Monday, July 30, 2007

Avalon, NJ

Gwen and I don't really consider ourselves beach people, but we feel a vague parental duty to give our girls the chance to roll around in sand and salt water at least once each summer. So we were very glad to have the opportunity to fill our 2007 quota by taking up friends on an invitation to spend a couple of days at their beach house in Avalon, NJ.

Madison and Ava absolutely loved it, which of course was the point. I suffered a modest setback in my own enjoyment shortly after we arrived. On my first trip into the ocean, and carrying Ava in one arm, a wave crashed down on our heads and - before I really knew what was happening - pulled my glasses off of my face and carried them out with the tide. "The sea was angry that day, my friends. Like an old man trying to send back soup in a deli."

I had no back-up with me, hours from home in a seasonal town at 4 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, but through the blur I dialed my optician in New York to at least try to get a replacement pair ordered. This long-time vendor said it would take a few days to turn around "my" glasses - a minimalist rimless model I've been wearing for the last few years and really love. I credit Brian Roberts of Comcast with the original inspiration.

But, she said, she thought she could get a cheapo substitute in my prescription out to me that night via FedEx for early Saturday delivery. This was her idea, I hadn't even gotten that far, and it really crystallized for me the benefits of dealing with a smaller, reputable shop focused on personal service and quality care. How far do you think I would have gotten with LensCrafters?

I got a call about an hour later with a FedEx tracking number so I could stay on top of the delivery. All of this was done on faith - no credit cards were exchanged, no payment immediately rendered, just timely and inspired assistance with the unspoken understanding that we would settle up in the coming days. Tremendous.

Since everything was blurry anyway, and there were plenty of adults around to attend to the kids, I started drinking. I got through the night and the following morning, and happily found my sense of sight waiting for me shortly before noon, in a little white package left by the door.

Weekend salvaged and back in focus, we continued our sandy fun in between rounds of sunscreen and were on the road headed for home by Sunday morning in a (thankfully successful) effort to beat the traffic. I think we got enough sand to last until we hit Aruba in about six months, for what will probably be the final installment of our annual family trip down there. Madison will be in first grade by then, and that's getting a little old to trade a week in class for a week on the beach, not that she would exactly object.

Here are some photos from the weekend:

Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Life Aquatic - Ava Edition

I don't know why it's been such a struggle, but I've been trying for several days now to write up this post and share these photos. Every attempt has been abandoned, every approach felt forced and false and quickly met the "delete" button. I guess this has been my first real bout of blog writer's block, but tonight we drive this little update across the finish line without fail.

Our girls both love the water, and - short of putting in a pool of our own - we've done our best to encourage and enable this natural affinity. Madison first swam across the deep end of my parents' pool under her own power and without the aid of a flotation device last August, a few months after turning 5. We were amazed, and proud, and from that moment on have watched her become an increasingly strong and confident swimmer.

Ava has been watching too. Watching her big sister dart across the surface of the water at will, face-down or gliding on her back. Watching her fly down the big white slide without regard to whether or not there was someone waiting at the bottom to catch her. Watching her submerge and then pop up on either side of that little line of buoys that separates where she can stand from where she can't, the distinction not really mattering all that much. Generally fearless, in pools and in life, I'm sure this has been particularly difficult for our emulative little 4-year-old.

And now it's over - because on Sunday, without warning and with significant encouragement from Madison, Ava ditched the pink noodle she'd been clinging to and conquered the deep end a whole year ahead of schedule, by our previous standards. We spent the better part of the afternoon watching her swim across and around this gleaming blue rectangle, cheering her on and enjoying her ear-to-ear smiles and palpable sense of accomplishment.

Whew, finally got this terrific milestone on the record. I guess it wasn't that difficult after all.

[There she goes... Ava officially joins the world of the swimmers.]

[Turnabout is fair play. Madison watches her little sister in the water, and realizes the deep end is no longer her exclusive domain.]

[Sisters, submerged, greet.]

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Weekend Art

Rather than trying to string two coherent sentences together this weekend - everyone needs a break now and then - I decided to grab our camera and put together a little photo essay, mainly to update the backyard color I've been documenting for the past few months. I know I've already been excessive in this genre, but it seems like every day some new incredible thing materializes outside our door, and we didn't plant any of it - it's all inherited from the previous owner - so I'm really just a messenger of sorts.

The image above probably should have been included in yesterday's post, which featured Madison splashing into my parents' pool after flying down the slide. Today's photo, taken moments later, is my much more leisurely view of the sky from a float bobbing around on the surface of the water.

The montage of naturally-occurring color is followed by a shot of Gwen enjoying this morning's coffee and paper sitting at the new outdoor table that arrived Friday. We had pizza out there as a family that night, it was nice, and should be a good option for the rest of the summer and even into the fall. We are certainly taking our best shot at milking "bucolic, park-like grounds" out of 1/3 of an acre.

The final photo is the image and message that greets us at the bottom of the stairs every morning, courtesy of one of Madison's school projects. When it first came home I'll confess to being slightly disappointed she didn't opt for something more seasonal and substantive, like "Let's Go Mets!" But, now that we've had some time to live with it, I have to say it's a pretty nice thought at the beginning of the day.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Summer Saturday

Friday, July 13, 2007

100 Percent

Walked in from work last night and asked Madison, our six-year-old, how her day was at camp. Got the following response:

"Daddy, Lucas says he 100 percent wants to marry me!"

Thursday, July 12, 2007

A Thought On Music (And Film)

Our cable company just added a bunch of HD channels, like 15 or something, and when I was surfing through them a few nights ago I happily stumbled on U2's Rattle and Hum. Phil Joanou’s little “let's follow Bono, Edge and the other guys around America with cameras while they revel in the glory of The Joshua Tree” production does not hold up to further review. Plodding, self-important and borderline ludicrous at times, I’m not sure it held up back when it was released, either, except for hardcore fans of the band, and I place myself in that group.

But the film, and one scene in particular, takes me back to a moment and time in my life I will never forget. I had just graduated from college and taken a job reporting for a small weekly newspaper in my hometown. One of the important and enviable tasks assigned to me was visiting the local police precinct on Sunday nights and reviewing the “blotter,” the list and significant details of every single call officers had responded to over the course of the week, to try to get a thread on anything we hadn't heard about that might be newsworthy. It was as glamorous and fulfilling as it sounds.

On one of those Sunday nights, I got a big cup of coffee from 7-11 and decided to catch Rattle and Hum before my appointed task. Law enforcement is a 24-hour operation, obviously, and the Desk Sergeant was relatively cool, so it didn’t much matter when I showed up there. I found a multiplex, settled in and watched the movie. I had seen the band on the same tour in London the year before, while studying abroad, which made it even more exciting and familiar. The first half was OK, I remember being a little disappointed by it being in black and white, and then the words

Tempe, Arizona

came up on the screen. Cut to a concert stage against a red backdrop, members of the band file in, take their places and start playing the lead-in to “Where The Streets Have No Name,” a collection of insanely great notes that just about made me want to jump out of my skin when I first heard them on my Sony Walkman, wandering around Edinburgh, Scotland, on the day The Joshua Tree was released in the spring of 1987. Then Bono strides onscreen and shouts, “Hello!” And, just as the song is about to really kick in and the fans who fill the outdoor venue scream back at the greeting, Joanou goes to a sweeping overhead helicopter shot of the stadium, full color, stage lights blaring out. I got chills, legitimate chills, as I sat in the theater on a random Sunday in the late 1980s, and I got the same chills when I saw it again the other night.

Twenty years ago, I left that sublime moment to go sit in a police precinct and spend hours poring over the details of hundreds of 911 calls, in the hopes of finding something interesting to write about – a job I can barely imagine today, as glad as I am for having done it back then. The night ended in the room I grew up in, in my parents’ house, where I was living right after college. This time around I watched in my own home, Gwen by my side, our daughters sleeping upstairs. And the reaction was exactly the same, while so much else had changed. The song and that aerial shot cut across 20 years like they weren’t even there, like they didn't exist. I guess that’s the power of music, and film.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Summer Vacation, Part One

We hung around town for a rainy 4th of July, went to a couple of parties in the area – one of which provided a terrific view of the fireworks I posted that night – and the next morning Ava visited the doctor and was liberated from the bulky purple appendage she’d been lugging around, largely without complaint or pause, for the last five weeks. That important mission accomplished, we packed up, piled into the car and headed up to Vermont for a long weekend.

I’m genetically incapable of driving through or around New Haven, CT without stopping off for a pie at Pepe’s, a trait I have tried hard to instill in my wife and children, with some success. We hit Wooster Street at the perfect moment between lunch and dinner and found no line waiting for us under the big white Frank Pepe sign. That is not a common occurrence. For the uninitiated, this is a place that has been cranking out pizzas – and only pizzas – from the same coal-fired oven since 1925. Probably the best I’ve ever tasted, and believe me when I say I’ve extensively researched the category. A typical visit requires standing in line, sometimes for an hour or more, and after this extended wait in Pepe purgatory it is basically impossible to avoid burning off the roof of your mouth with molten cheese when the pizza finally arrives – injuries that, given its high quality and absolutely perfect crust, are of little concern.

Mouths moderately scorched and extremely well fed, we continued our drive north and arrived at our destination late Thursday afternoon – a mountain condo my parents bought 20 years ago that has remained a favorite destination across the span of my entire adult life, now prized by my children as well. When we walked in the door the girls did a little “we love Vermont” dance around the place that was at once funny and heartwarming. I’m particularly glad we’re all on the same page when it comes to the condo, because I plan on enjoying this particular form of freeloading well into my retirement years.

Friday and Saturday were a blur of trips to Bromley Mountain, which has done a great job of building a kid-friendly “Fun Zone” around the alpine slide attraction they’ve had in place for years – the girls are still young enough to be dazzled by all of it. I’m hoping we have another six or seven years of this kind of childhood wonder, before they start rolling their eyes in response to a suggested trip to the mountain and demanding to instead be dropped off in town with credit cards and iPods so they can roll through the numerous outlet stores, acting bored and hassled by the prospect of reconvening with Mom and Dad for dinner.

There’s a heated pool on the mountain with noodles and floaties for the kids and free Wi-Fi access for the adults – it’s a nice combination that works well for all involved. As I’ve written before the food in town is usually hit or miss, but I have to say this time around we discovered a new hit – a terrific little Mexican place called The Bean, (4201 Main St., Manchester, VT – 802-362-0110) which we all loved. Fresh homemade salsa, a nice array of Mexican standards (nachos, quesadillas, burritos) and, for the adults, an impressive tequila menu. We went twice over the course of our two-day visit, it was that good. (And I'm that obsessive when it comes to decent food.)

It was a great long weekend, but – as always – not long enough. Just as we were hitting our stride up there it was Sunday morning and time to head home. We are resolved to go back up in August for Summer Vacation, Part Two - my full week break. I am confident Pepe’s pizza, pools, alpine slides, outlet stores, The Bean and all manner of family fun will be involved.

Here are a few photos from our trip, more to come in August:

[Madison cheers on Gwen and Ava at the end of a run on the phenomenal Bromley Mountain alpine slide.]

[The girls storm the pool area.]

[Madison examines a recent bike injury (skinned knee) while Ava looks on. Healing nicely, thank you.]

[Ava makes up for lost time by finally joining her sister in the water and submerging, sans cast. Feels like Summer 2007 has finally begun.]

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Happy 4th

Sunday, July 01, 2007

A Day At The Zoo

Ava is scheduled to get her cast off on Thursday. So - as we confronted the last Saturday of the summer (we hope) during which water and sand represented challenging issues to manage, as opposed to good-time seasonal fun - it seemed a perfect opportunity to spend a day at the zoo. We took the girls to the Central Park Zoo last spring and had a nice pleasant experience, but there wasn't anything there driving interest in a return engagement. I remember standing in a small and sweltering room with a crowd of uncomfortably close strangers watching a polar bear swim and scratch up against a glass window, and that's about it.

This time out we weren't taking any chances. We were determined to get it right, go big time, blow the girls away. In the New York metropolitan area that could mean only one thing. We were going to the Bronx.

Growing up around here, I must have been dragged to the Bronx Zoo at some point. Maybe a school trip or family excursion, I'm not sure how I could have missed the place 41 years in a row, but as we pulled up yesterday I had absolutely no recollection of ever having been there. We were advised by friends to park in Lot B if at all possible, which we did, stopping off at the new "Eco-Restroom," which lovingly diverts wastewater into a garden of beautiful plants nearby, and also down a paved walkway that zoo-goers are forced to splash across, unaware, on their way into the place.

At the ticket counter it looked like we were faced with at least $80 or $90 just to get in for the day. Gwen gravitated over to a little cart offering "membership," which included unlimited access to the zoo and a number of other area facilities for one year. Even if we never came back, the idea seemed appealing - members received 10 percent off food and gift shop purchases, plus "no questions asked" access to the various attractions that carry an extra charge - like the shuttle, the Wild Asia Monorail, Butterfly Garden, Congo Gorilla Forest and basically anything else featuring species that aren't indigenous to the five boroughs of New York City.

It was a nice afternoon. It was fun to stand with the girls and see real live elephants, gorillas, giraffes, lions and a dozen other interesting creatures right out of the stories we read at night. We rode a monorail and a sky tram and they got a genuine kick out of both experiences.

But as we walked out of the zoo, shortly after 5 p.m., with both Madison and Ava begging (make that "demanding") to be carried, Gwen and I agreed that we would have had a very different feeling about our day with the animals if we'd visited on one-time tickets - additional fees and expenses waiting around every corner - instead of basking in the glow of membership. Will we be back? Who knows... but it's nice thinking about it. Especially as a no-cost option on the other end of a manageable drive.

A few photos from our day:

[Ava and her own little endangered species - her cast, which will be extinct (we hope forever) on Thursday - regard the Bronx River. Yes, that's right, this photo was taken in THE BRONX.]

[The girls are mesmerized by some sort of fierce looking reptile. "Daddy," Madison wants to know, "if he had the chance would he eat us?" Very short answer to this question, Madison, "YES!"

[Taking a break from the formal exhibits to torment a peacock that has unwittingly strayed into civilian territory.]

[On our way out of the park, Madison and Ava momentarily taking a break from demanding to be carried, exhibiting a level of stamina and joie de vivre that has us seriously rethinking tackling Disney anytime soon.]

Madison's Take On The iPhone Hysteria

After a visit to the mall with Gwen this afternoon and a brief stop at the Apple store (where they checked out the iPhone):

“There was a big table of them, people were, like, all over them. It was crazy.”

How I Know She's My Daughter

Ava, apropos of nothing, at 1:20 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon:

"Can I stay in my jammies all day? I want today to be a pajama day for me."

Half an hour later, as we are starting to mobilize after a morning spent hanging picture frames and curtain rods (and straightening out our toy disaster of a basement), Gwen asks Ava if she's ready to go upstairs and get some clothes on.

"No thanks," she responds. "It's going to be a pajama day for me today."