Home!

“Three weeks is too long,” was the grumbled consensus as we began the final leg of the book tour/vacation last week. We all would have been happy to come home then. But we gallantly submitted to the extra days of recreation — water park and lobster rolls and beach and…bookstores.

The bookstores! They are thriving, people! From Pennsylvania to Massachusetts, I visited 23 bookstores in 21 days.

Book Culture, NYC
Book Culture, NYC
Words, Maplewood, NJ
Watchung, Montclair, NJ
Watchung, Montclair, NJ
Elm Street Books, New Canaan, CT
Elm Street Books, New Canaan, CT
Doylestown Bookshop, Doylestown, PA.
Doylestown Bookshop, Doylestown, PA.

Some were quiet, others were bustling with summer readers, but there seemed to be a consensus among booksellers that an equilibrium has been reached, that the slaughter of the indies has ended.

Oblong Books, Rhinebeck, NY
Northshire Books, Saratoga Springs, NY
Northshire Books, Saratoga Springs, NY
Spotty Dog, Hudson, NY
Spotty Dog, Hudson, NY
The Golden Notebook, Woodstock, NY
The Golden Notebook, Woodstock, NY
Merritt Bookstore, Millbrook, NY
Merritt Bookstore, Millbrook, NY
Inquiring Minds, New Paltz, NY
Diane's Books, Greenwich, CT
Diane’s Books, Greenwich, CT
Main Street Books, Orleans, MA
Main Street Books, Orleans, MA
Booksmith, Orleans, MA
Booksmith, Orleans, MA
Where the Sidewalk Ends, Chatham, MA
Where the Sidewalk Ends, Chatham, MA
Brewster Books, Brewster,  MA
Brewster Books, Brewster, MA

This joyful news comes with some melancholy for me, because my local bookstore did not survive, a casualty of high rents and challenging times. I miss Village Books in Pacific Palisades. I miss the floor mural of authors. I miss the wall displaying what local book clubs were reading. I miss the chairs by the window, perfectly sunlit. I miss the children’s section. I miss the author readings, the folding chairs brought out for people packed in to hear writers — the famous, the local, and sometimes captured in one person. I miss having my favorite place in town, where some nights when I needed to leave the confines of my house I would walk just to look in its window.

I remember when I walked into the store in 2007, to deliver my pitch for a reading for Deliver Me: True Confessions of Motherhood, a collection of stories and poems by twenty writers I had edited and published. When I started this project, I had no intention of creating book. I simply needed a creative outlet, as my life was dedicated to the care and feeding of two little children. As the project grew, I realized I had a moving, lasting work, so I learned how to publish it. Walking into the store, I had barely uttered, “I have a book” when owner Katie O’Laughlin broke into a huge smile and said, “We’ll have a reading!” I wanted to kneel and kiss her shoes for her generosity.

Village Books' last evening.
Katie addressing the crowd at Village Books’ last evening.

The absence of Village Books is the only blot on the joy of coming home. After being away for three weeks, everything is one degree less familiar than when we left, everything is precious: the unadorned glory of one’s own bed, its worn sheets singing their softness, not their wear and tear. The 4th of July streamers left in one tree. The weeds displaying their power. My not-so-little-anymore little one singing, “Being at home feels so so good! Being at home feels so so good!” Indeed, it does. And although my bookstore-next-door lives only in the hearts and memories of its many loyal customers, I’m thrilled to know that so many other indies are still going strong.

And I’m setting out to visit as many as I can. California…here I come.

The Long Ride Home: Vermont to California (by way of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Virginia and D.C.)

Moving from Stowe to Burlington, Vermont, meant moving up in population size from 5,000-ish to 40,000-ish. Like astronauts acclimating to earth’s gravitational pull after time in space, we were visiting increasingly larger places so that Los Angeles would not crack us upon re-entry.

Burlington, a bustling college town with views of Lake Champlain, was a boon to our license plate game.  Students gearing up for the start of classes at University of Vermont came from all over the country — Washington, Tennessee, Iowa, even California. Church Street Marketplace, several pedestrian blocks of stores and restaurants, was reminiscent of Santa Monica’s 3rd Street Promenade, minus the buskers. We walked along the bluffs of Lake Champlain, and could all but convince ourselves we were on Ocean Avenue looking at the Pacific Ocean, but for the minor fact of New York’s Adirondack mountains in the distance.  Our adjustment process was progressing.

Until we visited Shelburne Farms, a 1400-acre working farm, national historic site and nonprofit environmental education center located on the shores of Lake Champlain, which welcomes guests to milk a cow, gather eggs, watch cheese being made, and enjoy food grown on its grounds. Two steps back toward small town goodness.

We left Burlington loaded with goodies from Shelburne Farms’ gift shop – wine, maple syrup and chocolate – to enjoy and share with friends and family who would be hosting us on our path. We decided to skip Boston and gratefully accepted an old friend’s invitation to visit her in Amherst. It had been nearly twenty years since we’d seen each other. Among other things, one of the highlights of this trip was the chance to renew friendships, and inaugurate new ones between our families.

The next day, racing against Hurricane Irene’s arrival, we aimed to arrive in Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania in time for dinner. The route we chose was, nonetheless, along a path less taken.

Forgoing speed, we charted a course through Redding, Connecticut in order to visit the setting of My Brother Sam is Dead, a book we were reading to delve into American revolutionary history while in that neck of the woods. (Teacher extraordinaire Mr. Miguel Espinoza had pointed the way to GoogleLitTrips.com, which pointed the way to the places in the book, as did Redding’s own town website).

Despite initial griping, Aaron took the helm of the camera, and documented the places from the book, including gravestones of the real people we were reading about.

We continued on smaller roads, through New York towns like Chappaqua (of Clinton fame) and Tarrytown (of Washington Irving and Sleepy Hollow fame), crossing the Hudson at the Tappan Zee Bridge. We arrived in Washington Crossing in time for dinner with grandparents, aunt, friends and dogs, and hunkered down for Hurricane Irene. When the coast was clear, we bade farewell and set off to complete our journey.

The boys could smell home, just two days away. They’d had it with history. With sightseeing. They were done. But we had two days, and the wealth of potential activities in Washington, DC tormented me. How could we choose? Bicycle tour of the monuments; visiting the new Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial; tour the Bureau of Engraving & Printing to see money being made, the International Spy Museum?! These were all on our list of want-to’s. But time ran out, and they’ll be on our list again next time.

We decided to venture past Washington, D.C. (okay, we accidentally went to Virginia while looking for parking near the National Mall – my fault), to visit the home of George Washington in Mount Vernon, and historic Alexandria, Virginia.

I’m still not sure how I feel about Mount Vernon. On the one hand, I was curious to see how the first President lived, see the faded wooden floors where he stood, the chair where he sat, the bed where he died. On the other hand, I was sickened by imagining the horror of being enslaved there, as I walked on the same paths as the human beings he dominated to keep his house painted, his chamber pots cleaned, his family well-fed and pampered. I looked at the massive stately tomb of the most revered American, knowing that paces away nearly 300 slaves were buried without so much as a gravestone.

So, that was fun.

We lightened things up later that afternoon in Alexandria, eating crepes outdoors by the Town Hall, cruising the Potomac, and browsing some of the 62 artists’ studios at the Torpedo Factory Art Center. We drove our rented Chevy over cobblestone roads past charming brick buildings. I soaked up the other-ness of it, anticipating the mini-malls and wide avenues of L.A. in my future.

The following day, our last full day of this summer adventure, we spent with friends at the Newseum, a gleaming treasure trove of history and temple to the First Amendment.

Here’s a place I could visit again and again. The kids were enthralled by “the Death Tower,” one of the checkpoints the museum had imported from East Berlin along with sections of the Berlin Wall. They listened with astonishment as to its purpose — for guards to see and then shoot fellow citizens trying to escape to the other side — and noted that the West side of the wall was painted with murals and graffiti, the East side was dismally blank.

  In another exhibit, I listened to a radio report of Jesse Owens winning four gold medals at the 1932 Berlin Olympics, then watched Tom Brokaw reporting the fall of the Berlin Wall. Everyone had a chance to try their hand as TV news reporters, joining their cross-country friends.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And then it was over.

We boarded an airplane headed for Los Angeles. On my right, the kids watched a Harry Potter movie for the tenth or twentieth time. On my left, Christopher read a magazine. In the middle, I typed these words. When we pulled up to the California grandparents’ home, they were waiting for us, along with the cousins and sister we’d missed more and more every day.

Everything is as it always was.

Thanks for reading.

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