Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Milestones and memories, part 2

Sorry for the wait, Blue Sky Blog-land! When last I left you in my Penn State graduation trip adventures I had just done my post-graduation newspaper interview and the family & I were off to our celebratory lunch at American Ale House in State College. Wow, did we have a great experience there, starting with the congratulatory toast with Veuve Clicquot. Rich, our waiter, started making small-talk about wine -- that is until Steve mentioned that he works in the wine industry. Then Rich, realizing he might be out of his league, moved on to another topic. But he couldn't have been more easygoing and attentive to our party of seven, and the food was phenomenal and super-affordable. The place also has a piano bar that unfortunately wasn't open when we were there, but man that would be fun! (Oh, and over the piano bar were painted lyrics to some classic songs, including "I Left My Heart in San Francisco". It's like they knew I was coming!) Who knows when we'll back to Happy Valley, but when it happens we'll definitely return to American Ale House. (And for the record: no, I'm not receiving any compensation for endorsing this restaurant.)

We wrapped up lunch and headed to our next stop, a must-do for any Penn State graduate: the traditional cap-and-gown photo op at the Nittany Lion shrine. By this time it was around 3pm (keeping in mind that the commencement ceremony had wrapped up at 11:30), but there was still about an hour wait to get to the Lion! No worries -- we had plenty to entertain us during our wait. The group in front of us in line included three best buddies who had graduated together. Their degrees were in golf course management, but their minor might as well have been stand-up comedy. They had the whole line in stitches, helping the time pass quickly. (Side note: these three guys also ended up in the newspaper article for which I was interviewed.) Then there was an adorable little girl, around 3 years old, dressed in a Penn State cheerleader outfit and chasing bubbles blown dutifully by her dad. Her family's turn at the Lion came and she was propped up on its back for the photo when someone said, "Okay, ready: one, two..." and before they could get to 3 the little girl screamed, "Cheeeeeeeese!!" The whole line cracked up. Then another picture: "One, two..." "Cheeeeeese!!" More laughter.

Finally it was my family's turn for photos, and it was all I could do to hold it together without tearing up. When I first decided to return to Penn State, one of the things that kept me going was knowing that one day I'd be standing there in that cap and gown with my arms around the Lion's neck, like so many thousands of others before me. Thankfully there was some more comic relief in store to help contain my tears. Our mascot for the trip was one Holly Heather Heifer, a stuffed white Fisher Price Puffalump cow (remember them from the 80s?) that Steve & I have had almost as long as we've been a couple (26 years!). So after the first round of photos of just me, then with family members, it was Holly's turn. Just like the little cheerleader girl before us, I propped up Holly (dressed in her own tiny Penn State t-shirt) on the Lion's back for her moment of glory. I wouldn't have considered making the trip back to PA without her.

Within the next 24 hours the family members dispersed to try to beat the heavy rain that had moved into the area. Steve & I took one more swing back to campus for our final non-negotiable trip down memory lane: a stop at The Diner on College Avenue (called Ye Olde College Diner when we were students the first time around) for grilled stickies a la mode. What is a grilled sticky, you ask? It is a Penn State delicacy and a thing of fat-and-calorie-laden beauty: a large cinnamon bun grilled on a flattop to get the glaze all caramelized and crackly, warmed to perfection so the gigantic scoop of vanilla ice cream on top melts slowly to perfection. It was another one of those memories that did not disappoint, as was Steve's entree of chili mac, which once served as late night sustenance on all of those long nights of... studying. Yeah, studying... let's go with that. Macaroni & cheese, topped with chili, topped with an inch-thick layer of more melted cheese. (I sincerely hope our doctor doesn't read this blog or we've got some 'splainin' to do!)

Geez, looks like this trip is going to require Blog part 3. So more to come... I'll try not to make it so long between installments next time. :-)

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Milestones and memories

Have you ever tried to revisit a time or place that is a beloved part of your past, only to have the whole experience be a letdown? Well, my trip back to Penn State for my graduation (my first time there in about 10 years) was everything that I thought it would be and more.

We flew from San Francisco to Philadelphia on Thursday, August 11th and spent the evening catching up with Steve's parents, whom we hadn't seen since a holiday visit a couple of years ago. Both of them, but especially my father-in-law, have been among my most ardent cheerleaders in my belated return to school. So after breakfast Friday the four of us hit the Pennsylvania Turnpike westward, turned onto Route 322 (taking in some of the most stunning lush, green farmland I've ever seen) and headed right into the heart of Happy Valley. Our first stop was the Penn State Bookstore where I picked up my cap and gown and stocked up on some PSU gear. Credit card damage was limited to a zip-up hoodie, t-shirt, ballcap, license plate frame and fridge magnet -- I could've done much worse! Then it was off to the Berkey Creamery, which didn't exist when I went to Penn State the first time around (it was in a much smaller building elsewhere on campus)... but the ice cream hasn't changed a bit! (Bear in mind that when Ben & Jerry wanted to learn how to make ice cream, they took a course at Penn State. I kid you not.) I had no choice but to indulge in a huge cone of Peachy Paterno, one of the Creamery's best-sellers. You have *never* had peach ice cream like this -- so decadently creamy with gigantic frozen peach slices throughout, like it was studded with little peach popsicles! My memories sure didn't let me down on that score.

Not long after that I had a waaay overdue reunion with my sister Jean, who drove up from the Baltimore area. Hard to believe that six years had passed since we'd last seen each other! But the coolest thing was when the five of us went to dinner at a nearby pub where she and I proceeded to crack each other up with our mutual stupid sense of humor, like it had only been six hours since we had last hung out together.

Then came the big event -- Saturday morning's commencement ceremony at Bryce Jordan Center (the arena is also new since my last trip to campus). There were about 400 of us on hand out of a class of 1200 to receive our degrees. As we awaited the start of the ceremony Steve's brother Gary and his wife Cindy, who had driven in that morning from near Allentown, joined the crew. Now as someone who has a habit of crying at Hallmark commercials, I thought for sure I would dissolve into a puddle of tears at some point in the ceremony, but I toughed it out -- that is until one of the speakers on stage asked the family and friends of the graduates to stand up and be acknowledged for their crucial roles in our road to graduation. I looked up at my gathered family and I was toast... I lost it. (Funny thing about that gown I had on -- no pocket for tissues.) Luckily I managed to spare enough of my makeup to not look too scary for the post-ceremony photo ops.

We had some time to kill before we headed to the American Ale House, where we had reservations for our celebratory lunch, so we were just standing around talking when I was approached by a reporter from the Centre Daily Times, State College's local newspaper, and asked if I would mind discussing my experience as a new graduate. Although as a member of the media I've been featured in the paper quite often over the years, it was still kind of cool for the family (especially thrilling for my mother-in-law). Somewhere between the reporter's notepad and the publication of the story the final "A" was dropped from my last name, but that's the story of my married life!

Watch this space for "Milestones and memories, part 2". This post is getting ridiculously long and it's almost dinnertime. Yep, I got priorities, baby! :-)