Saturday, June 28, 2008

New Mystery

These cone-shaped flower tuffets recently appeared, in a kind of English Garden area our home's previous owner had created off to one side of the front yard. We haven't really maintained the space, we clean it up a little bit every once in a while, but we're reluctant to pull anything out because odd and colorful plants are coming into bloom in there all the time, and we have basically no idea what any of them are.

The plants attached to these little bunches of white almost look like weeds, but they seem a little too pretty, and too deliberately spaced, to be naturally occurring.

We really appreciated all the help (from around the world) in identifying the foxgloves, can we tap that well again? Anyone have any idea what these are?


Bueller? Bueller?

Thursday, June 26, 2008


Done. Do you remember what that was like? Sorry, but I just couldn't resist a brief exploration of a theme that has been present in our house for the last few weeks. It started when Ava's pre-school program ended earlier this month, and will reach its formal conclusion tomorrow, when Madison finishes First Grade. Done. Over. Go home. Nothing to see here.

What an amazing dynamic, a recurring reality that is present in our lives for the first couple of decades and then, really, doesn't come back around until retirement, if we're lucky and blessed enough to get there. I can't yet make a comparison based on personal experience, but I have to believe the youthful version is better, even when you factor in the distinct advantages that come later, like additional financial resources, the benefit of life's perspective and, of course, the wine.

In the intervening years, we adults can look forward to vacations and rejuvenating interludes of various lengths and forms, but they are fleeting in nature by definition, and there's just nothing like being a student and having the school year - your day-to-day reality and existence - come to its rightful and expected conclusion.

I think it took me until college to fully appreciate the wonder of this cycle, probably because at that advanced stage the finality was preceded by the stress and crunch of "final" exams - a precious set of documents that magically capped everything that had come before, justified the year, assessed achievement and placed the latest mile marker firmly in the rearview mirror.

You walk out of the room after that last test, walk out of the building, walk into the summer air - or into the rain, it doesn't matter - nothing on your plate but whatever you decide to put there, at least until September.

Nothing pressing, nothing pending, you're done.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Our Very Own Shane MacGowan

Madison lost one of her top front teeth last night, I should say she lost the other one, so that makes four down in total so far - center pair, top and bottom. The bottom ones have come back in, nice little bumpy ridgeline on the enamel, reflecting their "grown up" status. No sign yet of either top, so we've got a very distinct gap-toothed look going here for the foreseeable future, and a slightly lispy delivery as our 7-year-old gets used to annunciating through the new terrain.

It's been about a year since that first wiggler emerged, and escaped and we've celebrated all of these in slightly different ways. This particular tooth was loose for several weeks, a source of renewed interest and fascination for about the last day or so. By the time I got home last night it was hanging on by a thread, Madison pushing and pulling it further and further in unnatural directions. Ultimately she used a tissue to get a decent grip and yanked it out on her own.

Before going to bed, she took it upon herself to produce a sign intended to help direct an expected visitor, and hung it on the wall above her bed, in the vicinity of her pillows.

It served its purpose, but we may leave it up there for a while.

Dream A Little Dream

Ava, in our kitchen, watching me pour coffee into a mug, five minutes ago:

"I can't wait until I'm old enough to drink coffee. And then, when I'm that old, I'm going to have a TV in my room, and I can watch it. Yay!!!"

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Cold Shark, Jumped

I remember when I first saw the video for Coldplay's "Yellow," the one with Chris Martin walking on the beach, a sort of goofy, gangly, slightly malnourished aspiring rock star on the brink of fame. The song was tremendous, the video was stark and oddly captivating, and luckily enough there were other solid tracks on that debut cd, "Parachutes," notably "Trouble," "Shiver" and "Everything's Not Lost" - a band, and a frontman, were clearly on their way. And we were fully on board.

I saw them live on their first US tour, they didn't disappoint. Can't exactly say the same for the subsequent studio efforts, which were OK - in general - but seemed to spend less and less time on iPod auto-repeat, which is never a good sign, especially for one of my core bands. Martin's lyrics skewed to the overwrought, and when he went simplistic ("Fix You" comes to mind) the accessibility carried with it a degree of arrogance that was off-putting. Along the way, he married a frequently insufferable movie star, had some kids - we applaud that around here - and is to be commended for successfully avoiding the steady flow of "exiting the Waverly Inn" photos that plague most celebrity relationships.

All of which leads to the band's current release, "Viva la Vida." We saw the Apple commercial like everyone else, "pre-ordered" the cd to get instant access to that title track and enjoyed it for a few days. Then came the formal launch, and based on the 30-second previews of the individual songs that iTunes makes available, we probably wouldn't have thrown down for the balance, but when the e-mail arrived indicating that our credit card had already been charged, by virtue of the pre-order (smart strategy, that), we went in and took delivery of the rest of the disc. Then we rented a kayak on a beautiful late-spring day and spent the better part of three hours listening to it.

And the results were not great. More treatments than songs, really, a few decent moments but nothing very memorable and nothing that comes close to the minimalist brilliance of "Yellow" or those early days. "Lovers In Japan/Reign Of Love," was pretty much the high-water mark for me.

I would love to know which of these songs is the one that Martin boldly described a few months ago as a piece of music so good that we all needed to "hear it before we die." I'm assuming he's talking about the single/title track, but he may be overstating things a bit. It's a fine song, but I'm not sure I needed to hear it before lunch, let alone before going to that great jam session in the sky. Although maybe that was his point all along - a study in prescient humility as opposed to the boastful way the comment was widely perceived. "Listen to this before you die, because once you get upstairs - and are confronted with the talent that has gone before (Jimi Hendrix, anyone? Elvis? Janis? Little Johnny Lennon?) - me and my brooding pals are going to be reduced to policing up amplifier cables and stray cigarette butts."

Let's just put it this way, Chris, and I know it's not a formal competition, but when Tom DeLonge is making music that has more appeal and iPod staying power than yours, I think we can all agree that we're dealing with a case of significantly unfulfilled potential. And I'm coming around to the realization that Coldplay may really have only been a slightly longer-lived version of Travis, The Cranberries or, if you want to get right down to it, Chumbawamba.

All of which is a fairly long and tortured way of reporting to the readership that when it comes to Coldplay, and particularly Viva la Vida, the verdict here comes down to two simple words:

Shark. Jumped.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Hydrangea Moguls

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Father's Day

It's a lot of pressure... trying to write a Father's Day post as the proprietor of something that could certainly be considered a "Daddy Blog," and I have to admit I'm not feeling particularly profound at the moment. My RSS reader has been alive these last few days with recollections of Dad from all over the place, and of course here in the U.S. the news has been dominated since Friday afternoon by the sudden passing of Tim Russert, a reporter and political commentator who was also a famous father, and son, and incorporated both relationships into the public persona that millions here came to know and appreciate.

I never met Tim Russert. I saw him a couple of months ago in an airport, and before I could go over and introduce myself he bumped into Charlie Rose and I just sat there watching them carry on a conversation that seemed extremely satisfying on both sides and almost singular in its exclusivity... like Hemingway and Fitzgerald sitting in a cafe in Paris charting a course to the bottom of a bottle of wine, or Michael Jordan standing in the supermarket check-out line and turning around to find Tiger Woods.

Russert's Sunday morning sandbox, NBC's Meet the Press, was actually one of the few places where you could pretty much count on hearing something from a person in authority that wasn't entirely pre-programmed or processed, and only because he was good enough to dig in and get it. His enthusiasm and affection for his subject matter was clear, and infectious, and in addition to a steady supply of A-List guests, he provided a calming and reassuring presence on the television screen on Sunday mornings just by being there, like Johnny Carson did on weeknights at 11:30 for so many years.

I haven't heard about funeral arrangements yet, but have no doubt that the event is going to be like a Lunch at Michael's column that never ends, going on so long it ultimately crashes the computer servers, overwhelmed by the sheer luminosity.

We're going out to my parents' today, for some lunch and margaritas by the pool, which was opened last week and, as my Dad unfortunately reported yesterday, is "still green." Apparently there was some problem with the initial chemical mix, we'll have to see how bad it is when we get there. Let's just say the girls have been looking forward to getting in the water.

Gwen arranged the ultimate Father's Day gift for me this year, a weekend in which I was able to sleep until 8:15 a.m. on both days. Funny how your perceptions change, for most of my life, 8:15 on a Saturday or Sunday would have been getting up ridiculously early, now it's luxuriously late, and rare, and very much appreciated. But losing all that sleep has been worth it, without question.

Madison's gift is pictured up above, a pen that has been carefully encased in clay - now hardened - resembling her depiction of her father, me. "You can take this to work, and use it," she told me excitedly. And I plan to do just that.

Since Madison and Ava learned to speak, I've heard the word "Dad" uttered in my general direction probably a few million times by now. There are moments when it's the most cherished acknowledgment I could ever imagine, and others (what more could you possibly want, right this second, with the Jets driving for a game-tying touchdown that they are virtually certain not to achieve?) when it feels like a frustrating and mind-numbing sentence. Most of the time it's somewhere at the upper end of the range, but wherever it falls, it's who I am. It defines my existence and the things I do, what I'm thinking about and what matters to me. And, as I've written before on here, I wouldn't have it any other way.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Silver Lining

It's been about 1,000 degrees here this week, really brutal. Al Gore would seriously be proud, or terrified, or both.

We're hearing rumblings about it being a little better today. The one fringe benefit we've noticed has been that the large rose bush in our backyard seems to have enjoyed the heat and is now fully in bloom.

I wandered out this morning to get this shot, but believe me when I say the view is even better from inside the house, through the windows, in the air conditioning, holding a drink, with ice.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Another Nice Word

We had Ava's end-of-the-year school party yesterday, two hours in the afternoon sun, mercury absolutely flirting with triple digits. The theme was Mexico, and we brought home-made quesadillas as our contribution to the feast - plain in a white flour shell, and a "rustic" version with sauteed spinach and mushroom on our favorite sprouted grain Ezekiel tortillas.

Let's just say there was no issue with the cheese getting cold or tough, I probably could have started from scratch with the raw ingredients on one of the picnic tables or a nearby rock and gotten the same result.

It was a nice event, the kids ran around for a while and then got up on an outdoor stage and sang for a group of parents and relatives smiling proudly and doing their best to work cameras and video recorders through a wave of sweat worthy of Albert Brooks in Broadcast News.

At the conclusion of the festivities we were presented with some of Ava's artwork, and by far my favorite creation appears above, a counterpart to the "dream" mosaic Madison made at the same school last year, which provided a perfect conclusion to the recent Wild Art compilation post.

We've been happy with this school, and not only because they pick such nice words.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Favorite Spot (Volume Two)

Just a quick update to Volume One. This is Olive's new favorite spot in the house, on her little perch, and definitely with the window open. Over the last few weeks the lure of the kitchen floor and its radiant heat has waned, for obvious reasons, and this seems likely to be the deal through at least October. Fine with us.

We can assume this photo was taken when the girls were at school or otherwise engaged, because that's when Olive is able to enjoy some downtime, in between being chased and carried through every room in the house.

Unfortunately, her fragile neck muscles are still not capable of withstanding treatment like this, or this, not to mention this, this, or even this, but we're working on it and have high hopes for capturing and posting a whole array of madcap images in the coming months.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Backyard Mystery

I have no idea what these flowers are, another intriguing burst of color we inherited from the previous owner of our house, who must have been some kind of champion horticulturalist. Maybe someone out there in Web-land can inform the group.

I noticed them last weekend and managed a few photos on Saturday after a brief thunderstorm. Definitely one of the more interesting recent developments in our garden, and not for lack of competition.

To Haggle, Or Not To Haggle

I hate haggling. In a perfect world, for me, things would have price tags and people would make buying decisions based on their financial resources and the information presented on those tags - as opposed to some random expectation of flexibility or the ability to cajole some clerk or shopkeeper into offering a better deal.

In some situations - car shopping, for example - haggling is not only presumed, it's required. The Internet has made this process exponentially easier, for buyers, by making a broad array of essential information readily available. Stop by Edmunds or some other similar service and in just a few clicks you can fully research a vehicle and arrive at a pretty good idea of what you "should" be paying. Take that information, get a few dealers working against each other for your business and hopefully things will turn out OK.

In order to get the best deal in any situation, they say, you have to be willing to walk away - and truer words were never spoken. I'll never forget my first trip to an auto dealer, with my Dad, right after college graduation. I was buying my first car, and it was going to be a black Acura Integra. We walked onto the lot, met the salesman and about five seconds after saying "hello," my next words were "I'm buying this car." My Dad cringed, shook his head and threw me an expression that basically said, "nice going, rookie." I had a lot to learn.

I have a good friend who always seems to be buying or leasing a car - you would think all that experience would count for something, maybe make things a little easier - but every time, literally every single time, the transaction has gone off the rails at some point and involved walking away, or threatening to walk away, not to mention the yelling.

Sometimes it's hard to know if you're in a haggling situation or not. How often have you seen someone carry a cup of Stonyfield Farms yogurt marked $1.09 up to the check-out counter in a grocery store and say, "I'll tell you what, how about I give you 85 cents for it?" When haggling is clearly not part of the deal and you go down that road you risk something people usually try to avoid at all costs, namely looking like an idiot in front of strangers.

A few years ago I accompanied my aunt to an Apple store, she was interested in buying an iMac. We found some fresh-faced and helpful kid to talk us through the computer, the options, capabilities, everything we needed to know.

Then it came time to talk turkey and my aunt - who does not have an extensive history of large purchases - said, "OK, so what's the bottom-line price?" The kid looked blankly back and motioned to the little white card sitting next to the machine, with all the relevant information right there for any shopper to see. My aunt didn't get it. "What's the absolute best you can do? The bottom-line price?" she asked.

"Uh, that would be it right there," the kid responded, motioning to the card, confused and in the early stages of being offended. Appropriately shamed, my Aunt proceeded with the acquisition.

All of which brings us to last Saturday. We've decided to finally turn our home office into an actual guest room, with an actual bed, so we packed up the girls and paid a visit to a well-known and reputable bedding chain that had a Main Street storefront in a nearby town. The place was having a blowout Memorial Day sale, so the full-size Sealy mattress and box spring set we liked had already been reduced from something like $1,500 all the way down to $999. Wow!

With delivery, tax and the cheapo frame they were going to throw in as part of the purchase, the full "out the door" quote was $1,173. "OK," we responded, we're going to think about it. I said to Gwen as we walked out of the store that we could be getting totally hosed or the best deal in the world, and we'd never know the difference. If we were under any kind of time constraint or absolutely had to have the bed we could have easily just said, "sure," and surrendered our credit card. We probably would have.

But we were fairly ambivalent about this purchase - at least one of us was - and in a position to air things out a little bit. We had a pleasant Sunday around the house and at some point in the afternoon I called the woman in the bed store. I told her that we'd continued to shop around and were finding comparable beds for significantly less money. In fact, we'd been making pizzas, but that seemed a minor point, and not exactly germane to this conversation. I asked whether they could do any better than the price we'd gotten the day before.

"Well..." she said, hesitating just enough to make me feel dumb for asking. "We could take another $30 off, but that's really the best we can do. The set is already significantly reduced - we've never sold it for that price before!"

OK, so we were down to $1,143 at this point. I said thank you and we'd continue to think about it.

The next day the woman called back, said she'd spoken to her manager and they agreed it was now miraculously possible to knock $100 off the original price, which brought us down to $1,073. I expressed my thanks and almost bought the thing right then, but for some reason I didn't. I responded that I would check with Gwen and be back in touch.

We were still back and forth on getting the bed, and even at this "reduced" rate it was a good amount of money. That night we went online and did a little comparison shopping at another well known mattress retailer. We took advantage of a "live chat" function on the company's Web site and - long story still relatively long - got an out-the-door quote of $932 for the comparable Sealy (bed manufacturers change their "model" names from store to store, clearly to make comparison shopping easier for the consumer), frame, tax and delivery in about two weeks.

Again, we came close to saying yes right then, but didn't. We were playing with house money at this point, and doing better all the time, why end the run now? There was also something just a tad disconcerting about doing business with a small dialogue box on a computer screen, as opposed to a real live person in a retail location we were able to visit, with beds we could see and experience for ourselves.

A couple days later, I tried to reach our original sales clerk by phone, she was off. I got her manager - who we had met on that first shopping trip - and with the end of the month at hand let's just say he was determined to close out the sale, whatever it took. He downplayed the competitor's quote, "that's a telemarketing version of the bed, not the one you saw here, different fabric and not as nice, I can sell you that same bed, but you won't be happy," he said.

Ultimately, he matched the online quote - applied to the bed we saw and liked in the store, threw in a much nicer frame than the one we were going to get as part of the earlier deal, even did next-day delivery to get everything wrapped up in May. As a result of all the back-and-forth we cut our price by more than $240 - 20 percent. Not exactly peanuts.

This is fairly long-winded and not particularly revelatory, I know, but our little bed-buying experience this week really did amaze me. Too often, I think, we're the people who jump at the first price, lead with our chins all the way through the transaction, and wind up with the $1,173 bed, as opposed to the $932 bed. Same bed. Same buyers. Same vendor. Less money.

Sometimes, it would seem, it pays to haggle.