More than Once

When I was eight years old, my parents took me to my very first Broadway show. As the curtain rose and the orchestral music swelled, a hush came over the crowd. My eyes grew wide with expectation.

And then the magic began.

The show was Carnival, with Anna Maria Alberghetti as the naive ingenue, Jerry Ohrbach as the puppeteer, and Kaye Ballard as, well, Kaye Ballard. I was mesmerized by the beautiful singing and dancing and the poignant love story that tugged at my heart. My eyes stung with tears when Lili, who I guess in modern times would have a diagnosis, was stunned to find out that her puppet friends were not real.

(As an aside, many years later I was thrilled to find out that there would be a run of Carnival at a local community theater. I purchased tickets for the whole family and excitedly prepped them for what was to come. Although well done, the play was so outdated that my kids — and my husband, I suspect– squirmed in their seats until it was over.)

For many weeks post-Carnival, I would race home from school, throw my belongings down, and turn on the record player to listen to the cast album. It wasn’t enough to memorize each note, word and inflection. I choreographed every song on the album, roped two friends into joining me, and persuaded Mrs. Wagner, my second grade teacher, to let us perform for the class.

It was clear that Broadway and I were meant for each other.

Was I obsessed? Yes, indeed, Yes, I was.

I’ve had the great fortune to have seen many more Broadway shows, too many to name. My favorites? Hard to say, but there are two I can think of right off the bat that had the same effect on me as Carnival did. I hear a  couple of bars of the music and my eyes well up. And I know every word of every song.

and

So, you may be wondering … or not … would my passion for Broadway catapult me into a career on stage? I certainly had the emotional energy, the drive, the enthusiasm.

Just one thing was missing: any discernible talent.

But a true blue fan I have been and will always be, and I am currently bedazzled by a most wonderful show called Once that my friends and I were lucky to see.

Here we are after the performance. I’m the one in the middle. Can you see the stars in my eyes? Can you hear me humming the tunes?

Once is the story of an Irish musician and a Czech immigrant who share a love of music. Last week the spectacular ensemble performed a number on David Letterman. Watch this and fall in love.

Bravo, Once, and may your run be long and fruitful. I can’t wait to come back.

Let the curtain rise. Let the magic begin.

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Cheeky Cherubs

Can I share my latest obsession? I can’t help but smile when I think of them: the precious pint-size duo from Essex, England, the little British girls who are taking this country by storm. On the cuteness scale, they are way off the charts. Meet Sophia Grace and Rosie.

Sophia Grace, pictured right above, and Rosie, eight and five years old respectively, are precious moppets who favor Easter egg-hued tutus and sparkly tiaras. They came to the attention of The Ellen Show because of a video showcasing Sophia Grace’s talent, natural charm and boundless energy. Their very first appearance launched these sensations into instant celebrity.

Sophia Grace is crazy about rock music and rock artists, and not only has talent, but an uncanny ability to memorize lyrics as well as strut like a pro on stage. Her breadth of knowledge of songs and artists is incredible, and her renditions are sweet and soulful. Cousin Rosie, her “hype girl,” is there for moral support and cheerfully accompanies her partner on stage. Sophia Grace likes having her there “because she gives me confidence,” she said in her sweet little clipped British voice.

The girls returned to The Ellen Show and were treated to a surprise visit from Sophia Grace’s idol, Nikki Minaj.

You can see that Nikki is completely blown away by the awesomeness of her protegé, and Sophia Grace is beyond excited to meet Nikki.

Ellen has had the girls back several times. In this clip, The Ellen Show flew them out to Hollywood to walk the red carpet at the Grammys, a dream come true for Sophia Grace. So adorable.

And just one more.

This segment is “Tea Time with Sophia Grace and Rosie,” guest starring Taylor Swift. To die for!

Have you fallen in love yet?

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THON 2012 Makes an Impact

I am achy, bleary-eyed and yawning incessantly this morning. But so very happy.

For those of you who don’t know the magic that is THON, the largest student-run philanthropy in the world, let me explain.

AP Photo/Centre Daily Times, Abby Drey

Officially known as The Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon, THON was started 40 years ago by Penn State students who wanted to make a difference in the lives of those in need. Inspired by the story of Christopher Millard, who was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 11, they earmarked all their proceeds for Penn State Hershey’s Children’s Hospital Four Diamonds Fund which supports pediatric cancer patients and their families.

Christopher’s parents, Charles and Irma Millard, established the Four Diamonds Fund in his memory. Before he succumbed to the disease at age 14, Christopher wrote a story about a knight searching for four diamonds — Courage, Wisdom, Honesty and Strength — that would release him from captivity by an evil sorceress.

It is unthinkable; the worst nightmare possible. Your child is sick, not getting better. You are delirious with worry. Imagine hearing the words no parent ever wants to hear. Picture being wracked with fear, grief, anxiety. That’s where the Four Diamonds Fund comes in. The Fund offsets the cost of treatment that insurance doesn’t cover, and takes cares of expenses incurred by the child and family, making sure that of all the things to worry about, finances won’t be one of them.

To raise money, students plan events throughout the year, most visibly on “canning” weekends, when students fan out into communities to solicit donations. Since canning weekends are in the late fall and early winter, it is usually freezing cold. But Penn State students don’t let a little cold slow them down.

All the Penn State campuses are involved. Alumni groups pitch in. Even high schools have “mini THONS.” More than 350 groups and organizations are involved with THON, and about 15,000 Penn State students volunteer in some capacity. Imagine all that goes into an undertaking of this magnitude, and then remember that this is completely student-run. Clearly, Penn State students are the most amazing in the world.

THON weekend is in February and is held at the Bryce Jordan Center on Penn State’s campus. Seven hundred students are on their feet for 46 hours, and 15,000 people fill the stands (and “stands” is the operative word; no one sits) to cheer them on. Brightly colored t-shirts identify each participating organization.  The energy is extraordinary; everyone is always moving, dancing, cheering, singing, swaying, clapping.  THON weekend is a combination of rock concert, revival meeting, circus, song fest, dance, pep rally, costume party, exercise workout, and bonding experience, and that’s just the beginning. I still haven’t found the words to adequately describe THON.

students make the "diamond" sign

THON kids and their families are the VIPs. Many of the parents say that their kids love THON as much as Christmas. The kids get to be kids and have an entire weekend of fun. Some of them perform on stage. Most of them are happy to run around the floor and play with the Penn State dancers. There are spirited water pistol battles, piggyback rides, face painting, bubble blowing, and lots of hugging.

photo by 6ABC

Although the ambiance is mostly festive, there are moments of deep sadness. Several THON families share their stories, and not all of them have a happy ending. We cheer at the videos of children who have beaten the disease, and sob at the ones portraying kids who have lost the battle. It is because of them that we will keep fighting until no child has to endure this terrible fate, and no parent has to hear that grim diagnosis. We THON FTK: For the Kids.

Bryce Carter, on crutches, and his family. His mom describes his ongoing battle with cancer. AP Photo/Centre Daily Times, Abby Drey.

Penn State students raised $10.6 million for the kids this year. This shatters last year’s total by more than a million dollars. Like everyone else, I was on my feet for the better part of two and a half days. I am beyond exhausted, but bursting with love and Penn State pride.

Joe Paterno left us with a mandate: make an impact. Thank you, Penn State students, for doing just that. FTK.

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Super Shmuper

Let me state for the record that I have tried, oh have I tried, to understand football.

If football passion is contagious, I should have contracted a rabid case long ago. My father, husband and son live and breathe it. For as long as I can remember, weekends during football season have revolved around our teams’ schedule. And today, Super Sunday? My husband calls it “the holiest day of the year.”

Despite having an avid interest in most spectator sports, I just don’t get football.

There are things I like about football culture. I like crisp fall Saturdays dappled with sunshine and football games. I enjoy the marching band, the cheers and the go team go. I like … halftime.

The men in my family have been patient with me. How many times have they repeated the ABCs of football at a level that qualifies as Football for Dummies? And each time, their hopeless student failed miserably. Football terminology was as elusive as Mandarin Chinese. (Secondary? Hail Mary? Split End?) After a few minutes my eyes would glaze over and my brain would demur. Uh uh, said my brain, we no get it.

say what?

In my dogged pursuit to enjoy this silly game, I force myself to watch, pretending to be interested and trying hard to disguise my cluelessness. It usually goes like this. Until Something Big happens I can stare at the screen and simultaneously plan my weekly grocery list. No one is the wiser. All of a sudden there is excitement. Something BIG has happened. The crowd goes wild and there’s a whoop from my husband.  “All rightttt!” he claps loudly. Duncan cocks an eye and wags his tail. “What happened?” I ask tentatively. His eyes are glued on the set. “Um, what happened?” I repeat. His smile fades. He sighs with thinly veiled exasperation and starts to explain, his eyes not leaving the screen. His voice trails off, and I let it go. it doesn’t matter. Whatever he tells me, I won’t understand, anyway.

So tonight I will sit through this snooze fest whose only redeeming quality is the punctuation of amusing commercials. And I’ll get to work on my grocery list.

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Joe and Bear

The man in the blue windbreaker looked perplexed. Squinting in the bright light, he waved away a swirl of clouds, searching for a familiar face. He took off his glasses and wiped the lenses clean, then replaced them, blinking.  All at once he broke into a grin.

“Hey stranger!” he called to the tall guy with the houndstooth hat.

“Winningest coach, eh?” smiled the elder man. “Good to see you, buddy.”

Blue Windbreaker caught up and fell into step. “After I saw what happened when you retired, well … ” he faltered.

“I know. Kind of surprised me too, but I guess it was my time.”

“Heck of a thing,” Blue Windbreaker said. “If you’d have told me I’d still be coaching at the age of  85, I would’ve told you you were crazy. But you know how it is, hard to let go. Just one more season, I thought.”

“You had, what, 409 wins? Five undefeated seasons? Two national championships?” Houndstooth Hat asked, “Not too shabby.”

“And you had six national championships,” Blue Windbreaker said. “That’s some kind of career.”

“The last time we met up was, let’s see, October 9, 1982 in Birmingham,” mused Houndstooth Hat. “You guys were number three and we were number four. Remember?”

Blue Windbreaker winced. “Sure do. You beat us 42-21. I’ve had a hard time forgetting.”

“I think I remember every loss. Every gosh darned one.”

“Hey, you do the best you can and most times come out OK. In life, too.” Blue Windbreaker paused. “There were mistakes made, things I wish I had done differently. Regrets.”

Houndstooth Hat nodded solemnly.

“The facts will be learned. The verdict will come out,” he said softly. “But trust me, old friend. Your legacy will endure.”

“You know they gave me a statue by the stadium,” Blue Windbreaker said. “It says:

‘They ask me what I’d like written about me when I’m gone. I hope they write I made Penn State a better place, not just that I was a good football coach.'”

_________

Disclaimer: The conversation in this post is 100% fictional and was created by me.

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Spread Your Wings and … Fly?

On a sunny day last May, the newly-minted graduates tossed their tasseled caps in the air with whoops and hollers. With that, my daughter Laurie and the other members of the Class of 2011 closed one door and turned expectantly toward another. What was on the other side? For some, the promise of a job or graduate school.

For others, the door creakily hinged shut, putting new beginnings tantalizingly out of reach.

The members of the Class of 2011 had been raised to believe that they could do anything with a college degree. Follow your dreams, we parents told them. The world is your oyster. With that diploma you will have opportunities galore.

The economy of 2011 told them something else.

The misery of finding a job in a sluggish economy was a lesson in Real Life 101.  Item #1 on the syllabus: there aren’t a lot of jobs out there. Item #2: you’re one of a gazillion vying for the jobs that are. Item #3: get used to trying your hardest and coming up empty. Get used to not having your calls returned. Get used to waiting.

Being the highly organized person she is, Laurie started her search months before graduation.  She sent out countless resumes. Checked job websites daily. Spent hours researching, reaching out to friends of friends whose cousin’s neighbor worked somewhere where they were hiring. And I won’t tell you that nothing, absolutely nothing came of it.

There were some clunkers offers along the way. Yet despite being in the throes of anxiety, Laurie trusted her instincts and was wary.

For example, she encountered:

* a “marketing/advertising” company whose website boasted its rapid growth, multiple office locations and plans for further expansion. She was interviewed for a marketing associate position. Sounded perfect, too good to be true. And it was. At the end of a long day of interviews, she was told she would be selling the services of a utility company. Door-to-door. In questionable urban neighborhoods. No salary, just commission. And no benefits. Um, no.

* a well-known international finance corporation that invited her to interview for a financial analyst position. The first interviews went well and she got called back. In the course of the second round, she was pressed to reveal her family’s financial circumstances, what neighborhoods her relatives and friends called home, which prominent families were in her circle from high school and college, etc. Noooo, thank you.

* an insurance company with locations throughout the country that offered her a position right on the spot. What was the catch? Again, no base salary. Strictly commission. :sound of buzzer:

Her dogged pursuit meant hours each day browsing new openings, following up with emails and phone calls, and continuing to network every which way. She tried to be positive, but sometimes it just got to be too much. The waiting was awful and it really sucked to be back at home, living with her parents, as if college had never happened. Thank goodness for friends like Cassandra who freely dispensed encouragement and hugs.

 

But I am happy to tell you that her persistence paid off. After many months and many interviews, she was offered the job she had wanted more than anything, in the city she wanted to live in. In the end it worked out exactly the way she had dreamed.

To the recent grads, and even not-so-recent, who have yet to land a job: hang in there. May 2012 will be a year of recovery, healing and promise. My CNN email alert just announced that the U.S. economy added 200,000 jobs in December with the unemployment rate falling slightly. Believe in yourself, and believe in your future.  Your college education was worth it. And the best is yet to come.

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Gobble Gobble

Word geeks like me get a kick out of the Oxford English Dictionary’s (OED) additions and deletions to our lexicon. This morning on my Twitter feed I found the shortlist for 2011’s word of the year, along with OED definitions (thanks @mashable), and among them are:

  • Bunga bunga: Used in reference to parties hosted by the former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, at which various illicit sexual activities were alleged to have taken place.
  • Clicktivism: The use of social media and other online methods to promote a cause.
  • Crowdfunding: The practice of funding a project or venture by raising many small amounts of money from a large number of people, typically via the Internet.
  • Gamification: The application of concepts and techniques from games to other areas of activity, for instance as an online marketing technique.
  • Tiger mother: A demanding mother who pushes her children to high achievement using methods regarded as typical of Asian childrearing.

FYI, retweet and sexting were added to the dictionary in August, and earlier this year, the terms LOL, <3 and OMG.

So this got me to thinking, as this Thanksgiving holiday weekend comes to a close, what items might the OED have missed? Here are some of my ideas.

  • Bloatulism: That feeling just beyond exquisitely full that borders on nausea
    related: CranBeriBeri
  • L-tryptophantasy: imagining that the dishes will be washed and put away when you wake up the next morning
  • OccuPyCrustNow: Sitting around the kitchen table picking at the last crumbs of the apple pie
  • BlackFridaySaturdaySunday: When only black clothes, preferably with lots of elastic, will suffice
  • NordStromboli: Craving Italian food after a tough day at the mall
  • WeAreThe99% Fat-Free: Swearing off carbs for the rest of one’s life. Or until the December holidays.
  • WeightWeightDon’tTellMe: Stepping on the scale while covering one’s eyes
  • Maaloxandbagels: our Sunday brunch menu
  • FingerClickinGood: no more leftovers; ordering Chinese takeout online

What say you, OED?

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I am … Penn State

Lois was a doe-eyed brunette from Squirrel Hill, a soft-spoken co-ed studying child development. Irv was handsome and funny, an all-around great guy and proud member of Phi Ep, a science major full of ambition.

Irv was friendly with a hometown girl, Anita, whose dorm room was next door to Lois’. The girls helped each other out with phone calls: if the phone rang when one of them was out, the other would answer and take a message. Lois and Irv got to know each other over the phone, when she would pick up to take a message for Anita. It got to the point, Irv admits, where he secretly hoped Lois would answer the call.

“But he knew me by sight,” Lois says. “He just didn’t know that I was the person on the phone. I thought, well, he’s seen me on campus and hasn’t asked me out. But when he finally realized I was that girl and asked me on a date, I said yes.”

The rest, as they say, is history.

My parents, Lois and Irv, met at Penn State, just weeks before my mother would graduate. My dad had been in the army and was attending Penn State on the GI Bill, so he was a year behind her. Their first date was a basketball game and, afterwards, dinner at a club called Paradise in Bellefonte. Just weeks later, my mother graduated and moved back to Pittsburgh to work at Fineman’s, the family store in Turtle Creek.

My dad spent his senior year studying during the week and driving to Pittsburgh on weekends to spend time with my mother. The following June, he graduated, they got married and the young couple moved to Reading, his home town. They settled into married life, and after three years I joined the family, followed by my brother two years later.

I was pretty darn adorable.

This is my favorite picture of my brother, ever.

Penn State felt like another sibling, always referred to with love and affection. It was a presence in our household and in our extended family, since dozens of family members were proud Penn State alumni. Uncle Lew even had a life-size cardboard replica of Joe Paterno that sometimes appeared at family functions. My parents were always devoted to their alma mater, involved with programs at University Park as well as the Berks campus.  There was no question in my mind that, like them, I would be a Penn Stater myself someday.

Well, things did not play out exactly as planned. An indifferent student in high school, I did not have stellar grades or SAT scores. Penn State accepted me to a branch campus but in the end I decided to go elsewhere.

Fast forward many years. I was married, had children, pursued a career in marketing and communications. To my utter delight, an opportunity arose at what was then Penn State Delaware County, now Brandywine, and I became an official member of the Penn State community almost five years ago. At the same time, our youngest daughter, Laurie, started her freshman year at Penn State’s main campus in University Park. Both life events were thrilling and a source of pride.

Laurie graduated this past May after four fantastic years. She worked hard and played hard, made lifelong friends, participated in THON, spent a semester in Paris, had the college experience everyone should have. Her first job came about through a Penn State connection. Penn Staters look out for Penn Staters. This is a fact.

My three Penn State grads: Dad, Laurie and Mom.

Penn State is in my DNA. Penn State will always be family to me, a family member for whom I have enormous respect. Penn State is world-renowned faculty, unlimited opportunities for learning, international programs, internships, a Big Ten education. It is the fabulous students — bright, caring, talented, spirited, driven. It is brilliant professors, THON,  stickies and Creamery ice cream, singing the alma mater, the biggest alumni association in the world.

Penn State is bigger than the actions or inactions of a few. We Penn Staters will get through this crisis because we are strong and resilient. We will do what we can to right the wrongs, to give back as Penn Staters do, to heal others and ourselves. Our reputation as a university with the highest ethical standards will be restored. I am so proud to be a Penn Stater. We are … I am …   Penn State.

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A Foray to the Four Seasons

I am not going to blog about what has happened to my beloved Penn State this week. There is a post to be written, but now is not the time. It is too soon, too raw, and sadly, the horrific stories continue to unfold. Let me just say that all of us who are members of the Penn State community are reeling with the awfulness and grieving for the victims and their families. There are a lot of red-rimmed eyes around my campus today.

For the few minutes it will take to write this post, I am going to pretend that it has been a week like any other, with one day routinely following another and filled with moments of ennui, episodes of fielding minor curve balls and sparks of unexpected pleasures.

One of these took place yesterday when my friend Alyse and I attended an event at the Four Seasons Hotel in Philadelphia to tour the kitchen facilities and observe a cooking demonstration. This was especially fun for us since Alyse and I once owned a catering business called Fete Accomplie when we were young with better backs. Fete Accomplie is no longer, but Alyse and I still love to cook.

We were met by the hotel’s sommelier who offered us a glass of wine, and then it was on to the kitchen.

Our first course was Autumn Mushroom Soup with Lancaster Goat Cheese Foam and Rosemary Oil. Yum!

Mushroom Soup

1 lb. button mushrooms
1 lb. shiitake mushrooms
1 lb. crimini mushrooms
Clean and slice all of them.
1 leek, washed and sliced
2 cloves garlic, chopped
3 sprigs thyme
2 T. butter
3 T. olive oil
1/2 c. white wine
1/2 gal. chicken stock
1 pint heavy cream
salt and pepper to taste

Heat large pot over medium high heat. Saute mushrooms in oil in three batches til golden brown. Remove.

Reduce heat to medium and saute leeks and garlic in butter until soft, about 5-7 minutes. Add wine and reduce by half. Add mushrooms back to pot and cover with stock. Add thyme and season with salt and pepper; simmer on low for 20 min. Add cream and continue to cook 10 more minutes. Remove thyme stems, puree, pass soup through sieve, and season to taste.

The chef put a dollop of goat cheese in the cup before pouring in the soup, and then drizzled it with rosemary oil.

Next up: Butternut Squash Risotto. The chef served this with a seared scallop on top. Delish.

Butternut Squash Risotto

5 c. chicken stock, at a simmer
1 c. Arborio rice
1/2 small onion, diced
2 c. diced butternut squash
4 T. olive oil
2 T. butter
1/4 c. white wine
1/4 c. grated Parmesan
salt and pepper to taste

In large pan, saute butternut squash in 2 T. olive oil over medium low heat til soft. Reserve. In large pot, sweat onion in 2 T. olive oil for 5 minutes over medium low heat. Add rice and cook 1 minute. Add wine and reduce til dry.

Add 1 c. stock and stir continuously til absorbed. Continue adding stock til all is absorbed and rice is tender. Add cooked butternut squash, cheese and butter. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Next up: Beef Shortribs, served atop a Parsnip Potato Puree.

Beef Shortribs

4 8oz. boneless beef shortribs
2 carrots, large dice
2 stalks celery, large dice
1 large onion, large dice
4 cloves garlic, chopped
4 sprigs thyme
1 c. red wine
1 quart beef stock
1 T. tomato paste
salt and pepper
3 T. olive oil
2 T. butter, softened
2 T. flour

Season meat liberally with salt and pepper. In large pot, sear ribs in olive oil til browned on all sides.Remove from pot. Add vegetables, garlic and thyme and cook for 10 minutes over medium heat. Add tomato paste and cook 2 minutes. Add red wine and reduce by half.

Add meat back to the pot and cover with beef stock. Cover pot and simmer on low heat for 2 1/2 – 3 hours til tender. Remove ribs and strain braising liquid into a sauce pot, skim off fat and reduce liquid by half.

Mix flour and butter til paste forms (beurre manie), whisk into braising liquid to thicken sauce, and simmer for 10 minutes.

Everything was so flavorful and the presentation was beautiful. On our way out of the kitchen, we passed by a few other stations. Here is a tray of mini pizzas topped with spinach, tomato and feta, just about to be popped in the oven.

And finally, on our way out, we were handed this sweet little bag of madeleines to eat on the way home.

It was a lovely way to spend an afternoon, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.

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Mom Revisited

I nod with a knowing smile at my young mother friends who throw up their hands at the latest crisis with their children. Is it bed-wetting, pink eye, inability to play nicely with others? Mark my words, I say, you will blink and all of a sudden they’re grown up. This is what older women used to tell me when I was a young mother and I thought they didn’t know what they were talking about.

How fleeting those years would be I could not understand, not with a fretful, colicky infant who screamed himself into exhaustion night after night. I remember wishing those years away, wanting him to grow up.

Now I would give anything to go back in time to savor every moment a bit longer. My little boy grew up way too fast, and now he lives halfway across the world. I miss him so much.

Evan is here for a visit now, and as an added bonus, three of his buddies flew in for a few days. The house has been  bustling with 24/7 hubbub: deep guy voices talking football and trash, late night pizza deliveries, ping-pong matches, clothes and electronic devices scattered throughout. Tantalizing aromas of home cooked hearty casseroles and peanut butter cookies waft through the house. I fill the dishwasher, empty it. Rinse and repeat.

I have loved every minute. Gerry, Mike and Dan are now officially our adopted sons and have an open invitation to come back anytime.

The guys holding tickets to the Eagles/Cowboys game — Gerry, Evan, Mike, Dan

Evan gave them the grand tour of our fair city, Philadelphia. They sampled cheese steaks and hoagies until they could eat no more. They also went to a Halloween party.

My son, the rabbi, second from left

Today, as they all board their various flights, I will be straightening up the house, throwing a few loads of laundry in the wash, reheating the leftover baked ziti for dinner. And missing the guys a lot.

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