Monday, December 29, 2003

After a weekend without DSL, I have several items to post.

Item the First

The plants on my kitchen windowsill continue to flourish. I'm especially pleased with how well my amaryllis is doing. The primrose isn't doing so hot. I almost wonder if it wouldn't be happier outside.

Item the Second

I would like to announce the winner of this year's award for Worst Christmas Gift on the Planet: Pocket Neopets: Kougra on Mystery Island. I am allowed to say this, because (1) I am the fool who bought the stupid thing in the first place and (2) Annabelle--the recipient of said awful gift--agrees with me. In fact, she hasn't finished composing the review she plans to send to Amazon, but it goes something like this: "Congratulations on selling a toy that made me cry."

Basically, you have to care for the cute little critter and cater to its whims. It likes to be awakened at 7 a.m. and put to bed by 9:30 at night. It needs to eat 3 times a day: at 7:30, 12:00, and 5:30, or something like that. You play games to win points to buy its food and toys, and you have to take the time to play with it. If you don't do these things, its happiness is diminished and its health declines.

Annabelle went for her very first sleepover at her friend Rebecca's house Saturday night and took her new Kougra buddy with her. Imagine her distress when she opened it up and saw Kougra hoisting his knapsack and walking off into the sunset on the digital screen. The little bastard ditched her!

Rebecca's mom dealt with the situation like a pro and convinced Annabelle that this is all part of the game and that Kougra didn't mean anything personal by it. The next morning though, I offered Annabelle cold hard cash to part with the offending toy, and she gladly forked it over.

At least this has given me a glimpse into the future so that I can see how I will react the first time a boy dumps her. It seems I will pack his sorry butt into a very small box, turn him over to the United States Postal Service, and write mean things about him. And he'll be lucky he didn't get flushed down the toilet!!

Oh, and the second worst (or at least most useless) Christmas gift would have to be the scratching post that Fred bought for the cat. The cat has made it clear that the $10 scratching post from the PX is a sorry substitute for the tapestry chair he is intent on dismantling thread by thread.

Item the Third

On Sunday we went to Speyer with Rebecca and her parents to see a museum exhibit celebrating 30 years of Playmobil. In case you haven't heard, Playmobil specializes in creating sets of a bazillion teensy little pieces that go to particular themes: castle, dollhouse, cowboys and Indians, city life, etc. The pieces are not as painful to step on as Lego, but you haven't lived until you have hand-tied the rigging on a miniature pirate ship on Christmas morn.

The exhibit itself was great! They had lots of big representations of the Playmobil people. Here are Mike, Annabelle, and Rebecca hanging out with a big Indian in front of the museum:

And here they are with the Playmobil dragon (as well as some German dude who did not care if he was in my photo or not):

They had a huge room that they had turned into a Playmobil-themed playground. One of the highlights was the pirate ship:

More amazing than seeing the sets as Playmobil intended them to be was seeing what private collectors and designers had done with them. One fellow had created the two towers, from Lord of the Rings. My favorite though was the opera house that was made out of at least a half-dozen fairy tale castle sets. I assemble that castle every time we move, so I am in awe of somebody who can build something that huge and elaborate. Unfortunately, I didn't get any pictures of that with the digital camera, so we will just have to cross our fingers that the film shots turn out well.

There was also some Playmobil art, which was nothing if not strange. I guess that's the mark of good art though. Wouldn't you love to have one of these beauties hanging over the sofa?

After we finished looking at the exhibit, we went to a Konditorei for coffee, hot chocolate, and a variety of cakes. It was very cozy and quaint, not to mention yummy. Afterwards the kids horsed around in an empty fountain:

while I took pictures of yet more ninja Santas attacking a building:

Item the Fourth

Today we took the kids (and Rebecca) to Lampertheim to play at Kids World. It's an amazing place--they took an old indoor tennis facility and converted it into a Discovery Zone type place. It has several bouncy-castle type contraptions, such as this one:

and this one:

It also has a couple of areas that are wall-to-wall trampolines, as well as tons of scooters (that go really, really FAST) and things like these giant blocks:

It's much wilder and crazier than anything you've ever seen at Discovery Zone or Chuck E. Cheese. As Mike and Annabelle say, "The only real rules are don't kill yourself or anybody else." Nobody walks around saying, "Don't run!" So kids are tearing around willy-nilly, zipping through the crowd on scooters, and just having a marvelous time over all.

There's not an insurance underwriter in the States who would ever cut a policy for a place like this. Imagine bouncy castles set up on hard concrete. The trampolines alone are enough to get any PI attorney drooling! But the Germans have not sucked the fun out of childhood in the name of safety as we seem to have done so effectively in the States. They also don't seem to have as many overweight kids, and the kids have a refreshing air of self-assuredness. Coincindence--or not?

In very un-Germanic fashion, the play area at Kids World is nonsmoking, which is a nice change. But their restaurant is basically a bar/observation booth/smoking zone, which is a change from your usual Chuck E. Cheese pizza party.

They do have food for sale, but they also don't mind if you bring in your own. We saw people with picnic baskets and lunch boxes. One family even had a bottle of champagne! So it was not the orgy of bad food that these places tend to be back home.

Best of all, there were no video games spitting out tickets that we then had to exchange for overpriced garbage toys. Nope, we left there with empty water bottles and exhausted kids. Nothing more, nothing less.

Item the Fifth

I have just received clearance to publish what has been unbloggable for the past 8 weeks. Just before Halloween Fred came home from work with the news that he might be going to Iraq for 6 to 9 months in the spring. For nearly two months it's been a real rollercoaster--he's going, he's not going, he's going again. Fred didn't want me to say anything publicly until it started to look like we had a final answer.

We think we have that now. Latest news out of DC is that he probably will be going, but it won't be until the summer and it will be a year. Sucks, eh? The kids and I will stay here in Germany and try to keep things as normal as possible.

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Friday, December 26, 2003

Any PlayStation2 experts out there among my readership? We are having a most perplexing problem here.

Mike got the new Tony Hawk game for Christmas and has been having a blast with it. Tonight he took it next door along with the memory card containing his saved game so he could show it to the neighbors. When he got back here though, he couldn't get our PlayStation to read the disc. All we get when we put it in is a "no data" message when the machine tries to read the disc.

He tested another game, which seems to load fine. There are no dings or scratches on the Tony Hawk disc--it just won't load.

We're planning on exchanging the disc at the PX in the morning, but in the meantime it's rather frustrating. Why would a game just suddenly stop working? If anybody out there has any specialized insight into the mysteries of the PlayStation universe, we'd love to hear it!

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Wednesday, December 24, 2003

It's almost Christmas here. I see from the NORAD Santa tracking site that the jolly old elf is over Moscow right now. Funny, that usually sounds so far away to me, but this year it's practically next door.

One of my favorite personal holiday traditions of recent years is to read Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris. The official Amazon review says:

Holidays on Ice is a collection of three previously published stories matched with three newer ones, all, of course, on a Christmas theme. David Sedaris's darkly playful humor is another common thread through the book, worming its way through "Seasons Greetings to Our Friends and Family!!!" a chipper suburban Christmas letter that spirals dizzily out of control, and "Front Row Center with Thaddeus Bristol," a vicious theatrical review of children's Christmas pageants. As always, Sedaris's best work is his sharply observed nonfiction, notably in "Dinah, the Christmas Whore," the tale of a memorable Christmas during which the young Sedaris learns to see his family in a new light. Worth the price of the book alone is the hilarious "SantaLand Diaries," Sedaris's chronicle of his time working as an elf at Macy's, covering everything from the preliminary group lectures ("You are not a dancer. If you were a real dancer you wouldn't be here. You're an elf and you're going to wear panties like an elf.") to the perils of inter-elf flirtation. Along the way, he paints a funny and sad portrait of the way the countless parents who pass through SantaLand are too busy creating an Experience to really pay attention to their children. In a sly way, it carries a holiday message all its own. Read it aloud to the adults after the kids have gone to bed.

I'm especially fond of the "Santaland Diaries." If you click here, you can listen to Sedaris read a slightly sanitized version of the essay on NPR's "Morning Edition."

I tried to find either a text copy or an unabridged audio copy of the story but couldn't. What I did find, however, was almost as good: The Discontented Elf, in which an unknown elf (Elf X) blogs his (her?!) day-to-day experiences at an unnamed New York City department store. I only wish I had found this earlier in the season!

Well, it looks like Santa has dropped down to northern Africa. I imagine he'll be swooping north through Italy soon. Germany can't be far behind. Guess I'd better get to bed now.

Merry Christmas to all!

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Well, the snow didn't wind up amounting to much. I'm glad the kids had the chance to run around in it as it was coming down Monday night. By yesterday afternoon, all the snow had disappeared. Here's a shot from my bedroom balcony while everything was still frosty:

The best part (only good part?) about the chilly weather is the opportunity to wear big, heavy sweaters. This is the sweater I made last summer:

I'm also appreciating the wool socks I made last winter. The left one is from the first pair and the right one is from the second. I knitted them in crazy colors so I could wear them under my clear plastic rainboots.

I'm currently working on a more subdued pair--navy blue with flecks of different bright colors like orange and turquoise.

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Monday, December 22, 2003

Yesterday we headed to Michelstadt to check out their Christmas market. The kids and I agreed it was our favorite of the 3 we sampled this year; unfortunately, it was the only one Fred made it to this year.

We added 4 more mugs to our collection: Fred and I enjoyed the Glühwein, while Mike and Annabelle liked the hot apple cider and the hot chocolate:

Food is always a big deal at these markets. I call this shot "Two Pretzels and a Pizza":

Here's Mike enjoying a quiet moment with a couple of friends:

We've noticed an interesting Christmas decorating phenomenon here in Germany. Given that so many people live in homes without yards, it's very popular to display Santa Claus climbing on the side of a building, dangling from a balcony, or scaling a roof. These things are all over the place, like so many yuletide ninjas:

Today Fred and I made one last stop at Walmart for stocking stuffers (think chocolate) and Glühwein (15 bottles! One made from blueberries, which I'm dying to try). Think of the longest line you have ever seen at Walmart. I promise you that the lines here were longer. I've never seen anything like it before.

I hit the garden center at Walmart and added a few new plants and some new red pots to my kitchen windowsill:

From left to right, I have: a really big clay pot with 2 tiny succulent babies that I'm trying to turn into plants; a red amaryllis; 3 daffodil bulbs; a hyacinth bulb (dig the Polish pottery ice cream dish!); several crocuses; ivy that I'm rooting in one of Fred's beer bottles; and a red primrose. How have I missed primroses? Do we not have them in the States? They had a ton of them at Walmart, all in different colors and all for one euro each. If I manage not to kill this one, I'm going to go back and buy a whole rainbow of them for my dining room window.

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We interrupt this blog to bring you the following very important message: IT'S SNOWING!!!!

A little while ago, Annabelle and I heard a knocking sound at the front door. I went and opened it and discovered that it was our snowman ornament bumping against the door in the wind. I guess he wanted to let us know about the recent change in the weather.

Here's a picture of AB next to our neighbor's car:

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Sunday, December 21, 2003

It's well past midnight here. I was in bed for a couple of hours, but I just can't get to sleep. Maybe it's the Coke I had with lunch or the Hershey's Kisses I skeeched after supper, but I can't make my brain turn off.

What, you may be asking, could possibly weigh so heavily on Bonnie's mind as to come between her and her treasured sleep? I'll tell you, but only if you promise not to laugh: I'm concerned about how to refer to my cat in German.

Hey, you promised not to laugh! This is no trivial matter!

I have a cat. His name is Eddie. How easy that is to say in English! But in German? Not so easy, I'm afraid.

If you speak no language other than English, where we have the apple, the flower, and the bread, it's hard to imagine a place where nouns have gender as they do in German: der Apfel (masculine), die Blume (feminine), and das Brot (neuter). Believe me, it can make life very confusing. There is so much I have left unsaid for want of knowing the proper gender of my subject. Better, in my book, to remain silent and be thought introspective than to speak up and be confirmed as gender impaired.

But getting back to Eddie the cat . . .

Cat in German is feminine: die Katze. I read somewhere once that very young children assume all cats to be female, so I suppose on some level this makes sense.

If I want to proclaim my proud position as a cat owner in German, I say, "Ich habe eine Katze." If that's as far as the conversation goes, I'm fine. But what if I'm pressed for my cat's name? Or my cat's coloring? Then I'm truly in a pickle.

There are three pronouns in German for the third person singular: er, sie, and es, which refer respectively to nouns of the masculine, feminine, and neuter genders. So to be gramatically correct, I would have to say of my cat, "Sie heisst Eddie. Sie ist schwarz," because--remember!--die Katze is feminine, and the pronoun must agree with the gender and number of the noun whose place it takes.

But Eddie is a boy!

A couple days ago, I found myself chatting with the secretary at the kids' language school, so I thought I would pick her brain on this issue. (I've been thinking about this for some time, I'm afraid.) She immediately understood my predicament and informed me that I did not have eine Katze at all but rather einen Kater (masculine). She insisted to me that this is the proper terminology for a male cat and expressed surprise that we English speakers do not have special words for describing animals of opposite sexes.

I explained that we do have a special word for a male cat--that is, of course, tomcat, which I described as "The boy cat who runs around the neighborhood and makes babies with every girl cat he bumps into."--when it struck me that my problem is even more confusing than I had thought at first. You see, Eddie is neutered!

Unfortunately, the kids were done with their lessons before I had a chance to ask if there might be yet another word in German for boy cats who sing the soprano lines.

I see only one way out of this mess: I must get another cat and quickly. For then I can talk about meine Katzen (plural) and refer to them collectively as sie, which besides being the third person singular pronoun also moonlights as they. (This poor, overworked pronoun also does time capitalized as you but only in formal situations. I tend to avoid formal situations.)

We used to have a dog, you know--a lovely yellow lab that we raised for Guide Dogs of Texas. In German, the dog is der Hund (masculine). But our dog was a girl! At least until the operation . . .

I may never sleep again.

(With thanks and apologies to Mark Twain and David Sedaris.)

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Wednesday, December 17, 2003

When you live someplace really special, it's easy to forget about the fabulous locale and get bogged down in the minutiae of daily living. I first noticed this in Hawaii: I'd get busy with work or with food (shopping for it, cooking it, cleaning up the scraps), or with getting the kids to their various activities. One day I would wake up and it would hit me--we hadn't been to the beach in weeks!

I came to Germany with a determination to remain mindful of this and to refuse to let daily life get in the way of our European vacation. I have found that it's easier said than done.

Take Christmas, for example . . . please. We've mailed the bulk of our cards and gifts. We've hosted the office holiday party. We've decorated the tree and even managed to string up some lights. But let's face it--none of these activities exactly screams "Christmas in Germany."

On Wednesday morning I woke up determined to go out and find us some German Christmas. And what better place to start than at the Mannheim Weihnachtsmarkt?

The kids and I spent a little time that morning on math and then headed downtown for our first field trip in a long time. We started off at the library, where I had books to turn in (there's that daily life thing again!), but we quickly hustled ourselves over to the market at the base of the water tower.

One of my favorite parts of the Christmas markets is the piping hot Glühwein (say "glue-vine" and think of hot sangria). So even though it was barely noon yet, that's where we started! You can either drink right there in front of the stand and return your cup for a refund on the deposit, or you can buy the special boot-shaped souvenir mug and take it with you. I opted to do the latter, and I hope that it's simply the first of many such mugs I collect between now and Christmas.

We strolled through the aisles lined with vendors of all sorts of goodies. We stopped at one booth that featured toys, and Annabelle fell in love with a small stuffed sea turtle that she just had to have.

I was drawn to a pair of wooden dice: one is red and has a German pronoun on each side; the other is covered with German verbs (to eat, to drink, to sleep, to party, etc.). I thought they might give the kids a chance to practice their verb conjugations, so I grabbed a pair. The shopkeeper told me that those dice are really for adults (perhaps some sort of German truth-or-dare or drinking game?) and suggested that I take instead the one designed for children (to go to bed, to make music, etc.). I took all 3. Kids need to know how to talk about drinking and sleeping as much as the next person.

After stopping at a food stand for a gyro to share, we found a nice stretch of curb and settled in to enjoy the first course of our lunch. As we were sitting there happily munching away on our communal sandwich, I noticed a trio of little girls watching us. They would approach and then back away. Approach. Back away. Finally, the middle girl got brave. She walked straight up to Annabelle and handed her a token for the nearby merry-go-round. Then the 3 of them ran off to their mothers and were gone. As we walked over to the merry-go-round so Annabelle could take her turn, she wondered why they had chosen her to receive their extra token. We wound up deciding that it's because little blondie girls with no front teeth have to stick together.

After the merry-go-round, we looked at more of the wares: candles, knit goods, wood carvings, . . . . We wound up being drawn back to the food, however, and finished off our first Christmas market trip with a pile of potato pancakes with garlic sauce.

On Friday, we went with friends to explore the Heidelberg Christmas market and go out for sushi. When Mike first heard that we were going to yet another Christmas market and--worse yet!--that we were going there on the dreaded streetcar (dreaded by the kids; personally, I could spend all day on it), he groaned. I offered to let him stay at home and even volunteered to make sure he had plenty of fraction problems to work on. He perked right up and decided that a Christmas market would, in fact, be a most enjoyable way to pass our last day of school before Christmas vacation, even with the streetcar. I'm sure the prospect of a sushi lunch also helped to boost his enthusiasm.

We had a lovely time at the market, though I really was more impressed by the one right here in Mannheim. That strikes me as odd, because Mannheim is not a traditionally pretty town like Heidelberg. Perhaps it was the fact that Mannheim's market is concentrated in one place, while Heidelberg's is actually several clumps of vendors that stretch all along the pedestrian zone.

The sushi was quite good but incredibly expensive. Annabelle, of course, craves the priciest item on the menu: the salmon roe. But the euros are so colorful and so pretty that it hardly feels like spending "real" money. I don't think we'll be making a regular habit of it though.

I enjoyed yet another mug of Glühwein as we walked back down the pedestrian zone. Good thing I was wearing leather gloves--that stuff is really hot!

Tomorrow we plan on heading out for yet another Christmas market, perhaps the one in Michelstadt. Fred went there "forever ago" with his landlord and landlady back in his Darmstadt days. Whichever one we choose, you can be sure of one thing: I will be drinking some Glühwein and working on my collection of souvenir mugs!

We just returned from the Boy Scouts' Christmas party. Here's a shot of Mike in his uniform:

Mike is looking forward to going to Switzerland with his fellow Scouts in January for the Klondike Derby.

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Sunday, December 14, 2003

I'm pleased to report that Fred's office party went off without a hitch. The weather even cooperated to the point where Fred and I were able to wear our Hawaiian Christmas clothes and the kids were able to go outside for turns on the trampoline. Although the party officially ended at 5:00, the last guests didn't leave until 10:00, which indicates to me that I wasn't the only one having fun. And best of all, when the last guests did leave at 10:00, all the cleanup work was finished!

Saturday morning the Mannheim community Christmas parade marched from the commissary, through our neighborhood, and down to the sports arena. Annabelle and her fellow Brownies were reindeer:

They were awarded the prize for "most original" entry in the parade.

We've had our Christmas tree for the past week, but it has been sitting outside on the back porch. I figured we could stuff at least 4, maybe 5, party guests in the space that the tree would consume, so the decking of the tree had to wait until the party was over. That was tonight's project.

We have a most unforgiving tree this year. It has needles like . . . well, like needles. We could have fashioned a tree-like sculpture out of straight pins, run an electrical current through it, and decorated that with less violence to our fingertips than we suffered with this particular specimen. I am hoping though that this will turn out to be a good thing by discouraging our cat from molesting it.

Fred leaves tomorrow for a few days of work in England. The kids and I are, of course, insanely jealous even though Fred grumpily insists that this will not be fun and is not "cool." (We still think it's pretty cool though!)

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Friday, December 12, 2003

Tomorrow we're hosting Fred's office holiday party here at the house. I'm a little nervous about trying to cram 30 adults and their children into my tiny little house. If the weather we're having today (40s and sunny) will just hold on for another day, we'll be able to overflow onto the back porch. But, of course, the forecast is calling for rain.

I've spent the past 3 days on a mission for 5 trays of brown-and-serve dinner rolls. I went to the commissary on Wednesday and found exactly 1 tray. They assured me that they were getting a truck the next day, so I checked again yesterday: 2 more trays. Once again, I was assured that there would be ANOTHER truck coming in this morning and there would surely be more on that truck.

So a little while ago I went to the commissary yet again. Still no brown- and-serve dinner rolls on the shelf. I peeked into the storage room and found the same stockman who helped me yesterday. "Bread!" he shouted, pointing at me in recognition, and then he invited me back.

Together we looked through a huge stack of plastic crates full of all sorts of bread: hamburger buns, Wonder bread, hot dog buns, Wonder bread, croissants, Wonder bread (who eats this garbage anyway?). Finally, there in the very last stack of crates we found them: 2 more trays of the desired rolls! I haven't been this excited since I scored a Tickle-Me Elmo in 1996!

You might be wondering if the rolls are really worth all this trouble. Yeah, they really are. I got the following recipe about 6 years ago from a fellow JAG wife:

Combine a pound of butter (anything that starts with "combine a pound of butter" has to be good, right?) with 3 tablespoons of poppy seeds, a tablespoon of Worcestshire sauce, 3 tablespoons mustard, and 1 finely chopped medium-size onion. In another bowl, combine a pound of finely chopped ham with a pound of shredded Swiss cheese. Take 5 trays (original recipe called for 4, but I like to stretch it) of brown-and-serve dinner or party rolls and cut each tray of rolls in half--think of each tray as one giant sandwich roll. Spread each half with the butter mixture and then sprinkle with the ham and cheese. Put the halves together to make 5 large sandwiches. Bake the assembled sandwiches at 400 degrees for 15 minutes. The little sandwiches pull apart like monkey bread!

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Monday, December 08, 2003

We had a busy weekend as cogs in the great big machinery of Christmas. On Friday night, the kids set out their shoes for St. Nicholas, and they weren't disappointed. No stick-waving Krampus visited us; only good ol' chocolate-bearing St. Nick.

Saturday morning, Fred and Mike spent 2 hours in the commissary parking lot selling Christmas trees for the Boy Scouts. That afternoon Fred and I went shopping for 220-volt Christmas lights for the front of the house but came home empty-handed. Saturday evening, we went to the lighting of the post Christmas tree with Annabelle's Brownie troop and then hurried home to light the candles for our neighborhood display. I could lie and tell you that this is my house, but I'm afraid I'm just too honest. It is, however, exactly what our house would look like if we HAD bought lights and HAD spent several hours stringing them up:

On Sunday we went up to Coleman Barracks (again with Annabelle's Brownie troop) to watch their production of The Best Chrismas Pageant Ever. Watching that play is one of my favorite holiday traditions (I've seen it in DC, NC, and HI), and they didn't let me down!

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Thursday, December 04, 2003

On our way home from Austria last week, Fred told me a strange story that our snowboarding instructor told to him. Apparently, they have a peculiar holiday tradition in Zell am See: people dress up in ghoulish monster costumes and parade through town. Some of them even wear these costumes and masks on the slopes and accost skiers to determine who has been naughty and who has been nice. When Fred told me about this, I thought surely he had misunderstood. Then today I saw this in the Stars and Stripes:

The Krampus are making their annual runs in the streets of Salzburg for the Advent season. These ugly horned creatures are modeled after St. Nicholas' companion, Krampus, who punishes wicked children on St. Nicholas day by beating them with twigs.

Naturally, I had to do a little googling to find out more about Krampus. Here's a picture I filched off of the Intersport Snow Festival website. This fellow makes the Grinch look like a big ol' yuletide pussycat:

Now isn't that just the sweetest tradition? Leave it to those zany Austrians to spice up the Christmas holiday. Eggnog and peppermint and presents . . . oh, yes, and ghastly beasts straight from the pits of hell. 'Tis the season!

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Tuesday, December 02, 2003

There isn't much going on around here these days that is blog-worthy. My snowboarding bruises are slowly fading, and we're settling back into our normal routine. I'm working hard to get Christmas cards and gifts mailed as soon as possible in the hopes that they just might make it to their destinations before New Years Day. I hear the mail service really bogs down over here around the holidays.

I've spent a little time looking at other people's blogs recently. Here's one that I think is pretty interesting: Reliquary:Fred-Bob the Dancing Queen's Imperial Dispatches. It's a journal kept by a Florida National Guardsman who was stationed in Iraq. Then somebody detonated an Improvised Explosive Device underneath his vehicle, and he's now in the hospital at Ft. Gordon, GA.

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