Thursday, December 26, 2013

Blog Hop

I haven't posted in a couple weeks- my first show at Roosevelt was a huge success.  People loved Into the Woods, and many parents old me it was the best show they'd seen at the school.  Then we went right into the Christmas season, and the Holiday was nice.

I have now signed up to part of a "blog hop" - something new for me.  Author KC Sprayberry (www.kcsprayberry.com) is answering some questions on her blog (Out of Control Characters) this week.  I will then answer the same questions on my blog, and three new authors will then answer the questions on theirs, a bit like a chain.

Hope everyone had a great holiday- and stay tuned for the blog hop!

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

YA # 3 - Identity

I didn't get a chance to write last weekend, with how busy I've been prepping for Into the Woods, my school's upcoming musical.  Now it is Thanksgiving break, so have some time.  I am trying to keep these weekly, or close to that.

As a drama teacher, identity is an issue I deal with every day.  Perhaps more so in my classes than in others, students are constantly eager to try on new identities, and experiment with who they are.  I have always found it interesting that a student who is the shyest student in one class can be a class clown in another.  I think many students like to adopt different personalities and see how they work, or which attitudes gain the reaction they want.



For example, one of my students came to class one day with a new nose piercing, matching the nose ring of a friend of hers.  Did the kid want the nose ring, or was it just to fit in?  Another student I dealt with was excited and talkative at the beginning of class (when she was in control), but as soon as class began and I asked her some questions she looked like she was half asleep and refused to say a word.

The best example of identity search that I've seen came at one of my former schools.  One of my lowest performing students was a constant trial.  He loved attention, was a class clown, and was constantly being disciplined for behavior issues.  This young man loved to show off to his friends, and his group was very strongly opposed to school or rules.  I was shocked when he auditioned for the play.

During rehearsals, I didn't recognize the student.  He was shy, never spoke out of turn, and exceedingly polite.  As the play progressed, his grades started to improve.  It wasn't until a speech he gave at closing night, when I first learned his troubled story.  He had been expelled from an earlier school, had spent time in jail, and had been hanging with a rough crowd.  In drama, he said, for the first time, he got all the attention he could ask for, without any punishment.  I'm happy to report that he turned his life around, and graduated shortly after this took place.  In this scenario, it was almost as if trying on a new identity, both in the course of acting as someone else, and in trying a new situation with new peers, truly changed his life.

As I write, I think about my characters' identity.  It's interesting to note how much time authors devote to keeping a character's identity "consistent"- when our own personalities and identities can shift from situation to situation- especially in situations young adults encounter as they grow.  Perhaps no identity is truly static, but merely a reflection of its surroundings.    

Sunday, November 17, 2013

YA # 2 - Crises



In my second YA "Author" blog- I talk about crises, and how students' deal with them.  I do invite new readers to check some of my older blog entries, including my travel blog entries.


Today Rachel and I visited a holiday ice sculpture exhibit.  The manger scene is pictured above.  The entire exhibit was 8 degrees below Fahrenheit, and we were given parkas to borrow as part of our entry fee.  Ice needs help staying cool.  Many times, kids don't.  The more I work with children, the more I am amazed at their ability to stay calm in any crisis.

Students have a lot to deal with on a daily basis.  With school, family, after-school jobs, and other stresses constantly mounting, there is a real and valid question about what makes a "crisis".  In my last entry I noted how sometimes immature students seemed to have a "crisis" every week.  Yet, like all authors, when I start to picture my protagonist, I know that in order for the story to be interesting, she has to face some truly life-altering crises.  In my upcoming novel School of Deaths, Suzie is forced out of her home, physically assaulted, and suffers endless trials in a new environment where she is the only girl.  She encounters crises that many adults, including myself, would find totally overwhelming, but she often remains calm, at least on the surface.  This is what I've seen in my own students time and time again.

I've watched students as their parents got divorced.  I've seen students who lost a sibling to suicide.  For three years I taught in the homes of students too sick to attend school, many with terminal illnesses.  It was almost always the families who suffered the most, while the student approached their remaining time with a simple calm acknowledgement that this was their life.

This isn't to say that I haven't seen flare ups.  I have.  I've seen anger and frustration, and of course, I am just one teacher- and don't see everything that goes on in a students' life.  However, as I watch students today, in our media-soaked world, I wonder about how they process trauma and how they deal with it at all.

The most poignant and terrifying example of crisis I've seen and experienced occurred about two months ago.  As a teacher, in the back of my mind, far in the depths of that little unconscious area I don't want to acknowledge, are the realizations that events like Columbine, Sandy Hook, and dozens of other school shootings are both a reality and a daily possibility.

I was in a rehearsal for our musical.  I was in charge of a dozen students in my classroom, and an additional 50 students who were working in the auditorium and the outside area behind the theatre.  It was our first day using any space outside, since we wanted platforms to dry in the sun.  I was in my classroom with the cast.

A student burst into my room, one of my kids from the auditorium, and said "Mr. M, there's a gun threat outside."  I instantly put my dozen kid into lockdown mode, then with my heart pounding I ran to the auditorium.  They'd already closed the outside door, so we quickly locked down the remaining ten doors, and I sat huddled with the students on a ramp, not knowing what was going on for fifteen minutes.  Most frightening of all was the knowledge that a dozen other kids were huddled in the darkened and locked back of my classroom.  As we sat here huddled in silence, someone started banging on one of the auditorium doors.  Every bang made my heart skip a beat.  Finally the banging stopped.  After the fifteen minutes, a janitor came in and told us it was over.  It was without a doubt the most frightening experience of my life.

We found out after the event that a girl had called her boyfriend (not a student) to come and shoot some of the members of the football team.  Whether or not there was ever an actual gun is still unclear (the authorities deny it), though I have five unrelated students in sports clubs who say that they saw one.  The sports teams all evacuated, and we went into lockdown, but the suspects fled.  I still do not know who banged on the auditorium doors.

Half an hour after this event had ended, I had a scheduled "drama parents' night".  It was a meeting to gain more support for parents in Drama.  I was a mess.  I was shaking, could barely talk, and had just got off the phone with Rachel (my fiancee).  I had been so scared.  It was my students who really stood out.  During the event they remained completely calm.  After it was over, they were laughing and smiling, as if nothing at all had happened.  I asked one girl how she could be so calm, and she said "It's over now- what's the point of thinking about it?  I just want some pizza."

That remark seemed so out of place at the time, yet to a teenager who can shoot strangers every night in video games, or watch the news about yet another actual shooting, maybe "crisis" means something different than it does to an adult....  
  

Saturday, November 9, 2013

YA Age

Age- My first Author Blog

Several others at my publishing house have suggested that I start blogging about being a writer- particularly a writer who is also a high school teacher.  Since I have taken my new job as a full-time high school drama teacher, one thing I've been noticing a lot of is the difference between physical and emotional ages.

As a drama teacher, I undoubtedly see more "drama" (the bad kind) than many academic teachers.  I ask kids to constantly push their boundaries, and sometimes this results in me seeing sides to them I wouldn't necessarily choose to see.  While any dedicated teacher will acknowledge that there is a certain level of counseling, as well as a certain level of parenting, involved with teaching- something about being in a windowless building for over ten hours a day, five days a week, with several of my more dedicated students, brings their "ages" into a very sharp focus.

I saw a play Friday that featured a 13-year-old character unwittingly seeing a photo of lynching victims and not knowing what they were.  Even after looking them up on the internet, she had no clue what the pictures were in reference to.  To me, this was an unbelievable act.  Kids are smart.  Even my less-than stellar students, who struggle with some basic knowledge,are able to find information on the internet in minutes, and analyze and understand almost anything thrown at them.  What kids really lack, in many instances, is not knowledge, but emotional maturity.

I have one senior who is incredibly mature.  She is able to complete any task I give her, and then on her own come up with literally dozens more to do.  She is a natural leader and manages others well.  I was shocked to learn that she is only 16 years old.  On the other hand, I have 18-year-olds who have less maturity than the middle schoolers I use to teach.  Three of my senior girls, each 18 years old, had successive meltdowns, one meltdown a week, earlier this year.  These meltdowns were triggered by things such as claiming to have too much homework.  Without emotional maturity, little issues get blown into crises of phenomenal size, and there is no avoiding the snowball of a crisis once it's begun.  Girls tend to be more visibly mature or immature, whereas boys tend to act less mature than they are to attract girls' attention.  Ironically, the more attention sought in high school, the less mature the behavior

I am not a psychologist or even a counselor.  Yet as an author and observer, I feel it is important to think about the emotional age of a character.  My protagonist is 13.  She is smart, but as the novel progresses, her emotional maturity is constantly tested, and as a result she "ages" quickly.  I wrote my novel before teaching full-time, and as I have been working I've been thinking more about Suzie (my protagonist).  Are her actions believable?  Although physically 13, what is her "emotional age"?  These are questions I continue to ponder throughout the editing phase.  

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Winging It

Been a crazy few months.  All my dreams are being realized- but they're all a lot more work than I had planned.  I'm at the school 12 hours a day during the week, teaching completely new curricula (that I wrote) in an environment that isn't used to theatre as actual content.  Still, I love it.
My school's new drama site is:  http://itshotaspancakes007.wix.com/rooseveltdrama

At the same time, I'm starting to plan how to market my novel "School of Deaths," which will be released this Spring by MuseItUp Publishing.  I'm thrilled to have a publishing contract.  My author site is ChristopherMannino.com and my new Twitter is twitter.com/CTMannino

Trying to do both time consuming things, while also planning my wedding, and planning to move into a house and start a family soon has been richly rewarding, but thoroughly exhausting.  Not sure what "sleep" is- it's something I remember from long ago...  

And now, back to work...

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Dreams Come True

It has taken me a couple weeks to post, but I am thrilled to announce that two of the biggest dreams of my life will both come true next year.

This past school year has been hellish for me.  The position was not what I wanted to teach, but even beyond that, the school was fraught with hardships I've never seen in any school.  There is a reason two-thirds of the faculty quit by the end of the year- including the assistant principal who walked off the job with only two weeks left.  Suffice it to say my year was very difficult career-wise.

My dream job is to teach full-time drama.  Most schools in this region have one drama teacher per school.  They usually teach a class or two of drama, and something else (like English), then run a program after school with a play and musical each year.  That's all I was really hoping for, but I got more.  My boss at Imagination Stage, where I work in the summers and had worked after school, recommended me to a friend of his who was leaving to teach abroad.  She and I got in touch, I started visiting her school, and now I have received the official job offer.

I will not just be teaching drama after school- I will have a full slate.  In an eight period day, I will teach six periods of drama.  I have four Drama One classes, one class of Drama Two, and one class of Drama Three.  I get to write my own curricula for each of those, something I've already started.  During some of those classes I also have a separate "class" of Playwriting/Directing- which I plan to treat as an independent study similar to some of the work I did myself at Oxford.

I've picked our fall musical and have started designing already.  They do a student production mid-year, I helped pick the director for that already- and then Drama Three puts on a play in the Spring.  They also have a one-act festival (last year did twenty one acts), a group of short skits (many are student written) that they perform in the fall and spring, which they call "pancakes".  And they have an awesome Improv team which performs regularly- and I will be coaching.  I was at auditions for the Improv team, so know them pretty well.  I will run their Thespian Society as well, and may someday start a STEM (science technology engineering and math) Theatre class (in design).  The school is technically not an arts school at all, but is a STEM school which just happens to have a fantastic arts program.

So next year I am getting the job of my dreams.  I am super-excited.

At the same time, Rachel and I have been busy preparing for the other amazing dream- our wedding!  Last weekend we went to Bethany Beach, where the wedding will be held.  We had our tasting for the meal, and were surprised when he gave us full amounts of everything.  We also had our cake tasting the following day.  Both went wonderfully, and we've started shopping for wedding bands.

This past school year was tough, but next school year, two of the biggest dreams of my life are finally happening, proving...

Dreams really do come true.  :-)

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Wedding and Birthday

This post is a little overdue, but I have been extremely busy lately.

On April 27, Rachel and I went to our friends' wedding in western Maryland.  The wedding (pictured in video) was lovely, and it was wonderful weather for a wedding.  One of my favorite parts of the wedding, however, was actually the drive home afterwards.  During the two hour drive, Rachel and I seriously discussed our own upcoming wedding.  Here are some pics of the wedding:

video

The next day was my birthday.  Rachel surprised me, I had no idea what was going to happen.  She told me where to drive to, but didn't say what we would find.  We started by going to Spag-N-Vola, a chocolate factory right in Gaithersburg, which owns its own plantation in the Dominican, and gave us a tour of their facility and explained how they make chocolate.  It was tasty, informative, and a lot of fun.


We then met my parents for dinner- and for the first time in my entire life I saw my dad without a beard (due to a bet he'd made).  We had a lovely dinner at a Moroccan restaurant, with great live music.  Then Rachel told me to move my car next to my mom's.  In the back of mom's car, was a brand new Smart TV that Rachel had bought me.  She told me to move it to the car quickly because we were late for dessert.   was confused, but again followed her directions- this time to Bethesda, where we stopped at Food, Wine, and Company.  Five of our friends were waiting at a table- and we talked for two hours, over delicious wine and dessert.

Overall, it was the most memorable birthday I've had.







Friday, April 12, 2013

California Dreamin' - Part Three -Finale

(Day Six continued)



After Zuma Beach, and a lot of foot scraping, Heather, Rachel and I had lunch with Rachel Young- who readers of this blog might recognize as one of my housemates from Oxford.  The four of us had lunch, then we said goodbye to Heather.  Rachel drove us to Monrovia, California.  Of all the places we stayed on our trip, Monrovia was our favorite.  Rachel and I absolutely loved the small down, nestled at the base of mountains, just ten minutes from Pasadena.  It is the birthplace of our favorite grocery store (Trader Joe's), and a really nice place.  Rachel took us into town a bit, we went to a wine store, then returned home for dinner and a game of Settlers of Catan, which was fun.  I did feel a little outnumbered by Rachels, but I guess two Rachels are better than one.

Day Seven - Monrovia Canyon, Venice Beach, and Downtown Disney

On Friday morning, Rachel introduced Rachel and me to quinoa for breakfast- something we've now adopted at our home.  Then we drove a mile, to the entrance of Monrovia Canyon.


We spent about three hours hiking through the canyon, towards a waterfall and back, enjoying beautiful weather, wonderful scenery, and even interesting wildlife.  There were many lizards, and two snakes (I tried two take a picture of one of the snakes- it's labeled in the video- but I had no desire to photograph the rattler).  I loved seeing the mountains everywhere, as we walked through the canyon.  I was wearing pants, but felt immensely hot- it was our warmest weather for the trip.  After we left, I changed into shorts.


We then met Jacob- Rachel's husband- who had been away in Mexico the day before.  The four of us then drove past downtown LA, to Venice Beach.   Now in shorts, we all froze!  Venice was bitterly cold- the only truly unpleasant weather on our whole trip.



Venice Beach was a bit crazy as people say.  It was not Rachel or my favorite place.  We did like the residential section with canals, which is not far from the touristy area.  After the beach, Jacob drove us to Downtown Disney- which is a mall-like area right outside the entrance gate to Disneyland.  The shops are mostly Disney-themed, and it was fun to walk around.  Rachel and I bought our hosts dinner at the Jazz Cafe, then we all had dessert at the Rainforest Cafe.  I liked feeling like I was at Disneyland (we even saw the fireworks) without actually paying for the park.



Our Last Day - Huntington 

I need to pause my narration (which, incidentally, should be imagined being read in Morgan Freeman's voice) to mention the first picture in the video, which is a close-up on an In-and-Out bag.  In-and-Out is a fast food burger chain in California.  Normally such places wouldn't even get a second glance from me, especially considering how much delicious vegan food we had on our trip.  However, every single host we stayed with made a point of mentioning that I had to try an In-and-Out burger.  There's nothing there that Rachel can I eat, but on our last day, Rachel Young bought me an In-and-Out burger.  I ate it before we all had a picnic lunch outside of Huntington.  The burger was good, I admit.  I think the hype was rather amusing.



For our picnic, we opened the bottle of wine that Rachel and I had bought in Temecula- it was delicious.  We then went  inside the Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens.  The Huntington is a massive library and art collection.  They actually house two of Rachel's favorite paintings Blue Boy and Pinkie, though we didn't realize that until the end.  There's also a vellum Gutenberg Bible and lots of other neat stuff- but we didn't see any of that.  We went for the 120-acres of carefully sculpted botanical gardens.  In size it is technically smaller than the National Arboretum- yet the Arboretum is mostly undeveloped or un-walkable.  As an entirely walking area- where every inch is part of a garden of some type- the place was the most impressive and enormous botanical gardens I've ever seen- and it was stunning.  We especially loved the Chinese and Japanese gardens.  All of the flowers- especially the wisteria- seemed to be in bloom.  We spent hours walking around, ending in the enormous desert garden, which felt like walking on another world.  The Huntington was one of our favorite places- and a wonderful way to end a wonderful vacation.  We drove to Pasadena for dinner, then in the parking lot outside Long Beach airport, finished the wine as we said goodbye.



We left California for now, vowing to return, since we had such an amazing trip and loved it there.







Sunday, April 7, 2013

California Dreamin' - Part Two

Day Four: LA at Night

After a final lunch and goodbye with Amy, Rachel and I boarded the Amtrak Surfliner towards Los Angeles.  We reached Chatsworth- where we met Rachel's oldest friend (from 2nd grade)- Heather.  Heather drove us to her house, informing us that Chatsworth is "the porn capital of the world" and that they have a group of Mexican drug lords on the nearby streets.  It was a very different feel from Irvine, which was a bit sleepy and mostly students or retirees.  We talked at Heather's house, meeting some of her five housemates, before her fiancee Jeff came home.  Rachel and I then took Heather and Jeff to dinner at Los Toros, a nearby Mexican restaurant with good food.  



After the meal, Jeff drove us through Topanga canyon so we could look out over the valley at night.  We drove to the Pacific, and stopped at Santa Monica Pier- which has a small Coney Island-style amusement park.  The park and pier were lit up, but it was growing very cold.  We wandered the pier, looking at the lights and sights, while sipping hot chocolate.  Suddenly a voice calls out my name, and I spin around.  It was John- one of the teachers I worked with last year while I was student teaching.  That was a very strange coincidence- though he had moved to LA last year.  After the pier closed, Jeff continued his driving tour, taking us through Beverly Hills and Hollywood- which were cool at night.  Hollywood (and LA in general) was far more spread out than I'd ever imagined it.  In East-coast cities everything is compact.  Sunset Blvd has a section with billboards and lights that feels a lot like Times Square- but it covers about 15 solid blocks- while Times Square is only two.  In many respects Los Angeles felt like a single thing, and more like a series of small cities and  suburbs all strung together.  We felt this way even more by the end of the trip.  By the end of the driving tour, both Rachel and I had fallen asleep in the car, so Heather and Jeff just drove us back to their place.  

Day Five: Hollywood



Can't go to the LA area and not see Hollywood, right?  The above pic is a photo I took- I just added the framing to make it more "glamorous".  Rachel and I woke on Wednesday morning and Heather took us to the Orange Line- it's part of the LA Metro, but is a busway- a road that only the bus travels on.  We took the busway to the real subway, then went to Hollywood and Highland- right in the heart of the touristy area- though the actual films and TV are mostly made in Burbank and Studio City (we passed many of the studios later on our trip- though we did not actually visit any).  We walked the "Walk of Fame"- looking at the stars left for celebrities, and enjoying the sights.  We had lunch at a Vegan House, including vegan desserts we later found in the grocery store.  We then walked back, stopping for ice cream sodas at the Disney Soda Fountain Store.  We crossed the street to Grauman's Chinese Theatre, where all the Hollywood movies premiere, and where the Oscars are held.  Iron Man 3 was actually premiering there the following day- so we were glad to go when the area was open and we could see the foot and handprints.  We then went to the nearby open-air mall, where Rachel and Heather shopped for a long time.  They continued their shopping in another mall (Rachel often complains that she misses shopping with girls, so I indulged her on this trip)- and we ended at Follow Your Heart- which makes some of Rachel's favorite vegan products.  We ended the evening by watching Wreck-it Ralph, which we enjoyed a lot.  That was also when my camera filled up with no more space- luckily Heather burned the photos to CD for me, so I was able to keep shooting the next day.  



Day Six: Zuma Beach 





On Thursday, March 28th, Rachel and I had breakfast with Heather for the last time.  Then Heather drove us through Topanga Canyon (where we'd driven at night two days prior) during the day, stopping once to look at the views.  We then drove to the PCH (Pacific Coast Highway) which runs right along the coastline from San Diego all the way to Washington State.  We passed through Malibu, ogling the cliff-side mansions, then went to Zuma Beach.  Heather, who works from time to time as a photographer, used my camera to do an "engagement shoot" at the beach.  Rachel and I walked around, discovering that I have a very hard time opening my eyes in sunlight.  We plan to use some of the photos in an engagement book, which guests will sign at the wedding.  We also were looking for photos for a "save the date".  As we were shooting, we noticed something oozing from the sand, and being carried in from the water.  It was tar!  All three of us ended up with a lot of tar on our feet, which we could not get off.  One of the people at the beach said the best way to remove tar is actually mayonnaise.  After Zuma, we drove back through the mountains, and Heather stopped at a drive through for mayo and napkins.  We drove to the restaurant where we were meeting my friend Rachel Y.  I texted Rachel from the lot, letting her know that we were currently stuck in the parking lot covering our feet and hands in mayo, and then scrubbing with the napkins.  When we went into the restaurant, we laughed, saying we'd hug later, since the three of us smelled of tar and mayo.  Still, our time at the beach was well worth it, and our time with Heather was unforgettable.



With Rachel, we were about to start the third and final leg of our trip...
To be concluded....          

Thursday, April 4, 2013

California Dreamin' - Part One

Prologue:

Spring Break this year arrived the last week of March.  I've had a very difficult year at work, so the relief was greatly appreciated.  Rachel and I had long been planning a trip to California.  However, "planning" is not a good word to describe our trip.  We arranged our flights, and knew we'd stay with three friends.  I am entering each portion of the trip as three separate blogs.  Beyond those plans, we had nothing planned at all- no idea what to expect.  Neither of us had ever been to California.  Although I've left the States many times, inside the country, I've never been west of Buffalo!  The trip ended up being amazing- definitely one of Rachel and my best trips together, and overall a wonderful and truly unforgettable experience!

Day One: San Juan Capistrano


Rachel and I woke very early in the morning for a 5 am flight to Long Beach.  The plane flew over some stunning scenery- including the Grand Canyon- which I tried to photograph from the air.  We arrived in California later that morning and immediately felt welcome- it was warm, sunny, and the entire airport was outdoors- even the baggage claim.  We met Rachel's friend Amy, who drove us to her home in Irvine.  




After a great vegan lunch (our first of many vegan meals- something Rachel and I loved about Southern CA was it's friendliness to her diet) we went with Amy and her friends Nico and Nancy to San Juan Capistrano, a Spanish mission and historic site.  We went with the intention of seeing the mission itself, but accidentally went on Swallow's Day- the day when the entire town holds a fair and large celebration to mark the annual return of cliff swallows- small birds that migrate 6,000 miles to Argentina every winter, and return to the mission every spring.  We did a walking tour of the mission, which was beautiful.  After walking around, we went to the fair and town.  It was wacky to see so much celebration over some small birds (which we're not sure we ever saw- though we did see the nests) but still fun.  We went home and all learned a great card game called "Bang!"

Day Two: Temecula

Interestingly, the whole week we were in CA it was very cool every morning, but then got rapidly warmer.  By about 9 am, it was warm enough to ditch the coats and go in short sleeves, and by noon it was usually in the 70s.  I hadn't known that most of the flora in the area is not native- it was planted in a desert, which is irrigated from many sources as far away as the Colorado River.  Still, natural or not, the area is stunningly beautiful and very nice to be outside in.

We woke up on Sunday, walked around the park near Amy's house, then met her and her boyfriend Jacob for lunch.  They then drove us to the vineyards of Temecula valley, about 90 minutes inland, past some great mountain scenery.  We went to two wineries: Mount Palomar and Calloway.  Altogether, Rachel and I each tried 20 wines (we split 10 tastings).  We liked the scenery and estate better at Mt Palomar, but enjoyed the wine more at Calloway- and ended up buying a Zinfindel that we'd later drink on our last night in CA.



That evening, Amy took us to an Iranian grocery store with a hot bar for dinner.  We had sangak- a huge Iranian flatbread that fed six people- plus some great Indian and Thai food.  We then played Bang! the rest of the night.




Day Three: Laguna

Amy had class on Monday morning, so Rachel and I relaxed a bit.  Then she came home and drove us to Laguna Beach.  Laguna is an artists' colony, sort of like the colony Rachel and I had our first date at (Torpedo Factory), although much, much bigger, and located between the mountains and the beach.  We walked around the town a bit, buying art from an artist originally from the DC area.  We went to the beach and waded in the Pacific.  The water felt weird-  it was full of seaweed and kelp.  There was also tons of plant life on the beach- far more than I've ever seen at an Atlantic beach.  I think they comb the water closer to summer, but even in March there were people wading and surfing.



After a leisurely time at Laguna, Amy took Rachel shopping for a couple hours.  The malls are all outdoor, and the one we visited even had a Ferris wheel and carousel.  We ended our evening by taking Amy to a dinner of her choice (something we did with each host group), and she chose a vegan place with great food.  I am an omnivore, but tried a "vegan bacon cheeseburger" - I know how it sounds, but it was fantastic- tasted absolutely wonderful.  Of course, I'm still not giving up real bacon.  :-)

Tuesday morning was our final time with Amy.  After her class, we went to a sandwich place, then boarded a train north....
(to be continued)...  



Thursday, January 31, 2013

Winter Escape

Over Martin Luther King Day weekend, Rachel and I joined a number of other Unitarians at Massanutten ski resort in Virginia, for our annual Winter Retreat.  The trip was wonderful, with a lot of great people, a long and fun hike through the Shendadoah Mountains, and a trip to a fun winery that had live music.  Pictures are in the video below.  


Friday, January 4, 2013

The BEST Christmas Ever!

I have not written in the blog for a while, mostly because I have been very busy.  My new teaching job has been consuming nearly all of my time- to be honest, sometimes it feels like I am barely treading water.

Rachel and me in Williamsburg

I was grateful, then, for a long, and wonderful Christmas break!  This was, without a doubt, the best Christmas of my life.  Last year, since I was abroad, I wanted to surprise Rachel with something romantic and special.  I took all of the love letters, emails, and poems we'd written to each other, combined with photos of us, and had a book printed.  This year, I did something similar.

Rachel truly thought I was getting her nothing this year.  I had purchased one of her plane tickets for a trip to Los Angeles, where we plan to spend our Spring Break.  That, plus two months of double-rent (having just moved to MD), meant I wasn't going to get her anything this year.  That was of course a ruse...



Christmas Eve
On her last day at her old job (Rachel has an exciting new job which is a big step up), on December 19, Rachel received a surprise at work.  It was a book- like a scrapbook- from me.  I had written a poem, separated into stanzas.  The first stanza was in the book, followed by a clue where she'd find the next stanza.  Each stanza was accompanied by a small Christmas gift.  Rachel came home and found several of them, then had a clue leading her to my parent's house.  There, she found the next stanza in a gift.


Christmas Eve was wonderful- we spent it with my family, including my aunt who I hadn't seen in a while.  There was wonderful Italian food, incredible family, and most surprisingly- snow!  We had a White Christmas.  Rachel got me mostly clothes.  I also got a great TARDIS trash can- for the true nerd in me.  Pictures from my camera are in the video.  It was the first of my three Christmases this year...
Rachel with her book- opening the gift from me on Christmas Day

On Christmas Day, Rachel and I drove to Delaware to visit her family.  We had a lovely time at her sister's house, where we opened some gifts, while getting mauled by the overly-friendly and massive Levi (a 70 pound pit bull puppy).  Then we went to a larger celebration at Rachel's aunt's house.  Her whole family was there, many of whom I know well.  Rachel opened a gift from me which contained a metal rose I'd purchased with her cousin Jen  at the Renn Faire, and then tickets to a surprise trip to Williamsburg!  We'd been for her birthday, and had fun (see earlier entry in blog), but had to leave a day early when Rach got sick.  This was a surprise trip- to help make up for that.  More pics from Delaware are in the video.  My favorite memory of that night was after most of the people left, and Rachel's cousin Stacey (in the pic above) challenged me to a game of Lord of the Rings chess.  The added rule was that you could only move a piece if you acted out the character, using a quote from one of the films.  I won- but it was amazingly fun!



We left Delaware, and after a night at home (receiving her second-to last stanza and gift), we headed to Williamsburg.  Traffic was awful, but we arrived at the Bed and Breakfast at last (pictured far top).  The owner gave us the key, and invited us to drop our stuff in our room.  While there, we were the only ones staying at the Bed and Breakfast, which was lovely.  We went up to the room, and waiting there was a bottle of wine, fresh flowers, and a wrapped Christmas gift.  Rachel opened it, and found the final stanza of the poem.  She inserted the poem into the book, and I told her to read the poem from the beginning.  As she read, I got on one knee, pulled out the ring I'd had custom-made, and asked her to be my wife.  She said yes!  We went downstairs, told the owners, then went to Merchant's Square.  I'd never been to Williamsburg in Christmas, and it was nice.  We had a delicious dinner at Seasons, followed by chocolate fondue at Aromas.
Rachel at Seasons- calling her sister to tell her




Showing off the ring, while swallowing delicious chocolate fondue


























The next two days were a celebration of us.  On Friday we walked to the Colonial area and looked at all the neat Christmas decorations- loved the individualized wreaths.  We also visited a number of historic workers who we had missed in our last visit, such as the wig-maker, printer, and the cart-builder.  We had a lovely day, and the weather was cool but sunny, a perfect day for walking around with hot cider.  We stopped at Mad About Chocolate on our way back, for some fantastic hot drinks, then drove to Busch Gardens.  The park was opened and although only some rides were open, the full park was decorated for Christmas.  We walked around, going on a few rides, until we froze and needed some mulled wine while watching a show.  My favorite part was the skytram- looking over all the lights from high up.  Our final day in Williamsburg was filled with shopping and a couples' massage that Rachel bought for me, to pay me back for the surprise trip of a lifetime.  It felt like we had a third Christmas- one all to ourselves, and one we'll never forget.