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  • Time Away

    My wife and I took a three-day mini-vacation this past week to Virginia's Shenandoah Mountains. It was a chance to unplug and get away from everything — except my camera, of course. To see more from this album, go here.

  • A Long-Awaited Vacation

    Jill and I have been married 20 years. The number of vacations we have taken together, just the two of us, is in the single digits. (That's what happens when you have three kids in a year early on in the marriage.)

    For the past several days, we've been in Moab, Utah, enjoying the incredible beauty of the American Southwest and taking some much needed down time together. Hiking (she's in much better shape than I am), a river ride, sightseeing, taking pictures (far too many), bumping into a good friend in a random place, eating, drinking, napping and sleeping (enough of some, not enough of others). It has been great.

    And, with a few more days in Utah, now it's time for work again for both of us. Time always flies fastest when you wish it wouldn't, but I'm beyond grateful for the time we've had this past week.

  • Random Thoughts: Traveling Along

    Having driven more than 2,000 miles across four states over the past week, it's safe to say that:

    1) The windshield of my rental car did more than its part to reduce the bug populations of Utah, Colorado, Idaho and Wyoming.

    2) Email and Facebook posts go largely by the wayside in the American West, unless you scheduled them in advance. I'm just now checking email for the first time in several days, and it's not pretty.

    3) I still don't understand why Utah convenience stores close at 10 p.m. Is post-11 p.m. really too late?

    4) Sitting with my wife at a bar, shooting the bull and watching the Olympics in a place where the Winter Games once were held, remains one of the most pleasurable experiences I could have.

    5) I don't like red eyes. To quote Danny Glover, I'm too old for this shit.

    See you on the other side, folks...

  • A Visit to Aruba

    Earlier this month, Jill and I took our first non work-related vacation together as a couple in almost a decade. Having secured a great deal on a place to stay, we decided to go to Aruba, Aruba in the Caribbean.

    The beauty of the beaches and sunsets outweighed the extreme “Las Vegas on a cruise ship” feel of the island, where the economy is solely dependent on tourism. We stayed away from the kitsch as much as possible and did our best to do, well, nothing.

    That worked well, and our time away together was much needed. Of course, our good travel karma was lost with Jill’s luggage somewhere on the trip home. Three-plus hours in line at the Aruba airport (where you also go through U.S. Customs), plus flight delays and the aforementioned lost bag (still not found) meant we did not get home until almost 2 a.m., with a full week of work ahead.

    But it’s hard to complain too much when you see those beaches and sunsets.

    ••••••

    For more photos, go to my Facebook album here.

  • Beach Trip 2010

    With Ben living in New York, this year's beach trip had a different look. Instead of the Outer Banks, we went to the edge of Long Island in Southampton, crammed the entire family into a single hotel room, picked up the boy for his day-plus off, and enjoyed one of the most beautiful beaches in the U.S.

  • At Last, A Vacation...

    St. Thomas, Virgin Islands: Clear blue water, big skies, an abundance of pose-ready iguanas, history in the form of Blackbeard’s castle and an old Lutheran church, memorials and busts you might not expect, birds in the park, and some examples of extreme poverty. Here is some of what I saw with my camera during a recent vacation. To see more, go to my Facebook album

  • The Orlando Pilgrimage

    My wife and I are not big on amusement parks, but with four kids — a 21-year-old and three teenagers — we knew that we had to someday make the pilgrimage to Orlando. Last week, we did just that, visiting the Universal and Disney theme parks before going to St. Thomas for our first family vacation in five years.

    The Universal park was by far our favorite, especially given that we were able to go to the soft opening — aka preview — for the new Harry Potter Diagon Alley attraction that opened last Tuesday. For the most part, Jill and I stayed in the background while the kids went on their merry way.

    Of course, I had to take a few photos at both parks. Above is a sample. To see the rest, go to my Facebook album.

  • Vacation: The Final Frontier, Part II

    As much as I love to travel, I usually don’t consider family trips a vacation. This was a little of both.

    On the Fourth of July, we left an hour later than I hoped and found ourselves clumped with the rest of the usual I-95 South traffic. I could have walked faster at times, but it finally dissolved after Fredericksburg. From there it was smooth sailing, despite law enforcement and radar guns seemingly behind every tree, we picked up Nicholas at Elon after only 5½ hours on the road.

    Despite my initial concerns, the old reliable Odyssey did just fine, even though the kids could watch DVDs only if I played the sound through the loud speakers. That meant I heard the audio to six-plus movies on the way down and five on the way back. (Side note: How “Silver Linings Playbook” did not win best adapted screenplay is beyond me.)

    We stopped for dinner outside Charlotte, N.C., and encountered our first major delay when Kate had to send back her steak twice because it wasn’t cooked enough. (I swear I heard the thing moo the second time.) Fortunately, the prepubescent Cracker Barrel trainee with a retro mullet was extremely polite and pleasant, even though I spent the entire dinner praying, “Please, dear God, don't let mullets come back.”

    Our plans were to drive until late evening, and then find a hotel somewhere between South Carolina and Florida. I didn’t make a reservation because I didn’t know how far we’d go initially, not realizing that  — on the Fourth of July, duh — we would not be able to find anything from Columbia to Jacksonville.

    After 28 phone calls and seven stops among the cluster of hotels along I-95, I decided to go all the way to Orlando, even if that meant getting there at 4 a.m. Of course, by this time, Jill was already sound asleep, so that meant we’d show up and surprise her.

    And that’s what we did. Bleary eyed and butt lagged, we made it. 

    After a day recovering from the drive, we spent one day at Universal and the second at Disney before flying to St. Thomas, which has to be one of the best acquisitions the U.S. government has ever made. We thoroughly enjoyed our time there; the kids shopped, went snorkeling with Jill, and did some night kayaking. Nicholas infamously won a bottle of rum when he placed first in the karaoke contest. Jill read a book in one day. I walked around and took pictures.

    It was great — and memorable.

    Vacations are an opportunity for families to come up with lines that you always associate with that particular moment in time. Because of our social media savvy set, many of the kids’ came with hashtags:

    • #salty (Nicholas’ description of Emma)

    • #youknowyoureatouristwhen (self-explanatory)

    • And the most memorable: #weareTHATfamily.

    The last one is our familial moniker for embarrassment. Nicholas came up with it after we delayed the start of the snorkeling expedition by 15 minutes and received cold dead-eye stares from others on the boat. Sadly, it was not the last time we used it during the trip.

    Nicholas and Emma, the list makers among the foursome, wrote down some of their favorite lines. Here they are, slightly edited by dad, of course.

    Proof that #weareTHATfamily:

    • We think seeing iguanas is the coolest thing.

    • When you ask how late the pool is open and are surprised when they say 24 hours.

    • We got to Universal an hour before it opened just so we could stand in line with other winners of the #weareTHATfamily awards.

    • The kids pushed Kate around in a wheelchair at the theme park after she hurt her ankle, then realized they could use it to their advantage to move up in line for the rides.

    • One of us celebrated “a little too much” after winning karaoke night.

    • That same one ran through the airport to retrieve a bag that was left on the plane, only after shaking down his younger brother to make sure it was not a repeat of the “Moo-Moo” incident.

    • Two family members get a little too close to sea life at the same time while chasing a football. One wrestled with rocks and the other high-fived a sea urchin.

    • We clogged the kids’ toilet and narrowly avoided a complete flood of our hotel room.

    • We have parents who wine (Emma’s spelling) that they missed bottomless mimosas at breakfast, only to get them from the subsequently well-tipped waitress. Mom later amends “wine” to “cleverly bitching.”

    • Dad initially can’t remember where he put the van keys when returning to Florida; mom develops a list of contingency plans within seconds. (Keys fortunately were found.)

    My random Disney World observations:

    • I saw the word “Bar” in the Magic Kingdom and was excited, but then I realized the word “Toppings” was in front of it.

    • Some folks call it the “Happiest Place on Earth”; a more accurate tagline would be “Humidest Place on Earth.” Of course, “Humidest” is not a word.

    • A job no actor wants: Working in costume as Goofy or Pluto in 104-degree heat.

    • At one point I hugged Jill. If we had been anywhere but Disney, she could have participated in a wet T-shirt contest.

    Other memorable lines and observations:

    • Emma, always the precise one, amending WTF to WTAF. In this case, “A” stands for “Actual.”

    • Me at 4 a.m. as we pulled into the parking lot of Jill’s hotel after 17 hours on the road: “To heck with the Bloody and the Mary, I’ll just take the vodka.”

    • Nicholas: “K1s — isn't that something about dogs? No, wait, that's K-9s.”

    • Jill on Emma’s Harry Potter obsession while at Universal: “She's not walking around in her robe. I think there's merit in that.”

    • Jill watching parents deal with small kids at Disney World: “I would rather ignore my children when they were teenagers than have to deal with them like that when they were 5 or 6.”

    • Kate after Ben says he wishes he could drink in St. Thomas: “Ben you don’t look old enough. Grow some boobs and you’ll be fine.”

    • Jill after I tell her I can’t find the van keys: “Of all the times, this has to happen now?”

    Fortunately, KAOS was still vacationing in St. Thomas. I’m sure he’ll be home soon.

  • Vacation: The Final Frontier, Part I

    Our last true family vacation was almost five years ago, when we took a high school junior, a seventh-grader, and two sixth-graders on a cruise to the Caribbean.

    Needless to say, a lot has happened since then.

    The oldest kids, Nicholas and Kate, are seniors in college and high school, respectively. Ben and Emma will be juniors in the fall. In many respects, their lives revolve around their friends, jobs, extracurricular activities, school, and what’s happening on their smart phones. As parents, it sometimes feels like we’ve moved from professional schleppers to the nether regions of “if we need you, we’ll call you.”

    That’s to be expected, I guess. But the transition is not without its bumps.

    We had a few of those bumps earlier this month, when we took our first actual family vacation since the August 2009 cruise. Because the kids’ schedules have revolved around theater, dance, shows, and school, we haven’t had the chance to take a significant period of time for just us as a family with little to nothing to do.

    As you might expect from any family vacation, the wind up to the wind down wasn’t always smooth sailing. But, in the end, it was just the break we all needed.

    ••••••

    Planning for this trip has roots that date back more than a year. On a whim, Jill and I decided to participate in a timeshare presentation in exchange for an extremely good rate at a resort of some kind. Then I was laid off, which pushed things back as we worried about our financial futures (still a concern). We decided to take advantage of the program this past Christmas, but those plans fell through as well due to a variety of issues.

    After seeking another extension, I learned that we could take the vacation in St. Thomas in early July, a few days after Jill’s annual conference in Orlando. We discussed the pros and cons and decided to book the trip in the window between the various dance/musical theater camps, part-time and full-time jobs, and other various and sundry things that come up when you have three active teens and a college student.

    When we started looking at the details, it made sense for us to drive down to Orlando and then fly to St. Thomas from there, given that plane tickets were $350 more per person if we had flown straight. We also could pick up Nicholas in North Carolina, rather than having him meet us either in Virginia, Florida, or somewhere else along the way.

    As we made these arrangements, we decided to rent a van (ours has more than 130,000 miles on it), pay for gas, and possibly a hotel room rather than drive the 950 miles straight. That would not cost nearly the $2,100 that would be required for the extra plane fare.

    We also could use the savings to finally take Emma to Harry Potter World, the closest thing she has to Mecca, and all of the kids to Disney World for a day. Result: We could drop in/drop out of Orlando for a couple of days and check something off the parenting bucket list in one fell swoop.

    But remember, KAOS has set up a home office at our place, complete with Internet access and a fax machine. When we made these plans several months ago, we did not anticipate that Jill would encounter the First Lady of the United States along the way. 

    ••••••

    Several weeks before Jill’s conference, she was asked to present at a White House briefing on college and career readiness issues and how they relate to the school counseling profession. At the end of the briefing came the “ask” — aka what the American School Counselor Association wanted the White House to do.

    Jill’s ask for ASCA was for the First Lady, who is spearheading the initiative that is putting this unprecedented spotlight on the profession, to come to their annual conference in Orlando. To everyone’s surprise, Michelle Obama accepted.

    Despite being a national organization that represents more than 30,000 school counselors, ASCA has a small staff that wears many hats. When the acceptance came in just three weeks before the conference started, things had to be thrown into overdrive to accommodate the White House’s needs.

    Anyone who has ever worked at or even attended a large conference with 2,000 people knows how exhausting it is. Jill and her co-workers usually come home and sleep for 24 hours straight after one ends; with the prep work that everyone had to do beforehand and on site, they were bushed before it even started.

    Originally, rather than be gone from home for two-plus weeks, Jill’s plans were to fly home, sleep, unpack, repack, and then drive back with the family to Orlando. Fortunately, we were able to convince her that we could survive and make the drive without killing each other.

    So, after arming us with a to-do list that bore a striking resemblance to a dead sea scroll, she reluctantly agreed to let us pick her up two days after her conference and board meeting ended.

    After all, what could go wrong?

    ••••••

    In the grand scheme, nothing calamitous occurred, but KAOS did rear its ugly head at times.

    It started shortly after Jill left, when I spent three straight evenings shooting photos at the kids’ dress rehearsals for “Footloose.” This is something I’ve done over the years, but given that my photography business now is intertwined with the Metropolitan School of the Arts, it meant I needed to shoot more than just our kids’ dances.

    With almost 80 different scenes in the hybrid dance recital/musical, that meant a lot of photos — about 1,500 per performance — had to be narrowed down and edited. Ultimately, I ended up posting just over 2,400 to my new online business site, which also was set up over the past month.

    After three nights in the “Footloose cave,” Nicholas and his girlfriend Katherine came up to see the show. We spent a nice afternoon and evening together, and then we had a mini-family reunion (sans Jill) after the first set of performances ended. The next day, they and a host of other friends saw the matinee, but it was still after 11 p.m. when the marathon ended and everyone got home.

    KAOS came into play the next morning, when I discovered that Jeremiah’s flight to a camp in upstate New York was actually 40 minutes earlier than planned. We (literally) flew out of the house and into rush hour traffic, but fortunately everyone was heading south and we made it just in time.

    Much of the week between “Footloose” and the trip was spent working on my advertising consulting job, culling through and editing photos, and finishing a freelance piece in and around addressing the items on the dead sea scroll. As the Fourth of July weekend approached, I could feel myself sputtering to the finish line. I really needed that vacation.

    Our plans were altered slightly — KAOS again — when Nicholas said he did not have to work on the Fourth of July as he had initially thought. This meant renting the van a day earlier, and the reservation I had placed did not allow us to extend without incurring a massive charge. And there was no way that I would drive four kids in a car for 16-plus hours.

    So, 24 hours before we were scheduled to leave, I had to see if our van could be fixed up enough to reliably make it to Orlando and back. An annoying shimmy in the brakes was causing me concern, but we didn’t think that would have to be done until after we returned from vacation. And I knew that bill could be more than the cost of the rental, based on having similar work done last summer.

    After having the oil and transmission fluid changed, I took the van to a local Midas where we had had the work done previously. Fortunately, four hours later, I learned the pads and rotors I had replaced in 2013 were still under warranty by a matter of days.

    They were replaced, and we were on our way. It was going to be roadside fireworks on the Fourth of July.

  • The Joys of Summer

    So let's see what's on tap for the rest of this week: 
    • I have a presentation in Silver Spring to a prospective client tomorrow and a freelance story to complete.
    • Footloose dress rehearsals start tomorrow night for Ben, Emma, and Jeremiah, which means I'm moving with them and my cave into the cave through the weekend.
    • Kate is kid sitting for one of the MSA after-school children this week.
    • Jill leaves Thursday for her annual conference, which happens to feature the First Lady speaking at the closing general session. (And Jill was the point person who secured her appearance!)
    • Nicholas and his girlfriend, Katherine, arrive Saturday to see the Sunday Footloose matinee, which features Ben in the lead, before they head back. Other friends are coming from far and wide to both shows on Sunday as well.
    • Jeremiah leaves on Monday for a three-week camp. After getting him to the airport, I start on the honey-do dead sea scroll to prepare us for yes ... a vacation!

    Hope I make it to the Fourth of July...