Category: Travel

How NOT to Tour the UN Building: Tripping through New York City Part Three

Many cities tempt the historian or patriot or citizen within you. New York City is an international destination which invites residents of the world to peek inside the headquarters of the United Nations.

As you approach the complex, the semi-circle of diverse flags flap and sway in the constant stream of cabs, commercial and private vehicles and dignitary transports sporting a single flag.

How many countries can you identify by their flags (without the help of an outside source)? My own knowledge was tested and fell short.

Touring the UN Headquarters requires a ticket. Tickets are available online ($20 plus a $4 processing fee).

Most people assume purchasing tickets in advance simplifies the process. One less line to wait in at the point of interest. Right?

Wrong.

And in the spirit of bureaucratic failure everywhere, the United Nations makes purchasing tickets simple but understanding the process for admission complex.

Our Non-tour

Mr. Native NewYorker planned a complex itinerary for our five-day visit to the city (and we were beyond thankful he did this). He purchased tickets online and in advance for the Empire State Building and the UN Building. In fact these were the ONLY tickets he purchased in advance.

The Empire State tour went off without a problem. The UN? Anything associated with the government should have been suspect, I guess.

Unique tiling make sweltering on the various subway platforms bearable

The morning of our scheduled and pre-paid tour, we rode the subway to a station a few blocks away. Our guide works in a building not far from the world peace organization, so he showed us his office and introduced us to his co-workers. When we finished that, we had more than an hour until our tour time and were only a few blocks away.

No problem. There are plenty of things to see in New York City.

The walk toward the UN Headquarters takes you past several embassies and a number of international hotels. Cars flying foreign flags and black SUV’s with even blacker windows swept past on the street.

A guarded entrance at one end is clearly marked for delegates. The passes we had told us the cross street where we could find our entrance, which was also guarded. We hadn’t expected less.

As we walked, we quizzed each other about the different flags. Some we knew easily. Several we speculated about. Mostly we felt under-educated about these symbolic representations of diverse cultures who understood the importance of working together in our ever-shrinking global community.

That’s when a group of tourists rushed away from the marked visitor’s entrance.

As we speculated about our own passes, a man crossed the street and informed us, “You have to get actual tickets from the office over there.” He pointed to a nondescript brick building with large blue signs screwed to a few of its walls. “Only one of your group has to check in.”

Ah, check-in. No problem. We still had nearly twenty minutes until our tour time.

Except the line wrapped around the block. And a person about twenty individuals back had a 10:15 tour time and had been standing in line since that time.

A sign we had to search out said people who purchased tickets and had assigned tour times should move to the head of the line. Except…the number of people who fit this bill stretched nearly to the corner.

In the fifteen minutes we searched for a way to make our tour appointment, exactly TWO people emerged from the building with tickets in hand (and ID bracelets for all members of their groups). If the line moved, I didn’t notice.

And the guard at the door was both unsympathetic and unwavering.

Our prepaid tickets might have funded his paycheck, but he wasn’t moved by our plight.

Advice for the UN Website Designers

Our native guide was furious, but that didn’t stop him from wadding up the worthless paper our non-tickets were printed on and dropping them into the nearest trash can.

Nor did it get us inside the United Nations Headquarters.

We have a little advice for whoever decided to join the digital age and pre-sell “tickets” for this tourist stop.

  1. If you sell vouchers for actual tickets, this should be clearly stated on the non-tickets
  2. Important information, such as arriving an hour before your tour time and the process for redeeming vouchers for tickets should be in bold print at the top of the vouchers
  3. An address and a name for the office where you need to report should be included (rather than the vague cross-streets and “across from the entrance” verbiage used on our worthless non-tickets)
  4. Lines for redeeming vouchers should be clearly marked at the ticketing office
  5. In fact, an external booth clearly marked “Redeem your tour vouchers here” would be expedient (and yes, you can take pictures there and tie it into criminal databases; even Disneyland uses cameras at their entrance now)
  6. A helpful person should man the doorway

Seriously, the world is a disappointing place. The UN is a symbol of hope. Attempting to tour it should not provoke native New Yorkers toward violence.

An iPhone camera is NOT equipped for the scope of the UN flags

These small steps would smooth the process and alleviate the influx of frustrated people who paid money to support world peace only to be shoved toward an emotional outburst that could lead to something quite contrary.

This Doesn’t Have to Happen to You

It isn’t impossible to find the office – IF you know you need to look for it.

The most frustrating part for us was that we were early enough to have made our tour. We bought coffee and traversed the opposite side of the street on the end away from the entrance looking for the perfect photo spot to get a shot of as many flags as possible.

Then we went to find the entrance. And learned the passes we had paid for didn’t admit us.

And the line we needed to stand in moved slower than sleeping slugs and included people with tour reservations for 45 minutes earlier than ours (and they wouldn’t be able to go back in time to make that appointment).

Things you need to know if you want to tour the UN:

  • Read the fine print
  • Arrive an hour early (this is in the fine print)
  • Have identification and your tickets ready
  • Find the not-so-clearly-marked Visitor’s Information Center (it’s across the street from the Visitor’s entrance but is in a plain and not well-marked office).
  • Plan to stand in line to get “actual” tickets for your scheduled tour time

Everyone deserves to see the headquarters of this organization with a mission for world peace.

Have you been to the UN Headquarters? What was the best part of the tour? Share your recommendations in the comments.

Tripping through New York City Part Two: Like a Tourist

New York City beckons with bright lights and incredible historical significance. It’s a tourist destination…with plenty of traps to snare the unwary.

There are probably guide books. With the dawn of the digital age, information on the Internet could bury the unsuspecting in a maze without cheese at it’s center.

Now that I’ve toured the city, I can share a few tips to make the trip a tad less painful…although perhaps not less confusing.

The Largest Department Store in the World

Fifth Avenue is the shopping Mecca of New York City. And everyone in the world has heard of the Macy’s Parade.
Which centers around the largest department store in the world: Macy’s New York.

It’s ten floors tall and spans an entire city block. Yes, the short block (between 5th and 6th Avenue) and the LONG one between whatever streets it borders. I could Google that for you…but why rob you of the pleasure?

We were planning to shop here. Instead, we ate at Stella 34 for lunch and rode the lovely wooden escalators. Yes, I said wooden. Some of them even have the original wooden planks on the steps.

This place is a New York institution and you’ll walk past it on your way to the next destination.

The Empire State Building

No, it’s no longer the tallest building in the city, but it’s still one of the major landmarks. And it can become a tourist trap, but no need to get snagged.

Tickets to ride the elevator to the top can be purchased online. I recommend the express pass. It’s only $20 more and it kept us from waiting 45 minutes to ride the elevator up…and again to ride it down.

The best time for views is after dark. I know that seems contradictory, but there are so many lights. Many of the most prominent buildings have distinguishing lights, and you can appreciate all the bridges and the scope of the expanse.

Swooning over Miss Liberty

Life and Liberty, thank you France for donating this statuesque icon to our country.
Flying in to Newark Airport, you can easily pick out the Statue of Liberty, as well as the Empire State Building and other landmarks. For this reason, plan to arrive in the day time.

There’s a ferry to Liberty Island. We didn’t take it.

You can climb stairs. We didn’t do it.

Instead, we took the Staten Island Ferry (free) and took some great shots of Lady Liberty. I might have liked to set foot beside the icon and appreciate her immensity, but given our short time frame, driving by, er sailing past, worked well.

Trekking the Broadway Bridge

Maybe a hot and humid day isn’t best for this tour, but the trek is worth every dime it costs to get to Brooklyn Bridge.
Traffic hums beneath your feet. Wind buffets away the stifling stickiness. Steel cables confine on every side, and the skyline beckons.

There is both a pedestrian and bike path across the bridge. In fact, biking is an ideal way to see the bridges and the next destination.

Central Park

The park transports you from the bustle and rush of traffic into a green space worthy of the staunchest nature addict.
We visited on Sunday, and the park teemed with people. Lines for the rowing pond wrapped around the enclosure, but even with the crowds it didn’t feel crowded.

Yes, you could take a horse drawn carriage ride. That’s a real thing. The way so many of them had ribs showing, though? I wasn’t a fan. In fact, there was a group of people protesting the practice when we exited the park near the Plaza Hotel.

And if you wanted to have someone else’s pedal power get you from one side of the expanse to another, that will cost you $5 per minute. Yes, as in $50 for a 10-minute ride. No, that is not a typo.
Extortion? Surely. Exorbitant? Definitely.

The Museum Mile

The Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET) takes up an entire city block, too. Apparently, this doesn’t make it as large as the Louvre. Someday, I’ll be able to compare that for myself.

The dining room on the fourth floor offers a pricey, three-course Sunday brunch. The food was great, and it was nice to sit and take a break from the eyeball stimulation for 90 minutes and sit in a comfortable chair.

Lines for the women’s restroom are a half-mile long. Admission lines can stretch around the lovely fountain outside. I recommend going at opening (which we did) and still plan to stand in line (albeit a MUCH shorter one).

The collection of impressionist paintings is expansive. The Italian Renaissance masters I wanted to see were sorely underrepresented.

You could spend an entire day here and still not see it all. Choose your collections wisely, and plan to take a few breaks to spare yourself from the inevitable sensory overload.

What other must-see tourist attractions have you enjoyed in the Big Apple?

Tripping through New York City Part One: Getting Around

Cities can be a beast to navigate. New York City can be especially beastly, and I’m thankful I didn’t have to stumble around like a blind person in a foreign country.

Because believe me, the Big Apple is foreign soil for a West Coast country girl like me.

I intended this post to share the different methods of transportation used while in the city. But before you can trip through New York City, you have to get there.

Choosing which Airport (of Three) is Your Best Bet

You would expect the largest city in the United States to have several airports. The three international airports we considered for our trip to the Big Apple: LaGuardia, JFK and Newark.

Since my brother is the “native” New Yorker referred to in this series of posts, my sister and I checked with him about this issue. His answer was quick and succinct.

Newark.

For native New Yorkers, there’s a general disdain for “Jersey.” Thus, it seemed more than a tad surprising that he directed us to fly into New Jersey without any fore-prompting.

Navigating Newark

The airport is the east coast hub for United Airlines (one of two airlines I frequently fly). It has three terminals, and they’re laid out in an egg-shaped pattern and connected by AirTrain.

We texted Mr. Native when the plane touched down on Jersey soil. This was after an airborne “flyover tour” (quote from the pilot of our aircraft) of the scenic state of New Jersey. And it was pretty, with dozens of pockets of deciduous trees spotted with neatly laid out subdivisions and at least five high schools whose mascots and colors could be enjoyed from our lofty vantage point.

After disembarking the Boeing 737-800, we searched for a restroom. Those in Terminal A nearest our gate were under construction (or being remodeled), so we employed those in the baggage claim area.

The AirTrain took us to the New Jersey Transit stop, where we waited in sultry nine-five degree sunshine for about fifteen minutes.

The reason Mr. Native prefers Newark for air travel is because it is two train rides with one simple transfer away from his apartment. To keep us from having to lug our suitcases through the stifling New York subway, we hailed a taxi after getting off New Jersey Transit at Penn Station.

(Normally, he would grab the 1 line at Penn and ride it out to 145th Street. We did this multiple times during our five-day tour). It can be a tight fit at peak travel times, so we were thankful not to have to navigate it with luggage in tow.

Cab or Uber

In front of Penn Station the iconic yellow taxis lined up waiting for fares.


So our guide didn’t take us out the front exit. My directionally-challenged memory can’t say which of the four exits we used. Wherever it was, we had to pass a lineup of Ubers to reach a place where he could hail a cab.

I got the opportunity to hail a cab for myself. At 11:30 PM at night on Mott Blvd. Half-a-dozen went by in those few minutes. Zero of them had their “magic lights” on.
So, I didn’t wave them down.
Although the wine-encourage crowd were sure I just didn’t know what I was doing.

I was instructed to get two cabs (one for my party and one for another couple).

A cab dropped a fare across the street from us. He saw me and waved me over. I tried to give him to the other couple (since I still hadn’t “officially” hailed a ride yet), but they’d decided on an Uber.

Ah, Uber. They were everywhere in the city, but my brother is “old school” so he declared we would hail cabs the “old-fashioned” way, while his 20-something friends were all using the Uber app to get rides without raising their arms.

The cost is fairly similar, if you have a cabbie who knows the best routes and isn’t trying to take you for a ride. (Yes, I mean that in the idiomic sense.)

I experimented with my Uber app, though. It was easy enough to book an Uber for our return to Newark airport. And cost about $20 less than a cab would have. Better yet, I scheduled it in advance and it showed up in front of our building.

No arm waving required.

Buy the Metro Pass

Although we were only using it for six days, my sister and I purchased the Metro Pass.

Our brother brought us two old cards and we recharged them. For a measly $32, we had a seven-day unlimited pass to ride the Metropolitan Transit System.

This meant we used the card a time or two for buses and multiple times daily to ride the nine different subway lines throughout his the city and boroughs.

Since it would have been $2.75 EACH time we re-entered the turnstile, by the second day, we’d used those 11.64 trips. Translation: even if you’re only spending a weekend in the city, if you’re going to use public transportation, purchase the seven-day unlimited pass.

Waterways ARE Roadways

Manhattan is an island. I think everyone knows this. It’s surrounded by tons of other islands.
The East River and Hudson River divided Manhattan from the Burroughs of Brooklyn and Queens. New York Harbor (home of Lady Liberty) divides the city from Staten Island and Long Island (among others).

There are bridges (too many to name). There are tunnels (not naming those either).

But there are also ferries and water taxis.


Our first day, we rode the Staten Island Ferry. This was our second big look at New York City. (The first look is discussed here.)

Thousands of people use this ferry to commute from the island into the city. No exaggeration here.

We’d planned to catch the 8:30 ferry (it departs every fifteen minutes from the island or the Manhattan terminal during weekday commuting hours).

We left the apartment ahead of schedule. Because who can sleep in a strange place? And who wants to sleep when there’s an amazing city to see?

But…once you’re over 50, you start to second-guess yourself. Our hosts could not recall if they’d turned off the gas beneath the tea kettle. And since they’d. Shown us the burned out shell of an apartment building that had caught fire a few months before, their minds were plagued with images of their flaming apartment devouring their beloved kitty.

One of them returned to verify the state of the kettle while the other continued with us. We waited through an hour’s worth of Staten Island commuters, and each ferry disgorged hundreds of them. The teeming lemming hordes flooded down the ramp, through the air-conditioned terminal and into the subway, onto a nearby bus or up into the nearby financial district.

It’s a fifteen-minute ride across the harbor to the island. The boat passes reasonably close to Liberty Island. We had photographic opportunities.


On Staten Island, we jogged through the (much nicer and more expansive) ferry terminal to catch the return ferry and avoid a fifteen-minute wait since we were already an hour behind our planned itinerary.

After traversing the Brooklyn Bridge (read more about that touristy trek tomorrow), we walked a few blocks through Dumbo (where? Read the answer in a couple weeks) and paid $2.75 each to catch a water taxi back up to 34th Street in Manhattan. We had lunch reservations at Stella 34 (details on that) inside Macy’s.

There was a bit of a walk for the Select bus that took us to 6th Avenue, but we made it within fifteen minutes of our reservation. And what a lovely window seat we had to enjoy our delightful Napoli salads and iced tea.
Have you traveled to and within New York City? What tips or advice would you add?

Four Things Disneyland Needs to Know about Lines

Unlike some couples who have cake and punch with friends, my husband and I headed to a couple theme parks for our wedding anniversary. Normally, I’m not even a fan of theme parks, but since the man offered…who am I to turn away a free trip to Anaheim?

Thursday, we went to Downtown Disney. It was early afternoon and there was basically no line through the check-point. You know, where they search your bags and then direct you through a metal detector? That’s the kind of country we live in *shakes head sadly*

The wonderful world of Harry Potter beckoned on Friday. At Universal Studios, they wrap the entrance line through those chains and ropes (like all the rides do), and you never actually stop moving. So even though it was a huge crowd, we didn’t wait too long to get into the park.

Disneyland on Saturday? It was a nightmare.

The line(s) stretched back to the main street and buses kept dropping people off. There was no clear direction for people, although Disney employees did come out and try to direct people into “people with bags” and “people without bags.”

If my husband, who had no bag, had left me, he probably could have ridden two rides before I ever got through the metal detectors. But he didn’t leave me to survive the disorganization alone.

The mayhem flabbergasted me. It’s not like Disney is new to crowds. Or long lines. How can they have such confusion in a process that Universal streamlined with a few ropes and chains?

Here’s my advice to Disneyland:

  1. Visit Universal Studios when the park first opens. Notice how they have 25 metal detectors spread across the plaza in front of their admissions gate.
  2. Invest in more metal detectors. It’s not like they don’t make enough cash to ease the lineup in this way ($200 for admission, $35 for a t-shirt, $20 for lunch).
  3. Paint some lanes on the ground. Okay, this might look tacky in the Google Earth shots, but when hoards of people circumvented the obvious line, I was thankful we were at the “happiest place on Earth.” Some patrons weren’t impressed with the line-cutters.
  4. Send more employees to direct the flow and organize lines.

We waited close to an hour just to get our bags searched. About the time we got to the front, they were waving people around the metal detector. Get your bags searched, but skip that next step.

If they’re seriously concerned about safety, this felt like a bad move. Someone planning to make the news by terrorizing the Happiest Place on Earth could easily work this system into their nefarious plans.

Once we were waved along without going through the red light/green light gate, we waited another fifteen or twenty minutes for entrance through the turnstiles. At least there were obvious lines here.

Now that Disney is taking photos of every ticket holder and printing out tickets that correspond with that image on their ticket readers, it takes a little longer to get through the gate. I hope that’s helping them catch people who are trying to avoid paying the exorbitant admission price.

Because it certainly isn’t smoothing the admission process.

Disney knows how to line people up so they can fit the most people in the least amount of space and trick them into believing the line is moving right along (regardless of signs warning the wait is 45 or 60 minutes). It’s time they applied that experiential know-how at the front gate.

What other tips might speed things along? Have you had a similar experience at Disney?

Same Friend, Different Weekend

Some things are worth a 500-mile drive in a weekend (and I’m not a fan of road trips). In this case, it was the same friend for another weekend.

My best friend from high school had to drive a similar distance and it didn’t make her bat an eyelash. She’s one of those people who loves to drive, and I’m happy to let her when we’re together.

A couple years ago, we went to Richland, Washington. That year, we had another high school friend with us. I blogged about it here.

We’ve since been to Seattle and Leavenworth.

I’m sensing a theme here: the state of Washington. As it happens, Washington is “middle ground” for us. She lives in Idaho and I’m in Oregon. Check your map and you’ll see what I mean by “middle ground.”

Why Her?

Unbreakable bonds are forged on cinder tracks. Okay, that didn’t sound as prophetic and epic as I hoped. It’s safe to say, Laurel and I became friends after a hurdle tried to take me out at the knees.

For many years, we were inseparable. But people grow up. At times, I feared we might be growing apart, but that’s not what happened at all.

Each time we saw each other, time fell away and we took up right where we left off. Except we were older and wiser (more gray-haired and wrinkled anyway).

When she went through an ugly divorce (yes, there are other kinds, but ugly seems to be the norm), I was a concerned yet distant ear. Most of the communiques came through email, but the weekend the divorce became final, we started our tradition.

Girlfriends’ Weekend.

And it started with hiking on Mt. Hood. Then it headed to Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco.

It hasn’t happened every year, and what started as an autumnal tradition has migrated to springtime.

It involves late nights, good food and lots of laughter. In fact, we’ve considered trademarking the hysterical laughter method of ab-tightening.

Why There?

The original point of these getaways was to offer a retreat from regular life with someone who accepted you at face value. It might be a time of therapy-by-venting or relaxation through escapism.

As for destinations, there wasn’t any rhyme or reason to the selection. Not even in the beginning.

In recent years, we’ve chose destinations centrally located that we could drive to. This keeps the cost down, although I’d wager we could find another discounted airfare to a city further afield…if we wanted to be flexible and let it happen more spur-of-the-moment.

Richland, Washington is no tourist destination. Not one I’d pay money to attend anyway.

But it happens to be nearly halfway between the two cities of our residence. And it has pretty decent weather most of the year.

The hope for sunshine is what made me reject her suggestion we relocate this year’s meeting to a place much closer to me. A place in the once-scenic (and now burn victimized) Columbia River Gorge.
She’s bringing her brochures and planning to convince me it’s a decent location for the next meet-up. And since I’ve never “bathed” in natural hot springs, she can probably talk me into it without too much trouble.

Same friend next year, who knows where? Same time? Possibly. We tend to be creatures of habit.

Have you ever had a girls’ getaway (or a guys’ getaway)? What did you do? What was its purpose?

My Love-Hate Relationship with Travel

It’s been a mild winter. And except for the excess of gray days, I’m dealing with it rather than dreaming about escaping to a land of blue skies, tank tops and all natural Vitamin D. Still, there are travel plans in my winter.
This time, it’s a “work” trip. I’m attending my first ever writer’s retreat, and it just happens to be in Destin, Florida. (I know, how sad to travel to Florida in February).
A couple days before my departure, Old Man Winter decides to make a visit to the Pacific Northwest. That nice guy dumped several inches of snow on the ground after teasing us with the idea several times during January and February. This storm will blow over before my flights are affected.
Or an Arctic system will drop on top of the mass of moisture, depositing more snow on my front lawn.
My husband drove through sideways snowfall to take me to the airport. It wasn’t bad enough to cancel or delay my flight, was it?

Nope.

I arrived in San Francisco (I’m taking a circuitous route to the Emerald Coast, one of the things I don’t love about traveling) early. Excellent. Plenty of time to find breakfast and lunch to take on the next flight.
There’s a funny story here about a misplaced spoon for consuming the yogurt parfait I purchased for breakfast. Punch line: I found the plastic utensil in my purse after I’d finished eating the yogurt.
Everything’s on time as we travelers board the plane heading to Houston (this is the longest flight on my trip). “All systems are go,” says the pilot (okay, he didn’t say that but that’s what he meant).
Then we sit at the gate. Alas, the plane backs up. This false hope is followed by a brief respite a few feet away from the gate.

“Our runway assignment is changed,” the pilot informs us. (Yes, he actually said that.)

He taxis the 737 away from the gates. San Francisco Bay comes into view (I didn’t realize it was so large until we flew over it earlier) to the right of the plane. My window seat offers me an impressive view of flocks of waterbirds living large in the eddies along the edge of the runways.
Blue skies mean nothing. There are gusting winds in San Francisco, forcing the Air Travel Know-alls to require all flights into SFO to use the same runway as those departing.

For once I didn’t envision a mid-air crash. I have places to be.

At some point (about 40 minutes after the stated departure time), the plane picks up speed and we’re in the air.
I won’t bore you with the mundane details.
Suffice it to say that this flight landed at Houston about 30 minutes before my final flight was supposed to depart.
It landed in Terminal C. My next flight is on a small express shuttle, and those depart from Terminal B.
I’ve never been to Houston. I have no idea how near (or far) these terminals are. My husband is texting me with details about some Sky Tram, but I see no signs for it. I do see arrows pointing to Terminal B.
So I walk. Make that a power walk (which is about 1 mph faster than my normal walk, 4 mph. Let’s face it some people don’t even jog at 5 mph, so I’m rushing through the airport, dodging slow travelers, and trying not to bowl over those people who wander like sleepwalkers.)

When I make it to the B Terminal, they haven’t announced my flight. Whew!

My shoulder throbs from the pressure of my laptop bag. My feet flame like the friction of walking ignited them.
The flight is announced. We head down stairs into another tunnel of gates. Then we stand in our respective boarding group lines for close to 30 minutes.
Waiting on a crew.
I ran through the airport for this? I’m panicking about missing my shuttle to the retreat and the CREW OF ONE meant to serve us a drink and hand us a pack of ten mini pretzels hasn’t arrived?
There are a few bags that haven’t made it either. Other people’s connecting flights arrived late. As a woman on my previous flight informed me, “If you have checked luggage, they won’t leave without it.”
Eventually, I made it to my destination. I didn’t miss the shuttle. There were four other women waiting to catch it too.


But all this heart-pounding had me thinking about my love-hate relationship with travel. What do I love about it? What do I not like?

Things I love about traveling:

  • Seeing new places
  • Escaping rain to find sunshine
  • An excuse to eat trail mix
  • Trying new food
  • Experiencing new cultures

A list of hateful travel possibilities:

  • Crowds of people
  • Late flights
  • Traffic
  • Delayed flights
  • Screaming babies and small children
  • Chatty seat mates
  • Airplane restrooms

Don’t judge me for these short lists. I really do enjoy traveling. But I’m not a huge fan of traveling by myself.
This is why I’m married to Mr. World Traveler (aka Mr. Wonderful) because he always takes care of the headache-inducing aspects of travel. And if that isn’t wonderful, I don’t know what is.
Do you like to travel? What’s your favorite mode of travel? What don’t you like about that mode?

Deep Thinking at the Writer’s Retreat

My Muse is extroverted in every imagined scenario. My actual body and mind are introverted enough to happily stay home every weekend reading a book.
While Musie celebrated the idea of the Deep Thinker’s Writing Retreat, my mind shriveled into the fetal position and begged to visit a library instead. Preferably the one on my iPad which wouldn’t involve moving away from my couch.
Since the retreat was in Florida, my body argued with my feeble mind. “There will be sunshine and blue skies. We can get our daily dose of Vitamin D without taking that soft gel.”


The part of my brain that knows I need a writing tribe and that my writing is falling short—somehow, since I can’t get an agent to jump on it—also slapped the curled mound of quivering gray matter. After all, 2018 is a year for metamorphosis, and the biggest part of that is with my writing.
The battlefield inside didn’t stop me from packing a bag or waking up at 3AM. On waged the upheaval between mind, soul and Musie, while I kissed hubby goodbye and boarded a plane for the first of three legs of the journey to Destin, Florida.

My Expectations

It was a writing retreat. I expected to write.

In fact, I set myself a goal of completing 5,000 new words for the third Sweet Grove Romance. I figured, that’s five hours. I’ll be there six DAYS, surely there will be at least five hours to write.
Not if I expected to sleep.

Not if I hoped to glean the lessons I needed for character development.

I know this is my weak area, and the retreat organizers gave us three days to work on our characters. In fact, we spent hours brainstorming the hero and shero of every retreat attendee.
This after the entire group tossed out ideas for characters of the “group” story we were brainstorming.

Brainstormers Extraordinaire headed by Susan May Warren

Brainstorming is my super power. No less than six people told me that at the group. One woman (a former managing editor for Zondervan) told me to expect an email from her every time she got stuck.
Oh-kay.
But the only time I got to write anything was on the final day of the retreat. Then I was expected to craft the first scene we had brainstormed earlier and share it with my group mentor, Susan May Warren.
She wanted me to share a rough draft scene with her? Was she honestly expecting to see my best work?
Enough of that. Even if the retreat wasn’t what I expected, it was an incredible experience.

A Day in the Life

I don’t sleep in. The fact I was in a different time zone didn’t matter.
I woke up around 5:30 AM (3:30 my time). My roomie woke up, too, and we headed down to the beach for a walk. This became our normal morning routine for the next four days.
Breakfast was meant to be served at 7:30. The oven wasn’t cooperating, so that didn’t happen the first several days. (Eventually the maintenance man arrived and determined that the convection setting was the default, so the retreat hostess had been using that instead of a regular bake setting.)
At 8:45, Rachel Hauck led the group in devotions. She’d recently taught a class on the Song of Solomon at her church, so we got some condensed thoughts from that.
Enlightening, for sure. I was considering the intimacy of my relationship with Christ…and finding it sadly lacking.
Then the morning sessions began. These were the topics:

  • Stories that matter
  • Characters that matter
  • Lindy Hop MEGA
  • 4-Act Plot
  • Plot your bookends
  • Scenes that matter
  • Building your premise

No, we didn’t do ALL those the first day. There were two morning sessions and these were the topics for those sessions (ten planned sessions in all, although it ended up only being eight).
After lunch, the larger group broke into two smaller brainstorming groups of six attendees, one mentor and one scribe (the Administrative Assistant for My Book Therapy was our scribe and the retreat hostess was the scribe for the other group. Both of these ladies are published authors).
Here’s what the afternoon brainstorming sessions were supposed to look like:

  • SEQ Brainstorming (four sessions)
  • Plot Brainstorming (two sessions)
  • Black Moment Brainstorming (one session)
  • Scene One Brainstorming (one session)
  • One session of writing time
  • Two sessions for one-to-one meetings with mentors

Note how I said “supposed to” in the preceding sentence? Yeah, the brainstorming of the hero and shero took the first three days of the retreat for the six authors in our group. A full hour or more per character.

This is what a character SEQ looks like

This left no time for scene brainstorming because the rest of the sessions were needed to brainstorm six plot outlines (LINDY Hop four-act plot diagram).
I will say that we brainstormed the black moments and first scenes as we went, so all the bases were covered.

The Lindy Hop plot for my novella

The first three nights, we watched a movie from 7 to 9 PM. Each person was assigned something from that day’s lesson to find in the movie and we discussed it after the film.

  • We used THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY to discuss characterization on Friday night.
  • On Saturday, we talked about the major plot points with THE LEGEND OF TARZAN.
  • They made us cry on Sunday with THE IMPOSSIBLE. We talked about why that movie “worked” when the story was not action-packed. How did they build the emotional tension?

Not surprisingly, the emotion building still fit into the LINDY Hop structure we’d been learning.
Using movies is a great way to solidify the importance of characterization and plot. Everyone has the same frame of reference, so the question of subjectiveness is alleviated.

The spot where phone calls home happened

For the most part. There were varying themes for TARZAN that could be determined by naming different things as the “man in the mirror” moment or “black moment.”
The Deep Thinkers Retreat might not have been what I was expecting. (Notice I didn’t call it a writing retreat there. I think it’s meant to be a writer’s retreat rather than a retreat for writing.) Still, I learned so much that my brain overloaded on the flight home.

The perfect place for writing

My next Sweet Grove romance was written using these methods. In July, you can judge for yourself if this retreat made me a better storyteller.
What makes something a retreat? Have you ever when to a retreat with one set of expectations only to discover it would deliver a different set?

The Road to Blogging is Paved with Grand Intentions

I intended to post at least twice last week while I was on vacation in Branson, MO. Really. Here’s a little proof from my blog about what I was hoping for from the vacation.

And then vacation mindset settled in. And grand intentions went the way of New Year’s resolutions.

It happens when you’re having a fine time relaxing and seeing the sights and eating too much rich food.

So how about if I synopsize it for you now? Will that make up for failing to post in the heat of vacation’s finer moments?

I’d rather seek forgiveness than ask permission.

The First Weekend

Fights were unremarkable with the exception that we arrived 30 minutes early in Oklahoma City. It stressed my cousin’s wife out not to be there to meet us. But the timing worked out so that we claimed our bags, stepped into the pickup area and they pulled up a minute later.

Smoother than Dole whip. Although not as tasty.

They took us to a pizza joint where their son worked. We were waited on by the owner’s daughter (said son’s best friend) and then off to their house for football.

There was entirely too much college football viewed during these first couple days. But I was in Sooner territory and the championship games were being played.

Enough said.

My aunt (the reason for the side trip into OKC rather than flying directly to MO) and uncle took us to Cattleman’s Cafe at the Stockyards on Saturday. Best steak I’ve had in a LONG time and not as pricey as the last memorable one from Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse.

We did some emergency laundry (no, I don’t want to talk about it) and packed for a semi-early start for the extensive road trip through the flatlands and into the “mountains.” (Yes, there’s a story here, but I’m not telling it at this juncture.)

A Typical Monday

My cousin’s wife had to work. She wasn’t the only one. My cousin spent plenty of time on the phone with a troubled client and hubs got a call about a computer network issue.

Even I ended up working. I wrote a blog post and played around with the stylus and my photo editing app. If you missed it, you can check it out now.

So we stayed at the condo. Mostly.

We agreed to a “15-minute survey” from the Wyndham rep for a $25 American Express card. And that went fine (although longer than 15 minutes but it took place in our condo, so no biggie).

But…timeshare salesmen have no boundaries.

We borrowed my cousin’s Jeep to get some “important and essential” information from the sales center. Not. As soon as they realized we had meant it when we said we didn’t want to buy more points (“But the pricing was incredible. I figured you must have misunderstood the offer.” Yes, we’re idiots. Thanks for saying so, but no, it doesn’t make us want to spend $15,000 dollars).

Since we were out and about, we went to the Dixie Stampede grounds and picked up our tickets for the dinner show on Friday The smell of horseflesh assaulted me when I stepped from the car. Lovely.

It was finally a good day.

Shopping, Sightseeing and Shows

Tuesday, we went shopping at the Landing and the Tanger Outlets.

Wednesday was our afternoon show at the Sight and Sound Theater.

If you’ve never been to one, you should add it to your bucket list. The barnyard scent in the fancy auditorium was the first clue that this would be a show like no other.

A musical with live animals and incredible lighting effects followed.

Afterward, we took the cousins out for dinner since it was their third wedding anniversary.

I recommend Dobyns at the College of the Ozarks (aka Hard Work U).

Friday night was the big dinner show at Dixie Stampede. It was an incredible assortment of trick riding and showmanship. And if you only wanted food, the WHOLE chicken was sure to satisfy.

Road Tripping

The trip from OKC to Branson was a dual-sided road trip.

But that wasn’t enough for my cousins. Nope. They had been married in a “town that survives solely on tourism.” And they wanted to show it to us.

We were game. After all, it was only about fifty miles from Branson. Just a hop, skip and a jump of about an hour in the car.

Or not.

Because we were in the “hills” and the roads were winding through small towns, beside lakes, past chicken farms and at less than 55 miles per hour most of the time.

Eureka Springs, Arkansas, has more to claim its fame than artists and odd-shaped buildings and old store fronts.

For one thing, it boasts the Christ of the Ozarks. This 64-foot statue was our first stop on the chilly winter Thursday we road tripped across the state line.

The town itself was “quaint” if not oddly situated on the side of a hill with narrow streets.

The B&B where they got married was charming. They drove up the steep and narrow drive (explaining how their wedding guests had to park thither and yon) and hopped out to chat with the landlady.

Who was on vacation.

But we saw plenty of locally made art pieces. One of the most unique and memorable pieces was at Zarks Gallery. I must say I wasn’t in the market for art of this caliber. Mostly because I couldn’t afford the $5,000 price tag.

One of Many Nano Lopez sculptures in Zarks Gallery

Eventually, we were headed back to Branson for the condo-grilled dinner. And I ascribed to one of my favorite ways to spend a road trip.

Share your vacation memories. I’d love to hear about the strangest discoveries you made.

A Different Sort of Family Vacation

For several decades, family vacations were defined in a certain way. But as with all of life, things change.

My most recent vacation to the South was a different sort of family vacation for me. However, that means next to nothing if the “norm” of family vacations remains undefined.

Welcome to the earlier definitions of “family vacation.”

The Childhood Definition

A vacation in my childhood involved a canvas tent, sleeping bags, a cooler and camp stove and public forest camping.

And I didn’t complain because I can count on one hand the number of times my father, mother, sister and I went on a trip together. The most memorable one involved a road trip from Oregon to Oklahoma in 1976 for a family reunion.

I wanted to become an Okie after that trip. But that could have been because I did NOT want to get back in the car for three days of solid driving through hot Kansas without air conditioning, no bathroom breaks, sleeping in the cramped back seat with my sister…and the switch.

Because there would be NO fighting. And Dad wouldn’t have to pull the car over thanks to the switch he cut and could handily whip between my sister and my’s bare legs with Indiana Jones precision.

So, I didn’t really know what a family vacation was all about.

The Definition I Adored

And then I married Mr. Wonderful whose family went to campgrounds with neighborhood friends and relatives every summer with regularity. And they slept in RVs. And girls showered and fixed their hair and applied makeup.

So that was a huge culture shock for the girl who caught her dinner in the creek, went to the bathroom in a bucket and washed her face upstream (if you get my meaning).

But once we had kids, we began our own traditions. And when the kids were old enough, we planned a fantastic Spring Break trip…just the four of us. Sometimes we asked friends to tag along, but when you’re jetting across the country that’s not always possible.

Most memorable to me: Washington DC and Disney Orlando

During our RV years, there were plenty of summer trips too. Of course, these were road trips. And the large-bladdered men in my family jibed me for too many bathroom breaks, but no one ever said I had to hold it for another two hours.

Some places we went in the summer: Yellowstone, Redwoods and Disneyland (we even got to fly to this destination-yay!)

Most memorable road trip during this phase: to Colorado.

This was the trip of the Piggyback Hike and the Boot Removal of Death. I’m pretty sure any man in my family can recall exact (and exaggerated) details of those events.

But, kids grow up. And now our “family” has grown to six and our vacations together are more sporadic and occur in December near Christmas. Generally to tropical climates.

A New Dictionary Entry

This past week, I visited family. That’s the new sort of “family” vacation. Rather than going somewhere with “my boys,” I planned an entire ten days around a special someone: my Aunt Betty.

Aunt Betty is an amazing lady. A real Renaissance Woman (and if there isn’t such a thing, now there is). She pursued a career when women were “expected” to marry young and fill a house with babies.

When a man didn’t deserve her faithfulness, she divorced him. Yes, in the Bible Belt in the 1950s. Unheard of. And highly unpopular.

She’s a true survivor. At the moment, she’s surviving her third diagnosis of breast cancer. And she’s over 80, so she knows she’s living on “blessed time” (see Psalms if you don’t know what I’m referring to here).

I tried to plan a trip in May to the College World Series in Oklahoma City (where Aunt B lives), but the ticket prices…stunned me. When I could take a Caribbean cruise for less money, I had to pass.

But we have a condo in Branson, MO. And they have great shows there and amazing Christmas light displays. So, I planned our vacation around visiting Aunt Betty in OKC and then taking her on a road trip to Branson.

And we all know how I feel about road trips.

What’s your idea of a “family vacation”? Am I all wrong with my three definitions?

Join Me on Vacation

It’s that time of year. No, not the one where we stress ourselves by chasing our tail to parties and shopping for gifts. Vacation time!

This year, my husband and I are heading to the South to visit family…and experience the joys of the holiday season in Branson, Missouri. Maybe while I’m gone, some angels will drop by my house and wrap all the gifts and spruce up the decorations.

I know I’ve been pretty quiet the past month, and it’s probably that December will be another “one post per week” time her at Sharon Lee Hughson, Author’s blog. I’ll try to jump online while I’m away (for ten days) and give you a sample of my trip to “Nashville of the Ozarks.” But I’m not making any promises.

To whet your appetite for the trip, here’s a brief itinerary:

  • Today: Fly to OKC
  • Tomorrow: Spend the day with my Aunt Betty
  • Sunday: Travel to Branson and see THIS
  • Monday: Vacate…yes, that’s the verb for what you do on vacation. I know you think it means something else, but right here and right now, it means I’m vacationing.
  • Tuesday: Watch the Miracle of Christmas
  • Wednesday & Thursday: Cruise the town, see some sights, sample some goodies, more vacating
  • Friday: Check out the Dixie Stampede
  • Saturday: Squeeze in any last minute “must see” action
  • Sunday: Return to OKC and fly home

No, that’s not all we’re going to do. But if you’ve read any of my other posts on vacation (like this one or this one), then you know I’m NOT a fan of booking every day with activities.

In short, that’s a key to stress for me…and I vacate to relax. (Notice what I did there? Using my new definition in a sentence. Oh, yeah. Oxford will be adding that definition to their dictionary soon.)

Christmas is first about Christ and second about the twinkling lights. While we’re in Branson, we also plan to check out the glory of the lights. Lights in the square and in one (two or even all three) of the drive through light shows they have in Nashville of the Ozarks.

Have you been to Branson? What would you suggest is a “must see”?

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