Tuesday, October 03, 2017

New York 2017 - Day 1

For Sarah’s 40th birthday, I took her to New York City. I arranged a dream of a vacation, shouldering all of the planning and arrangements. All she had to do was show up and enjoy it! BWAHAHAHAHA! Just kidding – Sarah did all the planning because I’m a terrible husband! Okay, I’m a moderately okay husband, but I’m terrible at planning travel. Had I’d arranged things, it would have been like, “Honey, we’re going to New York City! It’s going to cost forty grand and we’ll only be there for three days. Also, we have to drive. But hey, NYC!”

We left Ottawa in the late morning, connected through Pearson, and got to Laguardia in the early afternoon. (This may be news to no one, but Laguardia is a surprisingly ugly airport. I'm always amazed when major, modern American cities have run-down airports. See also: LAX.) Our hotel was The Belvedere, which had a totally excellent location in Hell's Kitchen a few blocks away from the theatre district. The hotel itself was a little worn, but who really cares because it was just place to sleep and keep our stuff, and Sarah got it for free on points. (My only really complaint about the hotel was the absence of free wifi, because introvert Dave needs his restorative internets at the end of a long day.) Before heading out to the city, we had a moment to reflect on the ease of travelling without kids. It's not just physically hauling kids around that wipes you out, it's the emotional drain of trying to keep them happy all the time. Now this goes without saying, but: we have great kids and I love them. That said, travelling without them has perks.

All checked in, we went walking. Our first stop was the Richard Rodgers Theatre where we took in the Hamilton marquee, then we went into the pop-up store across the road to pick up Hamilton swag. We got shirts for the kids, and also a shot glass for me (the non-drinker) because it had "I am not throwing away my shot" written on it and, seriously, how can you not buy that? After this, we had dinner a Shake Shack, which was a first for both of us. We hit it at the perfect time and missed any massive lines, and we had a burger and a shake each. I forget the shake flavours we had, but I remember that mine tasted like cold, liquefied butter. (Delicious, sure, but still...)

Next, Sarah led us to the TKTS booth in Times Square where theaters release their unsold tickets at discounted prices. We wanted to see either Beautiful or Anastasia, and Anastasia had the better seats that evening so we went with that. I wasn't super-jazzed about the idea of seeing it (and I was even less enthused about Beautiful for that matter, which we'll get to later), but in an attempt to make up for my other husbandly shortcomings and in recognition of the fact that this
was a trip to celebrate Sarah's birthday, I kept my trap shut. In the end: the play was great! It's based on the Anastasia animated movie from the late 90s, with the main difference being that the villain was switched from a ludicrous, undead Rasputin to an over-zealous communist officer (wise choice, that). All the leads were great. Stand-out performer was probably Caroline O'Connor who played Countess Lily, lady in waiting to Dowager Empress (who, worth noting, was played by Grams from Dawson's Creek.) Also stand-out: the arms on the dude who played Dmitry. Apparently peasants of the Russian Revolution did a lot of crossfit. I didn't find the songs themselves especially memorable. Which is not to say they weren't good, I just couldn't remember a note of them after the show was over. (Excepting that "Have you heard, there's a rumour in St. Petersburg" business that Sarah has been singing at me for years.) Still a great show, and great seats, and I'm happy my trap remained shut.

Monday, October 02, 2017

Sarah has taken on the job of homeschooling our kids this year. It's a decision she made for a variety of reasons. Because some of our kids needed more one-on-one support than they were getting at their
school. Because full-day kindergarten is an under-resourced, over-stuffed gong show. Because she was spending so much time volunteering at the school helping other people's kids when she could be more directly helping her own. And, fundamentally, because she felt called to do it.

I was nervous for her. There was absolutely no question she was capable of teaching the kids. She's an omnivorous learner, she's brilliant, and she can explain pretty much anything to anyone. What I was worried about was the weight of it all. We're playing it year-to-year, so it doesn't have to be a decade-long commitment, but even locking in for just one year is a tremendous responsibility. It's a full-time job and a half. And with the mix of ages between our kids, it's a challenge meeting everyone's needs inside of a day, ensuring the right content gets delivered at the right level. And beyond the teaching part of it, there are the opinions you have to hear. There are a lot of choices you can make about your lifestyle or your family that most people won't question, but when it comes to homeschooling people don't offer up the usual polite deference. People ask direct questions (why are you doing it? for how long? what about socialization?) and they expect an open accountability from you about the success of failure of things in a way they wouldn't if you worked most other jobs. Which is not to say that everyone's been critical. Some people have been incredibly supportive. People have said to me, "If anyone can do it, Sarah can!" and "Can she teach my kids too?!?"

And how is it going? So far: really well. Is every day perfect? Of course not. But by and large the kids are engaged, and happy, and really enjoying things. They have little-to-no stress about the school day. They have the time they need, whether it's to slow down when something's not easy, or go down the rabbit hole after something that's interesting. And Sarah can take advantage of when they're best equipped to learn - so there's no more forcing them to do homework when they're wiped out after a full day.

Sarah doesn't presume she's doing a perfect job. She's critical about what's she accomplishes, but she keeps her expectations realistic. Like the time she said, "I feel bad, because I don't think I gave them equal amounts of attention today . But, I mean, it is only day two..." In all other aspects of her life, Sarah wants to be better, do better, be more impactful - and she brings that same commitment to homeschooling. She knows, better than anyone, what these kids need, and she'll provide it to them firsthand. Being equipped for it and knowing what needs to be done doesn't stop the job from being very hard. But she'll stick to it and do great things. Because she is selfless, and committed to good, and wants to do the right thing. Just like always.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Sarah describes herself as a “nerdy joiner” which is her self-deprecating way to say that she’s involved in a bunch of stuff. The full truth is that she’s an incredibly dedicated volunteer who offers up nearly all of her free time to support a half dozen organizations and initiatives around where we live. She is one of those crucial people who makes things run. It would be untrue to say her work goes unrecognized, but I can confidently say that few people really know how much time and effort she puts into all these things that she has nerdily joined.

She joined the board of our local preschool soon after our kids started going there, and excepting just one year, she’s been involved ever since. This year is probably the school’s most

crucial: we need to fund and complete a relocation, and if the project fails the school will probably close for good. And this is the year Sarah became the preschool’s President.

She’s also been on the board of our grade school and has been Treasurer for the past two years. Beyond the hours counting pizza and popcorn money, making deposits, and attending board meetings, she works through all the school’s fundraisers throughout the year (while the rest of us dance and eat spaghetti and whatnot). She also volunteers in our kids’ classrooms, providing one-on-one reading time to help the teachers gauge each students’ reading level and their progress throughout the year. And when our kids were still in kindergarten, she managed the “snuggle bag” program – sending bundles of books home to encourage literacy through family reading.

At church she sits on parish council, she is also a lector… and she spent two years assisting with confirmation prep. Sarah (and the rest of the council) have worked hard at making our parish more welcoming and inclusive and communal than it’s been in the past – and they’ve had great success. Which is thanks to Sarah and people like her, who are out there and active, greeting strangers, making introductions, and being an example of the best that the parish has to offer. And on top of all that, Sarah and her friend Beth run Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, which is a Montessori-based program that helps kids deepen their understanding of the mass and guides them through hands-on work leading to religious self-discovery. Oh, and she’s also a recovering member of the CWL.

Over the past year, I’ve also become more involved in volunteering, and I say this not to congratulate myself in any way. I say it only because it’s given me a greater appreciation for what Sarah does. That level of involvement is hard, but it’s not just the time investment that makes it difficult. It’s the space these things occupy in your head when you’re not working on them. It’s the cycles of resentment, avoidance, guilt, and then full throttle effort. It’s knowing that your hard work in one area almost always comes at the expense of hard work that’s also needed elsewhere. But she keeps at it and it’s yet another reason why she’s amazing. She will always be one of the people that makes things run. She was a nerdy joiner at eighteen and she’ll probably still be one at eighty. 

Monday, February 22, 2016

2016 Carribbean Cruise - First Day At Sea

The first day at sea, like most days at sea, was laid back and lazy. The kids spent most of their time in the Fun Factory, we swam again (I think?), we browsed the stores, some of us gambled, and some of us napped. So rather that add detail to those exciting events, I'll just write about the kid's friends and post a cute video. At the Fun Factory, Teddy became immediate best friends with Eamon from California, who I thought of as Little Boy Tarzan. He was a handsome little dude, Teddy's age, with long, long hair. (Apparently Veronica had never seen hair like that on a boy before because up until the last day, she insisted he was a girl.) Veronica's friends were Summer and Sophia, from Ann Arbor. Super lovely, very tall girls who looked like twins but weren't (they were actually a year apart in age but almost exactly the same height.) We chatted with their parents a few times through the cruise and they were also lovely.

That's all for now about the friends. They'll come up again later. For now, here's a totally random video the kids made in their downtime, which I find super cute. I treasure these earnest, silly, kids-being-kids videos. One day they're all going to be teenagers. They're probably be surly; they'll certainly be more self-conscious. They won't be like this for long, or at least not for as long as I'd like.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

2016 Carribbean Cruise - Embarkation Day

As far as the other guests go, it’s been an unusual cruise for two reasons. One: there are a lot of newbies on board. People wandering around more or less lost, not knowing what’s free and what costs extra, not really even knowing the perks of things they’ve actually paid for. Second, there’s also a lot of folks who just don’t like kids, or at least don’t want to see them on their vacation. Nobody’s really horrible about it – the most we really get is cut-eye in the elevators or snark at the buffet – but it’s a different experience then we’ve had in the past. On a typical cruise, two out of every three people we run into smile or chat with our kids, or they tell us about grandkids at home that they’re missing. But this time it’s the two thirds that are gritting their teeth when we walk by, or saying things like, “Better you than me, man!” I’m not even offended, it’s just… peculiar. I love traveling with my kids. And (if you can pardon the platitude) I love how it lets me see things in a new way through their eyes. We’ll be dragging these kids along on our vacations for as long as they’ll let us.

Another weird thing was that prior to embarkation we didn’t bump into anyone else going on the same cruise. Always, always, in the airport, on the plane, in the hotel: we end up chatting with folks going on the same cruise. Not this time. Because of that fact, I predicted we wouldn’t see a single member of the crew we’d known previously. But the words had barely left my mouth before Sarah’s dad picked out a sommelier he knew from his last cruise, and Sarah saw the waiter from our last cruise. This was followed immediately by Julie from the Fun Factory – who our kids knew from two prior cruises. Then there were scads of familiar waitresses and bartenders, and also an assistant maitre’d who was super-helpful during our first cruise with Teddy. So my prediction proved less than accurate, is what I’m saying.

That first day, the kids did a really good job waiting, because they couldn’t do the two things they were dying to do until later that evening (namely: go the Fun Factory and buy whatever random junk they could buy at the shops). We did our best to distract them. We took them to the pool as soon as our luggage (and swimsuits) got delivered, and when sail-away came, we took them out dancing. There was an excellent house band led by a very Adele-like singer, and the kids danced their little hearts out. Footage of the McLean Family Dancers made the Cruise Highlights video produced by Celebrity, and while it was fantastically cute we were still too cheap to buy it. Veronica is all confidence when she dances. Susannah has moves, but she perfers the comfort of being surrounding by her siblings. Teddy… is a wild flailer. His dancing involves a lot of intense arm thrusts. I think he’s aware that his style is unorthodox because he’ll often grab your hands and team-dance with you. My favourite part was when a couple beside us started swing dancing and Teddy was like, “Dad, we need to do that!” as if he wasn’t talking to the second worst dancer on the boat.

Later came dinner in the main dining room, and that was great as always. Our waiter was Harun, his assistant was Efrem, and the sommelier was Lundi, and they were all excellent. It was just an hour away from the Fun Factory being open, and the kids were sort of patient about it. They did ask for a time check every eighteen seconds, but otherwise they ate a good meal and were well-behaved. Then when seven o’clock rolled around, they were out of their seats and ready to go. Veronica got a few feet away from the table – but then she ran back and gave Harun a huge hug. I don’t even know why. Maybe just as thanks for the chocolate ice cream he brought for dessert. But seeing his smile is one of the things I’ll remember most about this trip. The kids get a lot of attention from the staff in general, and they get asked for a lot of hugs (which are happily given). But Veronica’s hug was totally unprompted and out of the blue, and Harun had a look of such happy surprise on his face. Maybe it’s the surprise that really stuck with me, because these guys have worked these jobs for a long time and have really seen it all – the best and the worst that people can be. Surprises are a rarity, I imagine.
From there, the bigs went off to the Fun Factory. We finished dinner and tried to take Susannah dancing, but without the rest of her dance crew she wasn’t really into it. So we took her to the shops where the staff was totally into her and she was really not into that. Then it took three attempts to collect the other kids from the Fun Factory before they finally consented to leave, and soon after, it was beddy-bye for the lot of us.

(Additional story that I couldn’t work organically into this post:  Whenever the ship needs to rotate or make small lateral movements, they use these particular thrusters (I think they’re called azipods) that make the ship vibrate. Anyway, sometime close to sail-away I was waiting in our room while Veronica was using the bathroom. As we're navigating away from the dock, they fire up the azipods and the ship starts vibrating. Veronica, on the throne and more than a little annoyed, says, “Who’s doing that?” Five seconds go by as I try to think of how to explain it to her, and she calls out again with five times more attitude, “Tell them to stop it!”)

Friday, October 02, 2015

Sarah has a lot of qualities I love -- that's not exactly a secret. But one of the greatest things about having kids has been seeing her best qualities appear in them. Specifically:

Compassion - I see this in the girls, even Susannah who's not yet two. If someone is crying or even just a little bit upset, the girls are in there right away, hugging, saying, "It's okay, my sweetie," (if it's Veronica) or, "Po' Teddy!" (if it's Susannah). And Veronica has a long term concern for people that's rare in kids. She's had grandparents with bad backs, a dad with a bum foot, and other friends with health issues, and she'll ask them about it every time she sees them. That's Sarah: thinking and worrying about others, all the time.

Enthusiasm - This is the clearest one -- the one people see in our kids and immediately say, "I know where they get that from." If you know Teddy at all, one of the principal words you'd use to describe him is enthusiastic. He literally bounces with excitement. And he's a big cheerleader for his friends and family. I think his friends' achievements excite him more than his own. And Susannah's an enthusiastic little nugget too. It's go great to see the enthusiasm in her because it's immediate and unbridled. Even simple things thrill her. I hear, "Wook, Daddy! It's GUNTHER!" at least three times a day. We get a lot of Yay!s out of her, just like we do from Sarah. I've written before about her comic-book laugh ("Hee hee! Ha ha! Ho Ho!") Well she also says Yay! more then any adult I've ever met.

Intelligence - These are smart, perceptive kids, and there's no doubt where those qualities come from. Teddy is an awesome reader, and he's becoming a keen student too (instances of Thunderdome-style recess battles notwithstanding). Last week he was telling me all about 'attributes'. He brings new ideas home from school nearly every day. With Veronica, I see her smarts most in the questions she asks. Literally yesterday (as I write this, though not when it'll be posted) she overheard us talking about someone we knew who'd had a lung transplant, and she wouldn't just take the situation as fact. She wanted to know how did they get the lungs out? How did they open up his body? Did it hurt? How did they keep him asleep? How did they wake him up? Where did the other lungs come from? As for Susannah, I feel pretty confident that she'll be the smartest of the bunch. She is super, super chatty, and with her it's never just been parroting words back to us. I always feel like she understands. I'm amazed by her ability to understand pretty much everything we ever ask her to do (she doesn't necessarily comply, but comprehension is never the problem). And she spends tons of time with books. I'd bet big money she'll be a rockstar reader before we know. It'll be a house full of nerd-smart, bookworm kids, all taking after their mother.

Sarah, these entries are always about the ways I'm grateful for you. And this year, I'm grateful that your compassionate, enthusiastic, intelligent genes are so much stronger than my lazy, bearded, flatulent ones.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Caribbean Cruise - Celebrity Reflection - Wednesday

Out last port day was St. Maarten, which I’d remembered really loving in the past. White sand beaches, gentle tides, some people hustling trinkets and braids, but not at overwhelming of them. This time, St. Maarten was a total shit-show. Immediately off the boat, things weren’t too bad. There was generic cruise shopping right past the pier, but the main beach and the better shops were downtown –accessible by ferry, cab, or a very long walk. Mom and Dad took a cab and we went with the ferry, and that was all well and good, but once we got to the other side, cabbies and merchants were mobbed up at the exit, hollering at prospects as they stepped off the ferry, “Hey! Lady in the black dress! I’ll give you an island tour: twenty dollars!” We attracted a little less attention than most folks, due to size of the family and ages of the kids, but a guy renting beach chairs attached himself to us right away. Then what sounded like ten dollars for a couple of chairs became ten dollars per chair once we were on the actual beach, so we made due with just the one.

Then the beach itself was horrible. We remembered crystal blue water and soft waves, but it was a crazy heavy tide, and the water was lousy with churned up seaweed and stray bits of actual garbage. The kids weren’t put off in the least and they had fun, but we were constantly stressed out. They were wearing their floaties, so they were fine in the deeper water, and the shallower water only pushed them around in a safe way. But there was a zone in between very deep and very shallow that was dangerous – where the kids could easily get knocked over and end up rolling around under the tide. So it was all a big game of pretend we’re having fun, but constantly herd the children out of danger. And we had to keep Susannah out of the water almost entirely, which she of course loved. We spent maybe forty-five minutes at the beach and then went back to the ship. Huge disappointment. Probably one of the reasons that the tide was so heavy was that the Oasis of the Seas was in port that day. The Oasis is the largest cruise ship in the world, and it was docked right beside us making the Reflection look like a dinghy in comparison.

I’m writing this all weeks after it happened, based on notes I’d made during the trip. These notes were very fact and event related, and what I regret is that I didn’t take more notes about the conversations I had with my parents about how the cruise was for them. I remember everything we talked about, it’s just the order of what happened and when that’s fuzzy. I remember that it came out early on that they were having a great time and were very happy they’d come. We’d of course hoped this would be the case, but there was no telling whether they might find themselves bored, or (the greater fear) that Mom
would be petrified and seasick. But I think they were pretty steadily entertained, and Mom had no troubles at all. I also remember that Dad was very keen to provide a lot of positive feedback about the ship and the crew. Guest services gives everyone a comment form, and Dad had incredibly sincere, incredibly sweet things to say on his form. And I also remember them talking a lot about other trips they wanted to do. Not cruises necessarily, but Dad talked a lot about going to Florida next winter, and renting a house in Newfoundland in the summer. Mom told us she’s always wanted to go to Ireland. I hope they keep that fire in their belly and that they do all these trips and soon. And obviously we’d love to cruise again with them, although when I brought that idea up, Mom was like, “I don’t know. We’re getting old.” And I was like, “Mom, half the people on this ship are ninety. I think you’ve still got some good cruising years left.” And she was like, "Word." (At least that's how I remember the conversation.)