Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Yet another reason I'm glad the Internet is here...

Because when you are sitting in front of the television and you see for the 100th time the Cadillac commercial that flashes through all those cars on that road with the great song playing in the background, and you decide you finally want to find your way to that music so you can listen to it in your car, instead of having to scramble off to get your bulky Radio Shack Realistic brand cassette player/recorder and sit there like an idiot waiting for the commercial to come back on so you can jump out of your seat, press the play and record buttons at the exact same moment and then carry the resulting evidence from door-to-door across your neighborhood, your town, your state – risking life, limb, significant annoyance and an army of “D” batteries asking people if they know the music and from whence it came... you can instead take a short and pleasant walk up the stairs of your home, go to Google.com and type “Iggy Pop Cadillac Commercial Song” and in less than a second get a search result that tells you the name, “Punkrocker,” and the band, “Teddybears,” and after another minute or so on iTunes have it downloaded to your computer desktop and portable iPod music player and drive to work the next morning with the result of this effortless quest happily blasting on 11. Went through the same drill a few months ago to find Regina Spektor’s “Better” off that terrific XM commercial, although finding that one took a fair amount of digging through obscure satellite radio message boards. What is that thing the Google guys say about organizing the world’s information and making it useful? It’s still early in the game but I have to say I think they are on to something.

*[Updated 2/28/07, used this same technique twice this week to identify the song on the iPhone commercial, "Inside Your Head" by Eberg (the only decent part of the track is the 15-second loop that runs in the Apple ad), and the one featured on the commercial NBC has been running every hour on the hour to promote its apparent Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip replacement, the Black Donnelleys - "Lost" by The Mudmen. The song is better than the show.

Studio 60 was chronically unfunny and a little too proud of itself (every time Amanda Peet opened her mouth for one of those painstakingly-crafted yet allegedly in-the-moment brilliant monologues Sorkin was basically telling millions of people, "See, you're dumb, you can't talk like this, you probably can't even think like this, so keep watching, maybe you'll learn something!") but I still kind of enjoyed it. Thought the first episode of Donnellys was just terrible. And I like Paul Haggis. This thing was basically, "Let's muss up the kids from the Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue, give them all forced 'from the neighborhood' accents and wrap an hour of television around dimly-lit rooms, romanticized violence and contrived narration. Yeah, that's the ticket!"]

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Happy Birthday

We had Ava’s 4th birthday party yesterday, at a place that turns the guest of honor and his or her guests into “chefs” for the duration of the event. Like any other kids’ birthday party, it was basically the equivalent of a play-date on steroids. In just 90 minutes, the group of more than 20 children:

Arrived, took their coats off and formed in a line, (this was no small accomplishment, we’re talking 3 and 4 year olds here), and;

Decorated their own cardboard cookie boxes with markers and stickers and;

Rolled out real dough to make sugar cookies in assorted shapes and sizes and;

Stopped to eat a little breakfast while the cookies were in the oven and;

Burned off breakfast with a little crazy dancing to music and;

Decorated the fresh-baked cookies with icing and other treats and;

Sang happy birthday to Ava – who was wheeled into the room on a metal kitchen cart, sitting next to her cake and wearing a chef’s hat along with her party dress and;

Ate cake and;

Pulled apart a piñata and scrambled around the floor to retrieve its contents and;

Picked up individual gift bags with miniature baking supplies and cookie cutters (and the boxes of cookies they made) on their way out the door.

[Ava, a.k.a. "The Birthday Girl," stamps out a cookie...]

[Madison decorating one of her creations, that's Namie (Great-Grandma) helping out there behind her...]

[Back at home, opening presents. Play-Doh was huge this year. One of the large sets she received, which included an extensive array of molds and tools, featured the following disclaimer: "Molded results vary depending on child's age and level of skill." How'd you like to meet the Hasbro lawyer who insisted on this essential protection? Guy actually came over from Nabisco, where he went down in corporate risk abatement history by writing the line, "The taste of the food depends on the specific ingredients used and manner of preparation."]

The theme of this year's party was Hello Kitty, chosen by Ava, and her preferred gifts were anything having to do with Play-Doh or the Littlest Pet Shop. We could tell she liked these particular presents because every time she tore the wrapping off anything that fell into either category she immediately stopped the proceedings, carried the individual item up the stairs to her room and carefully placed it inside the princess tent that sits in the center of her floor. The resulting delays in the gift-opening portion of the afternoon got me thinking about all the birthday formats and venues we’ve already experienced with the girls in just a few years.

Both Madison and Ava celebrated their first birthdays with “family” parties at home, vaguely aware of the event or the relatives surrounding them – an episode of Barney or trip to Elmo’s World could reasonably have been expected to generate as much excitement. The focal point of these early gatherings, for us, was providing good food and wine to the adults in attendance and ultimately securing photos and video of our 1-year-olds with cake and icing smeared all over their faces.

The first parties with friends/associates/classmates/hangers-on (freeloaders) were “gym” parties – generally characterized by a throng of toddlers bouncing around on mats and other apparatus in padded rooms, typically with an over-caffeinated and slightly off-putting staffer serving as an appointed guide through the frivolity. These parties (ours and those we were invited to) all seemed to feature an enormous multi-colored parachute, which the assembled guests were forced to fan up and down repeatedly over the children, just to make sure that any stray airborne viruses or streptococcus molecules stood a fighting chance of landing on every single person in the room.

Birthday party guest lists expanded exponentially once the girls were in school programs, since the protocol – conveyed to me by Gwen – was apparently inviting their entire class, even mean boys who had pushed or hit our girls while battling for temporary ownership of the fake plastic drumstick in the classroom’s fake plastic kitchen. Over the years we’ve had theme parties devoted to Elmo and Barney (Madison), Dora and Care Bears (Ava), and a few – believe it or not – that did not feature characters covered by established copyrights.

We found the chef place in time for Madison’s 4th birthday party and had a good experience there. Last year, Madison did her party at a “little ladies” dress-up place that was fun for the kids but terrifying for the adults in the group, at least for me, as my 5-year-old and her little friends put on “fancy” clothes, had their nails done, hair styled, make-up applied and then danced under a real disco ball before singing “Happy Birthday” and convening for cake. All we needed was a sketchy, pre-pubescent pusher or two hanging out in the area of the potties and we could have legitimately claimed a return of Studio 54.

Ava’s party yesterday was our 9th so far as parents, and we’re trying something a little different for our 10th (and Madison’s 6th) in March. We are going back to the “family” celebration idea, but instead of doing it at home we are planning to take the girls and a small group of relatives to the circus, which is rolling through our area around the same time. Madison has, mercifully, agreed to this, saving us from the need to invite the nearly 40 classmates in her two school programs to some off-site location at an expense approximating fees for room and board during her freshman year in college.

We are hoping that Ava – who has demonstrated a clear and consistent aversion to large characters and crowd noise (I'm convinced that early childhood trips to see Barney, Dora and The Wiggles live stand an excellent chance of turning up in therapy sessions two or three decades from now) – can make it through the afternoon unscathed. In any event it will be a good preview and indicator before a planned Disney vacation next year, many months before we need to book a breakfast with the Princesses, board a monorail or spend the better part of a week in a Florida hotel room, watching DVDs and seeking refuge from far more vivid and threatening branded characters that can actually walk and talk.

Still Ava...

Sunday ritual, making a big pot of sauce. Ava is sitting on a stool next to the sink (her usual spot) watching me de-stem and dice the canned tomatoes in rapt fascination. She doesn't like or eat sauce - Ava takes her pasta plain, with a little Kraft shredded cheddar/monterey jack cheese combo sprinkled on top - but for the sport of it I try to sneak one in and say, "Ava, I'm so happy you're helping me make your favorite sauce."

The response comes within a second.

"It's not my favorite, Daddy, I don't like sauce."

"Why not?"

"Because I'm still Ava!"

Saturday, January 20, 2007

There but for the grace of God...

Sitting in bed last night with Gwen after a full day at home, a great dinner prepared in our own kitchen and several glasses of a nice red wine, watching TV – our own TV, not hotel TV, with hundreds of channels just waiting to be summoned – I glanced at the clock on the cable box and realized it was about the same time we'd landed at JFK the night before. For no real reason other than sadistic curiosity, I fired up the MacBook to check on the status of “our” flight using one of Apple's best and most amazing desktop widgets.

Takeoff delayed, still in transit, expected to arrive more than an hour late. A day earlier we had left on time at 4:50 p.m. (Aruba is an hour ahead of New York this time of year), and arrived a few minutes early, about 8:15 p.m., EST. Everything worked perfectly, and it was still a thoroughly gruesome experience. With about 90 minutes left in the air during our flight, I asked Gwen for the time and was so crestfallen by the response I assumed either her watch had stopped or I had entered a parallel and highly unpleasant universe.

And now, as we lay in the comfort of our bed, there was a group of people up there in the air – plenty of parents and kids among them – living our experience from the night before, except it was even more heinous.

Here's how it looked in the end:

Departing AUA Aruba, (Scheduled) 4:50 PM (Actual) 5:13 PM
Arriving JFK New York, (Scheduled) 8:35 PM (Actual) 9:46 PM

[Now that’s what you want to see… The good news? You’re still alive. The bad news? See response to “good news,” above.]

I turned to Gwen, relayed the information and said, “Can you imagine? Can you imagine sitting in that airport and trying to keep the kids occupied - after having gotten there three hours early for an "international" departure? And then landing more than an hour late?”

The question didn’t require a response, we both sat there, envisioning the horror, the humanity, recalling our own particular brand of hellish torment, still fresh in our minds. Ava wanting to sit next to “Mommy,” when she happened to be reading to Madison across the aisle, Madison deciding her life depended on sitting next to Gwen at the EXACT moment Ava finally nodded off to sleep with her head resting across her legs. Ava offering up a running commentary on the DVD she was watching on our portable player, without regard for the "speaking while wearing headphones" volume disconnect. The young couple in matching velour sweatsuits (true story - and the guy carried a Chanel "man purse," first one I'd seen since Seinfeld) sitting in front of the girls who barked at Madison when she tried to dislodge some purple Play-Doh from its can by repeatedly SLAMMING it on her open tray table, after the backs of their seats had been kicked, oh, a few hundred times.

Forget the concept of “dog years,” you can tick at least a year off your life for every hour spent on a plane attending to children who aren’t old enough to zone out to their own iPod or a nice bottle of airplane scotch. As we took a moment to consider collective fate of the passengers who followed us by a mere 24 hours, believe me we felt their pain. And now we are home. At least a year away from the next flight. If we are lucky.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Aruba 2007 - "Last words, last words... out."

I started writing this post on the flight home yesterday afternoon and finished it this morning, our first day back after another great January trip to Aruba. No real surprise not to have finished on the plane, sitting in a block of seats with Gwen, Madison and Ava. Business travel – which can be a miserable experience – is decadent and almost sinfully luxurious compared to flying with small children.

Managing kids on a plane would actually be terrific training for aspiring dictators, because even as the supposed authority figure (or figures), the power very much rests with the people, and the focal point quickly becomes trying to actively manage the misery to prevent a revolution. The instruments of power include the novelty of the drink cart ("It's tomato juice, no we don't usually have it at home, would you like to try a sip?"), the in-flight magazine (with the pages that have inexplicably been stuck together by the gum of a helpful and courteous previous passenger), the portable DVD player, carry-on snacks, Play-Doh, crayons, coloring books, gum (critical during take-off and landing – periods of peak political unrest) and assorted other diversions that keep the little people occupied, distracted and relatively content, with the exception of mini-revolts that are quickly put down if handled with appropriate firepower – like a new cartridge for the Leapster.

This year’s trip was the best one yet from the standpoint of the girls being able to enjoy the various aspects of the experience – the pool, beach, dinners and transporting themselves to many of our destinations under their own power.

I’ve said this before, but it really is amazing how much this vacation changes and how much better it gets with each passing year. First two years were all kiddie pool, Ava wasn’t even walking on the first trip and had to be carried everywhere, was still on Similac and obviously in diapers – that year we had an entire large and heavy suitcase devoted to the ingress and egress of her digestive system, in addition to the stroller and other necessary accessories. Even last year the kiddie pool dominated and the girls showed almost no interest in the beach. Aruba 2007 will be remembered as all big people pools, playing in the man-made waterfalls and water slides, and a lot of time spent rolling around on the sand in the gentle surf.

[Over the course of the trip, the girls probably spent two full days doing this. "Sand in the bathing suit," doesn't begin to cover it.]

The accommodations were a little challenging this year – we typically stay with my parents in their two-bedroom timeshare apartment at one of the island’s resorts, this time around for a variety of reasons we spent the trip in two hotels, one for the first three nights, the second for the last five. Madison noticed the difference roughly upon check-in, when she observed aloud that our “little room” was so much smaller and less comfortable than “staying with Grandma.” This offered a rare and organic opportunity to teach our 5-year-old the distinction between a “hotel room” and a “timeshare apartment,” and I have to admit our little girl warmed my heart with her retentive abilities a few short days later when she entered our room in the second hotel and immediately proclaimed, “little room, another little room, not a timeshare!”

In our second hotel we had to walk by the glass doors of the casino to get to the elevators, and Ava never passed on the opportunity to stop the group, however large, point at the doors and say, “that’s where the Mommies and Daddies go to play poker!” The other fun part about the elevators on the trip was the constant battle between the girls over who got to “push the buttons,” every time we left or returned to the room. I lamented the fact that I didn’t have a bathing suit with black-and-white referee’s stripes, and a whistle, because both would have been enormously helpful and appropriate for my role. Note to self for next year.

Madison articulated three different career choices on this trip. Struggling to find something kid-friendly and in English on television one night before we all went to bed, I stumbled upon the hotel’s “casino” channel, which featured a pleasant-sounding woman’s voice offering brief tutorials on the various games of chance, no profanity or visually apparent adult themes, as counter intuitive as that sounds. Madison was captivated, particularly by the pretty chips on the green felt tables, and declared that when she grew up she wanted to get a job making chips for casinos. We were supportive of this decision, but she soured on the idea when we explained under intense and extended questioning that it wouldn’t really be OK for her to make chips for a casino and give some to us, they’d have to go to the casino, since it’s like money, and even if she made them she couldn’t give a few away without getting into trouble.

Then, after getting a stuffed animal toy – an interesting little bear with paws and ears that reacted to the sun by changing colors, made by a company called Del Sol – she decided that she would devote the better years of her life to making stuffed animals. We were fine with that choice as well, but it was short-lived and was replaced by the end of the trip with a decision to make Play-Doh instead, after she confirmed that it would be OK for her to give some to us, unlike the casino chips, because “it’s not like money.” We spent much of the flight home discussing how her Play-Doh factory might work, what kind of machines she would need to buy, how she would learn the various processes and whether or not it would be OK to do all of this in our home. I hadn't planned on discussing the realities of assembly-line manufacturing and zoning laws in kid-friendly language on the flight back from Aruba, but believe me we got there.

We returned last night to a frigid house (we’d turned all the thermostats down to 50 degrees before leaving) and bundled into our own beds under several layers of blankets. When we woke up this morning our various rooms had come up to temperature and when we looked outside we saw this:

Which prompted Ava to declare, “It’s Christmas!” We gently brought her down off that notion as we settled back into our regular morning routine. Sippy cups filled with warm milk (a challenge we were not able to successfully navigate in our “small” and microwave-deprived hotel room), favorite shows, toys, and, for the adults in the group, freshly brewed Peet’s Coffee that was so good compared to the weak and bitter brown-colored broth we’d become used to down there that it felt illegal.

We’re in the basement as I write this on my MacBook. Ava, who turns 4 this week, just pushed the button to play “Oops!... I Did It Again” on her Barbie electric guitar and, as the song kicked in, said “Dad, this is the bratty girl you don’t like who shows her belly button, but it’s just the music, so it’s OK.” I assured her it was fine with me. (For helpful background on this exchange, scroll down and read the post “Oops!”)

This is not in any way a travel blog, but just a few specific thoughts and observations for anyone reading this who may be considering a trip to Aruba, with or without children. The highlight for us again this year was the half-day trip we always take at least once to a spot at the southern tip of the island known as Baby Beach. It's a good 45-minute drive from the "high-rise" hotel area, and requires a rental car, but this little man-made cove just south of the oil refinery and a short distance from the prison (I know, I know, I'm building it up, just trust me on this) is a really special place to visit, especially with children. One side of the cove, the one that features an inlet to the Caribbean Sea, offers some of the best snorkeling on the island, the rest of the area is essentially an enormous sand bar with very calm water that extends for what feels like a few hundred yards without ever exceeding three feet of depth. Beyond kid-friendly. There's a little food stand that sells waters, snacks and beer, and for $30 you can rent a cloth clamshell shelter that comfortably accommodates the two included lounge chairs and offers occasional welcome and necessary breaks from the sun.

The best meal of the week, as it is every year (I'm not counting the Subway and Taco Bell lunches in that) was our dinner at El Gaucho, featuring the restaurant's signature Gaucho Steak, which is always the same and always tremendous. We had a great meal at a seafood place that has become one of our favorites, Aqua Grill, and some very respectable Italian food at Hosteria da Vittorio - both are located in the area across from the Hyatt and Radisson.

It has only taken a year of operation for the "lazy river pool" at the Marriott Surf Club to feel zooey, overcrowded and Six Flags-esque. That sure didn't take long, and the place isn't even completed or fully occupied. As we approached the pool, I noticed a worker loading a box of hari-kari knives and swords into a maintenance shed, he said they were on reserve and waiting to be issued to suicidal parents and seniors during the always-busy President's Week. They had considered small revolvers for this purpose, he said, but rejected that option over concerns that guests and "owners" on nearby lounges would be adversely impacted by flying blood and brain tissue.

On the day we were there the "river" itself seemed to barely be moving, certainly not the strong and fun flow of water we experienced last year, and while I was essentially running around the winding circle pushing Ava's floaty to simulate a current, some little orb-like creature started swimming in our general direction, which was a bit unsettling. Madison was also reduced to tears while trying to use the water slide in the pool complex when she was instructed by an overbearing and obviously unhappy-with-her-life Marriott employee at the top of the slide that she had her noodle positioned incorrectly and could not proceed before making necessary adjustments. Madison follows rules, maybe to a fault, so the idea that she was using the water slide wrong or unsafely really got to her. I walked up to the top of the slide with her on the next trip and the warnings mysteriously ceased, but the damage was done and unfortunately this woman succeeded in sufficiently souring the experience for one excited little girl. Luckily that was the only notable downer across eight nights and nine days, which isn't too bad. The kids' favorite pool was the one at the Playa Linda resort, which was the least tricked-out of the several we visited. The Hyatt pool was also great, and featured an actual water slide, built partially on stilts, that was about five times the length and ten times the fun of the one at the Marriott. Sorry, Marriott witch.

So that was Aruba 2007. I’m happy we built in an extra weekday following our return for banking, food shopping and other necessary activities, and also a full weekend to reconnect with our home and daily routines. “Real” life will kick back in on Monday morning, with work and school and other required endeavors, I think I can safely say we are all looking forward to it, the experiences of the last several days fresh in our minds and about 400 photos available at the click of a mouse whenever we want to go back or need help remembering. Here are a couple more to end this post, both taken on the last day of the trip, one in its final few moments...

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Contending for this year's Aruba vacation photo...

And the chances these images will hold up as the best of the trip are excellent because we're coming home tomorrow. As great as the vacation has been, we're ready. Playing in the sand (again) yesterday afternoon, Madison turned to me and asked, "Dad, will we at any point today be putting on regular clothes?"

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Aruba 2007 - First Post

I have to say I’ve been looking forward to this post since starting “I think this world is perfect…” last May – we are blogging from Aruba! It was a very early morning yesterday but we got out OK. Gwen and I had been up packing and attending to last-minute details – charging the cameras and iPod, dividing up the Play-Doh, cutting up vegetables for the flight – until about midnight Tuesday, we took what amounted to a glorified nap and were up again at 4 a.m. to get things moving. The car pulled up at 5:15 a.m., we loaded in and were on our way.

On the drive to the airport Gwen says to the girls, “When we get there we have to say, “Bon Bini!”

Ava asks, “Why?”

“Because that’s how you say ‘Hello’ in Aruba,” Gwen responds.

Ava thinks about this for a second and replies, “OK, but ‘Hi’ is even better.”

At which point Madison chimes in with, “You could also say, ‘Konnichi wa,’ if you want to say hello in Japanese. We learned that in school.”

It was a perfect little demonstration of how our girls are different. Maybe it’s just their ages and the fact that Madison has two years on her sister, but it was not entirely out of character for Madison, confronted with the notion of “Bon Bini” to take it one step further and correctly prepare us for a trip to Japan, and for Ava to let us know that she was grateful for the information, but perfectly happy and comfortable with “Hi!”

The flight got off as scheduled at 8:05 a.m. and was a dream compared to previous years. At one point Gwen and I sat back for a brief review of fun moments in air travel from previous installments of the trip – the year Ava SCREAMED virtually non-stop from take-off to landing, even after we had tried to time the flight with one of her established naps. The year the older lock-jawed woman sitting in front of Madison turned around before the plane even left the gate and said, through a forced smile and gritted teeth, “I know it’s hard traveling with children, but she’s kicking my chair. Can you please make her stop?” Absolutely, we'll get right on that. And if you are this aggravated, this early, please know that we will be more than happy to help the EMTs haul you off the plane after your stroke.

Everything seemed easier this year, a function of the girls getting older and more self-sufficient. This was our first trip without a stroller, for example. Our luggage was lighter and there was less of it. I’m not making the flight out as the best four hours of my life or anything, but compared to previous years it was nothing short of a tremendous and uneventful success.

We hit our hotel room and after a few minutes of jumping up and down with Ava, Madison says, “This would be fun to live here, like for real Dad, live live here! Every day, wake up, go down to the pool!” Just a little more precious and unassailable wisdom from our 5-year-old.

As Madison was putting on her bathing suit on she told me, “Daddy, this is the kind of bathing suit that, when Mommies wear them, half of their boobies come out, like this,” and she made little crescent-shaped arcs where the cleavage should be, “it’s true, half of their boobies!”

When we got down to the pool and eventually visited the swim-up bar, sure enough, there was a woman – I can’t vouch for her “Mommy” status – across the way wearing a similar suit, with fairly ample “boobies” filling up the gap between the cloth triangles. Could have been one of Dr. Rey's patients, I couldn't immediately tell from where I was floating. Of course Madison noticed this, and proceeded to point across the bar area, saying, “See Dad, that’s what I meant, see the boobies?!”

Luckily the woman was out of earshot, and when she looked over in an attempt to understand why this little girl was pointing at her chest from across the pool, my Mom, who had not been privy to the earlier exchange, called out, smiling and nodding with familial pride, “My granddaughter likes your bathing suit!”

[Madison fights her way through the paparazzi at JFK]

[Aruba baggage claim. It's only fun if you touch every single piece of passing luggage and say, "Is this one ours?"]

[What it's all about]

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Just a little something in exchange for all those diapers you changed and sleep you missed...

One day last week. Ridiculously busy in the office, by mid-afternoon I'm starving and run out to get something quick to eat. Stopped at a traffic light, my cell phone rings. Work. A call I have to take. Someone talking about something I need to write down.

I have a pen in my shirt pocket but, after a quick survey of the front passenger area, nothing on which to write. I look over my shoulder to the back seat and catch a glimpse of a green pad, nestled against a Hello Kitty purse, some kind of Strawberry Shortcake heart-shaped container and assorted other debris. And on that pad, at some point, without telling me, Madison has managed to leave a message that renders everything else basically irrelevant.

Lesson #864

We drove a couple of hours yesterday to spend an afternoon with Gwen's sister, her husband and their 2-year-old daughter - a long-overdue visit and delayed Christmas gift exchange. As she typically does, when she knows she is going to see her sister, Gwen took the time to fill a plastic tub with some clothes that no longer fit our girls, bagged up some toys that had fallen out of favor or relevance, and also - for the first time - some books.

No issue with the clothes or toys, but the idea of BOOKS leaving our house apparently got to Madison. I came home from work late on Friday - trying to get things in order in advance of the Aruba trip - and by the time I walked in the door I heard some kind of out-of-the-ordinary bickering coming from the second floor. Gwen came down the stairs shaking her head and reporting that Madison had wandered into our closet, found the bagged-up books, and immediately started melting down over them.

By the time I got upstairs Madison was in full waterworks, clutching an Elmo book I honestly didn't know we had as if it contained the secrets to life itself, looking over the 20 or so that were filed away in the bag, and gasping through the tears that "Mommy... is going to give... these... away! She's giving these books away, Daddy, and some are Ava's favorites... (Hasn't even announced her plans to run for public office yet, and Madison already recognizes the importance of building broad-based coalitions!)... Daddy... don't let Mommy give our books away!" Madison doesn't cry real tears very often, so the scene was fairly jarring.

I calmed her down, put her back in her bed - placed the suddenly-prized Elmo book on the table in her room and, for the moment, the crisis was averted. I have to say, to Gwen's very good and real point, the books that had been designated for reassignment had not been looked at or thought of in probably a year or more. Madison is reading now, Ava has always preferred television over the written word, and there was just no reason not to pass them along to an age-appropriate child who might actually open them.

The next morning we were about to leave for the visit, Gwen and I had a brief moment upstairs and she said, "So what should we do about these books? Should we bring them? Should we just forget it?" Neither one of us wanted a repeat of Madison's hysterics from the night before, nor did we want to allow her unreasonable position to carry the day.

I said this: "Here's what I think we should do. We should take the bag downstairs and make it Madison's issue. Explain again that we want to bring these books - which we don't read anymore - to her cousin so she can enjoy them. We think this is nice, we think she'd appreciate this, but it's your decision. We are not giving the books away, Madison, unless it's something you want to do."

Gwen carried the bag downstairs, and by the time I got down there they'd already had the conversation. Based on Madison's sullen look I had a sense how it had gone but Gwen filled me in, Madison and Ava standing by. "Well, we're not bringing the books. I want to bring them, Ava wants to bring them, but Madison doesn't want to give them away, so we're not bringing them." I gave a little "is this true?" look to Madison, who was clearly less than comfortable with her decision, but again began talking about specific books in the collection and how much she liked them and, notably, how much AVA liked them...

"OK," I said, "Let's go, let's get in the car." We all walked out, the bag of books left sitting up on the kitchen countertop. As we bundled the girls into their booster seats, I realized I'd forgotten our digital camera and went back into the house to get it. The issue of the books was still weighing on my mind, I knew that at the end of this long drive Madison would ultimately want to give them to her cousin, even if she didn't see that herself at this exact moment.

I got the camera, and as I was standing outside locking the back door, Gwen came walking up behind me, "Madison changed her mind, she wants to bring the books." I pointed to my feet, and she was surprised to see the bag of books resting there on the ground.

"That's good," I said. "Because she was about to learn the lesson of majority rule."

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Countdown to Aruba

We leave this week for our annual family vacation to Aruba, fourth year in a row we're taking this trip with the girls - on our first one Ava was not yet 1, Madison two months shy of 3. Yes, we're still wondering what we were thinking that year. My most vivid memory of Aruba 2004 was jamming Ava's Britax Roundabout onto her American Airlines seat and then having to hold my arm up extended for the better portion of a four-hour flight to serve as a human shield between her kicking feet and the passenger lucky enough to have been placed directly in front of her.

The next year offered a different kind of fun, when I carried the same seat all the way to our appointed spot at the back of the plane and triumphantly buckled it into place, only to be forced to navigate my way back over previously conquered terrain - bumping up against irritated passengers every step of the way - to gate check the thing after Ava violently refused to sit in it.

I'm sure I'll be posting on events related to getting there, being there, and fighting our way back to civilization when it's all over - always one of the best and most rewarding days of the year. I'm bringing the MacBook along, so maybe I'll even throw up a posting or two over the course of the week.

This has turned into a really great trip for us that gets better every year as the kids get older. The gang includes my parents, sister, nephew, grandmother and aunt, so it's nice family time with the added benefits of sun, 80-degree weather, casinos and beer.

In addition to amazing memories, the trip produces some of our most lasting photos of the girls. Here are a couple of blog-friendly photos from previous installments.



[2007... coming soon.]


For about a week, the girls have been both horrifying and terrifying Gwen and I by bouncing around the house singing garbled versions of “Oops!... I Did It Again.” They have no way of knowing, of course, that the performer who made the song famous has been more famous lately for repeatedly baring her crotch in public, passing out drunk at New Year’s Eve parties and making questionable marital, parenting and wardrobe decisions. But we know. And watching our precious and pure daughters, ages 3 and 5, wandering about aping Britney Spears is as disturbing as it is illustrative of the way life and the outside world have the increasing ability – over time – to grab a hold of the hearts and minds of the children we are trying to appropriately shield and protect.

The line that really makes me cringe, which Madison and Ava somehow manage to at once amplify and mangle, is “I’m not that innocent!” Little did anyone know back in 2000, when the song was released, that Little Miss Britney was not only telling the truth, she was apparently bound and determined to define and personify the antithesis of the word.

I should stop for a second and explain where this came from. One of Madison’s Christmas gifts this year was a Barbie keyboard, a companion toy to a fake Barbie electric guitar that Ava got last year. Both instruments have the same handful of embedded songs in them, for sing-along purposes I guess, and “Oops!... I Did It Again” is in the collection. Took a few minutes of play on Christmas morning for the girls to get stuck on the infectious little number – it didn’t sell millions of copies for nothing – and the next thing I knew I was up in our home office holding my nose as I downloaded the track on iTunes, after hours of insistent and rabid begging, so the girls could listen to the “real” version in its full form.

Gwen shook her head and gave me a sort of “this one’s on you” vibe in the midst of the download before wandering out of the room. The girls just wanted the song to play, again and again. And again. And again.

Interest seems to have subsided over the last day or so, which is a positive sign, but dodging this bullet (I had been bracing for the line "Daddy, can we go see this lady sing live?") doesn’t mean there’s not another one right around the corner. Actually, I’d be heartened by just another one, while fully expecting to eventually be faced with the opportunity to play Keanu Reeves in The Matrix, dodging and weaving in the face of an extended hail of gunfire.

We bring our babies home from the hospital and except for the crying, feeding and sleeping they are basically inanimate objects, the human equivalent of Chia pets. Adorable, transcendent, awe-inspiring to be sure, but to be honest really not a lot coming back in terms of expression or awareness – we start from a base of total control over their day-to-day experiences and perceptions. And from that moment on we start giving it away, day-by-day, as the world gains access and eventually takes hold.

There’s no way around it. It’s natural, it’s necessary, it's important, and for a parent who admittedly skews to controlling and careful, it can be scary and difficult. They move from toddling around a home or apartment to running across a backyard, always in sight, always in range, to hours away from home every day, bus rides with older kids, hurt feelings, external influences, cross words or difficult concepts we parents never get to hear ourselves, even if we are lucky enough to be told about them later so we can draft in with some wisdom and guidance. It’s life. It comes at them faster and more furiously today than ever. We need to make sure they are ready, supported, strong, self-aware and self-assured and able to process and navigate everything they encounter.

And, as parents, it goes without saying that these days there is less and less room for, “oops.”

Monday, January 01, 2007

Vermont 2006

It's been a while since I've added any new photos, so here are few of our weekend trip to Vermont. Got the girls on skis again - second time for Ava, third time for Madison. Really only Madison's second time if you discount her first experience - a "children's program" one frigid February day (2005) that saw her make a handful of runs down the kiddie slope in abject misery before bailing on the snow in favor of the juicebox, processed meat lunch and indescriminate "craft project" waiting in the lodge with the gaggle of runny-nosed kids whose parents had dumped them there for the day so they could go out on the mountain and simultaneously pretend to be Bode Miller and to have never had children. Since then we have opted for one-hour individual lessons for the girls, and chosen more moderate temperatures, and the results have been terrific.

We're determined to do this a couple more times this season to begin to reinforce some of the things they are learning. Madison is already getting the hang of the snow plow. Ava, true to form, is happily going "straight to parallel" in the words of this weekend's instructor.

Girls, meet Sandy, one of Stratton Mountain's finest. [Ava leads, as usual]

Waiting for a ride on the "Magic Carpet" lift.

Madison, getting the hang of it already.

Ava, "straight to parallel" and "fearless," according to instructor Sandy. We were not surprised.

Found time for a little sledding, too.