{April 5, 2013}   Underwater Wonderland

During a two-day stay in Chicago before Easter, we devoted one day to exploring the Shedd Aquarium, a place I’ve been wanting to visit for years. Its web site says Shedd is “the world’s largest indoor aquarium featuring 19,000 aquatic animals from around the world.” I believe it. We spent more than five hours there and didn’t see everything it had to offer.

Rather than detail our entire visit, I’ll let the photos do the talking. But I do have a few suggestions should you decide to visit.

Arrive early. We visited when Chicago public schools were on spring break, so it was especially busy. We arrived about 10 a.m., an hour after it opened, and there was a two-hour wait to buy admission tickets. We already had tickets, but had to stand in the will-call line for more than 45 minutes. Doug took the boys to the gift shop while I waited in line. The woman behind me had a well-behaved toddler in tow who was becoming frustrated with the wait. They had already missed the 10 a.m. aquatic show they’d reserved online because the will-call line was so long. It wasn’t much, but I let her go ahead of me to save her, her son and husband a few minutes.

Buy aquatic show tickets ahead of time or immediately upon arrival. The show was included with our tickets, but show times were sold out by 10:50 a.m. when we reached the front of the will-call line. We were out of luck. As I walked away from the ticket desk, the woman I’d let go ahead of me pulled me aside. “You didn’t get aquatic show tickets?” she asked. When I said no, she said, “They replaced our tickets with ones for the 2:30 p.m. show. Please take them.” I said it was so nice of her to offer, but I couldn’t. “That’s our son’s nap time, so we won’t be able to go anyway,” she explained and handed me the tickets. Wow. It was such a sweet and unexpected gesture.

Dress your kids in something distinctive. I read that tip online a few years ago and it does help. I had our boys wear tie-dyed T-shirts, which makes it easier to spot them in a crowd.

There are dive presentations, animal encounters and chats scheduled throughout the day. They really add to the experience, so try to catch a few of them. The dive presentation included a story about Nickel, a rehabbed sea turtle, and offered the opportunity for audience members to ask questions. The chat about beluga whales and sea lions was interesting, too.

Know ahead of time that you can’t take photos anywhere in the aquarium using a flash. I’m sure my camera has a special setting for situations like that, but I didn’t take the time to figure it out. I took nearly 300 photos and with the flashed turned off, many were dark or blurry. The next time we go, I’ll be prepared.


{March 20, 2013}   Thrills and Chills

As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t like being cold, so I tend to shy away from outdoor winter activities. But this year, I’ve made an effort to warm up to them. I went kite-flying in January and did the Polar Plunge in February. A few weekends ago, our family went snow tubing with families from Dylan’s Cub Scout Pack at Sunburst Ski Area in West Bend, Wis. It was a blast!

The day was sunny but cold with temps in the low 20s when we arrived. After purchasing our tickets, we grabbed inner tubes from the supply at the base of the hill and joined the line for a ride on the “Magic Carpet,” a 540-foot conveyor belt that carries passengers and their tubes to the top of the hill.

We got in line with Dylan’s friend Liam and his family. While we waited, we watched skiers and snowboarders perform some impressive maneuvers on a nearby hill. The line moved quickly, so we were on the lift in a few minutes. The conveyor ride takes just a minute or two. Folks who don’t want to wait in line can simply walk up the hill alongside the conveyor, pulling their tubes behind them.

The main tubing area has 12 tubing chutes, each 900 feet long with a 10-story drop.  Dylan and Liam chose chutes next to each other so they could race each other down the hill. Not to be outdone, Liam’s mom, Marci, and I did the same. My tube spun as it picked up speed, so I had no control of the direction I was facing, sliding backward part of the time. Our race ended in a dead heat, but what an exhilarating ride! We couldn’t wait to do it again.

According to Sunburst’s website, snow tubers can reach speeds of more than 40 mph. I have no idea how fast we went, but with the frigid wind whipping in our faces, it felt mighty quick and mighty cold.

After a few times down the main runs, we moved to an area that has chutes that allow tubes or mini luges. Instead of a conveyor belt to move people up the hill, it has a tow rope with tubes fastened to it. To use it, a passenger must sit in a moving tube while holding on to the rope of a free tube. It takes some coordination to get in and out of the tube, but I managed to do it without incident, though not gracefully.

Unfortunately, Dylan was not so lucky and had trouble at the top of the hill. His boot got stuck in the tube when he tried to get out, and he lost a glove. The tow rope had to be stopped for a few minutes while his items were retrieved and returned to him. (A mishap like that is one reason I’m reluctant to down-hill ski; it’s unlikely I’ll be able to get on and off the ski lift without embarrassing myself.)

The incident didn’t deter him in the least. He and his friends first used tubes to slide down the chutes, then tried the mini luges. Those little contraptions looked much harder to control, and riders rarely seemed to complete a run without falling. Jamie, in particular, had a spectacular crash halfway down. But he popped right up and got in line to go again.

Despite being bundled up, Jamie had enough of the cold weather a short time later. Since my fingers and toes had been frozen for awhile, I was happy to head to the Tubing Cafe with him to warm up with some hot chocolate while Doug and Dylan continued tubing. They joined us half an hour later, tired and red-cheeked from the frosty fun.

The boys say they’d love to go back. I would, too. But maybe not until next winter.

Want to know more about my 47 and fearless project? Check out my first post.

{August 15, 2012}   Hands-On History Lesson

It’s not that I haven’t been trying new things for my 47 and fearless project recently. It’s that I’ve been lax in blogging about them. So I’m going to remedy that by writing about several of them this week. (You’ve been warned.)

A few weeks ago, my husband and I spent an afternoon with our boys at Old World Wisconsin in Eagle, Wisconsin. Although it opened in 1976 and my mom even worked there as a costumed interpreter for a time, I’d never been to this amazing outdoor museum.

According to its web site: “Old World Wisconsin’s historic farm and village buildings comprise the world’s largest museum dedicated to the history of rural life. … The museum’s more than 60 historic structures range from ethnic farmsteads with furnished houses and rural outbuildings to a crossroads village with its traditional small-town institutions.”

We arrived on a gorgeous summer day and were lucky to catch the first few innings of a vintage baseball game between the Eagle Diamonds, based on the 1860s Waukesha Diamonds team, and the Lemont Quarrymen from Illinois.

Vintage baseball recreates “the styles, speech, rules and terminology of the 1860s game. It’s not only a competitive game, but also a re-enactment of baseball life, similar to an American Civil War re-enactment.”

Players don’t wear gloves to catch the balls, and after the ball is hit, it can bounce once and be caught to be considered an out.

The home team had a rough first inning, but turned it around in the second inning with more than a dozen runs. Though we didn’t stay until the end, the Diamonds were victorious, winning 31-7.

From there, we explored many of the farms and homes on the nearly 600-acre site. The boys had a great time learning children’s games–including a hoop tossing game called “graces”—at the Crossroads Village and trying their hand at splitting wood and making wooden shingles at the Koepsell Farm in the German area.

We also watched a blacksmith demonstrate his craft, learned how sheep’s wool is spun into yarn, explored a one-room school house, took a peek at different farm animals, used a hand-grinder to grind grain, and toured homes, farms and thriving gardens.

It was a great hands-on way to learn history, and Dylan declared the whole day “awesome!” I can’t argue with that!

{June 30, 2012}   I Dig Doogie

It’s not like I’ve never met a celebrity before. My boys and I won tickets to see “Sesame Street Live” a few years ago, and we had the chance to meet and have our picture taken with our pal Grover. Who’s a bigger star than a 6-1/2-foot furry, blue Muppet? So I shouldn’t have been as star-struck as I was on my first night in New York City.

After seeing (and loving) the Broadway show “One Man, Two Guvnors,” my friend Ellen’s daughter, Liz, took us to a “hidden” bar.  We walked up the steps of an unmarked brownstone on Restaurant Row, opened the door and parted velvet curtains to enter Bar Centrale. Reservations are a must for this secret “speakeasy” known for serving classic cocktails, such as side cars and old fashioneds. It caters to the before- and after-theater crowd and also is a hang-out for celebrities.

Ellen, Liz, her boyfriend, Michael, and I were seated at a table near the door. Liz immediately recognized Neil Patrick Harris at the bar. You may know him as three-time host of the Tony Awards or Barney on the CBS sitcom “How I Met Your Mother,” but he will always be “Doogie Howser, M.D.” to me.

From our seats, Ellen and I could not catch a glimpse of him, so Liz generously offered to switch places. New Yorkers see famous people all the time and remain cool and unimpressed. I could be like that. Or at least try. So I declined Liz’s offer.

A bit later, Michael returned from the restroom and reported that John Stamos (Jesse on “Full House”) was at a table in the back. Did I need to use the restroom?

Why, yes. Yes, I did. Where is it? “Go toward the bar, turn right and the bathroom is on the left.”

I headed to the bar, turned right and took the first door on the left, which led down a set of stairs. A door at the bottom must lead to the restroom. Nope. It was an entrance to a room that was occupied by a private party. Oops! Another door led outside. With nowhere else to go, I climbed back up the steps and returned to our table, embarrassed. (“Awkward!” as my 5-year-old would say.)

When I explained my gaffe, Michael sweetly insisted on walking me to the restroom. Another gentleman was waiting in line near the small W.C. sign, so Michael and I chatted while I tried not to look obvious as I scoped out John Stamos two tables away. (FTR: Yes, he’s very easy on the eyes.) Later, Michael said Renee Zellweger was among the people in his group. Huh? There were other people at his table?

On my way back to our table, I channeled my inner New Yorker and completely avoided looking in Neil Patrick Harris’ direction. Our group sipped our drinks, enjoyed our appetizers and shared good conversation.

On his way out, Neil Patrick Harris had to pass our table to get to the door. As he walked past, I told my inner New Yorker to take a hike, I looked up, and I flashed him my huge Midwestern smile. He smiled back and said, “Hi.” Always quick with a witty response, I replied, “Hi.”

When “Doogie” was safely outside, I coolly turned to my friends and reverted to my middle school self. “Oh my gosh! Did you see that? Neil Patrick Harris said ‘hi’ to me! I said ‘hi’ back!”

Afterward, I wondered why Neil had even greeted me. (We had a moment; I think I can call him by his first name now.)  In a bar where famous people are accustomed to being treated like an everyday Joe, was he disarmed by my brazen recognition of his celebrity?

Did he think for a moment I was the wife/cousin/friend of a producer/star/stagehand for a TV/Broadway/movie production? (Much like this exchange in Spaceballs: Dark Helmet: “I am your father’s brother’s nephew’s cousin’s former roommate.” Lone Starr: “What’s that make us?” Dark Helmet: “Absolutely nothing!”)

Or did he fear I was an overly enthusiastic fan like this woman and hope to placate me with a mere greeting?

Probably none of those. Most likely he’s simply a down-to-earth, sociable guy who knows how to return a smile. As a friendly Midwesterner, I can dig that.

That was my brief brush with a star. What about you? I’d love to hear about your celebrity connections.

To read more about my first trip to New York City, click here. And you can learn about my 47 and fearless project here.

{June 26, 2012}   Love at First Sight

Looking out the airplane window as the New York City skyline appeared through the clouds, I was smitten. Seeing the famous skyscrapers, the bridges, the rivers, the sheer size of this city of 8 million was awe-inspiring. It reminded me of how I felt on my first trip to Paris when I was in college. I wanted to experience all the city had to offer—art, entertainment, food, architecture, culture, history and more.

Compared to Paris, which has a history that goes back more than 2,000 years, New York is a youngster, less than 400 years old. Yet it has an energy I find immensely appealing. I love the bustle, the crowds, even the traffic. There’s always something around the next corner to see or do. Even though I didn’t buy one of the ubiquitous T-shirts proclaiming my sentiments, my visit to the Big Apple earlier this month confirmed it:  I  ♥ NY.

I traveled there with my dear friend Ellen, and we managed to pack a whole lot of fun, food and frolic into four short days. Ellen had planned to celebrate her birthday with her daughter, Liz, who lives there. Being shy like I am, I hinted that I’d like to join her since I’d never been to New York before. And when that didn’t work, I flat-out asked her if I could tag along. Not only did Ellen graciously say “yes,” but Liz planned an awesome itinerary for us.

Our first day in town was a whirlwind. Ellen had purchased tickets for the NBC Studio Tour at Rockefeller Center for us ahead of time. It included a tour of the sets where “The Dr. Oz Show” and “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon” are taped. The set for “Saturday Night Live” was being reworked during its hiatus to be used for Summer Olympics coverage, so we could not walk through it. I had hoped to see my idol, Tina Fey, while there. No luck. But the page who was leading our tour group was happy to dish about Alec Baldwin, her co-star on “30 Rock.”

After the tour, Liz had made reservations for her mom’s birthday dinner at the classy Glasshouse Tavern. We had a wonderful table looking out on the street, and our entrees were delish! Ever thoughtful, Liz had requested a birthday candle in Ellen’s warm chocolate cake. Even though we were full, we managed to polish off our desserts before heading to “a really big show.”

Liz is the stage manager for the Broadway show “One Man, Two Guvnors” at the Music Box Theater and had arranged great seats for us. The British comedy was nominated for 7 Tony Awards. James Corden, a master at improv, interacts with the audience and makes each performance feel fresh (though he’s been performing it since April.)  He kept us in stitches with his quick retorts and witty asides.  Less than a week after our visit, Corden won the Tony for best actor in a leading role in a play. And Liz mentioned that at a recent show, Corden got Donald Trump on stage to help move a heavy trunk. When Trump couldn’t budge it (because Corden was standing on it,) Corden said, “That was so rubbish, Donald. You’re fired!”  The crowd went wild.

While Corden gets the lion’s share of attention, there are outstanding performances by his equally funny fellow actors (too many talented men and women to mention), great music by The Craze, and a brief but hilarious appearance by Liz, who also is an understudy. (Did I mention Liz is über-talented like her mom? A singer and actress, she performed nationally with the “Hair Broadway Tour.” Prior to that, she made her New York debut with her award-winning performance of Prossy in “A Minister’s Wife” at Lincoln Center.  She originated this role for the show’s premiere at Writer’s Theatre in Chicago and took home the Jeff Award for Best Supporting Actress. She’s amazing!)

We had heard that Jane Fonda was expected at the show the same night we were there. She was ill and didn’t attend. But Ellen and I were determined to spot someone famous. When we didn’t, we played the celebrity game—something we often play when we go out. The rules are simple: find someone with a remote resemblance to a well-known person/movie character and whisper the name. (For example, any dark-haired male under 20 with round eyeglasses is Harry Potter.)

So the distinguished gentleman walking up the aisle was former U.S. Senator Bill Proxmire (yes, we know he is no longer with us.) The smiling grandmotherly type to our right was Angela Lansbury. (Well, at least she’s performing on Broadway, so it could’ve been her!) And the kinda scruffy guy two rows ahead of us with long hair secured in a ponytail was the singer Meatloaf, of course.

At intermission, we learned “Meatloaf” really was a celebrity, just not the one we had imagined. It was Mario Batali, Food Network chef, cookbook author and restaurant owner. Heck…meatloaf…Italian chef…we were close!

Liz had made reservations for us at a speak-easy called “Bar Centrale.” There, we spotted a few celebrities, and I had a personal moment with a star (wow!), which I will write about later.

At this point, Ellen and I had been on-the-go for more than 20 hours, so we ended our first night with a ride home in a cycle rickshaw (pedicab.) Our driver was a charmer and apparently flustered by our beauty (ha!), because he underestimated the rate before our ride and asked for more money when he dropped us off.  As the French say, “C’est la vie.”

As you can tell, it’s my nature to share every experience in painstaking detail, but I’ll try to give just the highlights of our remaining three days in town (no guarantees):

· Ellen and I put on more than a few miles exploring beautiful Central Park. I hadn’t realized how extensive it is (843 acres) or that it has so many attractions, including the Bethesda Fountain and Terrace, Belvedere Castle, the Great Lawn and Turtle Pond. It fondly reminded me of the public parks and gardens in Paris, such as Jardin du Luxembourg, Bois de Vincennes and Jardin des Tuileries. Magnifique!

· We spent a few hours at the Museum of Modern Art.  We made a point of viewing famous works by Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollack, Henri Matisse, Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet and others. But it was MoMA’s special exhibit by photographer Cindy Sherman that still haunts me. Her show is not for the faint of heart. It has been described as interesting, disturbing, bizarre and thought-provoking. And I have to agree. The exhibit ended June 11, but the link on MoMA’s website was still working when this was posted. If you click here to learn more, be forewarned that some of the images are graphic.

· We enjoyed a delicious Italian feast at La Mela in Little Italy, with Liz and her charming boyfriend, Michael, who recommended the restaurant. While our food was being prepared, Ellen danced with our waiter to music by a strolling guitar player. The courses were served family-style, and the four of us dove right in. We indulged in fresh mozzarella with tomatoes and basil, a platter of antipasti (roasted asparagus, red peppers with olives, stuffed mushrooms and fried mozzarella) and three types of pasta—gnocchi, tortellini and rigatoni. We were so full, we decided to skip the main courses and go straight to dessert, which included cannoli, tiramisu, tartufo (ice cream balls) and zabaglione with strawberries and bananas. Pure heaven!

· After our fabulous Italian feast, we headed to the Empire State Building, currently the third tallest completed skyscraper in the United States and the 15th tallest in the world. At the top, we admired views of the city lights under a full moon. Amazing!

· When your son’s name is Dylan, you have no choice but to visit Dylan’s Candy Bar on the Upper East Side. Owned by Dylan Lauren, daughter of designer Ralph Lauren, the store carries more than 5,000 kinds of candy. I had special requests from Dylan and Jamie for Angry Birds candy and bacon and s’mores flavored chocolate bars.  Yum!

· After I left the store with more treats than two boys could ever eat, we headed to Quatorze Bis, a superb French bistro nearby. Michael, the restaurant’s manager, joined us for a relaxing dinner. One of the perks of dining with the manager is that his recommendations are spot-on. I ordered the brook trout sauteed with almonds because when Michael suggested it, he mentioned the fish was served with the head intact. I knew that would impress my boys. It definitely looked impressive and tasted even better. Enjoyed with a glass of French chardonnay, I could’ve been at a bistro on the Left Bank of Paris. Fabulous food, fabulous company….you can’t get much better than that!

· On the one rainy day during our visit, Liz had fortuitously scheduled the three of us for a “Sex & the City” bus tour. We saw many of the places Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte and Samantha frequented during the HBO series and movies. We sipped cosmos at Onieal’s bar in Soho—the bar that Aidan and Steve opened named Scout in the series—and did some window shopping on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village. (Hello, Jimmy Choo!)

· We walked through Chinatown, marveling at the fresh markets while seeking a dragon souvenir for Dylan. Like markets in Paris, some shop keepers don’t want tourists handling the merchandise. In one in particular, the owner yelled at every tourist who picked up a T-shirt to check the size. When a person in our party (who shall remain nameless) suggested the owner post a “do not touch” sign, she was kicked out. The owner suggested she open her own shop where she could do things however she wanted! Ahh, just part of New York’s charm!

· Knowing the Statue of Liberty is closed until the end of the year as it undergoes a year-long renovation, we took a round-trip on the Staten Island Ferry, so we could snap photos of Ellis Island and Lady Liberty.

· We strolled through nearby Battery Park, which features many memorials and sculptures. Among them are: “The Immigrants” sculpture, which celebrates the city’s diversity and the struggle of immigrants; the East Coast Memorial, whose massive eagle looks out on eight walls inscribed with the names of American servicemen who died in the Atlantic Ocean during World War II; and the New York Korean War Veterans Memorial, a striking granite monument with a cut-out of “the Universal Soldier” which honors military personnel who served in the Korean Conflict.

· Battery Park also is the temporary home of the 25-foot bronze sculpture “The Sphere.” It once stood in the plaza between the World Trade Towers. It survived the 9/11 attacks with only dents and holes and is considered “an icon of hope and the indestructible spirit of this country.” With an eternal flame burning in front of it, it is a memorial to all those who lost their lives in the World Trade Center attacks. Leaving the park, we walked to Ground Zero, where we could see progress on the construction of 1 World Trade Center. When its shimmering glass curtain walls and towering antennae are complete, the building will “soar a symbolic 1,776 feet skyward to become America’s tallest building.”

· We also admired jewelry at Tiffany’s (where special lights must be installed because the diamonds seem extra sparkly), strolled through Times Square,  gobbled up delicious slices of pizza, happened upon the presidential motorcade (President Obama was in town for a fund-raiser) and took photos of the fire station where the movie “Ghostbusters” was filmed.

Whew! I think that’s most of it!

If I missed any “must-see” items on your Big Apple list, let me know! I intend to visit again, and I’d love your suggestions for places to visit, sights to see and restaurants I must try!

Want to know more about my 47 and fearless project? Check out my first post.

{April 17, 2012}   Less talk, more action!

C’mon. Admit it. You thought I was being a little dramatic when I promised to do 47 new things before my next birthday. You might have given me some credit for the idea, and you might have even believed I was going to stick with it for a few months. Then, after my second “new thing” post, all you saw were a few inspirational quotes and some talk about what’s considered “new”. Did you think: “Julie—How about a little less talk and a lot more action?”

I thought the same thing! Our family had planned to visit the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago last weekend. None of us have been there, so it seemed like it would be fun for all. But our 4-year-old spiked a fever Thursday. His temp was up and down for a few days, so we decided to hold off on the Chicago trip. He’s doing better now—his doctor said it was likely a virus that typically lasts 5 days. So the Chicago visit was postponed, but not canceled.

I’m not making excuses.  I just want to assure you that I’m bailing on my commitment. (Not yet, anyway…LOL.) But who knew these new things would require such planning, equipment and babysitters among other things?

When I started this blog, I thought it would chronicle my 47 new experiences, whether good or bad. I didn’t want to give away what I planned to do before I did it. I didn’t want to hype something and then fail to follow through…or produce disappointing results. But I’ve since changed my mind.

I’d rather get input from people who have tried some of the things I’m considering and invite others to join me in an experience. What’s really cool, though, is that talented friends have offered to share their expertise, show me the ropes or lend me the equipment to try something new. Some of the items I have in mind are way down the line, but here are a few activities in store for me in the near future:

· Go rollerblading. My friend Jen lent me a pair of rollerblades and wrist guards while my friend Mary agreed to take me out rollerblading for the first time. I’m packing the first-aid kit as we speak.  A big shout-out to these lovely and generous ladies! If I end up in a cast, it’s OK, because that would be a new thing, too!

· Taste limburger cheese. I have to give big points to my husband when I told him about my idea to try 47 new things. Instead of saying, “Clean the house” or “Do a sit-up”, he suggested I try limburger cheese. He’s a big cheese lover, but has never tried this stinky…I mean…pungent cheese. I was surprised to learn that Monroe, Wisconsin, is the only place in the U.S. that makes this cheese. So tasting it is on our agenda, and I welcome others (yes, that means you, Mike Beno, even if you eat it everyday for breakfast) to join us!  We could meet at the Chalet Cheese Factory where it’s made, but nearby Baumgartner Cheese Store and Tavern is open weekends and offers a Limburger sandwich (with mustard and onion on rye bread) for $3.25 that can be washed down with local brews (not that one or more will be necessary, of course.) So please let me know if you’d like to join us or add this culinary experience to your bucket list. https://baumgartnercheese.com/menu

· Visit the National Mustard Museum. If you think Wisconsin’s only about dairy products, think again. It’s also home to the National Mustard Museum in Middleton, Wisconsin. The fact that this condiment capitol is not far from my friend Jenny’s house might be a deciding factor in its addition to the list. She and her family are caring for the most adorable English cream golden retriever puppies right now…and any excuse to see them, I mean, her, is reason enough to head that direction. (Did I mention that becoming a puppy mama is one of the new things I’d like to do?) Besides, if I get around to making homemade soft pretzels with my boys (also on the list), having the perfect mustard to serve them with would be icing on the cake!  http://mustardmuseum.com/

What do you think? Would you like to join me on one of these adventures? Or another? Maybe you have something on your bucket list but need a companion? Let me know! I’d love to join you. And I’d love the company…and the chance to split that big limburger sandwich with another person. I’ll buy the beer.

et cetera