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Wordless Wednesday: Toronto Eaton Centre

By Robin Dearing
Wednesday, July 16, 2014

(Photo by Margaret McCracken)

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The family vacation that was truly a family vacation

By Robin Dearing
Saturday, July 12, 2014

It's been a while since I've written because we've been back east for two weeks visiting my husband's family ... his very large family on both Bill’s mother’s and father’s side.

Bill was born and raised in western New York, in and around Buffalo. Have you ever been to Buffalo? It's truly a beautiful place and don't even get me started on the food. The city has so much beautiful and significant architecture. I had to keep my head on a swivel to take it all in.

Every day as we'd go about our sightseeing, I would think, "I could live here." Then, I'd get out of the air-conditioned car and think, "I could never live here." But the family and culture is very appealing … also, did I mention the food?

Going from our dry, desert climate to the humid heat of the Great Lakes area was quite a shock. I had lived in Pennsylvania while going to grad school and really loved it, but I moved from the San Francisco Bay Area which has humidity of its own.

We stayed in a suburb of Buffalo called Cheektowaga for a week while we visited with Bill's sister, Valerie, and her awesome family. They are so warm, loving and fun. Our week went way too fast. While there, we visited the Albright Knox Museum, took in the sights of the city of Buffalo and ate out many, many times. One day everyone went to an amusement park, while I spend the afternoon touring the Darwin Martin house which was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright (I will still regale anyone who will listen with the details of that amazing architecture).

The Greek food was wonderful; I love souvalki. Almost every restaurant had pizza, wings, French onion soup and beef on weck. What’s “weck”? It is quite possibly the most perfect bread roll ever created. And because it’s bread I couldn’t eat any of it (insert frowny face here). I did, however, convert our lovely daughter-in-law, Lacie, into a beef on weck lover and she ate my share for me.
That brings me to one of the best parts of the trip: Bill, Margaret and I got to spent almost the entire trip with Bill’s son, Sean, and his awesome wife. They live here in the Valley, but being young people doing young people things, we don’t see them as often as we’d like.

(At Niagara Falls ... it was windy.)

Margaret got to celebrate her 14th birthday with her brother Sean, Uncle Bob, Aunt Val and Cousin Ryan with Buffalo's famous pizza and wings (she even ate a clam).

We crammed all five us in into our rented Camry for many fun adventures, including visiting both the Great Lakes Erie and Ontario. While Sean was born in New York, Lacie had never seen the lakes before and remained unconvinced that they were actually lakes and not the ocean.

(Sean and Lacie wading in Lake Ontario. Lacie's face will tell you how cold it was.)

We drove to Canada two times with Sean and Lacie and once after they had gone home to visit Toronto (raising the number of foreign countries Margaret has visited so far this year to four — yes, I’m still a bit jealous).

We also held a memorial for Bill’s lovely mother, Clara, who passed away in January. Bill’s sister from his mom, Valerie and her family arranged a wonderful event that focused on celebrating Clara’s life. There was delicious food (of course) and a rowdy crowd of some of the best people you could ever meet. Despite the heat and humidity of the day, seeing everyone come together to remember Clara was a special day, indeed.

(At Clara's memorial.)

The second week was spent about an hour outside of Buffalo in the tiny, rural hamlet of Barker (good luck finding it on a map) with Bill’s dad, Bill Sr. and stepmom, Fran. His two brothers Shannon and Jamie live on the same street (I feel sorry for their letter carrier, so many McCrackens within a couple of miles of each other on the same street). Jamie, his wife Sadie and their daughter Siobhan had quite the surprise when they woke up on the 4th to find their older daughter Lietta had been flown in as a surprise. Bill Sr. had all of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren together for the first time.

Bachelor brother Shannon recently purchased a property which includes an old farm house (perfect for him as he is a contractor) and 70 acres of some of the most gorgeous land, I’ve ever seen, not unlike the impressive acreage owned by Bill Sr. Both are avid hunters and can do so on their own property. The thick woods and lush vegetation is just something we don't see out here. Truly beautiful.

Shannon hosted a Fourth of July party and invited the entire family. I’m not sure how many people were there, but there were somewhere around 40 McCrackens alone. Bill’s sister, Diana, and her family came up from Pennsylvania with her kids and grandkids. It was so fun to see in person all the kids that we’ve only seen on Facebook. Having the entire McCracken side of the family together was such a special treat.

 

We spent so much time visiting with aunts, uncles, cousins and the spouses lucky enough to marry into the family, there was never a dull moment. I smiled so much, my cheeks are still sore.

(Here we are with Bill's Uncle Roger and his wife Robin, Bill's brother Shannon at cousin Dawn and her husband Chuck's house. No better way to spend an hot, humid afternoon than soaking in a pool with super fun people).

I’m truly lucky to have married into such of loving group of people. They are the salt of the earth, they take care of each other and love each other unconditionally. This trip was fun and wonderful for all of us, Margaret, the most. She had such a rough year her last year in junior high. Spending this time with family was exactly what she needed. Our two weeks went by way too fast and none of us were really ready to go home.

On our way to the airport, Margaret posted this on Facebook: I had the absolute best time in New York and I'm so glad that I got this time to spend with my family. I missed them so much and I've only been gone for 3 minutes and I miss them. Family is probably the most important thing in this world and I have the best family in the world. I really hate saying goodbye. 

I couldn’t have said it better myself.


 

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Manikin Panickin’

By Randee Bergen
Friday, July 11, 2014

“Mom, I got VATted today,” Amy said as she came through the front door. Neither success or defeat was conveyed.

“Oh yeah, how’d it go?” She had told me about some of the other lifeguards getting VATted so I knew what she was talking about.

“I failed. Big time. It was so embarrassing.”

She had been through a weekend of rigorous lifeguard training two months prior and was required to get a certain number of inservice hours each month to ensure her training remained fresh and up-to-date. In addition, she, and the other guards, would occasionally be VATted. This, her first time to experience it, was during her second full week of guarding.

“I was guarding the deep end and there were only three people using it. I knew where they all were and none of them were in the water. One was standing on the edge, one was talking to her friend by the hot tub, and the other was walking to the diving board.” Having been to this pool several times, I pictured the scene in my mind. “So, I’m just standing there, keeping an eye on these people, and this little boy comes up behind me and taps on me. Tap, tap, tap. I look down. He’s about six. He says, ‘That man over there threw a baby doll in the water. Aren’t you supposed to get it?’

“OMG,” I said, knowing how she must have felt. To have a little kid see the baby doll go in, to have him know that she’s getting tested, to have him come and tell her she might just want to rescue it.

“Yeah. So, I only have 20 seconds to get the manikin to the surface. It’d probably been down there for over a minute already. Maybe two. So I jump in and go down for it. And I didn’t have enough air. I couldn’t get it. I had to resurface and try again. And that little kid watched me the whole time. Probably the whole place did.”

“I’m sorry, honey.” I thought back to her training stories. She had brought up real live grown men who were hanging out on the bottom of the pool, waiting to be “rescued.” So I knew she could bring the baby up, that she had the skills to do it.

“So what happens if you fail a VAT?” I asked. I invested nearly $400 for her to become a lifeguard, from the training course to the red lifeguard suits and shorts and guard t-shirts and then the expensive Chaco sandals that would provide enough support for standing all day and wouldn’t fall off when she jumped in for a rescue. I hoped she wouldn’t be fired. More important, though, I didn’t want her to fail, to think she wasn’t competent enough. This was her first real job. It demanded a lot of responsibility for a 15-year-old, but I knew she could do it.

I thought back to my lifeguarding days. I remember taking a course that was several weeks long, but after passing that and getting hired by the city where I grew up, I had no further training. And I lifeguarded for three summers.

“Since I didn’t pass, I’ll get VATted a lot over the next two weeks. And if I continue to fail, I’ll get fired.”

“Oh, I think you’ll do okay the next time it happens. You’ll be ready.”

“Me, too.” Now she sounded confident. “I learned a lot today. I’m kind of glad it happened the way it did because I realize I wasn’t scanning the bottom. We were trained to scan the bottom, kind of like scanning your mirrors in driver’s ed. We’re supposed to do it on a schedule. And I wasn’t doing that. I didn’t think it was necessary since I knew where my three people were. But now I know. I have to do it all the time.”

I loved what I was hearing–not only that she realized the VAT was a good learning experience, but she already knew what to take away from it.

Several weeks later, I had my own experience with the VAT manikin. I was swimming laps at the outdoor pool. The big, busy outdoor pool. The lap lanes are in the center of the pool, a calm, quiet oasis between the crowded shallow part of the pool and the hectic deep end with the diving boards. No one who isn’t swimming laps is supposed to be in the lap lanes and no one’s supposed to cut across them to get from one end of the pool to the next.

I was in the far lane, the one next to the deep end. Whenever I front crawled in this lane, I could see how the bottom of the pool dropped off, right under the rope, sloping from about five feet deep beneath me to twelve under the diving boards. At the end of the lane was a lifeguard stand. When I’d stop swimming to take a breather, I’d nonchalantly check out the guard there, to see how engaged he or she was, to see if I could notice elements of the training that my daughter had told me about.

Sometimes the guards used the stand, sometimes they didn’t and instead stood on the edge, or paced back and forth, moving, watching, scanning.

As I approached the wall, doing breast stroke, on the day I think of as my VAT day, I could see the red of a lifeguard standing near the edge of the pool, a watery figure through my goggles as I lifted my head to breathe. Two quick reports of the whistle, the leaping figure, and the giant splash not five feet from me seemed to happen simultaneously, the wake pushing me sideways, even with the rope there to squelch it, and I knew instantaneously what all of this was about.

The lifeguard had jumped in to save someone!

I took one more stroke and was at the wall, turning my body back and toward the deep end. What was going on? I shoved my goggles up on my cap to get a clearer picture.

But I could see no commotion. No victim. All I saw was the guard, a girl, holding her sunglasses in one hand, the rescue tube in the other. She was treading water, looking at nothing in particular, not for a person in distress or at the bottom of the pool. And she was smiling.

Smiling?

Something was wrong with her. She wasn’t thinking straight. She wasn’t rescuing the victim. She had given up and she was just treading water and… smiling.

Some sort of instinct kicked in in me. My old lifeguarding instinct. My mommy instinct. My teacher instinct. My adult instinct. So much experience, so many instincts, all raring to go. I knew I could help. Plus, I had my goggles! I’d be able to see the entire bottom of the pool!

I pulled the goggles back down over my eyes. And then… then I hesitated.

Maybe I shouldn’t interfere. I didn’t work here. My training was decades old. I could, possibly, make the situation worse.

And then it hit me, why the guard wasn’t trying, and why she was smiling. Why she thought this whole thing was funny.

Her twenty seconds were up.

She had failed. She knew it. And there was nothing to do now but smile and handle it graciously while the crowd looked on.

When I figured it out, I smiled, too. Smiled that I was all raring to save someone.

It was almost a year later, just a few days ago actually, that I went to swim laps at the indoor pool. My daughter was working. Guarding. I watched her for a few minutes. Pacing the edge, scanning, guarding. Really guarding. She was no longer a rookie. She looked good. Impressive. Serious. Professional.

On my way out, in the lobby, I saw this sign explaining about the VAT (Vigilance Awareness Training) manikin. Oh, so that’s what VAT stands for, I thought. The sign was large and it explained why the VAT doll was used, but it was in a corner where, I think, most patrons probably don’t see it.

To me, people need to be told as they enter the pool, need to be made aware, somehow, that the baby doll manikin might be in use. To see someone toss a baby into the deep end or to watch as a guard either does or does not bring the tiny victim up, could result in a brief episode–as it did me–of manikin panickin’!

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“Summer is so boooriiing ...”

By Richie Ann Ashcraft
Thursday, July 10, 2014

I've heard a lot of complaining around my house lately about how "boooorrreed" the boys are.

So, I've spent a lot of my time trying to help them combat this boredom. I purposely hired an older teenager who knows how to drive. She takes them to the pool, the park, the Silo, Kidzplex, and the $1 movies at Regal Cinemas. I've ran to the craft store on my lunch hour to get them tie-dye, paint and canvas for art projects. The sitter has created scavenger hunts, water gun wars and the "I'm Bored" bin as seen on Pinterest. (Click that board. Fer reals. It's AWESOME!)

I even signed them up for a 5K.

The boys have a pool in the backyard. They have new bikes in the garage with a dirt field a few blocks away. They have plastic toys made in China. They have LEGOs. They have a piano and an electric guitar. They have Apple TV.

They're bored?

I'm done with that and I told them so the other day. I gave them the old school "Do you know what I did when I was a kid? I had to play UNO by myself." 

They rolled their eyes. But, seriously, I'm done. I'm tired of making the effort to keep them entertained all summer. It's an effort not appreciated because I never let them get bored.

It's my fault. Kids should get bored. And mine are going to. Sorry boys, but the dog days of summer are upon you.

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Bang! Five-years-old

By Richie Ann Ashcraft
Thursday, July 3, 2014

Marek turns 5-years-old tomorrow. It seems needless to say but where? Oh Where? did the time go?

Five is so momentous and yet so sad. He's officially a kid. Which also means that the baby/toddler years are well behind us. We're going to start saying things like "back when the kids were little..." Sniff.

But, for Marek, five is absolutely fabulous. He's getting included more and more in the things the big kids do and he wants that so much. With two big brothers, he's never been happy about being the youngest.

He was an awesome baby — but wow, even a more awesome little kid. I've never met a more balanced person than Marek. For every upside, there's a down, and visa-versa. He has the ability to roll with just about anything. He's tough and yet so very sweet. He's quick to laugh or pat the back of someone crying (even if it was him who made you cry.) He's genuinely nice but there's no way you could take advantage of that. And, he's definately not happy if we're not having fun.

I wanted to make this birthday really special for him and took extra care to make sure that all the focus remained on him alone. We threw him a big bash, the first destination birthday he's ever had, at Bannanas Fun Park. (On a side note: Bannanas is a great to place to have a birthday party. I'm still raving about what great customer service and fun we had for a really reasonable price.)

He requested a Star Wars birthday so I created the R2D2 cake just for him. The hardest part about the whole thing was rounding up kids his age for the party — not his brother's friends — but bonafide 5-year-olds he knows and likes. I cannot tell you how many times he told me how important this piece was to this party. I was very pleased and thankful for the kids who showed up to help celebrate.

It was pretty much Marek's dream come true party. After the pizza, the presents and the cake, he got to play (spray) his friends on the bumper boats on a hot summer day. They screeched, laughed and got soaking wet. We moved to laser tag then video games.

The happiness on Marek's face from this party was priceless. So were the tears when he realized it was all over and his friends had to go home.

Luckily for him, there will be more cake tomorrow! Hope everyone has a great Fourth of July !

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R2D2 Cake

By Richie Ann Ashcraft
Monday, June 30, 2014

Marek's 5th birthday is Friday. Since the fourth lands on the first day of a three-day weekend we had to celebrate a week early so that kids could come to his party. He wanted a Star Wars party with kids who would bring presents with wrapping paper on them. I'll blog more about that later.

Today's post is about my latest homemade birthday cake, the R2D2.

I'll say it again, thank God for Google and now for Pinterest. The Internet has made me such a better mom than I ever expected to be. It made me, one of very little artistic capabilities, capable of making at least half decent homemade birthday cakes. If I can make cakes, so can you.

I had very little confidence in the R2D2 cake though because the cake itself seemed pretty iffy. I got distracted by fancy Blue Velvet cake box made by some kind of cooking show guy. I know better. Always stick with the pros like Duncan Hines or Betty Crocker. But, blue velvet sounded like the perfect color of cake for R2D2.

I used one cake mix and divided it between a standard round pan and a standard 9 X 13 rectangle pan. In retrospect, I should have used two boxes. Using one created a very thin cake that was hard to get out of the pan and even harder to move without breaking. It also stuck to the pan. I did my best to piece together my thin cakes but they looked awful. They were cracked and patched together. I decided to freeze the cakes and see what happened.

When I pulled the blue frozen thin little cakes out of the freezer, I stated my lack of cake cofindence to Marty who tried not to laugh at my baking incompetence. I figured if it all fell apart then I'd just buy an ice cream cake and call it good. Who cares if mom bakes a cake anyway?

To my surprise, the cakes cut and held together pretty well. I arranged them like this picture I found on the Internet:

 

I pretty much just eyeballed it. Then, because I'm lazy, I used some store-bought cream-cheese to cover the top. It hid all my cake imperfections perfectly. I iced it into a general R2D2 look, red, white and blue of course.

Marek came into the kitchen just as it was coming together. He was SO excited that he ran downstairs and screamed "SHE DID IT!!! I HAVE AN R2D2 CAKE AND IT LOOKS LIKE HIM. COME SEE — COME SEE!!!!"

And, my whole family came up to check out the lastest 'Cake Wreck' creation. I was pretty pleased with myself. It looked good, tasted good, and most importantly it helped make Marek's birthday a little more special.

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Throwback Thursday: Circa ‘82

By Richie Ann Ashcraft
Thursday, June 26, 2014

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Presidential Birthdays: Kennedy and Bush Sr.

By Richie Ann Ashcraft
Tuesday, June 24, 2014

We celebrated the belated birthdays of Kennedy and Bush Sr. last night. Their birthdays are May 29 and June 12th.

There's a reason the birthday are so belated.

The reason being that I dropped the subject for awhile after I realized that we had missed a couple. I wanted to see if Soren would notice because if you remember, this is his project, not mine.

It finally came up over dinner, "Hey, why haven't we done any presidential birthdays lately?"

Soren says "Yeah, mom, why?"

Then, I went into my mom lecture about why. I don't mind helping out by making fish chowder (Kennedy's favorite) but I'm not in charge of this project.

I guess Soren decided that was fair enough because he took it upon himself to get back on track by updating the July calendar and looking up things about H.W. and Kennedy.

He thought Bush Sr. was cool but he was VERY interested in Kennedy. And, of course, who wouldn't be. The guy was a superstar.

Did you know he won a Pulitzer prize in literature? I found that tidbit fascinating at our dinner table last night.

"Who's Marilyn Monroe?"

That brought some smiles to Marty and I who did our best to casually explain that yes, sometimes men have wives and girlfriends.

Soren liked both of the president's military service records.

I think Kennedy's colorful life renewed Soren's interest in finding out about the presidents. At least for now, he seems back on track.

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Because tables are overrated

By Richie Ann Ashcraft
Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Music has been on the priority list since the boys were babies. They had baby drums and tamborines. Jonas had a toy violin. And, then the toy electric guitar. But, baby toys just aren't cutting it.

Although I knew we'd have to buy real instruments sooner or later, I checked out some price tags and decided that later was probably the better option.

Somehow though, if you haven't noticed, things have a way of finding us when we need them.

We love to shop at Heirlooms For Hospice. I still have some furniture I want to buy for the house and on this particular occasion I was hoping to find a formal dining room table.

We stopped into the store and found two pianos for sale. They weren't in perfect shape but they sounded good. Soren sat down and played "Silent Night." It's the only song he knows but he desperately wants to know more. He's not interested in any other instruments, just the piano. I looked at Marty, he looked at me, we raised our eyebrows and I searched for a price tag. These pianos were priced at less than $250. A week later I went into the store to make a purchase and they had marked the pianos down another $100. Apparently, people don't buy pianos anymore. Score for us because we are now the proud owners of an old spinete that is going to be perfect for the boys to begin lessons on in the fall. I put it right where a formal dining room table would have gone in our house. No table, just piano. I'm okay with that. Tables are overrated.

BTW, if anyone has a reference for a good piano teacher please let me know.

A week later, we cruised by a garage sale in our neighborhood. We weren't going to stop, unless they had some other piece of furniture that appealed to me. No furniture but I heard a gasp from the back seat. Jonas whispered: "Mom, do you see that."

It was a green electric guitar with amp.

We had to pull over but as we were getting out of the car I started telling Jonas that if it was too expensive yadda yadda we weren't buying it because we just bought a piano ....

Our neighbor wanted $30. How could I say no? So, Jonas lovingly carried it into the house and set up in what is now our music corner, not dining room.

Soren and Jonas started a band called "Surfin' in Lightening." Because neither knows how to play, they just jam and scream out crazy lyrics.

Sorry neighbors, but Jonas has been waiting to get the Led out for a long, long time. It's how we're gonna roll.

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Dining on the road

By Robin Dearing
Tuesday, June 17, 2014

In a few days, Bill, Margaret and I will be driving cross country to visit family in Buffalo. We will be there for a couple of weeks and I want to take this opportunity to apologize to everyone ahead of time. Just so everyone knows, feeding us has become ... er ... quite difficult. Let me explain:

Of the three of us, Bill is the easiest. He's diabetic which means that he needs to eat a healthy, balanced diet, low on carbs. He will eat most anything, so he's easy.

As for Margaret, she's a vegetarian. Pretty self explanatory, but still, she eats no meat. That means no hot dogs, hamburgers, wings or pepperoni pizza ... and don't even suggest she can pick the meat off. Luckily for us, Mar likes a lot of things including salads and pasta dishes which are easy enough to get without meat.

Then there's me. Really the list of things I can eat is much shorter than the things I can't. Being on steriods for the last year has completely ruined my stomach and associated internal organs. Before I could and would eat almost anything, now I have to be so careful about everything.

First, I can't drink anything that is carbonated. I've tested this a couple of times and the result is always the same. Carbonation acts like acid in my gut. No soda which is OK, but I can't have beer either. That's really hard. I like beer ... a lot. Now I just sniff Bill's and call it good. 

I can't eat most processed foods. No bread, no pasta, no crackers, no cake, no pie crust, no nothing yummy. I can have some corn products like corn tortillas. I'm also pretty good with rice and rice noodles. To make is worse, I can't do heavy doses of dairy. No milk or ice cream. I can eat cheese in moderaton.

Mostly what I eat is vegetables, fruits, nuts and legumes. OK, I have been known to drown my sorrows in M&Ms, too.

While at home, we've found many recipes that all of us enjoy. When we eat out, we have figured out the local restaurants that have options for all of us.

Dealing with all of our food issues while we are traveling is going to be quite a challenge. Honestly, what I fear most is being difficult house guests. 

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