Vermont: Freedom and Unity

As we packed the car and prepared to leave our lake cottage at the end of the unpaved road, I was already missing New Hampshire: the white spired churches, our rope swing, “lobstah rolls” and the lazy roads. We were destined for Vermont.

We bade farewell to New Hampshire in Hanover,  
site of Dartmouth College and equally impressive Lou’s Restaurant and Bakery, the longest-operated restaurant in Hanover. Opened in 1947, with a menu that featured “hamburger….35 cents,” Lou’s now welcomes guests with a dessert case that makes you realize you have some serious decisions to make if you’re not staying four years.

. . .

The physical journey from New Hampshire to Vermont is brief; you need only cross the Connecticut River. But the spiritual distance between New Hampshire’s “Live Free or Die” and Vermont’s “Freedom and Unity” mottos suggested we would be traveling a great distance.

As we made our way north and east on Highway 89, we had three major destinations on our Vermont itinerary: the Green Mountains of Stowe, the Lake Champlain area of Burlington, and the ice cream of Waterbury. Yes, after weeks of travel, we would finally arrive at Mecca: the Ben & Jerry’s factory tour.

While the kids lobbied to stop first at Ben & Jerry’s, we had the advantage of being in charge of the steering wheel. As we approached the highway exit to Vermont’s capitol city, Montpelier, we knew we had to make a detour.

The boys rolled their eyes as Christopher intoned, “Guys, did you know this is the least populous capitol in the nation?” (I didn’t doubt it. I had the feeling I could walk into the Governor’s office next door to the Capitol building and ask if he wanted anything from Dunkin’ Donuts.) It also has to be one of the prettiest, its golden dome gleaming against the deep green of the tree-engulfed mountains behind it.

We got out of the car in front of the capitol and took the requisite picture. The novelty of capitol buildings was wearing thin. After the photo shoot, they asked “Now can we go to Ben & Jerry’s?”

“Almost…” we answered in that noncommittal way that means, “We’re not quite done causing you misery.” (No freedom or unity for our family unit, at least for the moment.)

We forced the poor things to enter a museum

Adjacent to the capitol, the Vermont Historical Society has a hands-on, kid-friendly exhibit about the state we had just entered. Kid-friendly is so my speed. We walked through a full-sized Abenaki wigwam, a re-creation of the Catamount Tavern where Ethan Allen’s Green Mountain Boys gathered, a railroad station complete with a working telegraph and a WWII living room furnished with period music and magazines. From abolishing slavery in its first constitution in 1787, through the gay marriage debate, the Vermont Historical Society gave us the skinny on Vermont. Definite thumbs up.


At last we hightailed it to Waterbury and joined the throngs at the Ben & Jerry’s factory. Christopher, ripe with Vermont factoids, piped up: “Did you know this is the most visited tourist attraction in Vermont?” From the moment we entered the parking lot, it was easy to believe. And why shouldn’t it be? With reasonable tour prices (adults $3, kids free), a heaping taste of a new flavor (“Late Night Snack” for us, featuring chocolate covered potato chips mixed into vanilla!), and good karmic corporate practices, I was happy to add my name to the list of people who’ve stopped by and taken the requisite photo.

As the day faded, we left the land of sweet cream and turned up the mountain road to complete the short distance to Stowe, and our accommodations at the Grey Fox Inn. Ah, Stowe. As soon as we entered the town, I stopped missing New Hampshire.

I realized I’d be missing this place all too soon.

Next up: Stowe, Vermont!

Why New Hampshire Rocks: Off-the-grid Games, Baseball, and Presidential Politics

Time marches fast, even on vacation. It’s hard to believe our plans are steadily becoming history, as the days become weeks. After 28 days we have reached the halfway mark of our trip, and signs of homesickness (or maybe travel weariness) have arrived. The fighting in the car is increasing, as are statements longing for home.

But one of the beauties of being in a new environment without one’s favorite toys, is the added motivation for creativity. At the house on Merrymeeting Lake last week, for example, Emmett and Aaron discovered a small rubber fish that must have been used as bait by a recent fisherman. This squishy little thing provided hours of entertainment, as they took turns throwing the fish into the lake, then jumping off the end of the dock to race each other to get it.

Now our adventure marches on to the second New Hampshire lake houses, in tiny Newbury, est. 1778, far from the more tourist-oriented locales. The town is charming, the house itself is more remote, rustic…and without cable TV, cell phone or internet service. It’s going to be wonderful.

Last night, instead of the kids watching television while Christopher and I worked on our computers, we played an Aaron-invented game, challenging each other to name the capitol of each state. Aaron drew freehand a map of the United States, and checked of the capitols as we named them. (Are you smarter than an almost-5th grader? I’m not.)

This morning, instead of Emmett being glued to The Disney Channel, he and Christopher rowed “our” little boat out to an island in the middle of the lake, on which someone has strung a rope swing on a high tree. Christopher expertly guided Emmett through his fears, and Emmett is now a rope-swing-into-a-lake kind of kid. Aaron and I stayed back in the house, gobbling down more chapters of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, which he’d begun our last day in Manhattan, on the F Train to Brooklyn.

By late morning, we set out for Manchester with two big plans.

The first was to attend a Minor League baseball game (New Hampshire Fisher Cats vs. the Akron Aeros in Northeast Delta Dental Stadium).

The second (unstated-so-as-to-avoid-protest): to meet Presidential candidate Jon Huntsman at a restaurant down the street from the stadium. (A quick peek at the New Hampshire Republican Party’s website had let us know he would be at Murphy’s Taproom on Elm Street an hour before game time, talking with New  Hampshire folks. Just like they show on TV!)

We merely told the kids we knew a great place for lunch. We mentioned that Presidential candidates often ate lunch there. That piqued their interest. “Like Barack Obama?” Aaron wondered. “Could be,” we may have responded.

We walked toward the restaurant and, still not quite believing things work this way, there he was sitting at a table with 10 people, in a casual green shirt, talking about the economy.  The nice Young Republicans set out four more chairs for us. We listened until the kids were bored and threatening to become disruptive, and I took them outside.

Governor Huntsman was affable, and spoke with us after the round table ended. He asked Emmett about his missing front tooth; asked Aaron about his interests (response: basketball). We shook hands and told him we were fellow Penn grads, and that we were from California. He told us he grew up in North Hollywood. Politics aside, I liked the man, so I mentioned that I had a good track record: the last time I’d taken my picture with a Governor was 1990, with then-Governor of Arkansas Bill Clinton. He responded in a hushed voice: “I’m actually friends with him.”

Will we have shaken the hand of the next President? If our unscientific polling has anything to say, probably not: our closest Republican family told us he’s not their number one (but to send their love anyway).

NYC: How Two Kids and Their Parents Devour the Big Apple

As our two-month family road trip moved from Philadelphia to New York City, we shifted gears accordingly.

If Philadelphia shines its light on history, then New York shines its light on right now. Even though New York played its part in American Revolutionary history (hello, Capitol from 1785 – 1790, anyone?), walk into the NYC Visitor Info Center and browse its hundreds of brochures, and you will find exactly one mention of it: George Washington bade farewell to his troops here in 1783 at Fraunces Tavern. Yawn.

New York is too grand, too majestic to bother with what happened 250 years ago. It’s moving fast, baby, and we’re moving, too. We made a list of everything we wanted to see and do in NYC in one week, and set out a campaign to achieve it.

“This week we are go go go, do do do,” I told my kids. “You can rest when we get to New Hampshire.”

So from dawn ‘til dusk, for six days straight, we rocked The City. From Mary Poppins to Harry Potter,

From the Bronx Zoo to the Bronx Bombers,

From the Central Park boathouse to the Intrepid Aircraft Carrier,

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From The World’s Largest Dinosaurs at the Museum of Natural History to the world’s most dazzling candy store on the Upper East Side,

From Chinatown to Little Italy,

and a subway-aided pilgrimage to my ancestral home – Brooklyn – we never stopped.

Until our children made us.

For once, my energy outlasted theirs. Their exhaustion was biblical, coming on the seventh day.

They went on strike. “We are NOT LEAVING THIS APARTMENT.” So we hunkered down and rested, knowing that the city marched on outside our window on West 44th Street without us.

We each had different favorites in the city this week. I loved the peaceful walk down Riverside Park at dusk, a place I’d never gone in all the times I’ve been to New York.

Christopher’s favorite was the Intrepid, where our boys learned about Kamikaze pilots, nuclear submarines, and other light-hearted things. 

Dylan’s Candy Store was the predictable hit for the boys, and the dancing splashing fountains in Battery Park were a welcome relief after the Ellis Island museum and an unusually rocky ferry on a warm summer day.

By the time they pooped out on our last day in New York City, we had a few things left on our list still undone: Walk along the High Line (free!); Kayak the Hudson (free!); take the ferry to and ride bikes on Governor’s Island (free!).

All will be saved for next time. Because while New York waits for no one, it always welcomes you back. It is like a party that’s still going after you’ve returned from a refreshing nap, a favorite movie you watch years later and find, to your great joy, not only does it hold up, it has gotten even better.­­­

Next stop: R&R in New Hampshire

Philadelphia, American History, and Mini-Golf

“California is the most beautiful state, but Pennsylvania is the most historic.”

Thus spoke my 10-year-old California boy at the end of a day that had him reading the Constitution aloud at the National Constitution Center, strolling past Independence Hall where the Constitution was crafted, watching “Liberty 360” — “the first 360 degree 3D movie about our nation’s founding!” – and, not to be entirely serious, playing a round of mini-golf surrounded by miniature emblems of Philadelphia.

Our first stop, the National Constitution Center, is a temple to America’s foundational document and history. As a daughter of a constitutional lawyer, I was raised to revere the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. As I listened to the core exhibit’s presentation “Freedom Rising”, I was moved to tears by the audacity of the men (yes, only men, but we’re fixing that) who wrestled with the creation of a new government. I was astounded again by their idealism, their indefatigable tenacity, for nearly a decade debating the language of what would become our American bible. For that moment I forgave them their human imperfections and hypocrisies, and thanked them for creating a governing document that left room for improvement in every generation. We are holding true to our tradition when we argue in every generation about what is meant by equal protection of the laws. Whether the issue is women’s suffrage or gay marriage (or whatever it will be 50 years from now), we can be mindful that we are all Americans, we are entitled to different opinions, and our legacy is one of debate, resolution and moving on as one country.

I could have spent hours more in the many interactive exhibits at the National Constitution Center (and will absolutely return), but time was short and I’d promised them mini-golf. I have my priorities straight. And so do the planners of the many activities that make up Historic Philadelphia, who know that you gotta give the kids something sweet to get the medicine to go down.
Our golf-putting took us past mini Art Museum, Ben Franklin Bridge, Independence Hall and even miniature people rowing crew on mini Boathouse Row.

There are so many inventive and interactive activities for families in Historic Philadelphia, we could have spent a full week. But we’d only allotted the day, which means we will be back. Fifth grade field trip, anyone?



A Bad Idea Gone Good

Q: When four adults confront a 5-day forecast that includes thunderstorms Monday afternoon and sunny skies the rest of the week, what activity do they choose for Monday?

A: Floating down the Delaware River for three hours in innertubes.

Emboldened by our rain-free bike ride yesterday, and with a mantra that “those forecasters are always wrong,” we set out for Frenchtown, New Jersey, site of Delaware River Tubing. Leaving no margin for error, “we” (by which I mean, of course, not me) reasoned that if we started by 10 a.m., we’d be out before the predicted storm.

The friendly kids at Delaware River Tubing gave us an innertube, a smile, and a ride to the river.

Our floating parade began under sunny skies, moderated by clouds that kept us thankfully cool. The river was as lazy as they come, making me laugh at myself for thinking this might be a dangerous endeavor.

Then the thunderstorm caught up with us. Suddenly no one could remember whether it was safer to be exposed in the middle of the river, or sheltered near the river banks and all its trees. We strenuously paddled to a happy medium, appreciating that the storm added drama to what otherwise would have been an uneventful pleasure ride. What better than a brush with danger to sear a memory into permanence. The lightning caught especially caught Emmett’s attention.

Tonight, however, safe at home, rejuvenated by warm baths, soft pajamas and a delicious dinner of corn, tomatoes and chicken any locavore would love, Emmett stated his opinion of the day in simple but clear terms: “Let’s do it again tomorrow.”

Hot enough for ya?

Let me warn you: if you want to find a heat wave in summer, follow us. Two summers ago, our arrival in Barcelona ushered in one of that fair city’s hottest summers ever. Now in the birthplace of our own country, we are at it again, but this time with the blessing of central air conditioning awaiting us at home.

Even sitting inside with a fan blowing on me, simply reading The Weather Channel’s weekend forecast from two days ago is enough to make my skin shimmer with heat goosebumps:

Trenton, NJ: Daily record high of 106 degrees.

Philadelphia, PA: Daily record high of 103 degrees.

It’s not as bad as it sounds, really. (See aforementioned air conditioning.) There is plenty of great local ice cream (hello Zebra Striped Whale!), our great-aunt and -uncle’s swimming pool is right around the corner, and tomorrow — barring the arrival of predicted thunderstorms — there will be tubing in the Delaware River.

This morning, we got an early start for a bike ride along the D&R Canal. The clouds that carried the idle threat of thunderstorms kept the bright sun at bay.

With bikes rented from Greenway Bikes at The Nelson House, just inside the entrance to the Washington Crossing State Park (on the New Jersey side), we rode along a tow path that for most of the 19th century was the “freeway” for commerce from Philadelphia to New York. (I mention this fact to our kids in the hope that some history will seep in, anticipating the 5th grade American history curriculum, but mostly I think they’ll remember the chocolate croissants they later got at the Lambertville Trading Company in Lambertville, New Jersey.)

(An ironic history sidenote: When we arrive in Lambertville, what do we see but the “James Marshall” house? Lo and behold, it is the house where a young James Marshall lived before setting off for California and igniting the California gold rush with his discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill.

So it seems we are still meant to be reviewing 4th grade history.)

 

 

 

As we continue our bike ride, we pass a pair of joggers or bicyclists only every five minutes or so. It is peaceful enough for me to hear the loud whoosh of cicadas in the trees. Emmett offers me the exoskeleton of one.

As we ride I catch glimpses of the calm Delaware River through the thick green foliage on my right. I can’t help but think of the very different bike ride I took just last Sunday, along the Pacific ocean from Pacific Palisades through bustling Santa Monica, crowded Venice, along the oft-graffitti’d Ballona creek all the way to Culver City, trying to keep up with my father’s quixotic goal of riding to his “ancestral home,” where he lived until he was nine years old.

As we rode along that beach bike path, the spray of the Pacific at our side, my father kept saying, “feel that natural air conditioning” and beaming his widest smile. He knew that those ocean breezes would not be accompanying his daughter, son-in-law and grandsons on our trip, and he wanted to be sure that the refreshing air would be a vivid, sweet reminder of what we have to welcome us when we come back.

Until then, I’m on this path with my family, and we may be sticky, but we’re still smiling.

How To Celebrate A 7 Year Old’s Birthday

Easy. Start with dinosaurs, finish with giraffes.

We have two summer birthdays in our family. My son Emmett and my mother-in-law Joyce have back-to-back July birthdays, which we frequently celebrate together during summer vacation. Before you shed a tear for the poor child who never gets to bring cupcakes to school for his birthday, please know that he ends up with multiple celebrations of his joyful birth each year – one with friends in California before our trip, and another celebration with Pennsylvania family on the real day.

This year his dream was to have a sleepover at L.A.’s Natural History Museum in its New Dinosaur Hall. I don’t know how brave you are, but I would be skittish sleeping with a T.Rex triptych – baby, juvenile and full grown – hovering over me. So I didn’t expect a single friend to jump at this idea. Instead, we told Emmett we’d take him to see the dinosaurs, and another day he could have a party with friends at home. That is how he ended up with three birthday celebrations: those two events and on his actual birthday, a Six Flags Wild Safari V.I.P. Tour in Jackson, New  Jersey. All together now: Life is good.

As an Angeleno, I’m particularly proud of our new dinosaurs. The Natural History Museum keeps getting better, far surpassing my childhood experiences of it. For years we watched scientists patiently build these dinosaurs, and they have finally come to fruition, along with a lot of interactive exhibits. My favorite is a video of the self-taught paleontologist whom L.A. County long ago sent to Montana in search of its own T. Rex, rather than purchase one already unearthed by another institution. Later they may host birthday parties, but until then, just bring a picnic and a soccer ball and have a party outside on the massive lawn. Happy Birthday Part 1.

The only animals involved in Happy Birthday Part 2, were the dozen six-year-old boys running around playing Red Light/Green Light, jumping on a trampoline and eating pizza and cake, so let’s skip ahead to Happy Birthday Part 3.

We all use Emmett’s passion for animals to connect us to our own animal instincts. While most visitors to Six Flags Wild Animal Safari in Jackson, New Jersey drive their cars through meandering dirt roads throughout 350 lush acres, past 1500 animals representing 52 species from 6 continents, ogling creatures from bison to Bengal tigers, and from emus to elephants, those guests are required to stay in their cars with the windows rolled up – just in case. We splurged for the V.I.P. tour, which allowed eight of us to get in and out of our two guided Land Rovers (painted like zebras), stand within three feet of lions and tigers, pet Roosevelt Elk, giraffes and a rhinoceros, and feed various animals fruits and raw vegetables as we went.

I have never seen my children voluntarily let a raw sweet potato touch their teeth, until today, when they decided to feed the giraffes mouth-to-mouth. I think they would have taken them home with them if we could have sneaked them out.  Animals aside, Emmett was over the moon simply because he got to sit in the Land Rover’s front passenger seat, another birthday perk.

And so the first day of our two-month travel adventure begins with a theme we hope will carry us through: experience the unfamiliar, get out of our comfort zones. I must confess, however, that as I write this, I am quite comfortably sitting in the air-conditioned home in which I became engaged to my husband nearly 14 years ago. So there you have it: a perfect balance of creature comforts and wild creatures – and another birthday to remember.

Splashing into Spain – July 24

July 24, 2009.

Day One. Well, Day Two if you count our arrival yesterday morning after a day and night flying from Los Angeles through Atlanta to Barcelona. Three of us half-slept through the arrival day. Emmett, on the other hand, enjoyed it thoroughly, begging Christopher to “test drive” our home exchangers’ Mercedes Benz and swimming in the neighborhood pool—an astonishing Energizer Bunny.

The heat that first morning terrified us; what grand mistake had we made, we wondered, coming to Sitges and Barcelona in summer? Separately Christopher and I started making alternate plans and calculating the financial blow of having to transfer to an air-conditioned hotel for 3 ½ weeks.

But even a fitful, hot night’s sleep made a difference, and our first complete day here was much better. We walked through the narrow cobblestone mazes of Sitges’ historic streets, passing bakeries, butchers and boutiques, past the old church at the promontory, and down the grand stairway to the beach, stopping midway down to be splashed by ocean spray. The fine white sand was crowded with European vacationers and Spanish locals wearing not much more than their tans. Aaron and Emmett didn’t seem to notice. Their eyes widened at the sight of pedal boats with water slides waiting at the shore to be rented. My heart leaped at the sight of blue and white striped umbrellas and lounge chairs lining the sand as far as the eye could see. Christopher didn’t say what he was looking at most. At least all the sights took our minds off the heat. We trudged our way up the  wide pedestrian promenade, changed into our suits, and, our priorities in order, sought out the boat man.

My Spanish kicked into gear and I felt a part of my brain working that hadn’t been put to use for a while. “Queremos alquilar un barco. Cuanto cuesta?” He answered, “Twelve euros.” I guess my Spanish wouldn’t be entirely necessary in a popular tourist town. He warned us that the water might be too choppy for the kids. Chalk it up to jet-lag-induced lack of judgment, he could not deter us from our mission. We wrapped up the kids in life jackets that would not have made the grade in California, and set out to the Mediterranean Sea. The waves crashing into our boat refreshed us as we headed straight out past the breaking waves. It was our first signal that the ocean temperature here would be a gift, much warmer than our own Pacific.

Christopher, Aaron and Emmett all tried the slide, displaying great bravery in my view. It was a great sign for how our kids would embrace this family adventure. Now, I’m a relatively adventurous person. I’ve traveled alone through Thailand where I didn’t speak a word of the local language. I’ve gone head-to-head with Morrocan big rigs driving two-lane highways from Rabat to Fez. I’ve climbed to the tops of Mayan temples that left other travelers grounded by vertigo, and ziplined over deep valleys and waterfalls in Mexico. Yet here I was in Spain, a country I’ve lived in, whose language I speak, at a beach resort, and I knew I was in trouble. I sat in the boat wondering how much longer until we could go back to shore, increasingly nauseous, my landlubber ways getting the best of me on the rocking plastic boat. Before our hour was up, I ordered our ship to shore. We rode the waves back to shore, avoiding a capsize, and stumbled greatfully up to those beckoning lounge chairs. Where my intrepid family proceeded to collapse into a deep sleep for the next three hours. We woke up at 7pm, the sun still shining, the beach still peopled with vacationers. We swam in the warm water once more that day, then headed back to our home for the next three weeks. Rested, refreshed, relaxed. What a difference a day makes.