, A Memoir of My Father” by Kao Kalia Yang

This book increased my compassion and raised my awareness of the difficulties faced by immigrants who come to America. I think my compassion gene runs pretty high, but this book definitely brought it up a notch.

“The Song Poet” by Kao Kalia Yang tells the story of her family’s emigration from Laos to a Thai refugee camp and ultimately to St. Paul, Minnesota.  The story is told from the eyes of her father, Bee Yang who was born “sometime in 1958, no one really kept track” and who lived the first years of his life in the mountains of Laos.

Bee was orphaned at a young age and met his wife in his teens.  They had their first daughter in Laos but in 1975 the family fled to a refugee camp in Thailand where Kao was born.  They lived in the refugee camp for 9 years before finally settling in St. Paul where the girls attended schools in the Harding High School district.

In the Hmong tradition, Bee was a “song poet” meaning he recounted the stories of his family and even recorded an album of these poems.  This was his way of teaching the family history.  After the death of his mother, his songs dried up and he would no longer share these stories.  Flash forward to his daughter, Kao,  who had already successfully completed her first novel who convinced him to let her share these poems.  And “walla” we have this amazing new memoir.

Living in Minnesota I was aware of the Hmong population, but I had honestly not done much thinking or research about the Hmong.  Reading this book was eye opening to me as I realized that it is not only difficult to GET to America, but once landed it is nearly impossible to support yourself with the limited job opportunities available for a non-English speaking worker. Bee worked among questionable safety practices at a factory job in Eden Prairie that compromised his health. Kao and her sister were motivated to improve the life of the entire family by pursuing education in an aggressive way and so they attended Hamline University through the PSEO program and have gone on to be very successful young women.

This is a very well written book that will leave you with more compassion but also inspired. She shares the many difficulties faced by her family and her younger siblings, but in the end the family is able to pull together to persevere and thrive in America. It truly is a win/win as  Kao is able to share her family poetry through her father’s eyes and improve our art and culture at the same time.


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My summer reading list…

I usually read more when I spend time on airplanes.  This summer I was lucky enough to travel to Europe and so I have read 5 books so far this summer.  All of these books were very entertaining and of a high quality making them hard to rank. But here goes:

  1.  “The Life we Bury” a first time novel by Minnesota writer Allen Eskens. This is a love story AND a crime thriller about a young U of M student, Joe, who meets an interesting old man while completing a college creative writing assignment.  Many years before, the old man was convicted of murdering his 14 year old neighbor girl but as Joe does his research he learns there is much more to this story. I am thrilled that Allen will be at my book club later this month.
  2. “The Nest” by Cynthia Sweeney is about four siblings who are expecting an inheritance with the youngest turns 40.  Their plans are stalled when their oldest brother gets into trouble and their mother blows “the nest” to bail him out.  The book is very funny and examines the serious issue of family money and how NOT to act when you are fortunate enough to get some.
  3. “The Girl you left Behind” by Jojo Moyes is a novel about a French woman who was the subject of a painting by her husband right before WWI.  Her husband is sent to the war and the French woman trades the painting to a German soldier in a plea bargain for her husbands life.  Flash forward to modern times:  a young man buys this same painting for his wife and it is later found out to be valuable piece of art and a battle for it’s ownership ensues.
  4. “My name is Lucy Barton” by Elizabeth Strout.  Lucy falls ill and looks back on her life in an intimate and honest way with a keen view of human behavior.  While nothing much really happens in this book, I found her musings very interesting and promoted my own self reflection. Lucy is a very likable character and the book is interesting and easy to read.
  5. “Eligible – a modern re-telling of Pride and Prejudice” by Curtis Sittenfeld.  This book doesn’t deserve to be at the bottom of any list, except for the strong competition. For me, I would have enjoyed it more if I took the time to read the original work along with the re-telling.  As luck would have it, I did find a cheap copy and read a few chapters just after finishing the book which made me appreciate it more.  In the modern version the girls are much like the Kardashian’s which made it interesting but a little far fetched which is why it’s down here at the bottom.

I’ve got a few weeks left in summer and a few more good books on my list!

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10 Random thoughts about my 2 week trip to Europe with my family

My hubby and I went to Europe before we got married and since we love to travel always talked about going back with our kids.  We wanted to make sure the kids would be old enough to remember such an epic trip and the time never seemed quite right.  Then, with a blink of an eye 24 years have passed from our original trip and we experienced the death of our beloved father and grandfather, Grandpa Brian (aka “Coach”) so we decided there was no time like the present!  We just got back from the “trip of a lifetime” with our kiddos who now at ages 21, 19 and 14 will certainly be “old enough” to remember it.

We went to Iceland for one day, then Rome,  Paris and London.  The trip was everything we imagined and I am certain when I reflect back on my life it will be on the highlight reel- one for the record books as they say.  So while it’s still fresh in my mind, here are 10 random thoughts…

  1.  There are beautiful churches everywhere – so beautiful they take your breath away.  Stained glass, painted ceilings, and sculptures with beauty that are equal to any museum.  There are the big ones, Notre Dame, Westminster Abby and then the small ones.  For example, across the street from our hotel in Paris was the beautiful Church St. Roch built in 1653 and while fallen into a bit of disrepair was still astonishingly beautiful.
  2. So much of what you learn in school is available and on display in the scads and scads of museums.  We saw beautiful works of art that we had learned about or studied in school.  A family favorite was the huge painting by David called “the crowning of Napoleon.” We all sat in front of that painting listening to the audio tour completely spell bound by the painting and the story behind it. It was gorgeous.
  3. The audio tours are essential.  They give great context, allow for people to go at their own pace and enhance the understanding of the art. At these museums it’s easy to achieve the state we called “sensory overload” where you don’t even know where to look there is so much to see.
  4. Just getting around on the public transit is an experience in itself.  We used the Metro in Paris and the Underground in London and got to experience the urban commute which is much different than our “hop in the car” suburban lifestyle.  I am a bit embarrassed to admit the great sense of accomplishment I felt when we successfully arrived at our destinations.
  5. Translating money makes it difficult to see if you are getting a good value and frankly there aren’t many choices when walking up to a museum and they ask you for 5 pounds or 10 Euros.  It all becomes “Monopoly money” especially when they give you change.  I have no idea how much we spent and I do not look forward to getting our Visa bill.
  6. There are crowds of people everywhere especially at the major attractions like the Vatican or the Louvre.  We all got frustrated when people knocked into us or stood in front of pieces of art to get their “selfie.”  Frankly, it took away from the experience and our favorite memories are at some of the smaller places where we didn’t feel so rushed and crowded.
  7. We walked and stood so much that I was physically exhausted.  We started to keep track of our steps using our smart phones and one day we reached 30k steps.  This is a physical trip with many uneven surfaces, steep stairs and lots of walking.  I was thankful for my practical and sturdy shoes.
  8. My daughters and I spent an inordinate amount of time dreaming about repacking our bags.  We basically wore the same clothes over and over!  So if I could re-pack my bag I would add a few more pairs of pants and certainly a few more sweaters.  My daughters and I had some fashionable dresses that barely made it out of the bag and we spent many hours talking about things we wished we would have brought especially when the weather was cool.
  9. There is no better way to get to know someone than to spend 2 weeks with them on a trip.  And while we did have a few tense moments, we travelled well together and I know these 4 people much better than I did before we left. Special shout out to my hubby-  there is nobody better to travel with, he can can read a map, walk around tirelessly, and navigate a city better than anyone I know.
  10. And while I love, love, love to travel, I equally love to come home.  Because somehow the trip is even better when you get home.  You forget about how long it took to get lunch, how frustrated you were with the crowds, how tired your feet were or how hot/cold you were, and you just remember the amazing trip with your favorite people.
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“Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy” By Karen Abbott

I am embarrassed to admit I knew very little about the Civil War before I read “Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy.”  How is it that I have read dozens and dozens of books about WW2 and nothing about the Civil War?

This book is a work of non fiction and follows 4 women who went undercover during the Civil War.  These four women were spies who provided intelligence to the military for the side of the war they supported.

The first woman posed as a man to enlist as a soldier. During her military service she was recruited to be a spy .  While undercover, several times she/he had instructions to pose as a woman.  (A woman posing as a man posing as a woman- a little complicated!)  I learned that there were as many as 400 women who pretended to be men so they could enlist as soldiers in the war.

The second and third women relied on their female charms to gather intelligence.  Wowza!

And the fourth woman was a wealthy spinster who cleverly used her servants to gather intelligence.

The methods they used were crude but interesting and their early work provided important contributions to the generals and leaders of the war.

The book was politically balanced as two of the spies were “Unionists” and two were “Confederates.”  Frankly, when I began I wasn’t sure which of these terms described “the north” and which was “the south.”  This lack of knowledge led me to the wiki to do Civil War research to get the terminology and my history up to speed.

To be honest, the book was a bit hard to read because of the level of detail, length and difficulty in following 4 different characters.  Yet, I am glad I read it because learning about history is good and seems even more relevant during this election cycle.  (Make it end, please I can hardly take it anymore!)

So if you have the time and attention for a well researched and written book about four feisty women who made a difference during the Civil War, read the book.



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Transitions – They’re BAAAACK

The month of May:  that glorious time of year when the days are longer, flowers are planted and everyone is in a transition. For me, a creature of habit, there is nothing more stressful than this “glorious” time of year.

The first and most obvious transition in our house is the return of the “adult” children from college.  After 9 months of independence they have to stuff themselves back into their 10X12 childhood bedrooms which are lined up three in a row.  These shared walls which seemed so precious back when they were young now cause nothing but problems.  The music is too loud, one of them has an early job, one has a hard time sleeping.   So within just 1 week of their being home Jack is moving to the lower level where he can have his own space and his own bathroom.  (Side note:  I am not sure who is messier in the bathroom, Jack or the girls but needless to say they cannot co-exist in one space.)

With their return come the chores that should be shared equally.  What a joke.  This is a constant battle between Sean and me. Why between the two of us?  Earlier HE was responsible for assigning chores to the kids, however, I did not like his heavy handed approach and so a few years ago I took on this responsibility.  Major mistake.  They do not perform their duties and he constantly asks why I can’t get them to adhere to my rules.  It would appear that I am a successful leader at work where this type of behavior is easy to achieve.  Hire the right people, give them clear direction, remove obstacles, reinforce positive behavior and watch them prosper.  I will flat out say that this approach has not worked at home.  All attempts at clear direction have been met with resistance.  They will do the chores later, the directions were not clear, or they will do the chore but without any clear evidence of results.  The worst is the ever popular argument that THEY have to do more chores than the OTHER kids.  And so within just 1 week of their being home I am hiring help to clean my home. (Side note:  I am not proud of this, I am merely reporting this as a fact.)

Finally, my youngest daughter is in her last few weeks of a middle school transition complete with the drama associated with that minefield of teenaged hormones.  This has been a difficult year for her and I have watched from a distance the tactics used by teenaged girls everywhere to alienate and claim power over other girls.  In my worst moments I felt myself revert back to MY teenaged self and want to get involved with these girls on her behalf.  Thank goodness, she did not WANT my involvement – which should be a surprise to absolutely NOBODY and I was able to restrain my behavior and avoid appearing in the National Enquirer. The good news is that it seems as though “this too shall pass” and by this time next year this drama will be a blip in her memory banks.  (Side note:  a wise person once told me that the adults should never get involved in the business of their children.  That wise person was my mother.  Good advice, Delphine.)

So I am surviving this time of transition by moving the boys away from the girls, getting some help around the house and listening to my mother.  Some things never change.

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“John Adams” by David McCullough

I recently visited with my former boss, Tim and of course we got to talking about books.  He spoke highly about the “John Adams” book and in my typical way I blurted that I had always wanted to read it.  He retrieved the book for me and my jaw dropped when I saw the enormity of this book.  Yet, I wanted to read it for a few reasons;  it won the Pulitzer,  I know very little about American history, and because I wanted to read something that Tim had recommended.

I came to love the hardworking man that John Adams was.  Throughout his long career he never said no to any assignment that he was given.  He was a family man who was completely devoted to his wife.  And he loved to talk and to read.  He sounds like my kind of guy!

I know that not many of you will read a 700 page book and so I offer you 6 fun facts about our second POTUS, John Adams:

  1.  While married for over 50 years, John and Abigail, spent many of them apart when he traveled to foreign countries as a US diplomat.  This job did not pay very well back then so Abigail ran the family farm to supplement their income.  Throughout their long marriage and mostly due to these extended absences they wrote over 1,000 letters to each other.
  2. The Declaration of Independence was written by a “committee of 5” which included John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.
  3. John Adams was the first Vice President of the United States and served 2 terms before he was voted President and became our second POTUS.  Before the first Presidential election in 1789 our government did not have an executive branch and was run by Congress.  The first election was under a system that gave each state a number of electors and each elector could vote for 2 candidates.  Whoever got the most votes was President.  Whoever got the second most votes was Vice President.   This system was changed in 1804 via the 12th amendment to the process that is in place today.
  4. The Adams family was the first family to live in the White House.
  5. John and Abigail were the parents of John Quincy Adams who was the 6th President.
  6. Both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died on the 50th anniversary  of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

As I read this book I became aware of how unique and well designed our government is.  I am thankful for the thought and planning our founders put into the structure of our country and am proud to be an American.  Thank you, John Adams for your service.

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