Tag Archives: travel

A Year in the Life of a Beard

For about as long as I’ve been able to grow a reasonable amount of facial hair, I’ve rarely gone longer than several months without letting my beard come in. For a long time, I would let it sprout then trim it back close, or I would shave clean for months and then let the beard flourish for a little while before shearing myself again.

So for the last 25 years, I’ve probably sported a beard at least as much if not more than I’ve been smooth. This particular iteration has been on the face for four or five years now. It’s been full, but kept to a reasonable half inch or so for most of that time. I find that it does wonders to mask the slowly expanding space between my chin and my Adam’s apple.

I had always wanted to see just what I was capable of growing if I really let it run wild. A few times in college I had gone without grooming for a couple months at a time before taming it again, but that was the beard of a much younger man. What could I do as a well-seasoned husband and father of two?

Without consciously intending to do so, I went a few weeks longer than I usually do between trims. In November of last year, the beard was in full foliage, even as the trees were not. By Thanksgiving I seemed manly enough.

Thanksgiving beard.
The beard representing both our Pilgrim forefathers and South Knoxville.

A week or two after the Thanksgiving holiday I lightly trimmed what had been growing, leaving me with the equivalent of three or four weeks’ growth.

That would be the last time I would trim it for 11 months.

By Christmas the beard was filling in to a fairly full state again.

the beard at Christmas 2014
Christmas seems the right time for a full beard anyway, right? Molly is looking lovely as always while I get by.

Around this time (I can’t remember exactly when) I was asked to play the part of Kit Carson in the William Saroyan play The Time of Your Life. Seemed the perfect chance: I could let the beard grow for the part, then see what happens. The play was a few months off, so I was certain that I could reach an impressive length by then. Molly wasn’t particularly excited about the beginnings of a fuller beard, but was enthusiastically on board for the acting bit, so she gracefully allowed it.

The slightly longer beard also lent itself to a more Biblical look for my role as a metal-smith during a church event.
The slightly longer beard also lent itself to a more Biblical look for my role as a metal-smith during a church event.
New Year's beard
Ringing in the New Year was definitely warmer this year.

In February we saw more snow and cold than we’ve seen in a long time in Knoxville. With temperatures dropping into and remaining in the single digits, I was glad to be more furry. The fuzzy face with the fuzzy hat kept me plenty cozy.

snow-shoveling beard
I might not have been excited to shovel snow, but the beard seemed to be.
wool cap and beard
Did I mention that I knitted myself a wool cap to go with my wooly beard?

By March and the time of the play, the beard had reached an unprecedented length. People would comment on it, but I insisted that “it was gettin’ there.”

Kit Carson beard
The character of Kit Carson was a rambling, crazy old coot…so I was typecast, I suppose.
Kit Carson beard after show.
I wish I could’ve kept that leather jacket. It fit me like a glove and had fringe for days.

Spring had rolled around by that point, and the beard had started taking on a life of its own. I had come that far with it, why not a little longer? We took it to visit Biltmore, which is a slightly more impressive structure, I will admit. Still, I was building something that would turn out grand in its own right.

Taking the beard to Biltmore.
The sideview car pic always shows off the beard line nicely, I think. The proportions work here, no?
The beard visits Biltmore.
Everyone enjoyed touring the early spring grounds at Biltmore, especially the beard.

Either the beard had taken on philosophical lengths or the visit to the early spring gardens at Biltmore prompted deeper thoughts. Whatever the case, during March I was reflective in a manner befitting a beard of that scale. You can read some of my thoughts here and here.

As nature came to life during April, with shoots and leaves appearing everywhere, the beard continued to grow as well. I’m fairly certain that it imparted enough manliness for Finn and I to build a working Pinewood Derby Car. I also took the beard along as Molly and I hosted a travel writer across East Tennessee.

beard and pinewood derby car
I’m slightly more proud of my son and the car than I am of my beard. Slightly.
beard at Whitestone
At the Whitestone Country Inn, Molly and I saw a bald eagle. It was slightly more majestic than my beard. Slightly.

The big event in May was the wedding of Molly’s sister Amy. I harbored genuine concerns that my beard might detract from the proceedings, might distract from the bride and groom. Fortunately my misgivings were unfounded, as both bride and groom remained squarely and solely in the spotlight. A few folks noticed the beard, but nary a fuss was made. Of course, that was well before it had taken on massive proportions. I mean…I was less than six months in at that point. Had they been married in September, I might have needed an excuse to forgo the event.

Beard on a boat
Things I learned about beards: when you’re on a wedding boat cruising a South Carolina lake at night, the wind will whistle through your beard. A strange sensation.
beard holding a glowstick
The beard was long and strong enough to hold a thin glowstick. I was pleased.

At around the six-month mark, the beard had taken on a life of its own. Clearly I couldn’t cut it back at that point…I had to see if I could make it to a year. I needed a new summer hat, as my typical baseball cap didn’t look quite right with the beard length, so I got a breezy straw fedora that, combined with my sunglasses, made me look distinctly like someone trying to be incognito. I enjoyed the irony.

beard and ice cream
Who is the man behind that beard? Is that a shake or a malt?
another beard on a boat
On a boat again, this time in Alabama. The wind still whistles through the bristles.

By the middle of summer the beard was attracting plenty of attention. When we went to the White Lightning Festival in Cumberland Gap, TN (a fun little excursion and well worth a day trip or two), Abraham Lincoln called me Stonewall Jackson. My reaction was conflicted: I was glad that my beard so clearly trumped Lincoln’s, but I certainly don’t want to be confused for a Confederate, even if he did have some military savvy.

beard and Lincoln
Lincoln’s got nothing on me.
Gap Trail beard
Clearly I could have made it as a pioneer across the Cumberland Gap. My beard would have carried me through.

August, and the dog days of summer, should have meant a measure of misery for me, but I stayed surprisingly cool, given my pelt. Granted, I needed to shake like a sheepdog when I came out of the pool, but it wasn’t so bad.

beard in the pool
The crystal clear waters of Chapman Pool nicely showcase the burliness, don’t you think?

I also trekked across the state of Tennessee with the beard in August, stopping first in Nashville for a couple of days to visit Belle Meade Plantation’s Homeschool Day. As I walked around the various folks in character, I briefly considered the historical re-enactor trade.

We moved on west to Memphis, where we did what became a musical tour of the city. I’ve learned that the history of rock and soul music is decidedly thin when it comes to men with magnificent beards.

Sun Studio beard
The Elvis lip just doesn’t read from beneath all that hair.

I actually started to get a little tired of the beard by mid-September. It needed constant tending, not unlike another child in the family. Indeed, it had started taking on a life of its own, garnering attention from all manner of strangers everywhere we went. The inevitable question: How did you grow it? What am I supposed to say to a question like that? “Inaction” is the most accurate response. I simply did nothing. The beard did all the real work.

seatbelt beard
When the beard gets stuck beneath the seatbelt, it’s time to reconsider the length.

Finn and I have the beard to thank for getting us through the first real over-night hiking trip. Three miles up and back is a long way without a burly beard to pull us through. As we got closer and closer to the trailhead on the second day, we encounter several day-hikers who looked askance at me. I suppose I did look mildly dangerous, maybe even slightly crazed.

beard hike
We made it up and down the mountain on the strength of my beard.

Had I not committed to being Zeus for Halloween, I would have trimmed the growing monstrosity back several weeks sooner. Nearly a year without cutting more than a few loose mustache ends, however, had left me with a face fit for a deity. A couple of cans of white spray later, and I emerged into the role quite nicely. At any rate, I was easily recognizable.

Zeus beard
Did I wield the power of lightning or the power of a burly beard? Maybe both.

My duties as Zeus having been fulfilled in fine form, I whacked the mess back the day after Halloween. In truth the trim was much easier than I had anticipated, although I nearly burned out the motor on the clippers a couple of times. How quickly a year’s worth of beard becomes a slightly gross pile of hair in the sink. I’ll spare you that picture.

beard trim before
Before
beard trim during
During
beard trim after
After

Now all that’s left is to shape up this shaggy mane that’s been growing on the top of my head for the past few months and I’ll be back to fighting weight.

If you can, if you’re a man capable of growing a respectable beard, do it. Be hirsute. Embrace it. If you can’t, if your cheeks are patchy or your upper lip thin, then don’t. Not at all. But don’t feel bad about it. Not everyone can be as magnificent as I was for a year. Then again, I’m not sure I would want to do it again. Not that Molly would allow it anyway…

Have a question about growing beards? Ask away!

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Shaking Things Up at the Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum

Maybe it’s because I’m solidly in my forties. Maybe it’s because I feel too acutely the never-ending draw of devices that shine and allow me to zone out in utterly unproductive ways. Maybe it’s because I’ve read too much Wordsworth this year. Probably, it’s a little bit of everything.

I keep experiencing moments during which I notice a wistful pang of wonder that I’ve been missing…or maybe not that I’m missing the wonder so much as the opportunities to feel it. We all, the whole family, get busy with being busy and we don’t take the time to appreciate the pleasant little simplicities of life. Sure, we’re learning a lot and we’re experiencing a lot and we’re seeing a lot. But where is the pure delight?

Wooden figures at the Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum.
Wooden figure shakers.

Yesterday the moment came in the most unexpected way, as is usually the case with these sparks. Visiting some family friends who were vacationing for the week in Gatlinburg, TN, we ended up with some time to kill between the “big” activities of shopping the Arts and Crafts Community Loop and taking in the Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies. I had stumbled across a spot that seemed mildly interesting, so we took a chance and stopped in to see the Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum.

The only museum of its kind (aside from its sister museum in Spain), this spot is absolutely fascinating, if you’re attuned to the possibilities for being fascinated. Here we have the most basic of kitchen and dining tools: the humble salt and pepper shakers. They’re everywhere, right? Even the most rudimentary kitchen will have them. We see them so often that we don’t even see them.

Row after row of shakers at the Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum
Row after row of shakers.

Not at this museum. You can’t help but see them, all 20,000 pairs. Shelf after shelf, line after line, row after row of shakers. The experience is a veritable assault (ahem) on the eyes! Peppered throughout are sets of every shape and size, every color, from throughout history and from across the globe. From cutesy, to kitschy, to macabre; from dainty, to massive, to downright bizarre. The collection reaches meta-collection levels. You’ll see three or four shelves of cattle-themed shakers, then turn around and spot several sets fashioned after playing cards.

Shakers of all colors and sizes at the Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum.
Shakers of all colors and sizes.

I was struck all at once by several ideas, the most lucid being the notion that this collection is as close as you’ll get to a truly common denominator. I know that not everyone uses salt and pepper, but the use of spice in some shape or another is pretty much part of the human condition. We crave flavor; we seek it out; we develop entire cultures in pursuit of it.

And what, after all, is that moment of delight that I’ve been missing? Just a little spice, a dash of mental salt to enrich the flavor of my life, a pinch of existential pepper to remind me to savor my wonderfully rich life.

So, dear reader, we come at last to this admonition. If ever you get the chance, get off the beaten path in Gatlinburg and visit the Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum. Take a break from the grind of life and shake things up a bit.

A panorama of shakers at the Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum.
A panorama of shakers.

Another Visit to Ripley’s Aquarium

We went back to Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies recently. We’ve been before and have enjoyed it every time, but I’ve come to expect a law of diminishing returns effect for places that we’ve seen more than once. Not so. The whole place has seemed fresh each time that we’ve toured the tanks.

Plenty to see on the lower floor.
Plenty to see on the lower floor.
The kids enjoyed the fish manicure.
The kids enjoyed the fish manicure.

The regularly rotating special exhibits helps a lot with the re-visit factor. This time around you can learn all about swarms: animal behavior in groups. The focus of the feature extends well beyond the fish world, with an installation of leaf-cutter ants, one of mice, and one of halloween crabs. The real draw, though, is the fish manicure. While a knowledgeable staff member educated us on the behavior of the fish, a school of the little critters nibbled gently on our hands, cleaning the dead skin material from our calloused digits. A spa experience at the aquarium! The kids loved it, too.

We just happened to see the same staff member at the horseshoe crab exhibit. I had always considered myself pretty well versed in horseshoe crab lore, but he told us quite a bit that I had never heard, like their number of eyes (did you know that the tail acts as a photoreceptor and so qualifies as an eye?) and the fact that they must move their legs to eat. He had the entire area engaged with a perfect combination of knowledge and ability to talk to everyone without patronizing the kiddos.

Learning a little about horseshoe crabs.
Learning a little about horseshoe crabs.

The best part, as always, was the moving sidewalk under the big tank. It inches you forward at just the right pace to see all the denizens of the deep. If you want to take a longer look, you simply step off and linger until you’re ready to move again. The whole experience is quite relaxing at the same time that you’re moving through a heavy-traffic attraction in Gatlinburg. I left feeling almost refreshed.

Contemplating the fish as we glide through the tunnel.
Contemplating the fish as we glide through the tunnel.

We’ll definitely be back, especially as a part of our science studies in the coming year. What a great combination of playing and learning.

Audrey and Finnian might take up residence in the tanks.
Audrey and Finnian might take up residence in the tanks.

 

 

6 Tips for How to Plan a Successful Family Trip to Biltmore Estate

1) Eat a Good Breakfast

iphone Biltmore Spring MG 441In our case, this meant starting the fun early by stopping for donuts on the way out of town. We pretend that this gets us down the road faster, but really it just satisfies our sweet tooth. Knowing my tendency to get grumpy when the sugary high wears off, I ordered the sausage, egg and cheese croissant which at least gave me some longer lasting protein energy. To keep the kids from getting too sour, we fed them a snack in the Biltmore Estate parking lot after our 2-hour drive from Knoxville, TN, to Asheville, NC.

2) Joint and Individual Car Activities

Audrey taking a break during the car ride. Photo by Molly Gilbert
Audrey taking a break during the car ride.
Photo by Molly Gilbert

Gone are the days of just looking out the window. We travel by interstate so much that the kids have already seen what there is to see and if something is particularly amazing – like the heavy clouds over the mountains, then it’s our job as the front seat riders with the best view to tell them when to look up. I am a heavy packer, even on a daytrip. I like to have choices, so I make sure the kids have lots of choices too. If one thing runs out of battery or infringes on someone else’s space, then at least we have back up entertainment. Finally now that the kids are 8 and 10, everyone packed their own activity bags, but there were some “suggested” items (mandatory), such as colored pencils or crayons, a small pocket size notebook, digital cameras, electronic devices and headphones. Scott downloaded a book on tape, Jeeves and Wooster, for the whole family to listen to during the car ride. The kids played on their iPad and Kindle, but they also listened to the story which got us in the mindset for the scenery we were about to tour.

3) Water Bottles and Picnic Meals

Reusable water bottles have been a life saver more than once. We fill them at our house and they are great for sipping in the car and drinking at our picnic lunches or dinners. They have also come in handy for the I’m-dying-of-thirst “request” when walking through the Walled Garden on a sunny day, and to wash down an afternoon ice cream treat. It’s easy to go to the restaurants at Biltmore Estate – so many good choices, but that can start to add up. We try to pack a picnic and lots of snacky foods. On travel days like this, my goal is to get people to eat something…anything. I am not paying close attention to the food pyramid, instead trying to focus on fun and not fighting over nutrition. However, I am not totally irresponsible. If we

have had donuts for breakfast and are planning ice cream in the afternoon, then people have to eat enough at lunch to justify the sweet treat later. It’s amazing how a few snacks and a good lunch can turn a grouchy kiddo (or mom or dad) into pleasant company. Most of the time, our picnic doesn’t eliminate meals expenses, but it does help us keep them under control. A little planning ahead makes getting out the door earlier easier. So, rather than wing it the morning of, try to swing by the grocery store or at least make a list of what to pack. More than once our picnics have been ruined because we forgot to pack a knife. Once on the Estate, we will do part of our tour (either the house or the garden) and head back to the car for lunch. If we choose to take in the house and the garden and eat lunch on-site, then we will save our picnic for the car ride home. We have this romantic idealistic notion that we will take a blanket to the hillside overlooking the house and sit and enjoy a relaxing picnic, but so far we have just eaten in the parking lot. It’s shaded and you don’t have to haul stuff very far. There are convenient trash cans and nobody complains about putting everything away. One day, we will skip the house and gardens and just go find a grassy spot. That will probably be the day we get the gumption to take the bicycles and ride the trails.

4) Do the Extras

There’s an audio tour for kids hosted by Cedric, the family dog. Everyone gets their own headset and the grown ups do the grown up tour (not hosted by the dog) and the kids do the kids tour. The tours are in pace with each other and everyone has something interesting to share. Particularly the first visit, this is a great splurge

Finnian enjoying some ice cream. Photo by Molly Gilbert
Finnian enjoying some ice cream.
Photo by Molly Gilbert

item and helps engage the kids in the history of the home. Biltmore Estate is the kind of place we want our children to be enthralled with, but let’s be honest, they have been raised on iPods, IPads and multiple non-stop channels dedicated to cartoons. The idea of the height of “fun” being learning to cross stitch, play an instrument or go for a walk to the pond is hard to push when everywhere they look they are not allowed to touch anything…not even the chess set, the ping pong table or the bowling alley. Like it even needs to be said…stop for ice cream or a sweet treat from the deli – delicious! Somehow it always magically resets everyone’s mood.

5) Give the Kids Their Own Cameras

Molly's photo of Finial taking a photo of Audrey snapping a selfie in front of a statue. Meta-photography, folks.
Molly’s photo of Finnian taking a photo of Audrey snapping a selfie in front of a statue. Meta-photography, folks.

Either hold onto your hand-me-downs when you upgrade or buy cheap or used pocket-sized digital cameras. Give them something that you are not going to have a heart attack about if it does get lost, then your comments will be about how much fun they are having and not about the location of the camera. While you can’t take pictures in the Biltmore house itself, taking pictures gives the kids an activity the whole day and they capture images from a different height than a grown up. Some of our best on-location pictures come from the kids. We use their images as screensavers on their computers and print out our favorites for their bulletin boards. Plus, there are plenty of free apps that can alter the images by making them look like a watercolor painting or sketched in ink or add silly quote bubbles to them. They can also make a slideshow movie out of the images and a follow up to your trip or create a memory book using a service like Shutterfly or Snapfish. The outdoor sculptures, gardens and petting zoo at Antler Hill Village Farm make terrific photo opps even the kids can’t ignore.

6) Quit When You Are Tired

Either stop and rest or pack up the car and head home, but don’t soldier through a tour at Biltmore Estate. It’s so expansive, you will never be able to see it all in one visit. So, when the kids are in tow, it is better to go at their pace and plan a return trip than to end the day with meltdown memories.

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Advice from a 10 year-old girl

1. iPad, fully charged ( I play Minecraft, Stella Bubble Pop, CrossyRoad, Subway Surfers, Race Penguin and many more.)

2. Giant fluffy pillow ( I use a big white tiger one from Justice.)

3. Blanket to keep warm

4. Coloring supplies ( pencils, crayons, colored pencils, markers, and pens)

5. Blank paper pad or notebook

6. Fully charged iPod and headphones

7. Book ( I am reading the Flower Power series and highly recommend it.)

8. Camera

9. A bag to put it all in ( I prefer a cute little monster bag or backpack  purse.)

Spring Break Biltmore Visit

On Monday we visited Biltmore in Asheville, NC to see the Downton Abbey costumes exhibit and the early spring gardens.

In all my years visiting museums and viewing exhibitions, rarely have I seen a more excellently curated display. The already fascinating and intellectually stimulating indoor tour at Biltmore House and Gardens has been made even more so with the addition of “Dressing Downton: Changing Fashion for Changing Times,” which runs through May 25th, 2015.

Photo credit: The Biltmore Company.
Photo credit: The Biltmore Company.

The more than 45 costumes from the wildly popular television series Downton Abbey have been arranged throughout the house tour to correspond with the rooms in which those outfits might have been worn at the time. With the clothing brought more to life by the locations, their real connection to the people of the time period becomes much more evident.

Although I was expecting the show’s pieces to be limited to the highly refined gowns worn by the female stars of the show, I was pleasantly surprised to see an abundance of men’s suits as well. Nor has the downstairs staff been ignored; kitchen maids and footmen are also represented, allowing for a more accurate portrait of the wide social range of the setting.

Photo credit: The Biltmore Company.
Photo credit: The Biltmore Company.

The exhibit includes changing fashions from the first four seasons of the show, a time period of major social change running from 1912-1923. These changing fashions are correlated with the events of the era, including World War I and the Women’s Suffrage movement. The shifting cultural values and social mores are most evident in the shifting hemlines of the ladies’ gowns.

Be sure to take your notebooks and sketchpads as photos are not allowed in the building. The self-guided tour is included in the admission price.