Friday, March 27, 2009

Big Night at the Not-So-OK Corral (Friday Roundup)

(Editor's Note: Friday Roundup usually appears on Friday. That didn't happen this week. BECAUSE EVERYTHING ELSE HAPPENED Friday, and frankly, I was too distracted and exhausted. But I was able to go back and date it as Friday--you know, to keep me from appearing inconsistent.)

During Spring Break Road Trip '09, ... one of the many attractions we visited was an undisclosed location of Golden Corral, that oasis of buffet dining that beckons weary travelers and satisfies with a mighty punch. Few places can deliver such a variety of entrees (meatloaf and spaghetti ON THE SAME BAR), a buffet of carb-related side items (baked potato bar, fried okra AND macaroni and cheese), all punctuated with soft-serve ice cream and mini lemon pies. And when you're lucky? It's seafood night!

And seafood night means fried clam strips, fried cod, fried scallops, fried catfish, fried coconut shrimp and just about anything that you could pull out of a body of water, dip in flour and throw in grease. Similar buffets go the extra mile and throw in seafood salad, which has become our family's punchline for just about everything, after one family member ate three helpings of warm seafood salad in Bowling Green, Kentucky (but it was not at a Golden Corral) and barely made it out alive. "I don't know what made me sick. I think it could have been the seafood salad."

"You think? What about seafood salad served at room temperature appealed to you?" And on that particular night, some five years ago, we just left him in the prone position, groaning on the hotel floor, and we journeyed on to the heated pool. He eventually rebounded. We knew he would. He's a tough cookie.

Back to the story. This was the last night of our seven-day trip, so nothing but the best for our family. "Have at it, kids! Eat all you want! Just don't hurt yourselves." We waved farewell from the table and watched the troops descend upon three different serving areas. Would they make good choices? Would they get injured? Would we be proud of them at the end of the evening?

Our instructions had been, in the end, too little, too late. Within the hour, two were in the bathroom, one was crying at the table, the fourth was holding her head and slumped down in her chair. Was it the excitement of the evening? Decision overload? Overindulgence? Did they eat the seafood salad?

While the entire dining process should have begun and ended within a 60-minute window, an unexpected (not really; this always happens) chain of events delayed our departure. I sat at the table wearing my coat and holding my purse, waiting for everyone's return, as I watched a table of Red Hat Society ladies initiate a pledge. Or whatever it is they do to new members. Maybe Golden Corral is part of the ritual. I call "hazing." And that's wrong.

Two of my own returned from the bathroom, one looking slightly anemic, the other barely able to walk. "Can we just go? NOW? Can we just GO?"

"What in the world is wrong with you? You were fine just 15 minutes ago, pounding back those bottomless bowls of ice cream."

"I don't want to talk about it."

And then, the full report, uttered through labored breathing and the occasional abdominal hold. "There was a guy in the bathroom, and he came out of his stall, HOLDING HIS PLATE."

"Holding his plate? Like, with food on it?"

"No, he was holding it against his chest."

"That's not right. You can get all the plates you want. It's not like anyone is going to take it away from him. Maybe we should tell someone."

"Tell someone what? That a guy took an empty plate into the bathroom stall?"

"Absolutely. This is a restaurant, not an asylum."

I was outvoted. We didn't narc out the plate weirdo. We didn't blow any whistles. Those of us who knew when to say "when" walked in an upright position, waved at our waiter who had supplied us with about two dozen clean plates and headed to the car. The others? They eventually rebounded. They're tough cookies.

Spring fever ... is a terrible, terrible thing. Not the kind of spring fever that makes you do crazy things, like clean closets and host a garage sale, but the kind that turns everything yellow, and you wash your car and patio cushions, only to have to do the same thing again the next day. And the next.
I'm talking about the kind that makes your throat hurt, your head pound and your nose bleed. My son contracts such severe cases of spring fever that we have thrown away shirts and pillow cases. We call these "crime-scene nosebleeds." And before you start offering your little remedies, know that we've tried them all. We just roll our eyes and mutter, "There he goes again." The first occurred when he was only 3, and we thought he was hemorrhaging to death. The physician on call in the ER that night took one look at him and asked, "Does he always look like this?" Two hours and $250 later, he was diagnosed with The Most Severe Case of Spring Allergies You've Ever Seen. Very unfortunate.
While talking to my dad on the phone this week, he launched into a tirade about the pollen, his allergies and how his symptoms are worse than anybody's on earth.
"Oh, you don't know allergies. We had to throw away a shirt last night after one of the crime-scene nosebleeds." And we one-upped each other for a few rounds ... until this: "Oh, that's nothin'. I sneezed so hard yesterday that it set off the paper shredder on the other side of the room." Now that's a sneeze he should be proud of. He wins.
If you're reading this on Saturday, the day it's actually being posted, hope the remainder of your weekend is allergy- and pollen-free.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Barefoot Ambassadors -- Keepin' It Real (Spring Break '09)

My son and I found ourselves barefoot and looking for some free WiFi in our DC hotel last week. We landed in the business center, located in the lower lobby, a full floor beneath the elegant and crowded main lobby, where people wore shoes and chatted and conducted business and were all D.C.-like.

Our entire family had walked no fewer than 14 miles that day. Some of those miles formed a complete circle around a city block that, some of us knew, was leading us nowhere, but one of us wouldn't admit that it might be time to ask for directions before we all got so dizzy from going 'round and 'round.

When we returned to the hotel after what is now known as The Hard Rock Walk-a-thon, we limped off the elevator and down the hallway toward our room. "I feel like Michelle Trachtenberg in Ice Princess after Kim Cattrall gave her those faulty ice skates and her feet were mangled and bleeding everywhere."

"That's not funny, Mama." Two of the kids were crying. D.C. can do a number on a person's feet.

It was nearing 9 p.m. when we walked into our room. "I need some WiFi," I said.

"I'm going with you, but I'm not wearing shoes." He's 13. I would expect no less. Or no more.

"OK by me. I'm not either."

"I'm not even going to wear socks." I had the decency to wear socks.

And neither of these decisions should have been a big deal, as we were going to bypass the lobby and head straight for the basement--the quiet, empty basement area where nobody will be because who wants to spend St. Patrick's Day night in the business center of a D.C. hotel?

I'll tell you who: a mother-son pair from Alabama checking e-mail and a high-powered Irish businesswoman with strong government ties who was trying to get a little work done ... until the mother-son pair from Alabama walked in.

"Don't mind us. We'll stay out of your way."

And in the most Irish of accents, Aileen talked with us for at least 45 minutes about the economy in Ireland, her grassroots effort to repair it, her fascinating itinerary while in the States and how we really should make plans to be in the lobby within the next hour so that we can get a glimpse of the Prime Minister of Ireland. "He'll be returning from the White House dinner shortly, and we're all going to be gathering in the lobby and bar."

And all I could think was, "Wait, Ireland has a Prime Minister?" Instead, I said, "The Prime Minister of Ireland is here?" (Good save.)

"Yes, he's staying in this hotel. Have you not seen him?"

"I have no idea," I thought. "I may have even been on the elevator with him." (Americans can be so insulated.)

So our conversation wrapped up, we exchanged e-mail addresses, handshakes and pleasantries, and we were sad to see our new friend go. Fortunately, my astute son had the foresight to Google "Brian Cowen." And I never had to tell him to.

An hour later, we left the business center and all of its glorious free internet and headed to our fifth-floor hotel room via the elevator, which was already being held by an Irishman (well-dressed and wearing shoes). We looked at the floor the entire time, hoping he would think we were street people and not hotel guests who didn't know any better. While we were looking at the floor and not the elevator buttons, the doors opened to ... the main lobby. And there stood Aileen, who was waving her hands in the air and shouting our names. "Come with me! I've told the prime minister all about you!"

Nothing about this could be good. What had she told him? Everything you've ever heard about Alabamians is true? This mother and son have broken into the hotel business center so they can check e-mail? You're not going to believe the accents from these people? The Clampetts are in this very hotel?

I think she pulled me by the arm. And there we stood, in the crowded lobby of people in formal wear and shiny shoes. "He's in the bar. He's waiting for you."

"But WHY? And NO. We cannot go past the Secret Service and into the hotel bar like this."

"Oh, don't be silly."

My son grabbed my other arm and said, "We have to do this. It will never happen again."

"Oh, I hope you're right." And I looked at him at the very moment that he licked his hand, then smoothed his hair. We're nothing if not classy.

And the next thing we knew, we were led past Secret Service and were standing at the edge of a circle of important Irish men and women, looking the way we did. Brian Cowen stood, extended his hand, addressed both of us by name, and somebody took our picture.

I wanted to tell Aileen, the Prime Minister and everyone seated in that arrangement of chairs in that dimly lit bar that despite our dress and general lack of grooming, we can be very gracious people. We don't always look like this. Sometimes it's worse.

More than two hours had passed since we had left our hotel room for the business center. I opened the door to our hotel room, not to a hearty "WELCOME BACK!," but to a "Where in the world have you been? I've looked all over this place!" My husband then rattled off the many areas of the hotel where he searched high and low before returning to the room and assuming we had been kidnapped or forever lost in the nation's capital. "But the cool thing is," he said, "on my way back to the room, I was on the elevator with a Congressman from New York and an Irish guy, and they ..."

"You can just stop right there with your little story."

"Wait, there's more! They were talking about ..."

"No, really, you can just stop right there. We are so going to trump your story." And we did.

The next morning, we were in the White House, standing in the East Room, where the Irish had only 12 hours earlier enjoyed a St. Patrick's Day celebration with the Obamas. We knew this because we had the inside track from Aileen -- and The Today Show. And standing in the East Room, right beside us, was a Secret Service agent who told us about the party from the night before and all the food, and it was in this room, and blah, blah, blah. And the Prime Minister of Ireland was here."

"Oh, we know. His friends told us ALL about it."

In the days that followed, the entire event played over in my mind with a bunch of if-onlys. If only we had changed clothes. If only I had brushed my hair. If only the rest of the family could have been there. If only my son didn't spit-shine his hair. If only we had worn shoes. But it played out the way it played out.

Earlier this week, now back in Alabama, I received an e-mail from Aileen, who is now back in Dublin. A portion follows:

... I have relayed the story several times (especially how you were reluctant to come into the bar because you were both in your stocking feet). That was a fun thing to do – my kids enjoyed the story, so did the various other politicians and political advisers who came into the bar later that night. The Irish are known to be impulsive – and you saw this at first hand. We are also quite casual (a few of us kicked off our high heels that evening and were walking around in our stocking feet, so you weren’t alone) ...

A show of solidarity from the Irish and a new trend in hotel protocol and dress code.

You're welcome, D.C.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Monday Sure Looks a Lot Like Tuesday

... and that's a fair criticism. So, to make amends and give you a small preview of what may be to come, I offer you this handful of glimpses into Spring Break '09. (What did you expect? Club La Vela? C'mon. We have four kids.)

On the steps of St. John's Church, where Michelle and Barack attended an interfaith prayer service the morning of the inauguration. You might remember that the color of Michelle's dress was almost the same as the color of the church. Our hotel was only two doors down from St. John's, so we felt very inaugural as we passed the church about 100 times each day.

Try as we might, we couldn't break through security to enter Nancy Pelosi's office. And that's too bad because I had typed a fairly detailed agenda for our meeting. Sort of disappointing.

Barney Frank's office is just around the corner from our Congressman's office. We didn't see Frank in person, but when the House convened that night, our 8-year-old was watching C-Span in our hotel room when the honorable Congressman from Massachusetts took the podium. "Hey! Hey! Barney Frank is on TV!" Now, I ask you, how many 8-year-olds from a politically conservative family from Alabama say this each day?

One of these things is not like the other. The first three look like they're standing in the rain on a Sunday evening after: a) being in the car most of the day; and b) walking in the drizzling rain the rest of the time. The fourth one might be medicated.

This is me, after sharing a hotel room with five other people for six consecutive nights. Or, it's an exhibit at the Museum of Natural History. Same thing.

Please check back throughout this week. So much more to share from our nation's capital, from Williamsburg and from an undisclosed location of Golden Corral.