Glen Arbor’s “Big Storm” of August 2, 2015

I got a call from my mother on a Sunday afternoon, and from “hello,” I recognized the apocalyptic tone in her voice.

“Everyone’s OK, but we just got hit by a tornado.”

The photos streamed in over the following days via Facebook and text, with updates from my family as they cut out through the downed trees, which just so happened to cover the roads a half mile in either direction from the end of our driveway. Huge swaths of forest were completely clear cut. Winds up to 100 miles an hour. There was a huge number of family and guests staying at our house that day, an unexpected number of people who then had to spend even longer stuck with no power or running water. They had to bring buckets up from the lake to flush the toilets. Craig and I were the only members of my family who weren’t there. My brothers took on massive chainsaw endeavors to try to clear some of the 35 trees that had fallen on our property alone. Our place:

trees on house

I kept tabs on the whole thing via screen, 800 miles away. The photos and videos of the storm itself are chilling. Check out this slideshow of storm photos by MLive.


Photo via Glen Arbor Sun; reader submitted

It wasn’t exactly a tornado, said the weather service in the end. That part I found to be pretty fascinating. People who witnessed it were sure, based on the way the trees seemed to be twisted, that this was not a straight-line wind storm.  And they were pretty upset to be told otherwise. But there was a lot of fascination with it – there’s even a book that’s already been published about the storm.

The damage, last I heard, was estimated toward $30 million, yet not one person was injured. That’s the real surprise, and a pleasant one. Everyone was affected, no one was hurt. And people really came together to help each other – the chef at Blu in Glen Arbor fed the people who were stranded and camping out in the township building. Volunteers cropped up from all over to help clean up the town. Members of my own family even helped cook for folks.

We lost our garage and two cars, and also our massive canopy of woods. But it could have been much worse. When we got up there for our vacation in the end of August, there were enormous stacks of tree trunks on the side of the road everywhere you went. Everyone had their story they wanted to share. But mostly people were grateful there were no injuries and happy that the community banded together to clean up.

Today, the Glen Arbor Sun published a great piece titled “Time Heals,” which puts things in perspective: our town’s culture is shaped by the natural disasters and other tragedies that have happened there.


Adopting the Senior Dog: It Was Worth It

20131215_201005March 30, 2013 was an exciting day that brought me unexpected surprises, laughter, tears, frustration, joy. I adopted Arthur (formerly Cheech), who was 11 at the time. His family had to surrender him and I had decided I was prepared to bring a senior dog home. I trekked to Staten Island with my ex boyfriend, who was part of the whole adoption process, and brought home my 70-lb bundle.

This dog. He was hilarious and ridiculous. In the beginning, from trying to eat his harness when I came toward him with it to doing unmentionable things to his dog beds (I blame it on the steroids), there was no end to the excitement. He became attached to me and got VERY agitated and would throw himself against the door whenever I would load things into the car. And there was a LOT of loading things into cars, considering I moved twice in the 2 years I had with him. OH yeah, and the pooping in the car thing.

How about the time I tried to pin down his beds under the feet of the couches so he wouldn’t hump them and he just yanked them all around the living room, along with the couches, and then tore the bed up and spread the stuffing everywhere? Oh, and this was while I was away and my friend was dog sitting.

But then there was his hop dance.

I learned a lot about bulldogs and their health conditions, and dog health in general. Yeasty skin? Check. Abscessed teeth? Check. Dry eye? Check. Deafness? Check. Aural hematoma? Check. Skin allergies? Check. Staph infection? Check. Canine MRSA? Check. Infected anal gland requiring hospitalization? Check. Enlarged heart? Check. Suffocating gas? Check. Incontinence? CHECK. The list never seemed to end. Maybe my vet was right when he told me he thought only veterinarians should own English bulldogs.

But Arthur was such an irresistibly grouchy, stubborn old man. I fell for him. I loved him and his squishy face and I loved giving him bulldog hugs and loved getting his shy, tiny kisses. Last October he and I moved into Craig’s place and Arthur weaved his way into Craig’s heart and into McKinley the bulldog’s heart, too. He was well loved by everyone he met. When we were walking, people would actually pull their cars over to look at him and tell me they thought he was great.

About 2 weeks ago, our old Bubba developed bloat (gastric dilatation and volvulus) suddenly and an hour after we noticed something was wrong we had to make that incredibly sad decision to say goodbye to him instead of putting him through a major surgery at almost 14 years old with heart disease.

At the risk of sounding dramatic, it was all worth it. I’m so glad I got to spend these couple of years taking care of this boy, really keeping him comfortable. Every hour of sleep lost running downstairs at the sound of his toenails clicking, every twisted back muscle from carrying him up and down stairs for never-ending bath routine, every penny I spent, worth it. My good boy was a good boy and he deserved it all.


Definition of THIRTY-FIVE

:  being one more than 34 in number <thirty-five years>

I’m half way through my thirties this month. It’s been sinking in these last few years in undeniable ways that I’m approaching middle age. Like, I wear sensible shoes most of the time, or else I pay for it. Let’s be honest, I have to do a lot of things differently or else I pay for it, but overall life is great.

When I turned 30, I told everyone my thirties just HAD to be better than my twenties, and despite jinxing myself then, I was right. That’s not to say that there weren’t amazing things that happened in my twenties too – I lived in France, I graduated from GW, I started Murami, I got my first job as an editor, I became a cyclist and completed almost a dozen long-distance charity rides, I became an aunt 6 times – but damn … a lot of it was HARD, and a lot of it was stuff that people around me hadn’t dealt with before, the short list being an eating disorder, the fallout from receiving a false-positive HIV test result, and a really, really awful divorce.

As I approached the end of my twenties I had to find a new normal, and I latched on to a few mantras that were beacons for me:

“The only person who will never leave you is you.” — Read in a book I picked up and shuffled through in a waiting room, circa 2007

“You become what you think about.” — From Earl Nightingale, 1950s/1960s motivational speaker, via a friend, circa 2009

“Tough times don’t last, but tough people do.” — Tommy Lasorda, during an interview with Preston and Steve circa 2008

Those got me through my divorce, which was by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and helped me reset. And now 35 is a really good place to be. In the last 5 years I worked hard to get where I am as a web editor in medical publishing. I have been traveling a lot and seen amazing things across the globe. I sing with a choir, I’m painting. I’ve leveled up my bike twice and was certified as a coach for Team in Training. And, I venture to say most importantly, I found a soul mate, which I didn’t believe was even a real thing until it happened. And I don’t need to pep-talk myself so much anymore with those old mantras – mostly I just ask myself, “Are you doing your best?” I know what I’m capable of, but also that I need to say no sometimes, and as long as I know I am putting my best self into what I do (work, health, relationships, learning), I’m good.

Things I miss about my twenties: a full, thick mane of hair. I think that’s it. I can live with that.


Francophile and Formula 1 Newbie Trip to Grand Prix du Canada in Montreal

If you are looking to visit Montreal for the Grand Prix du Canada Formula 1 race and you also want to fit in some sightseeing, this might help you plan.

My boyfriend and his brother have been following F1 (specifically Red Bull Racing) for a few years. Craig has talked about wanting to go see a race since we met, but he never had any actual plans to do it. That’s where I came in. His dream race destination is Circuit de Spa in Belgium, which I of course would love to do because of my love of Europe and the French language, but that wasn’t going to fit in the budget in terms of vacation time or money if we were going to go any time soon. So, since Montreal is drivable from Pennsylvania and people have said it’s a great city to visit AND they speak French there, I offered to plan a long weekend trip to the Canadian Grand Prix.

In my research for hotels I discovered that renting through VRBO or Airbnb is much cheaper than booking a hotel room, especially on F1 and Montreal Jazz Fest weekends. My requirements for location had to do with price and walkability to the metro and sightseeing. I wanted to stay in Old Montreal but that was a little too pricey and I thought Craig would prefer to stay in a more quiet neighborhood. I ended up finding a really great 2BR condo in Rosemont–La Petite-Patrie, which is a mostly residential neighborhood very close to the Montreal Botanical Gardens, for half the price of the hotels I found on TripAdvisor. And we were able to do laundry and bring groceries for breakfasts, which saved us even more.

Craig took care of the race tickets. He watched a bunch of YouTube videos posted by people attending in previous years to pick the grandstand seats he wanted. We were at an S curve where he thought we’d be able to see some good action.

So on Friday we drove up, and met the concierge for the condo by around 5 PM. We walked over to Station F on Rue Rachel for Dinner, which was AMAZING. Excellent traditional French food – liver pâté, beef cheek. I had an Ile Flottante for the first time in years! I got to dust off my French and listen to the very striking differences between “French French” and Canadian French, also called Joual. I watched a bunch of YouTube videos myself before going, so I could get my bearings and hopefully understand the accent a little better. It helped. I actually watched DododFun a bunch; they were cute. This is for French speakers who want to understand how to speak french in Canada:

There were definitely differences, like I asked for the “WC” once at the metro (short for “water closet,” meaning bathroom in France), and the woman looked at me sideways, so I tried “salle de bain” (also bathroom) and she got it. But I find that kind of stuff really interesting. It also turned out that staying in our farther out and quieter neighborhood had another benefit for me – far fewer people speaking English, so I could use my French more. I felt so useful as the official translator all weekend.

My biggest language challenge came on the first night when we arrived and I decided to pop over to a convenience store for a bottle of wine, and the woman behind the counter was Chinese and our only common language was French. I also discovered then that at some stores you can’t use American credit or debit cards, and all I had were American dollars, and I ended up overpaying because she wanted me to give her the Canadian amount. The price we pay for our wine. I thought we might have trouble with credit cards all weekend because we don’t have the chips, but everywhere else was fine.

It also took me 24 hours to remember the French word for “start.” Like I said, my French definitely needed some dusting. And we didn’t have international data, so I couldn’t use Google Translate when we were out and about.

Saturday morning was “sightseeing for Jen” time because the qualifying race was in the afternoon, so we walked over to the Montreal Biodome, which was really, really cool. There are 5 different ecosystems inside with more than 4,500 animals from 250 different species. Definitely worth a visit, and it’s connected to the Olympic Park and botanical gardens. From there we got on the metro to the racetrack and made it easily but not as quickly as we thought we would. There was a LOT of walking. I saw a bunch of women in heels and was like, NOPE. I was in flats and my feet were destroyed by the end of day 1. Then again I have terrible flat feet, but I digress.

The racetrack! There were tons of vendors selling memorabilia/clothes and lots of different food vendors. Everything was in French and English, including the commentary for the races. We had our first taste of poutine (Frite Alors!), which was delicious. And when we reached our seats in the grandstands, we discovered that the group with the block of seats next to us were from West Chester (just a few miles from us in PA). I had a mutual acquaintance with one, and another guy’s mother works with Craig! Small world. They were staying in Old Montreal and using the city’s Bixi bikes to get around – so that’s an option if you stay closer to the track, or even if you just want to tool around wherever you are.

The qualifying race was very exciting for all of us — finally seeing the F1 cars in person for the first time — but it was probably more exciting for the guys… “brought a tear to the eye,” they said. We also watched the Ferrari Challenge for a while after that, sitting in the shade under a tree on a different part of the course. We could have actually spent a lot more time at the track because our tickets were for 3 days and there were a bunch of events and different races, but, like I said, Craig and his brother agreed to spend some time touring Montreal with me.

Daniel Ricciardo - the happiest driver in all of F1
Daniel Ricciardo – the happiest driver in all of F1

Circuit Gilles Villeneuve was easy to get around once you make it to the island from the metro (but again, LOTS of walking) and even had some really pretty gardens. There’s a biosphere that was part of the Montreal World’s Fair and when we drove in to Montreal we saw an amusement park on the island where the track is, but I don’t know if that was open. There’s also a casino right next to the racetrack. Don’t plan (like I did) to hop off the island for a quick bite to eat in Old Montreal or something before seeing another race event, because the people get bottlenecked walking across the bridge from the metro station.

We ate dinner that night at Bon-D on Rue Masson. Rue Masson was walking distance from our condo, and it has a bunch of good shops and restaurants up and down the street. It seemed to be the hip hangout of the neighborhood. We had some more French food (for me, feuillete de cochon, which even had blood sausage on it).

Morning sightseeing on Sunday included a walking tour I modified from a blog post I found. We saw a good number of things listed in the post and I would recommend using that. I definitely wanted to get a taste of the old-world flavor of Montreal, and you can see it there. We also happened to run into the group of folks who had purchased the special Red Bull Racing experience tickets (WOW, the perks AND the prices of those tickets) while they were getting their photo taken by the Notre Dame Basilica. If only we could have slipped in with them … we were wearing our Red Bull shirts!

Old Montreal
Old Montreal

Then we were off to the races! The crowd was much bigger and the stands were packed. But having only been to American sporting events I was a little surprised at how not drunk the crowd was. It was very civilized. Craig brought his camera with a really great telescopic lens and he was able to take some pretty amazing photos. The cars were going a little slower where our seats were than on the straightaways, but that was good to see, too. To be able to sit in the stands was definitely worth spending the extra money. We walked the track after the race was over, too, and participated in the honored pastime of pilfering memorabilia from the course.

Expect to spend a very long time getting off the island and onto the metro. It took us probably an hour to get onto the train after leaving the track, shuffling slowly with the crowd into the station. But again, it was pretty civilized. We went back over to Old Montreal to buy stuff from a maple syrup vendor at the Bonsecours Market that we had seen before the race. He had let us taste the maple syrup and the maple butter – that stuff sells itself. We ate at Pub BreWskey, which I would definitely eat at again. Local beers and pub food with Canadian flair (like pickled vegetables with the wings and cheese curds on the nachos).

Monday morning on our way out of town we drove up to see the view from Mount Royal, which was also worth seeing (and thankfully did not require walking, although there are a lot of walking paths if you’re into that sort of thing). Getting back through the American checkpoint took about an hour, too, so factor that into your drive time if you’re driving.


So that wrapped up our trip! Things I would have liked to do that we couldn’t fit in:

  • Rent Bixi bikes
  • Visit Crescent Street and Rue Sainte Catherine
  • See the modern art and fine art museums

All in all it was an amazing weekend for everyone. Montreal is really beautiful and easy to navigate, and I would like to think that the people are just as welcoming to non-French-speaking tourists as they were to us.

When You’ve Survived, You Know What’s Important

Sarah: Everything is always changing.

Jen: Do you think there’s anything that stays the same?

Sarah: Oh, yes. Family.


If you don’t have time to read this very long post about my experience at the 2015 Downingtown High School holocaust survivor symposium, I’ve already given you the takeaway gem: the only thing that doesn’t change in life across decades and generations is how important family is.

This is the second time I’ve volunteered as a driver for this event. I had a really magical time with Manya in 2012 (read more here). The event is set up like this: Philadelphia-area survivors are invited to speak to the sophomore class as part of the kids’ education about the holocaust, and several students are competitively selected to be one-on-one chaperones of the survivors for the day. The drivers’ (i.e. my) job is to get the survivors to and from the school. This time I was much less nervous and more excited. My charge for the day was Sarah Danon Meller, and when I googled ahead of time I discovered she is from Split, Croatia (formerly Yugoslavia). Yes! I was just in Croatia! I couldn’t wait to talk to her. I was also excited to go back to the school, which used to be a junior high school – MY junior high school – and became a high school when the school district split the high school into two. I hadn’t been inside since 1995.

I waited a few minutes outside Sarah’s house and then out came a very sprightly little lady in a lovely black pinstripe suit. And because I’m 5’2″ when I say she’s little you know that she’s TINY! She must have been 4’10”. She needed no help from me to get in and out of the car and we chatted like old friends from the time we got on the road to our arrival at the school. I made a point of not asking her to tell her war stories since I knew she’d be telling the whole story later that morning. We talked about Croatia and how beautiful the Dalmatian islands are, and the places that I visited. She was still disappointed that I hadn’t been to Split, even though I’d seen a good number of other places in Croatia (Dubrovnik, Korcula, Orebic, Cara).

SarahMellerI asked her all about how she met her husband and what she liked to do growing up in the states (she was not even a teenager by the time she got to NY). She said she loved going dancing, and told me that her husband asked her to go steady on their first date in January 1952, then he asked her to marry him 3 months later, and they got married on July 5, 3 months after that. I said, your anniversary is my birthday! And then she told me that her husband had died almost 3 years ago on July 6 – the day after their 60th wedding anniversary. He had waited for their anniversary and told everyone he saw in the hospital all day long that it was their anniversary. How beautiful and sad is that? She had a wonderful marriage, and has 4 children and 7 grandchildren. She told me that no amount of time she had with her husband would have ever been enough.

When we got to the school I passed Sarah off to her student chaperone and wandered the school a little, trying to get my bearings. The entrance to the school had been moved, which was disorienting. There were some vestiges of the old building, though, and that was fun to see.

There was a general assembly where 4 of the survivors told their stories to the entire sophomore class. One told of being in Vienna during Krystalnacht. Another woman was a child during the war and was sent away from her family on a train to England in the kindertransport. And Peter, whose father was a mechanic and conscripted by the German army to work on their vehicles. That man attributed his survival to his father, because even though eventually his father died in Buchenwald, because of his skill the Nazis had kept the whole family in a civil prison for a time before eventually sending them to concentration camps. Peter calls April 14 1945, the day he was liberated from Bergen-Belsen, his second birthday. And then Manya, who I drove three years ago, told her story, too.

Manya closed with, “I hope I will be an example to others. We have only one life to live.”

After the assembly were break-out sessions, and I followed Sarah to her room to hear her story, which was incredible. She was 9 years old when Italy occupied the coast of Yugoslavia. It was a fairly benign occupation, aside from the burning and looting of the synagogue and beating of the congregation. But when Italy surrendered to the Allies, the Nazis came in to take over, and the neighbors warned the Danon family in the middle of the night. Sarah’s father and brother (his Holocaust Museum oral history here) took their backpacks and escaped to the mountains, joining the partisans in sabotaging the Germans (they assumed that women and children were safe). Sarah eventually knew she and her mother and little sister had to get out of Split but could not convince her demoralized mother to leave. Nine-year-old Sarah practiced jumping out of her 2nd story window so she could escape if the Nazis came to the door. Sarah remembered that the woman who used to bring their milk had always told her to come visit her farm. Sarah told her mother they needed to go there and ask her to hide them. Her mother said no – that woman wasn’t serious; she won’t help us. Sarah packed a blanket and a sweater, took her little sister and started walking. A few minutes later her mother called to them: “Sarah! I’m coming!”

“I wouldn’t have left without my mother, but she needed convincing,” Sarah said. Sarah became the family hero.

The woman at the farm DID hide them, in a little room, with a single mattress on the floor. They had to be completely silent during the day, for months. When the farm owner became too afraid to hide them anymore, they hiked into the mountains and joined the partisans like Sarah’s father and brother, although they still didn’t know where they were. They hid behind rocks during the day and walked at night. They begged for food. The partisans continued to fight against the Nazis. The group, which had collected many Jewish refugees, got word of a British destroyer that had agreed to rescue the refugees, and in the middle of the night Sarah, her mother, and her sister got in a rowboat and, under Nazi fire, rowed to the British ship and made it to Italy where they miraculously found her father and brother. If they’d arrived 2 weeks later, her father and brother would have already left for New York without them, but they were able to all go together. Sarah moved with her family to Philadelphia and she started her new life. She told us that all of the other Jews from Split who didn’t escape to the mountains were killed. She also told us she was sure she was alive because of God. The kids were all very respectful, but there wasn’t enough time for questions or interactions.

During the event and the luncheon I recognized a few teachers I had known. For a moment I felt like an honored historical relic myself when the student escorting Sarah said he had some “old photos of the school” on his phone and asked, “Do you remember it looking like this?” I realized that he wasn’t even born when I went there. Just another reminder of how special the opportunity is for those kids to meet the survivors. This opportunity won’t be available much longer.

I drove Sarah home and gave her a big hug when I dropped her off. I hope I see her next year.

Here’s a full list of the survivors who participated in the symposium this year: Larry Buchsbaum, Lilly Drukker, Dorothy Finger, Anne Fox, Ralph Franklin, Marius Gherovici, Gertrude Klein Gompers, Ernest Gross, Michael Herskovitz, Joseph Hirt, Joseph Kahn, Manya Perel, John Spitzer, Peter Stern, Erica Herz Van Adelsberg, Sarah Meller, Seymour Levin, Joel Fabian.

Je Suis Écrivaine

The human experience can be pretty confusing. I’m still reeling from yesterday’s news about the attack on the French magazine Charlie Hebdo. Because I write to make sense of things, I wanted to put this together for my own good. I wanted to sort of curate a collection of the things that gave me a little hope yesterday and today in the wake of murder for the sake of silencing opinion.

Lately I find myself self-censoring when I think about writing on this blog, choosing not to write a post because I don’t know how it’ll be taken by others or if anyone even cares. Charlie Hebdo, on the other hand, has always been the brazen opposite, publishing dirty, dirty, satire that I remember rolling my eyes at when I saw the papers around the newsstands when I lived in Grenoble. But I always loved that it existed and all that French irreverence.

What the Oatmeal has to say about religion in his “How to Suck at Your Religion” cartoon today is totally on point and says so much of what I’m thinking. He also makes a funny point about Judaism that is one of the reasons I am happy to have converted.

The worst part of these attacks is the systematic fear mongering. No one knows the real answer to the question of what happens when we die, but some people are so convinced that they want to kill anyone who doesn’t agree with them, even in the small act of drawing a satirical cartoon to that effect. And it requires a lot of bravery to keep going when your life or the life of someone you love is being threatened. Jon Stewart said on the Daily Show last night that comedy should not be an act of courage, and that was true and sad (and is echoed in the Oatmeal cartoon, not to mention mirrored by the response cartoons that are flooding social media).

I’m not writing this now to rant about terrorism, but to encourage myself and other writers to keep at it. There are too many times that silence speaks volumes – the wrong volumes. As Amy Davidson wrote yesterday in her New Yorker piece on the attack:

“There were times when the French government asked the magazine to hold back, but the magazine kept being itself, which is what one wishes for in a free press. Wednesday’s crime should not cause anyone to second-guess Charlie Hebdo’s editorial decisions. Silence is not where the answers to an incident like this lie.


Amateur Nail Polish Modeling

Another thing Craig and I have in common (in addition to the bulldogs as I described in my last post) is that we both have a work-with-your-hands side business.

Craig runs Candeo Colors, which makes glitter nail polish (and, if you didn’t know, I make wall-hanging jewelry organizers). In the last few months I’ve become the Candeo Colors Facebook maven. If you’ve liked the Facebook page, you’ve more than likely seen a photo I took of my own nails after doing my own glitter manicure. It’s been fun, considering I have always been a fan of fun nail art and manicures. I have even ended up the unofficial manicurist at friends’ weddings.

But for as fun as it is to play with the polishes and as good as the final photos I end up posting might look (if they look good at all) it’s not so easy to take photos of your nails with one hand while “modeling” with the other. Here’s how you do it:

Hold the polish bottle in your left hand. Don’t squeeze it too tightly or your fingers will look squished and crazy. Lightly hold the bottle and line your fingers up perfectly along the side of the bottle. Whoops, you need to turn the bottle to show the logo. OK, now start over with the lightly gripping and perfect finger placement. Now find good light. If it’s daytime you can go to the window or outside and use daylight.

If not, you might get away with putting your hand against the bathroom wall directly under the lights if you can climb onto the sink. Now while you’re balanced on the bathroom vanity, start over with the gripping/positioning of the bottle. You might want to hold your breath for that part like I do. Now with one hand get to the camera on your cell phone, and don’t drop the phone while you focus and take a photo. You’ve probably moved your fingers on the bottle so you’ll need to redo that again. And don’t let your hand look wrinkly. Check the photo for dogs, trash cans, dirty dishes, moldy fence, or anything, really, in the background. How does it look? Yikes, what’s up with your cuticles? Maybe you need some cuticle oil and then you can try again. NAILED IT … ?


Wait, what? Your hand looks terrifying, like it’s made of cold, oily clay. Wipe some of that junk off and take 50 more photos in every conceivable location you can find. And for the love of everything holy, don’t get any of your horrifying palm and wrist in the shot. If you’re lucky, you’ll finally get something passable.