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As a "recovering" middle school teacher with a unique outlook on life, I stopped active teaching in 2010 and moved into another career path... writing! Here goes! In addition, I am a travel buff, forever baseball addict, movie fan, music fan, foodie extraordinaire, NCIS devotee, gardener, and more.

Just love writing for kids, travel writing and basic journalism. Pretty unusual, since I taught Home Economics! But there's a story here too - a non-fiction one or more...

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Next Stop Chi-Town

Rule #54 – Never stop learning.

     Someone wiser than I once said, “You can learn something from every experience – even if what you learn is that you didn’t like the experience.” It’s the best reason I know to push your own comfort zone. I mean, after all, if you don’t challenge yourself, how can you grow or improve?
      Day two of my baseball trip, and I already know that I’m glad I’m not teaching teenagers anymore. There – I said it. I love kids – really – as long as they go home to their own folks at night. The obvious exceptions are my own kids and my fantastic, ninja-Jedi grandson with his own ultra super powers.
       What prompted this spontaneous prayer of gratitude, you may ask? I was sitting in Milwaukee Airport, waiting to meet the Jay Buckley Tour bus. There I was, passing the time with a number of summer campers, all assembling and waiting for their own bus to take them to camp. It looked like “Meatballs” meets Best Buy, with all the technology plugged into the walls. So much for unplugging.
       I didn’t have to deal with this situation for long. The tour company sent out a list of all who were meeting at the various pick up points. I made my way to the baggage claim area and found the baseball fans waiting for our bus to pick us up. It arrived right on time.
        It is amazing how a shared passion brings people together. I never saw any of these people before. They weren’t strangers, just friends I hadn’t met yet. The bonds of baseball brought us together.
My I.D. tag
      We started the two-hour drive to Chicago with the required tour check-in. Both tour leaders gave us the schedule for the next few days and some tour basics. We swapped stories on the drive down. There were lots of Brewers, Twins and Cubs fans already on the trip. I was the lone Oriole supporter.
        Night one was spent near O’Hare Airport. We got to check in and then head out for some dinner. Some of our group wandered over to Shoeless Joe’s Grille. I stuck close to home and ate at Harry Caray’s Rosemont location. After all, this IS a baseball trip, right? It had draft Guinness, so the place is great in my book. 
A Holy Cow - Harry Caray's catch phrase

Caricature of Harry Caray over the bar - Rosemont location
     Day three started with breakfast the next morning, also in Harry’s. What a buffet! The atmosphere of the restaurant was like stepping onto the set of “The Godfather”. I was convinced I would go to the bathroom and find a gun taped to the back of the tank. We all got a chance to meet other tour members before we boarded the bus to head to the day’s game.
Dining room at Harry Caray's Rosemont location
            The bus rolled out of the lot around 11 am to make an afternoon White Sox game. The weather didn’t look like it felt like cooperating. Well, Self, if nothing else you get to see “new Comisky” park. And see it, we did.
Are you ready for some White Sox baseball?

Welcome to U.S. Cellular Field
Press boxes and more
     It wasn’t a far walk to the main gate at U.S. Cellular Field, a.k.a, New Comisky. We actually parked very close to the footprint of old Comisky Park. The new park is on the elevated line and took over the parking lot from the old park. It has plenty of fan-friendly upgrades, too. It was at this park that I was introduced to the latest in techno-items, the charging station. Yes, right outside of a food concession and close to the restrooms I found the charging station, complete with cords for any type of phone, tablet, or whatever you have. Lots of folks were using the station too, while gulping down the ballpark food and knocking back a brew.
Concourse - first level - U.S. Cellular Field
            The heavens opened up while at lunch, and we got a good rain. But it stopped just as quickly as it started, and the game was delayed only by 20 minutes. The concourse at U.S. Cellular sees wider. There was a good sized crowd for a Wednesday afternoon game, but it didn’t seem “crowded” at all, even with all of us hiding from leftover showers.
            Now, color me spoiled if you must, but I’m used to an usher being available to help you find your seat. The ushers I’ve met will also make sure your seat is cleaned and dried before you get incriminating wet spots on your pants. Not here. The ushers stood at the head of the aisle. Yes, they made sure you belonged in that section, but that’s as far as it went. This was not necessarily bad, just different.
View from the seats - Giants bullpen pitchers on their way to work

Chris Sale on the mound
      The game started without any more rain delays. Chris Sale pitched for the White Sox and Tim Hudson started for the San Francisco Giants. The seats we had were fantastic. We felt up close and personal with the team. It was also nice to see players that I knew from following my hometown teams. Often, a player gets traded and you, as the fan, lose track. I got a chance to catch up with Hunter Pence, Michael Morse and Adam Dunn. They all seem to be doing well for their new teams. It made this fan feel good; all three fellows are good people.
            After the game, we drove the bus into downtown Chicago at rush hour. And I thought D.C. had crazy rush hour traffic! Chicago can hold its own any day in the worst-traffic-around department. 
Harry's Downtown - iconic sign
       Dinner was at Harry Caray’s Steakhouse, downtown. We had a buffet mixer, where we ate well and got to know others on the tour. 
Cartoon of the great Cubs broadcaster
     The restaurant itself is an homage to the great Cubs sportscaster. Pictures of Harry and players, Harry and movie stars, and Harry and politicos were all over all the walls. The main bar boasts that it is exactly 60 feet, six inches long – the distance from the pitcher’s mound to home plate. D├ęcor here is 1920’s Chicago, too. I walked around the restaurant thinking to myself, “Insert Al Pacino here; Marlon Brando there…”
     It was soon time to head back to the hotel, time for a few more drinks in the bar, and time to get ready for an early bus call.
     We are heading to Minnesota in the morning. That drive takes eight long hours. This will be a good test of my bus riding tolerance.
     See, Self, you are learning more each day! Today, I learned I loved cheese curds. Whodathunk?

These are cheese curds - deep fried white cheddar

I was there!
Photos by Marge McGugan. No reuse or reprint without permission.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

In the Beginning of the Summer was the Pilgrimage...

Rule #4 – Write from your experiences

     One of the great parts about writing travel pieces is the “I was there!” shot. Getting out in the world, taking pictures of what I see, having the experiences – that’s what makes writing a great career. Or is the writing career my excuse to travel? Even when I visit the same places over and over again, I still find new things to see. I get a new perspective.
     That new perspective greeted me when I decided to make a dent in my 32 Pilgrimage this year. For those who are not baseball fanatics, the 32 Pilgrimage is when you see a baseball game in EACH of the 32 major league baseball parks. It doesn’t have to be your home team. We are talking about the park experiences here, or as marketers might say, the fan experience.
      I signed up with Jay Buckley Baseball Tours, out of LaCrosse, Wisconsin. This organization has been around for years and, each season, they run a number of tours that cover a variety of baseball parks. The tours are not just for the baseball fan. Many tours take you behind the scenes in the stadium, and to see the sights in the home cities. You get yourself to the starting point, or points depending on the tour. They take it from there.
     The tour I chose was a quick, Midwestern trip to five different ball parks in six days. I wanted to tour the parks, sure. But I also wanted to test my ability to be on a coach bus with others – without driving someone totally crazy - for almost a week. But now to get to one of the pick-up points…
     I booked Southwest flights in and out of Milwaukee for this trip. I haven’t flown in years. The thought of putting this cute, not-so-little body into an aluminum tube and hurling it through the atmosphere is a more than a little terrifying. So I tried to get non-stop flights both ways.
     The check-in process at BWI was pretty smooth. My daughter, who seems to be flying all over for business, gave me lots of great pointers. I got through security with a minimum of problems. Thanks to a bit of a brain-fart, I forgot to take a handkerchief out of my pocket. So guess which future little old lady got wanded… you got it.
     Next, it was off to get the “lay of the land”. What is it with airports? They have more construction than an interstate in summer time. I finally found my way around the terminal, found my gate, then found something to snack on and drink while I waited.
     As for the wait, thank you, Janet Evanovich, for writing such great Stephanie Plum novels. I was able to read almost half of one of her books, all while getting the hairy eyeball from many of my fellow travelers. Nothing like seeing someone break out into spontaneous laughter at odd times in an airport terminal. Maybe it was the timing of the laughter, like when a World Cup goal attempt missed. Anyway, a few people around me took her name and said they would check out the books.
     Finally the plane pulled in and we were able to board. This flight to Milwaukee was full and I was one of the last to board. I sat on the aisle across from three businessmen who had already met the contents of a local tavern. We didn’t need the flight attendants to do a comedy routine for us. These three caballeros had it covered.
     Take offs and landings are never the best part of the flight for me. So I put myself into my “zone” by mentally reverting to my youth – and the Flintstones. I pictured all of us on our own bicycles and Barney yelling to Fred, “C’mon, Fred. Peddle faster.”  I think I even said it out loud. The three “men” were busy doing their own thing across the aisle. There was one older fellow and two younger ones. The younger ones started the “He’s touching me” routine, since they were sitting next to each other. Then, as the plane left the ground, they put their hands up in the air – roller coaster style – and went “Wheeeeee!” Once we were airborne and the seat belt sign was off, the older fellow made one of the younger ones move his seat. The older fellow sat between the two younger ones now, so they wouldn’t fight and smack each other the whole trip.
     So here I am, on a non-stop flight, no Liam Neeson, but stuck in a plane with three nut jobs… thank heaven, it was only a two hour flight. I can take anything for two hours. Remember, Self, you were a middle school teacher…you can handle anything.
     By the way, is Madison the capital of Wisconsin? We played Wisconsin trivia on the plane.
     The plane landed on time and safely in Milwaukee. Then it was time to wander through another airport-under-construction to get my bag. I called for my hotel reservation from the airport baggage claim area. The shuttle picked me up and it was off to settle in for the night. I checked in, got some dinner and repacked, since I was picking up a bus the next day with different baggage requirements.
     Notes to self:

  • Find out Wisconsin trivia answers. Look smarter on flight home.
  • Try cheese curds at some point.
  • Enjoy beer, since you are in the land of beer and brats.
  • Double-check bus trip check in times. Be on time for tour check in.
  • Plan the photo shots for baseball parks.
  • Let kids know where you are at all times… as an example of what you wanted them to do when they were younger.
  • Relax and have fun. Self, this is the start of a trip of a lifetime!

Tomorrow, it is off to Chicago, and next, our first game!