Monday, August 31, 2015

Planning for DC: How I Scheduled Our Vacation

This probably should have been one of the first posts, but that’s okay. If you’ve ever been to DC, you know that it’s possible to spend days and days in the city and still never see everything. We chose to do almost exclusively free things this time around for two reasons. 1) We only planned to spend 2 days in the city, which is not nearly enough time to see everything, and 2) We were taking the kids on their first trip, so we wanted to hit the major highlights vs some of the more obscure, albeit really cool, destinations. We still didn’t fit them all in, but I think they got a pretty good taste. I thought it might be helpful to give you an outline/sketch of what our itinerary looked like for your own planning purposes. I didn’t necessarily write about them in the same order that we did them, so it may have gotten a little confusing.

-Arrived at DCA, took cab to Burke, VA where my family lives, and went for a run and enjoyed a nice meal with them.
-Took train into the city, about a 45 minute ride. The Smithsonians open at 10:00am. If you take the metro before 9:30am you pay higher prices because it’s considered “rush hour” or “on peak” travel time. We waited until after 9:30 to save a little money, but that did make our morning a little short once we finally arrived at the Smithsonian metro stop. At this point we did:
1. American History Museum (approximately 1.5-2 hours)
2. Natural History Museum (60-90 minutes)
3. Walked to Union Station for lunch
         *I chose Union Station because then everyone could get what they wanted from the food court, and also because then we got to walk by C-SPAN, where I had previously spent a summer as an Educator Fellow, and I had taken the train into Union Station every day that summer, and I wanted to share that with my kids.
4. US Postal Museum
5. Walked down the back side of the mall, or a block or two north, to hit Hard Rock Café for J
6. Found an incredible farmer’s market where we bought fresh flowers for Kayo and stopped for drinks and samples of sheep cheese (only J sampled those).
7. Returned home via McPherson Square metro stop, leaving the city around 4:30pm.

1. Miniature Golfing near Burke
2. Running at Burke Lake Park

1. Air and Space Annex near Dulles
2. Minions movie in theater near Burke

1. Zoo 9:30am to 2:30pm
2. Running at Burke Lake Park

-This time we went into the city a little earlier, but rode to Capitol South because we had our tour.
1. Botanical Gardens (30-45 minutes)
2. Capitol tour (tour is maybe 45 minutes, but I’d say we spent 90 minutes here)
3. 1:00 Lunch, then metro to McPherson Square
4. White House/White House Gifts
5. Washington Monument
6. WWII Memorial
7. Korean War Memorial
8. Lincoln Memorial/MLK Jr “I have a dream”
9. Vietnam War Memorial

-Back to the metro around 4:30pm again.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Remembering Katrina: Lessons 10 Years Later

I’ve spent a good part of my summer blog posts talking about the different “families” I’m lucky enough to have in my life. I met Herb as part of J’s “Rampage family” this summer. We were sitting at the Saloon in Webster City having dinner after a game, and as people often do when they are meeting new people, I asked where he was from. The conversation went something like this:

Me: So where are you from?
Herb: New Orleans.
Me: Oh, what brought you to Iowa?
Herb: Katrina.
Me: ….

I’ll admit, I am often guilty of the news media trend in which we “forget” about events after the next new thing comes along. That conversation (although brief) stuck with me, so in a later conversation when Herb mentioned the 10 year anniversary of the storm approaching, I jumped at the chance to write about it.

Born in New Orleans, calling the downtown area home through high school, Herb was just returning from a leadership training camp in August 2005 as Katrina approached. Aware of the storm, but not really following the media coverage (how many teenage boys do?), it sort of caught him by surprise. With not a lot of warning, and very inconsistent weather reports, where the storm flip-flopped from a category 3 to a category 4 and back again, his family decided to stay in their home to ride it out.

250mph winds.
Broken levees.
         Over 1,000 lives lost.
                      Billions of dollars in damage.

Herb and his family, like many who survived the ordeal, looked for safety in the Superdome. We all remember the stories that came out of the Superdome at the time – Herb called this space home for 5 days.

Leaving the destruction behind, thousands of people looked to relocate. Herb ended up in Pella. I imagine relocating from a Katrina stricken New Orleans to Pella, Iowa was a bit of a culture shock, but he did know people there. In fact, they had visited him in New Orleans prior to Katrina, and were connected through church. He told me, “[the] best part was having people in Iowa who cared enough to get us a house to live in in the midst of the turmoil. The worst part [was] being called refugees in our own country.”

While it has taken some time, he says the city is coming back. Though he has no plans to visit during hurricane season, he says the community is coming back as well. The rich traditions and heritage of the city live on, but with a new flavor.

For me, the story is a reminder that home and family are what you make of them. You don’t have to be related to be family, and you don’t have to be born somewhere to call it home. For Herb, his church family became a bright spot under tragic circumstances, and Iowa became home. You can't choose, or even know, what kind of events will impact your life forever, but you can choose the people that will impact your life. 

Thank you, Herb, for letting me
tell this story.

*A few notes...
1. I am humbled to have had the opportunity to tell this story. Never before have I had the opportunity to write about something so personal to someone else.
2. I truly wanted to tell a story of strength and family, not dwelling on the past.
3. In no way do I want to discount the story of Mississippi 10 years later.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

US Postal Museum: A Family Favorite

I don’t know the actual statistics for any of what I’m about to say, but I’m pretty sure it’s true anyway. Insert winking emoji here. The Postal Museum has got to be one of the most undervisited Smithsonian museums there is. At the very least, the number of people who have been their on either of the occasions that I have visited has not matched the value of what you get for the visit. Since it’s not on the mall, I think a lot of people don’t really know it’s there. Besides, if I told you that one of the coolest places to visit was a museum about the post office would you really believe me? Probably not. That’s why I took photo evidence.

We started by basically going back in time into a mock forest, where you see a pony express trail and learn about how they notched trees, what they earned, ate, and how they avoided robbers. Then you climb on a stage coach with these creepy mannequins, which my kids were not super fond of. Then you get to more modern day cities where there is a mail train car, you can sort packages, practice coding letters by zip code, scan packages, sit in a semi cab, and even see a dog sled. It’s all very hands on and kid friendly. And all that is just the downstairs. Oh wait. I forgot. There’s also the traditional gift store, but there is a stamp store as well, where you can buy tons of different kinds of valid postage with cool designs and pictures.

Moving on, upstairs, there several interactive boards to learn about different stamps, as well as a table full of old stamps that kids are invited to choose from (pick 6, is the suggestion) and take home to start their own stamp collection, along with a couple computers where kids can take their photo and design their own stamp that can be emailed to an adult and shared. We didn’t actually get any farther than that because we ran out of time, so there’s probably more to the upstairs exhibits than I’m able to tell you about, but seriously. Add this one to your list, it ended up being one of my kids' favorite stops!

Monday, August 24, 2015

My Coach, My Role Model

It will hurt. 
It will take time. 
It will require dedication. 
It will require willpower. 
You will need to make healthy decisions.
It requires sacrifice.
You will need to push your body to its max.
There will be temptation.
But, I promise you, when you reach your goal, it's worth it.

A friend once shared this post with me, and I saved it because it rings so true in so much of what I do. It embodies so many of the things I try to teach my kids. R's coaches live this mantra. R has had, and does have, some of the most amazing coaches in her life. They play such a crucial a role in shaping her into the person she is and will be. And while I appreciate all of the lessons that she has learned throughout her time as a gymnast, the quality I admire most is that they live the types of lives that I want my daughter to see. I could not ask for better role models in her life. Whether it's owning a business, traveling across the country to pursue big opportunities, or working and studying to become the best version of themselves mentally and physically...

Her coaches dream big... 
Never give up...
Rise above adversity... 
Push themselves... 
Take chances...
In order to achieve greatness.

Surround yourself with those who will push you, inspire you, believe in you, and live a life you want to emulate.


Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Doing the Smithsonians

We were only able to hit a few Smithsonian museums on our visit, and we left a lot unseen at each of them, unfortunately. We hit a couple major ones, and a few less known locations. Each of the following locations had free admission.*

         -Botanical Gardens – So this is not technically part of the Smithsonians I don’t think, but it’s right on the mall, between the Capitol and the American Indian Museum (someday I will get to this one). This isn’t a place I can spend a ton of time, but there are some really cool areas, including a children’s garden where kids can dig and water plants, a balcony walk through a rain forest area, and a medicinal plants (all joking aside) section that are really interesting. My favorite, however, would be the orchid section, which is beautiful. The kids enjoyed the watering and digging, but 45 minutes here was plenty for them.

         -US History – this was actually the first place we visited. Our first stop was walking through the wars of US history, starting with the American Revolution. We quickly realized, after taking time to stop at each exhibit and explain it to the kids that we needed to choose between depth and breadth. In the classroom, I would go with depth. On our whirlwind tour of DC, we chose breadth. After about an hour in the “wars/conflicts” section, we knocked out First Ladies exhibit, gun boat, American Presidency, coins, and a new farm to table exhibit in about another hour. After convincing the kids that we didn’t have to spend their shopping money at our first stop, we took off to the Natural History museum.

         -Natural History – I had never been here until about a year ago, and it now easily ranks among my favorite all-time museums. We made it to the second museum before the kids opted to spend their money on stuffed tigers. The animal exhibits were among their favorite, although the dinosaurs and gemstones ranked pretty high up, as well. They weren’t as excited as I was about the Egyptian remains or the human genetics areas. We took the obligatory “shark mouth” photos and made sure we saw the penguins before leaving this one. The giant elephant that generally sits in the rotunda was under construction, so that was a little disappointing. We were able to show them from the second floor balcony, but it loses a little something when it’s behind a large barricade.

         -Air and Space Annex – Last year was also the first time I’d visited the Air & Space museum, and I liked it so much I immediately added it to our list with the kids. That was until Mark suggested the Air & Space Annex at Dulles. Here’s where the * from above comes in. The museum is free, but parking is $15. It’s totally worth $15, but it does need to be noted, especially when you think you’re doing the “free” Smithsonian stuff like the zoo. While the museum on the mall is cool, the Annex is home to the Discovery space shuttle (yeah, like the real one that was in *SPACE*), the Enola Gay (yeah, like the real one that dropped atomic bombs), several Nazi fighter planes, an air and space restoration bay where they are working on old planes, and numerous other bada** planes. They also had several interactive exhibits for the kids to check out, along with flight simulators you could ride in. J could have spent several more hours there, but we had tickets to go see the Minions movie.

Monday, August 17, 2015

#KeehnsDoDC - Kids on the Mall

One of the saddest days of my teenage life was on my first trip to DC when they told us we were going to the National Mall and quickly realizing that it had nothing to do with shopping. That disappointment aside, we did a “mall” day anyway. When you hit DC, there are a few things that are on the “must do” list, and even my 7 and 9 year old children know it. First on A’s list, was to see the monuments. His requests included Lincoln and Washington, so we did the entire loop. My favorite is WWII, so we made sure to spend some extra time there.

Before we left for DC I downloaded the NationalParks Service National Mall app, which helped me answer all those “fun” questions that any 7 year old is sure to ask. “What year was this built?” “How much did this cost?” “Why did they do it this way?” That, combined with bits and pieces of tour knowledge I’ve picked up on my numerous trips to our nation’s capital, and several Forrest Gump references, I was able to satisfy the curiosity of my little boy. R was more interested in the stories than the facts and numbers, and the app included a few of those as well. It’s not anything fancy, but I definitely recommend it as a quick reference guide. In fact, I whipped it out several times a couple weeks later when I was touring the same area with some of my ASCD Emerging Leader friends. So it’s not just info for kids, adults find it interesting, too! J did not appreciate my tour guide voice impression though. Oh well. Fun hater. He probably doesn’t like glitter or unicorns, either.

On our monument tour we made sure to include the White House, since that was at the top of R’s list. I didn’t plan far enough in advance to get a White House tour (approximately one month out), but the kids seemed happy enough with taking pictures outside, especially when we took them to the White House Gifts store across the street (across from Dept. of Treasury) and they got to take pictures in the “oval office” and give a pretend press release. I’d say for elementary aged kids that’s probably cooler than the actual White House because you actually get to touch stuff. Their biggest disappointment at the White House was that you aren’t allowed to pet the Secret Service dogs.

Our National Mall day also included a visit to the Capitol. Fortunately, this one you don’t have to book forever in advance. This is one of those things that’s cool to say you did, but the kids would probably not ask to go back again. A few helpful tips:
  1. One of the highlights of the entire tour for my kids was getting to wear a headset to hear the tour guide, so decide if that is worth your time.
  2. The dome is under construction for like another year, so be sure to check the website to see what is actually available to tour at any given time.
  3. If you sign up online to reserve your spot, you do a little less waiting in line. While they do offer same-day walk-ins, scheduling it in advance is really helpful in terms of planning the rest of your day.
  4. Final tip – the theater where you watch the short introductory film is hypothermia cold. Be prepared. If you visit in July like we did you probably won’t want to wear a sweater, since DC in July is what I imagine the heat is like in the outer circles of Dante’s Inferno, but you may want to bring someone to snuggle with. In an appropriate way, of course. It is our nation’s capitol after all.
If you’re familiar with the locations that I just mentioned at all, you’ll quickly realize that we put in about 3 days worth of FitBit steps in just a few hours. If you’re traveling with little ones, especially in the summer, it’s worth the few extra bucks to jump on the metro when going back and forth between long distances.

Friday, August 14, 2015

I Miss Mayberry...

I miss Mayberry, sittin' on the porch drinking ice cold cherry coke, where everything is black and white... - Rascal Flatts

Nothing on our Indiana trip seemed to go as planned, especially when it came to timing and schedules, but one thing we did make time for was a visit to the Mayberry Café in Danville, IN. Fully decorated in 1960s themed Andy Griffith style, the Mayberry Café is a split level restaurant that plays reruns of the Andy Griffith show all day long. It’s kind of epic. We were seated upstairs, and since it wasn’t super busy on a Tuesday evening, we had a lot of space and I wasn’t quite so worried about the kids being loud or disturbing people.

The menu reflected a wide variety of “Aunt Bea” style down-home cooking, pasta, and sandwiches. We started our order with some fried pickles, which is a “must order” for me on any menu in my attempt to find someone who makes them as well as my dad. Our waitress also brought us a basket of bread and some cinnamon butter that was amazing!

J had a black and bleu burger, while I opted for some of their famous fried chicken and mashed potatoes. The kids went for pizza and hot dogs, but in true toddler form, E enjoyed pickles, a hot dog bun, and several spoons full of ranch dressing.

The kids were very satisfied with their meals, and it seemed like the portion sizes were large. J’s burger was grilled, which he definitely appreciated, and my chicken was excellent. I did the “cheater” version of fried chicken and ordered the fried boneless, skinless chicken breast, which I know isn’t real fried chicken, but if you’ve met me you know I have an aversion to touching my food, so the fact that I could cut it with a fork and knife was a big plus for me. The highlight of my meal? The mashed potatoes and gravy. Holy yummy. They were just like homemade (probably because their food is made to order), and rivaled something my mom would make. I won’t say “something I would make” because let’s be honest. I make real mashed potatoes about once a year, and gravy even less. Sorry husband.

We weren’t able to save room for dessert, although E’s baked cinnamon apples tasted just like the inside of an apple pie, so we ended our meal by allowing the kids to spend their tokens (provided with each kids meal) in the little “store” area downstairs. We left with a football, handcuffs, and a paddle ball game, though the tokens could have also been spent on ice cream. We finished our experience with a quick picture outside the café next to the replica Andy Griffith squad car.

I will definitely be back to visit, because the hot beef sounded so good that I almost ordered two meals for myself, and I’m pretty sure a handstand picture in front of the car is going to be a necessary component of #HandstandsAcrossAmerica.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

A Day at the National Zoo

One of the major highlights of our recent DC trip was the National Zoo. Visiting the zoo is actually a free experience, though it ended up being one of our most expensive trips. It’s definitely worth the money, but don’t think you’re going to get by without spending any money. Parking is $22 if you drive, maps are $3, and lunch was astronomical. We wouldn’t have had to buy lunch, but because the zoo is so big, we spent 5 hours there, which meant we definitely hit meal time.

We arrived at 9:30am, knowing the zoo opened at 10:00am, thinking we’d hit the visitor’s center first. What we weren’t clear on though, is that you can walk in and see animals well before 10:00. It’s the buildings that don’t open until 10:00am, like the reptile house and small mammal exhibit. We were able to see zebras, cheetahs, and a whole plethora of weird animals I can’t remember the name of before the zoo actually opened.

This kids were VERY excited to see the pandas, so that was one of our first stops. It was cool to see pandas, but the area was super crowded and they were all indoors eating their breakfast (or lunch?), so they weren’t overly exciting, and they were sitting pretty far away. The close quarters did not stop me from getting a #HandstandsAcrossAmerica picture of R in front of a panda though!

The kids took a ton of pictures, literally stopping at every animal to take several photos. At the beginning of the day, even after 10:00am, it seemed like there were several empty habitats. It’d probably be smart to loop back around at the end of the day, but we were exhausted by then. Don’t take this the wrong way, because I know it’s better for the animals to have larger habitats, but seriously everything is so. Spread. Out. If you are questioning whether or not to bring a wagon or a stroller, especially if you drove your own vehicle, do it. I’m pretty sure if I’d had the option I would have been the one riding!

There are maps posted all over, but we spent the $3. You wouldn’t have to, but it’s a fun little souvenir and it was helpful to have the list of special activities throughout the day. Plus, it’s a great cause, all the money goes back to the zoo.

We ended up eating lunch at the zoo café, which was, as you would expect, average food, and sky high prices (I think the kids' meals were around $10). One thing you should note though, is that while it looks like a place you should stand in line and wait your turn, they actually want you to do it cafeteria style, and just walk up to whichever counter as food that interests you. That took us (and everyone else) a little while to figure out. When we left we realized there were a few restaurants right across the street. We could have walked out, left the car parked, and eaten better food, but it wouldn't have been much cheaper. Remember, you’re in DC. Pretty much all the food is expensive.

Some of our favorite exhibits included:

  • The monkeys and gorillas – you had a chance to get pretty close to them when you were inside the building, and they have some sort of orangutan jungle gym that lets them climb out and up above the zoo. They also do educational talks with the gorillas, which was really cool to hear.
  • R’s favorites were the pandas and the tigers. A liked the tigers. My issue with both the lions and tigers was that they were super far away, it was hard to get a good look.
  • J enjoyed the elephant habitat, even though we weren’t allowed to go inside that day since there was a sick elephant. You get to look down on them from above, but can also see them around the sides.
  • The small mammals building was kind of fun, but while the kids and J were excited about the reptile house, I mostly thought it smelled ridiculously bad.

Overall it was a great experience. We would definitely take the kids again, though we might plan our meal times differently. In fact, R actually said she would love to work at that particular zoo someday, and that she would invite us to visit whenever we wanted. She’s so passionate about animals and animal care, it was fun to see her in her element. Both kids actually took the time to read every bit of posted information about the animals as we walked through, which sort of surprised me, so don’t underestimate those learning opportunities while you’re there!