I went, I saw, I cried!

I did go to the Sunnybank Gathering last weekend.

It was wonderful. And inspiring.

I’ll post a much longer entry, probably tomorrow, once I finish editing my pictures. What I will say right now is this:

I went to Sunnybank largely because it was someplace I’d wanted to go since I read Albert Payson Terhune’s books as a child. And while I was there, I found myself more relaxed than I’d been in a long time, happy, a bit sad (for a good reason) and above all, inspired.

The setting:

While the house is no longer there, having fallen into disrepair and then been torn down, there is enough left of ‘The Place’ to connect you to the books. You still drive down the narrow, winding driveway, where Wolf herded the harum-scarum puppies out of the path of early automobiles. There is now a parking lot where the house once stood, but if you can ignore that fact, exercise your imagination, you can look around and picture how it must have been to sit on the veranda of Sunnybank or walk its grounds.

The root cellar remains, you can see foundation stones from the barn peeking through the grass, and a replica of a puppy house has been installed where the original once stood. The pond has been filled in, but its foundations have been retained and now a stone frog leaps from a cluster of lovely grasses. The line of larch trees still marches down to the landing on the lake, and while I was there, no speedboats were cruising by — you could close your eyes, listen to the silence, and imagine yourself back at the turn of the Twentieth Century.

Or rather, you could listen to the barking of collies and think yourself back to Terhune’s time. So many collies (and shelties), in so many colors — sable and mahogany, tricolor, white, different permutations of merle, black and white — and all of them friendly and welcoming, even to total strangers like me. As if they were saying, welcome back to the place that made our breed famous! Along with collies, I saw borzoi, a chihuahua, a couple of other toy breeds, a staffordshire terrier (I think) and a corgi, who sported a bow for a tail.

I went to Sunnybank, uncertain what to expect. I got out of the car, said hello to the lovely ladies from Ohio getting out of the next car, and promptly was made to feel welcome. They gave great advice to this newbie on what to do first, outlined the whole day for me — and any hesitation I felt just melted away.

I did feel a bit sad (alright, I teared up!), when we went to the gravesites of the Sunnybank dogs. Yes, their graves have been preserved, at least those that could be identified a hundred years later. The kennel dogs are buried in one spot, along with two of the Township’s K-9 officers. The champions — known through many of the stories — are buried by Champion Rock, including one of my personal favorites, blind Fair Ellen. Bruce and Jean are buried elsewhere, and then, there is the patriarch, the dog who started it all, Sunnybank Lad. I’ll admit, when I saw that stone, “Lad, Thoroughbred in Body and Soul”, I wanted to cry.

But more than anything, I was inspired by my visit. Why? Because, this park, this preservation, was not undertaken by government. It was driven by people who love these books, love the dogs in them, love collies — and therefore entered into years of organizing, fund-raising, lobbying and politicking, all to save this little slice of American history. Not the usual ‘grand’ history of war or politics, but a personal, beloved history for so many people who grew up with these stories as part of their childhood. Ordinary people who took on a task of saving something personally important to them, and who continue to fight to save it, against the encroachment of time and ongoing vandalism.

A lesson to be remembered by us all. When it’s important to you, you can, and should, stand up and fight for it.

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Upgrading

I think I just turned myself into a monster — for technology.

I don’t have wifi in my apartment. I mean, my apartment is small, the cord to my internet connection is extra-long, and I tend to sit in my comfy chair in the living room next to the cable outlet anyway when I’m working on the laptop. Why would I need wifi?

So I can work on my book while sitting in bed. (Okay, I’ll be honest. So I can work on my book for a bit and then watch Netflix while sitting in bed.)

Over the weekend, I went shopping for the necessary hardware, and being me, I spent a day researching and asking the pros for advice, before using up another day checking out the best price. And that’s when the bug bit.

While making my purchase, I happened to look over at a display and realized that prices for external hard drives have really dropped. I picked up a 3T one — trust me, between movies, music, books, fanfics and story ideas, I’m going to fill it up quickly.

Walking to the checkout counter, I passed the printers. Now, my laser printer is still working well — but the scanner is older and let’s just say it doesn’t play well with Windows 7. No, I didn’t buy one right then and there; at the time, there was no way to carry it all home with me. But I’m currently doing the research thing — I want a color laser multifunction with a flatbed scanner and possible two-sided printing, and I’d prefer it for less than $400. Still looking.

And in the course of looking — well, let’s see, so far I’ve pegged a new Roku, a blu-ray player (legitimately need one as mine was fried courtesy of a lightening storm), and a new TV to replace the extremely-elderly one whose picture is clearly going — the detectives on Law and Order UK intermitently have green faces.

All of which will need to be interconnected with the turntable, speakers, DVD carousel player (for movie marathons), DVD recorder, and iPod dock.

Oh, and with my laptop as well. The laptop that, over the weekend, acquired upgraded RAM, a new 1T hard drive, a spare battery and is now awaiting installation of some new programs.

All I wanted was a wifi connection . . . and that’s what I’ve been up to for the last few days.

Leaves

The leaves are changing colors.

Not just on one tree, or on a group of trees in one location. They’re changing color everywhere.

I’ve been running a lot of errands this last couple of days, and everywhere I’ve gone, I’m seeing signs of autumn. In August.

The tall maples outside Villanova’s law school building are orange and red along their tops. In Devon, the crabapples have random patches of yellow-orange, and out in Valley Forge, one of the back paths had a small pile of red-brown leaves under a tree already.

Not to mention that, outside my own door, several of the oaks have small lines of yellow running along their crowns.

Not to mention, there’s two maples along the wildlife sanctuary that have actually dropped all the leaves from the top third of each tree.

This does not bode well for the winter.

Planning vacations

I am determined to take actual, real, away-from-work vacations this year.

Making those plans is proving to be harder than it should be.

I realized a couple of days ago, while peddling away on the bike at the gym, that I haven’t had a real vacation in several years. Oh, I am using my vacation days from work (I get fifteen days off each year). Every year, I take time off around the holidays, but since those days are occupied with cooking turkeys, Black Friday shopping, decorating, baking and then cooking some more, I shouldn’t count them as actual vacation days. And I do take other days off throughout the year, but on those days I’ll be dealing with car trouble, apartment repairs, or just running the errands I didn’t get to over the weekend.

But as far as using vacation days for a real vacation? That hasn’t happened in — I think maybe three years?

And that’s just plain wrong.

A vacation, a real vacation, involves going somewhere — preferably somewhere new — for at least one day, hopefully longer, without 1) hauling along work, 2) listening to people complain because they don’t want to be there, 3) picking up the dry cleaning and 4) oh, yes, doing work. A vacation involves doing something fun, interesting or unique.

I actually lost pace in my peddling as I tried to remember my last fun trip — which was to Amsterdam for Marillion Weekend in 2011. And even that trip was cut short because of work; I only had time to attend the Weekend, not go with my friends to Brussels and Bruges.

So I’m sitting here, with fifteen days to use up. Fifteen days that have to be scheduled carefully. I don’t want to spend a lot of money on trips, because I’m watching my budget for reasons that I’ll update on later. But I do want to go to some new places, try out some fun things. But where?

And that’s when I realized where I’m sitting. Smack dab in the middle of the Eastern seaboard, with major cities, museums, and attractions all within a half-day’s drive.

I started making some plans.

Growing up, I read and adored all the Sunnybank collie stories written by Albert Payson Terhune. As I traveled back from our New York office this week, I passed by Pompton Lakes, the location of the actual Sunnybank estate (what’s left of it). The annual Gathering at The Place (as Sunnybank is known) is next weekend, so I’m going to attend — even though it’s held on the weekend and I won’t use up any vacation time. The chance to visit the home of Lad, Dawn and Wolf cannot be passed up.

After that, I’m heading to the Maryland short in September. I love the ocean, and by going in the Fall I’ll get to enjoy it in relative peace and quiet. Plus, from there I can explore some of the little towns along the ocean and possibly places along the Eastern shore as well.

Despite having lived in Massachusetts for a number of years, I somehow never visited Salem and Danvers and that whole area of the coast (beyond driving through it on the way to Maine). I’ve just booked a trip up in October, to enjoy the changing leaves and visit the sites I didn’t get to see while living in the area.

And my final booking this evening was for the first weekend of November, to attend the Montpelier Races in Virginia. I was a horse-mad child; I am now a horse-mad adult. I’ve been to flat races, but have never seen a steeplechase/hunt race. And Montpelier is on my list of historic homes to visit – I’ve made several trips to Mount Vernon, seen Monticello twice, but never quite made it to Montpelier.

In between, I’m planning some days off to head to DC and see some of the newer museum exhibits, and hopefully this year I’ll also get to New York to see the Rockettes and enjoy some of the Christmas sights. I’ve also got to get to the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire, and I’d like to make it back to the New York Sheep and Wool Show again (my first trip was very rushed).

And so, to you, I solemnly swear — I will stick to these plans. After all, vacation days are meant to be used, in fun and relaxation, right?

A happy lifestyle change

I am not dieting. Rather, in the words of Nora Roberts, I am undergoing a lifestyle change.

As I declared at the start of the year, I want to get back in shape. That desire has several components to it: lose weight, regain flexibility and endurance, eat balanced meals, drink lots of water. The holy trinity of activity, hydration and good food. Easy to say. Not so easy to do, as I’ve discovered.

I could plead the heavy workload on my job, a lack of time to regularly cook, the faint metallic taste of my local water supply. But excuses don’t solve anything — they just perpetuate the problem. So I make no excuses, and have instead embarked upon a lifestyle change.

“Her love of the quick and the greasy had sent her on an odyssey of fad diets, unsatisfying supplements, and miracle workout tapes through her late teens and early twenties. Until she’d finally slapped herself silly, tossed out all her diet books, her diet articles, her I LOST TWENTY POUNDS IN TWO WEEKS — AND YOU CAN, TOO! ads, and put herself on the path to sensible eating and exercising.”Blood Brothers, by Nora Roberts

That’s me, in one short and concise paragraph, both past version and determined present tense.

Growing up, my food choices, as established by my family, were not always the greatest. My mom cooked meals for us almsot every day, but looking back, they were in part a product of our heritage.

Ethnically, I’m a hodgepodge, as we discovered when my family traced our ancestry back to practically the Stone Age. On my Dad’s side, I’m a combination of Slovak, a bit of German, Russian and Lithuanian (maybe). I’m largely Polish on my mother’s side — but she came from a very old family, which has ancestors who are Ukranian, and more Russian, Cossack, Transylvanian and just about every Baltic ethinic group you can name.

In essence, my family inherited a cuisine that’s heavy on the well, heaviness. Lots of butter and cream, bread and potatoes, doughs and sweets, not to mention supersized portions long before Mickey D’s thought of the term. Dinners regularly featured a large serving of meat (beef, pork, occasionally chicken or fish), usually pan-friend or topped with some kind of sauce. A mountain of mashed or fried potatoes on the side, and a dessert, usually sweet cookies or a slice of cake or a Tastycake pie, to finish it off. We enjoyed pierogies, beef stroganoff, and mac-and-cheese, casseroles and breaded cutlets and large, juicy burgers topped with a load of cheese.

Oh, we ate vegetables too — after all, we had a garden. Peas, green and wax beans, carrots, lettuce, tomatoes, bell peppers and cucumbers. Depending on the year, we might be trying to grow brussel sprouts or beets (successfully), broccoli (not so successfully) or corn (which fed the deer). But the vegies were additions to the meal, not equal partners.

Not to mention that my family motto could be “No food left behind.” Second helpings (and thirds) were definitely encouraged. And for those occasions when my mom or gran didn’t have time to cook, there was always a trip to the Golden Arches for a Big Mac and fries and a nice chocolate shake.

Let me put it in perspective for you. Our traditional Easter breakfast consists of cold ham, bread and butter, eggs, hrutka (egg cheese), poppyseed and nut breads, and kielbasa. Oh, and a side of redbeets and horseradish. If that isn’t a heart-attack lying in wait, I don’t know what is.

Now, those menus were balanced by activity — long bike rides or walks to get anywhere, after-school band and sports practices, just plain playtime. Still, my taste buds and eating habits were formed early, and their training was to eat a lot of fatty foods.

Which brings me to the lifestyle change.

Over time, I gradually re=trained myself to cook healthier, and to eat a lot more vegies, more fowl and fish than red meat. But I’ve fallen back into old eating habits, and coupled with the lack of exercise (and an ankle injury a few years ago that sidelined me for a year), I’m no longer in fighting trim. At the start of the year, I tried ‘dieting’ – no-carbs, and then when that didn’t work, blood-sugar balancing. But there’s a problem with diets — it’s very easy to slip off the regimented eating schedules (a meeting that runs long, an unexpected business trip). And once you’ve slipped, you can easily make excuses to slip again. Because a diet is a temporary thing, something you go on, and go off when you finish losing the weight.

But a lifestyle change is just that – a permanent change. You are, in essence, re-educating your palate and re-training your brain about what foods you want to eat, and when. At the same time, you get your body used to steady doses of activity.

And that’s what I’ve been doing the last few weeks. I’ve stocked my kitchen with fish, fowl, lean cuts of meat. As I’ve mentioned before, there’s a wide variety of farmers’ markets in the area, and I’ve gradually been working my way through them, learning which stalls offer the best and freshest and most unique vegies (Chinese long-beans anyone?). I’ve gathered together a plethora of recipes I’ve always wanted to try, dishes that are light on the sauces and place more of an emphasis on herb dressings.

I’ll still eat potatoes, rices, breads, but in sensible and occasional amounts. Oddly enough, desserts won’t be that big of an issue for me. I actually don’t like most cakes — the icing is a different story, but since you can’t get icing without cake, I’m safe. I do like cheesecake, but not enough to buy an entire cake and let it go to waste.

And soda’s also not an issue – I discovered years ago that I like the bubbles, not necessarily the taste. And so my fridge has a nice selection of sparkling mineral waters. I just have to commit to actually drinking the water, at least eight glasses a day.

That just leaves the activity portion of the program, which I’ll update on tomorrow.

Ouch

Getting back in shape will be the death of me yet.

Why is it when you start an exercise program, you always feel worse than if you sat on the sofa and watched Shark Week? Why?

In between prepping for my Company’s annual meeting (which went quite well), and all the projects at work and at home, I restarted my program to get in shape. It was one of my goals for the year, but I’ll confess — I massively fell down on this one. As in, regular visits to the gym were not in my schedule.

But I’ve turned over a new leaf — more on that later — and that new leaf includes the gym. After 5 days of walking, biking, stairmastering (is that a word?) and assorted yoga and stretching routine — I ache.

Okay, I more than ache. I’m seriously contemplating never getting off this heating pad. Ever.

More tomorrow on the whole hopefully well-thought-out healthy lifestyle change.

Right now, I’ve got to convince my body it wants to roll off the bed and seek aspirin.

A new reality TV show

Let’s all applaud the newest reality TV show . . . Surviving the College Dorm Room Race!

At least that’s my idea for a new show, after spending the weekend dodging around parents and their almost-adult children shopping for back to college supplies. I honestly thought one family in Target was about to start a full-out brawl in the towel aisle.

Furnishing a dorm room seems to have evolved into a major production since my college years. Families with a set budget waste a portion of that budget racing from Target to Bed Bath and Beyond to Best Buy to the malls, all so their sons and daughters can have the latest, greatest, color-coordinated and stylish dorm room ever. They work their way down a long list of absolutely essential, can’t survive without them furnishings and techie-toys in a wide price range. And if they’re lucky, they survive the experience with part of their sanity still intact.

Saturday, I stopped into three different Targets, two Bed Bath and Beyonds, an organization store at the mall and Best Buy. I was looking for things to use in reorganizing and redecorating my apartment — not a major overhaul, simply some updating of towels, rugs, candles, etc.

As soon as I hit the housewares section of the first Target, the fun began. Race-walking down the bedding aisle, led by their daughter, came a couple, each with a half-full shopping cart. The girl had her tablet out, and was comparing — well, at first I thought she was comparing prices, but when I passed her I glanced over and saw she was actually looking at a picture of a pile of pillows and a throw (I think). Coordinating, I presumed, with her future roommate. Before I got out of the aisle, she’d dumped two sets of sheets into her Dad’s cart, on top of a duvet, at least four pillows and a mattress topper. I shook my head, remembering the narrow beds at Penn State that barely, just barely, allowed for one pillow and a narrow quilt.

That family and I met up again at checkout — they were ahead of me in line. The total for the bedding, lamps, plates, towels, rugs, wallart, oven and assorted knick-knacks? Seven hundred plus dollars!

As they walked out, the daughter told them they had to go to Best Buy next — for her TV and a new Roku.

At least that family wasn’t arguing, and seemed rather well-organized, compared to others I saw throughout the weekend. The next Target had the family arguing in the towel aisle — the daughter wanted Fieldcrest towels, the parents were getting her the Target brand and she was red-faced and whining over how they were going to embarass her in front of her new roommate. Her father was getting a bit red-faced himself while obviously biting his tongue. Her mother wasn’t holding back, telling her daughter if she wanted the other towels she could pay for them herself in a very shrill voice with extremely-colorful language. Clearly, they had overdosed on the back-to-school shopping safari.

The story was repeated everywhere I went that weekend. Parents and children, with and without lists, all armed with Smartphones and tablets, color-coordinating with roommates’ decor while hopping from store to store to compare product offerings and prices.

And every family was buying multiple cartloads of things to furnish the dorm room.

Really? That much stuff? I would love to see the size of these dorm rooms. My room at Penn State was something like 8 by 12 feet (if that), into which was already squeezed two large stationary desks, two closet units, two wall-mounted side cabinets and two narrow twin beds. There was barely room to walk down the aisle between the two halves of the room, much less fit all the things students today ‘need’ to survive their college experience.

I didn’t buy that much to take with me when I went to Penn State, largely because I knew I wasn’t going to start out in a dorm room. There were so many freshmen my first year at college that some of us ended up housed in study lounges. Since I was going to have to move in a few weeks, I bought the minimum amount of things I would immediately need. Quilt, pillow, clothes and school supplies, a few personal books.

A month later, I was assigned a room across the quad in Pennypacker Hall, and I was able to move everything in just one trip. At that point, my new roommate and I looked at each others’ stuff. My blue primary-colored quilt coordinated with her yellow primary-color quilt and the multi-colored rug she already had. We had a color scheme.

I headed out to the stores and bought more throw pillows to mix and match with hers. She had a coffee maker and a hot plate; I picked up a toaster and mini-crock pot. I added a set of plates and a couple of glasses for me, some plants in pretty pots and most importantly, more posters of sunny beaches (come January at Penn State you need reminding that there are warm places in the world). On the weekend, my parents gave us a sound system to go with her mini-TV, and we were set. My total bill for that dorm room was probably half what that first family spent just in Target, and I managed it in just two stores (one for the posters and one for everything else).

What really struck me, though, was the different treatment some of these students gave their furnishings and their school supplies. At the last Target, while I was looking over micrwaves (mine having died), there was a guy comparing different models of coffee makers. He was rather obsessively looking up product reviews on his smartphone when his mother came over and asked him what type of pens she should get. His answer? Anykind, ’cause he didn’t think he’d be taking that many notes.

My hope is that he meant he would be taking notes on his tablet, not writing them down, but I’m rather afraid that he, like other students I saw this weekend, was more concerned with his surroundings than his classes.

Meanwhile, I really think someone needs to turn this whole experience into a reality TV show. Assign each set of parents a budget, give them an excessively-long list of required items and then send them off with their excited offspring. Add in a time limit for shopping, create some sold-out product roadblocks and sit back and score the hilarity.