Sunday, July 31, 2011

Drive time

Day 12 of our vacation was almost strictly a driving day. We seem to endure one of these every year -- a long car trip connecting northern Wisconsin and Chicago or vice versa (and some years, both). After breakfast, we drove to Stevens Point to see Wife's aunt and let the boys play for awhile. Our next stop was Madison for a late lunch/early dinner at Noodles and Company. We hit traffic on Interstate 90 on the final leg of the journey, but the day wasn't that tiring, maybe because we broke it up enough. I finished my day with a walk around Edgebrook; hurray, I didn't see any skunks.

Wife and I actually enjoy driving trips and someday will take the car back to the Midwest instead of flying. The boys do well on road trips and did today, except for Eldest needing to use a restroom while we were driving through construction on the tollway (we made it to a McDonald's in time). This trip back almost always signifies that we are nearing the end of our vacation, and indeed, we only have three whole days left before flying back Thursday. As predicted, vacation has flown by quickly.

(Slug bug update: Eldest 33, Littlest 25, me 19, Wife 18.)

Click here for the conclusion of our trip: days 13-15.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Storm front coming

Saturday was Wife's birthday, and we spent it in Eagle River and Wisconsin's north woods. The day started nice, but got very, very windy and rainy ...

Our first planned event of the day was a trip to the Kovac Planetarium, a small but unique facility that features the world's largest rotating globe-style planetarium. Mr. Kovac loved the night sky so much that he essentially built this planetarium in the middle of the north woods himself. I learned about more constellations than I ever had from any other planetarium show, and his dedication and perseverance is, well, a little inspiring.

After the planetarium, we headed to Kentuck Days in Crandon -- an arts and crafts fair that included food booths and a classic car show. Eldest and I enjoyed the car show, seeing several old Mustangs, Camaros, Corvettes, roadsters, hot rods and even Novas. But our afternoon was cut short by a storm that was rolling into the area. Organizers of the event announced the storm was on its way, packing 60 mph winds. We drove away from Crandon, right into the storm, and though we only encountered a minute of winds, the rain was fell hard. Three Lakes was without power after a tree took down a power line. Wife's aunt and uncle, who we saw at the festival and was up north at their cabin, had their pier destroyed and their boat blown into the middle of the lake. The storm was intense.

Unfortunately, the storm interrupted and, pardon the obvious metaphor, put a damper on the rest of our day. We went to pizza in St. Germain with Wife's family, then returned to Eagle River and walked along Main Street for a little while, going to a bookstore and getting ice cream (and also finding candy UFOs!). I took the boys swimming after returning to our hotel, then we turned in for the night.

We leave the north woods Sunday to return to Chicago. Vacation is almost over ...

Click here for Day 12.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Waterpark madness

My daily vacation blogging goal hit a snag Wednesday and Thursday nights, when after full days of waterpark fun, I was just about too tired to pull out the computer and try to type. These past days have been that fun and that exahusting.

We left Waukesha on Wednesday morning and arrived at the waterpark resort in Wisconsin Dells around noon. The Wilderness let gave us our waterpark passes even though our condo we were sharing with Wife's family wasn't ready, and we hit one of the eight mini-waterparks right away. We swam for a couple hours until Wife's family arrived from northern Wisconsin, then went to another waterpark inside the resort.

Sense a pattern? Thursday was more of the same: More waterpark fun. The boys had a blast. We figured out that Eldest was in the water for about 16 hours of the 48 we were at the resort. His favorite rides were the crazy thrill rides and a lazy river that included a small slide and a conveyor belt that brought floaters back up to the top half of the river. Littlest loved some of the smaller water slides aimed at slightly younger kids (fortunate because he was just too short to go on some of the bigger rides). I liked a group ride on which all four of us rode in a giant raft down a long, dark slide.

We checked out this morning but still had our waterpark passes, so, we splashed for another three hours. Finally, by about 2, we left the resort and Wisconsin Dells for Eagle River. Except for about five minutes in which Wife couldn't find her wallet (eventually, it was found), the ride up north was smooth. We checked into our hotel, went to The Penalty Box in Eagle River for a fish fry (fun place, among its games were a Super Chexx and a Tapper!), and returned to our hotel to get to sleep relatively early after three long days.

We're only spending a couple days in Eagle River before returning to Chicago. In the meantime, we are likely to sleep well tonight. Last night, every time I closed my eyes, I kept picturing walking barefoot up wet stairs. Waterpark madness sure made an impression ...

(Slug Bug update: In the Dells, I snapped a picture of this Beetle with a moose atop it. Alas, the boys were not present when I saw it, so it couldn't be scored, though this avoided the controversy about how many extra points a moose is worth. Current scores: Eldest 25, Littlest 20, me 16, Wife 14.)

Click here for Day 11.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Let's groove tonight

Our vacation has veered north into Wisconsin. And oh my, Day 7 was fun.

We didn't leave Illinois until mid-afternoon. The lowlight of the morning was Eldest getting stung by a yellowjacket while playing tennis with my dad. We didn't hit much traffic on the way to a hotel in Waukesha, where we are spending the night before we go to the Wisconsin Dells tomorrow. We went to Kopp's for dinner, then headed downtown.

Wife's company hosts a big convention in Milwaukee every year and hires a big-name musical act to entertain the employees. In past years, we have seen Chicago and Hall and Oates; last year, Wife saw Keith Urban (the boys and I flew in after her meetings in 2010). This year, Earth, Wind and Fire was scheduled to play. Wife secured extra tickets so we could take the boys to what surely would be a fun show. We bypassed the actual seats at the Bradley Center for a spot on the floor, which held tables for people to sit or stand near to watch the show, but also included a large space in front of the stage for people to just stand and dance. With Littlest such a little dancer, we knew he wouldn't sit still in a seat, so we found a spot in front of the stage.

The concert was so much fun. Earth, Wind and Fire is a good party band, and Phillip Bailey, Verdine White and company didn't disappoint. Because we had people standing in front of us, Wife and I ended up holding the boys up to get a better view of the show. Wife mostly had Eldest on her hip (I could never prop him up comfortably for a long time like she did), while I mostly had Littlest on my shoulders (he was lighter but rougher on Wife's neck; my shoulders are stronger). The concert featured two large video screens on either side of the stage, on which cameras would close up on the band, broadcast the band from the back of the arena, or pan the crowd. About once every minute, you could see the back of Littlest on the screen, towering just a little bit over the rest of the standing crowd. What helped was that he was wearing a neon yellow soccer jersey. We made the boys wear these so we could pick them out easily, but in the lighting of the concert, the yellow was practically glowing. After a while, Littlest, who was bouncing on my shoulders, dancing and singing, kept looking for himself on the screens.

My only complaint from the show is that we were too close -- we were underneath the speakers and sometimes couldn't figure out what was being sung if we didn't already know the song. But we knew many of the songs: "Shining Star," "Boogie Wonderland," "Sing a Song," "After the Love is Gone" (which was a serious grade school flashback), "Serpentine Fire," "That's the Way of the World," "September" and "Let's Groove." The energy was amazing, and Littlest fed off it. His moment came during "Fantasy": The camera focused on just him from the front, and he shouted in glee at his image on the big screen for the whole Bradley Center crowd of insurance agents and their families to see.

Eldest had fun too, but it took a little while for him to really get into the concert (mostly near the last few songs). We got out of the show and both boys were wired, with Littlest singing "Ba de ya" (from "September"). Hell, I was wired too. But the best post-show moment was when Wife ran into a colleague from another agency, who instantly recognized Littlest from the video screens! I told Littlest later that he was a star, and that might have went to his head a bit, because on the way back to the car, he kept shouting "I'm a star, I'm a star!"

Littlest is a star, and so is Eldest. A shining star. No matter who you are.

(Slug Bug update: Eldest 19, Littlest 16, me 13, Wife 11)

Click here for days 8-10.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Little break

Wife worked in Milwaukee today again, and the three of us she left behind did enjoy a less involved Day 6 of Vacation 2011. Our morning was uneventful, we picked up Chipotle for lunch, we went to the mall to look for a birthday present for Wife (Wife, if you are reading this, I meant we went to the mall to get a Cinnabon!), and then we visited my former neighbors on the street I lived on growing up. The visit to the old neighborhood was fun. The neighbors' daughter (my sister's best friend growing up) now lives in my old house and has kids around the same ages as the boys. They played, swam and had a lot of fun for a few hours while the adults chatted and reminisced. We picked up Wife from the train station, ate dinner and caught lightning bugs.

Tomorrow, we go to Milwaukee to see Earth, Wind and Fire, and then we go the Dells on Wednesday. This vacation is far from over.

Click here for Day 7.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Millennium falcons

The first four days of our vacation were quite active, with a plenty of walking and plenty of humidity. With Wife working in Milwaukee on Sunday, I was somewhat planning a lower-key afternoon for Day 5 of our vacation. And for the most part, that was achieved.

Rain poured down all morning (Chicago has just been shelled overnight and into the morning with rain the past few days, but the sun eventually has come out every day by mid-afternoon), so that kept us mostly inside and mellow. The boys played games and watched TV, and my dad made chocolate chip pancakes. The sun finally came out, and we headed downtown to explore Millennium Park. The highlight for the boys was the Crown Fountain -- two 50-foot glass-block video screens that feature people's faces, and every few minutes, the face purses its lips and water sprays out from the wall. The boys loved getting soaked, and just standing by the fountain (but not getting wet) provided the adults with some cool relief. Afterward, we walked to another fountain: Buckingham Fountain in Grant Park. There we took pictures and ate ice cream.

After arriving back at my dad's house (and after Wife got back from Milwaukee), the boys played more games with their family, and we also went to the park for a little while. I went for a short walk tonight to cap off the "relaxing" day before writing this post. Wife is in Milwaukee on Monday as well, so another "relaxing" day might be in store for us. And yikes, vacation is a third over ...

(Slug Bug update: Eldest 16, Littlest 12, me 10, Wife 9. And this story: Littlest took a free copy of a used car sales catalog [similar to a real estate guide you might find in a "take one" box on a corer] and said it was his magazine because he needed to get more slug bugs. Classic!)

Click here for Day 6.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

There goes a narwhal

Day 4 of our vacation was dominated by a trip to the Field Museum in Chicago. This was the boys' and Wife's first visit to the museum, and I hadn't been there since 1982. With rain forecast for much of the afternoon, an inside event seemed the perfect plan, especially after worrying about thunderstorms yesterday at the Cubs game (and then dealing with the heat).

After driving downtown and accepting we'd have to pay $30 for parking (the Field Museum is adjacent to Soldier Field, where the Chicago Fire were hosting Manchester United today, hence the insane parking cost), we entered the museum and encountered Sue, the largest and most complete Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton ever discovered. As a dinosaur nut as a child (and still a fan as a grownup), I remember my other two visits to the Field Museum to see the dinosaurs. I felt a little of that giddiness seeing this giant T-Rex for the first time. But our day was just beginning.

After walking through the Polynesian exhibit, we took a break for lunch outside, then came back in to see more dinosaurs and other prehistoric displays. We saw a 3-D movie about Sue, which the boys loved, then continued exploring the rest of the museum.

Maybe it was the 29 years between visits, but I forgot how mammoth (no pun intended, because we did see a mammoth ...) the Field Museum is. We headed toward the Nature Walk, with its displays of animal life around the world. By the time we got through it all, we were starting to drag, but an entire floor of exhibits still awaited us. We needed another break and found a concession area eat some goldfish crackers and recharge.

What I love about the Field Museum was its mix of old-school museum exhibits combined with modern displays. We sat in what essentially was a little break room that featured marine life exhibits on two sides. When one of the pop machines ate our quarters and I went to the front desk to get a refund, I was asked where and replied "the pop machines by the narwhals." (In fact, the reflection of the pop machines can be seen in my picture.) The last two exhibits we saw reflected this balance: Underground Adventure, which shows what life is like three inches under the soil if you were 1/100th your original size, and the ancient Egypt exhibit, which displays a collection the museum has owned for decades.

After Egypt, we were exhausted and left the museum, unfortunately missing a couple things we might have found interesting. The Field Museum is definitely a good place to carry a membership. We returned to our car and fought traffic through downtown to get back to my dad's house.

Wife and I got another dinner on our own again (thanks, Dad and Suzy!) and went to Hackney's in Glenview for a burger. We stopped at Trader Joe's for the first time (Utah so needs one of these) and drove around the North Shore for a little while, being in no desperate need to get back. On the return trip, WLS-FM played "Life Is a Rock (but the Radio Rolled Me)" complete with "WLS Rolled Me" in the chorus. I drove a few extra minutes to hear that, because that's something that belongs in a museum.

(Slug Bug standings after Day 4: Eldest 11, Littlest 10, me 9, Wife 9)

(More on our vacation: Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3)

Click here for Day 5.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Go Cubs Go

For years now, one of our vacation goals was to get Wife to a Cubs game. As a native Milwaukeean, she has never been to Wrigley Field before. Each year, it seems the Cubs were never in town while we were or we always had a conflict. With the boys now able to sit through an entire sporting event, and both of them coming off their own baseball seasons, I wanted to get the whole family and not just Wife to see their first Cubs game.

Finally, this year, everything fell into place. We'd been eying this Friday to see the Cubs play. I pounced on some seriously discounted tickets on StubHub last night, and the thunderstorms that rolled through Chicago subsided just as we got on the train. Everything fell into place perfectly for Day 3 of our vacation.

My dad dropped us off at the Skokie Swift station, and two trains later (Eldest wanted to take the subway on vacation; we never went underground but I it was close enough to enjoy the Chicago rapid transit experience), we were on Addison outside the Friendly Confines. After a lap around the outside of the ballpark (walked more for Wife and me; Eldest wanted to get inside), we entered Wrigley Field for their first Cubs game and my first since 2002.

One memory I have from Wrigley Field in my youth is the men's restrooms that feature troughs instead of urinals. I figured after all the remodeling the stadium has gone through, the troughs would be gone, but sure enough, I took the boys into the restroom and there the troughs were. I think they were unsure what to think of the troughs (they kind of look like giant sinks to wash hands), but they got the hang of it, though I had to lift Littlest underneath his arms so he was tall enough to effectively relieve himself. After that first adventure, we made our way to our seats.

I really got lucky with these tickets: upper deck on the shady side, third row, about even with the pitcher's mound. The seats were perfect for the boys to see all the action. I couldn't help but smile as I surveyed the stadium from the upper deck. Yes, Wrigley Field has changed much over the years (the Toyota sign behind left field is seriously obnoxious), but it's still mostly the same ballpark I remember from the late 1970s when I first started going to Cubs games -- even Ivan DeJesus was in uniform (the former shortstop is the Cubs' third base coach).

The rain never returned and the sun (and humidity) made an appearance. We bought hot dogs and pretzels, and ate sunflower seeds and peanuts. Wife bought the boys giant foam bear claws. I bought an Old Style from a vendor just for the experience of drinking one at Wrigley Field (it's only slightly better there, which is still not that great). The Cubs, naturally, didn't play that well, but still managed to beat the Astros 4-2 thanks to home runs by Alfonso Soriano and Aramis Ramirez. We watched actor Tom Felton (Draco in the Harry Potter movies) throw out the first pitch, and heard Jeff Garlin sing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." We sang "Go Cubs Go" after they won.

Afterward, we slowly made our way back to the el train to return back north. We picked up Giordano's for dinner and mostly took it easy for the rest of the night. The boys said they liked the game; I really hoped they did. I know I did.

(Slug Bug standings after Day 3: Eldest 8, Wife 7, Littlest 7, me 6)

Click here for Day 4.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Beetle juice

One game Wife and I used to play on vacation is Slug Bug. See a Volkswagen Beetle, yell out "Slug Bug!" We took out the violence component, and we sometimes would declare "Slug Bug!" when we weren't on vacation, but on vacation, the game was on and we kept score. This was another tradition that seemed to fade away once we had kids and once we started flying to our vacation destination instead of taking long driving trips.

With the boys older and now understanding what a Beetle looks like, we began playing Slug Bug again but not keeping score. Wife and I have been trying to funnel Beetles to Littlest, who is generally less vigilant to look for them than Eldest. But Eldest has caught on when we try to signal Littlest. We told them we wouldn't start scoring points until we were on vacation.

We are on vacation. We are keeping score.

Naturally, we're trying to let the boys get the majority of the Slug Bugs. In a couple years, we will make them full opponents, but for now, we're rigging the game somewhat. That doesn't mean Wife and I aren't competing. We went to dinner tonight while my dad took the boys to a movie, and I called on. She complained that we can't call them without the boys in the car. I said, "Hey, you just need one witness!" We agreed to only keep score when the boys are with us.

Oh, but the game is on. Wife used to win all the time, even though I think when I called "Slug Bug!" on Herbie, The Love Bug (about 10 years ago when the remake of the movie came out; it was parked outside Mann's Chinese Theater in Hollywood) I should have automatically won that vacation. We would get quite competitive. Today she offered tips to the boys: Look down alleys and side streets, and look in big parking lots. I added, a little bitterly, "Look while Daddy's driving and I don't can't look myself because I'm too busy trying to negotiate traffic and not crash."

Yes, the game is on and the gloves are off. The standings: Wife 5, Eldest 4, myself 3, Littlest 3. I'd be winning if we counted Beetles we saw without the boys ...

Other highlights of vacation, day 2:

-- We took the boys to the Peggy Notebeart Nature Museum near Lincoln Park. We saw a cool, live butterfly exhibit, monk parakeets, hissing cockroaches and a stuffed cougar.

-- We walked to R.J. Grunts, my mom's favorite restaurant, across from Lincoln Park. Eldest ate a giant cheeseburger off the grown-up menu.

-- After lunch, we headed to Lincoln Park Zoo. We visited the zoo last year, and mostly just walked through to get to the car (the zoo is free). We saw a seal from the comfort of the air-conditioned underwater viewing area, saw few cats in the lion house, and let the boys ride the carousel, then left. The zoo was the emptiest I'd ever seen it -- it was that warm and humid again.

-- We trudged back to the car, then drove back to my dad's house. He took the boys to see "Zookeeper," while Wife and I went to lunch and got Thai food again. We weren't sure where to go eat, because we weren't too hungry after our big lunch. After driving through Edison Park and Park Ridge, we saw a Thai restaurant and thought that would be healthier and not as heavy. With few Thai restaurants in Salt Lake City (and none by us), we can overdo it a little here in Chicago. Besides, if we visited Bangkok, we'd be getting Thai food every night.

-- The boys, who had been playing all day when we inside, played with cars and trains in the evening, as well as played an Uno-like card game, "Hit the Deck," with their grandfather and aunt. After they went to bed, I went for a muggy walk around Edgebrook and saw a big raccoon scurry into the woods next to the train tracks.

The raccoon looked too hot, too.

Click here for Day 3.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Vacation journal

When Wife and I went on our honeymoon, she bought a blank writing journal that featured an old-fashioned map on its cover. The intention of the book was to chronicle our trip, and we wrote in that journal (and a subsequent volume two, same style of cover) over several vacations. Gradually, our enthusiasm in filling the vacation journal waned. Our big problem was we were having too much fun on vacation -- at the end of the day, we were too tired to write, especially by hand. We would try to catch up days later, but never quite got the day reviewed as thoroughly as we could on the day of. Eventually, once we had kids, the vacation journal slipped into history. We still have it (and as I type this, I want to find it and reminisce), but we gave up on updating it.

With this post, I'm going to try to kick-start the vacation journal. Doing so might be even more important now because we only have a finite number of vacations with the boys. Besides enjoying every one of these vacations, I want to remember as much as I can from them. My family took two big vacations when I was young (both to Florida), and I wish I had kept a journal of those trips for a more complete recollection of those trips rather than the various bits and pieces I remember now.

So this was the first day of vacation:

-- We flew out this morning from Salt Lake City. We have mastered getting kids through security, and once again, it was a breeze. Wife bought bagels for breakfast before our flight.

-- The flight to Chicago was smooth. Littlest watches part of "Cars" and played Peggle on my phone, while Eldest watched "Kitten Party" and played "Plants and Zombies" on my phone. We got to the skies over Chicago and circled around the city to get the airport, which I always appreciate. My house growing up was situated between two landing paths (about a half-mile apart), and I used to sit in my backyard and watch planes go by on each side. This landing, I was on the wrong side of the plane to see my old house, but I still like seeing my hometown from above.

-- The weather in Chicago was hot and muggy. Very hot and very muggy. As a result, we weren't too active today after we arrived. We came to my dad's house, had lunch, and let the boys play ... inside. Wife and I went to Target and got our rental car. We got Thai for dinner. The boys and their grandfather walked the dog.

-- Wife, the boys, my dad, his dog and I walked to get ice cream in the heat. Littlest was a somewhat messy with his melting, quickly eaten chocolate cone. Eldest got mint chocolate chip and I got yummy peanut butter cookie dough. We walked home, and the boys got out of their messy shirts and into pajamas. I took them outside for a few minutes for them to try catching lightning bugs (we only got one) to finish off our night.

I am finishing off a Newcastle beer as I conclude this post. Until tomorrow ...

Click here for Day 2.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Vacate the premises

I spent today getting ready for vacation. And after my crazy day, I determined I need a vacation from getting ready for vacation -- preferably before the original vacation.

Today (and not in this order, I can't even quite remember what came when), I packed, bought cat food from the vet, took the boys to get haircuts, packed, went to the grocery store, mowed the lawn, watered the lawn, packed, got a gift card for Littlest's speech therapy clincian, took Littlest to speech therapy, packed, went through a McDonald's drive-thru for lunch (ugh, the vacation unintentional meal plan started a day early), went to Costa Vida for dinnner (good fresh Mexican food, now finally with refried beans in their burritos in addition to intact beans), charged all our electronic devices and packed. This was after yesterday when we had a baseball game and a swim meet, I did laundry, updated iPods and, you guessed it, packed.

But aside from a couple minor things, everything is ready to go. I may get out for a walk after I'm done blogging, partly to burn some calories after my Big Mac/steak burrito day, partly to get that little pre-vacation vacation in.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Humid nature

The weather gets quite hot in Utah during the summer. Salt Lake City is somewhat high desert, and a day above 90 degrees in July is the norm, despite how north this city is. So when I hear about heat waves in the Midwest, I fondly remember what a big deal that was when we lived there, then chuckle because it's just as hot here and nobody thinks twice about it. The cliche about dry heat applies to SLC: It gets hot here because it's bright and not so much humid.

Today, just days before we vacation in the Midwest and encounter the humidity we don't miss, what did we get in Salt Lake City today? Humidity. Unless I've blocked it out from a past summer, I could not recall as humid a July day in SLC as we endured today. If Earth's climate is indeed whacked out beyond the point of no return, I'm convinced it won't be strange winters, killer tornados, early-season hurricanes or melting Greenland that cements that belief, but humid July days in Utah.

At the very least, today's humidity will prepare us for our trip back to Chicago, where the humidity likely will be more suffocating than it will be today. Maybe 11 years in Utah has jaded me toward Midwestern weather, because I'm in no hurry to visit Wisconsin in January, maybe ever again.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Dinner with friends

We are fortunate to own a house with a nice covered patio. I call it our party pavilion, and over the years, we have eaten on the patio as well as hosted friends there. Unfortunately, we haven't utilized it enough during the warm months (and even into fall). The extra step of bringing our meal outside is sometimes a deterrent, and getting everything ready for a barbecue, though worthwhile, does take a little bit of work.

Today, we threw a barbecue for some friends -- the families of a few of Eldest's classmates. Our kids played in the kiddie pool, while the adults got to socialize outside of the school setting (which we don't get to do to often). I grilled sliders and hot dogs for dinner. We brought a fan out so the patio wasn't too warm.

The effort to get everything ready was an effort. I got the patio cleaned out, pulled some weeds from the yard, filled up the kiddie pool and made sure the coolers were full of drinks. Wife got all the food ready and finished cleaning the house. However, none of this felt like a chore. Also, in addition to being ready for company, we also took a step to being ready for vacation in a few days.

But the best part of all the preparation was simply spending time with friends. Sometimes, that's so tough, especially during the school year, so it's all the more better to do so on a perfect summer evening. Wife and I are already talking about opening the party pavilion again before it gets cold.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Meet me halfway

Today is July 15, the midpoint of the middle month of summer. As expected and predicted, summer is going by fast.

People I haven't seen in weeks (mostly parents of my kids' classmates) have been asking me how our summer has been, and I've been honest: good, but really busy. Thinking about it, the first half summer has been really good. Swimming, baseball, soccer, Little Gym camp this week, a couple hikes, fireworks, the waterpark, a great Michael Franti concert last night, parties and plenty of playtime have dominated summer since the weather finally turned for the better. The temperature, though normal Utah warm for summer, hasn't been unbearably, continuously hot like it has been for other parts of the country (I'm so not looking forward to humidity when we go back to the Midwest next week). We've been busy, but good busy. The boys have been tired occasionally, but never so tired that they weren't looking forward to their next event of fun, even if it's just playing outside with their friends.

All the busy time will end soon enough: After vacation, we have three weeks with barely anything scheduled. All the summer sports the boys are participating in will be over. Two weeks of vacation and three weeks of free time to cement this as the best summer ever. Until, maybe, summer 2012.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Field of unmowed dreams

Littlest is playing t-ball this summer in a season that just began last week. The league is for 3- to 5-year-olds, and his best friend and one of his preschool classmates are on the team with him. I'm coaching the team, and it's been fun -- the kids are great. We have 10 players, five girls and five boys. The mix in ages is just right that not too many older kids (Littlest and his friends included) aren't dominating. Getting kids this young to play a position, and stay at that position, is difficult. Usually, the ball gets hit, and just about every player runs goes after it. I've coached teams on which almost always, the older, faster kids get every grounder and the smaller kids get sad. That hasn't been quite the case with the 2011 Orioles, partly because of the mix of kids, and partly because I've gotten better at distracting and moving the older players back once they get a ground ball.

The league is run through Salt Lake County Rec, and the games usually are played in the Eccles Field House -- normally, the University of Utah's indoor football facility. This season, the artificial turf in the field house is being resurfaced, and as a result, the games got moved to the large field of the private grade school next door. The move has not worked out well, and least from a coach's point of view. The grass on this field is so long that every ball is dying as soon as it rolls a few feet. Considering this is t-ball, and that 3-year-olds don't hit very far, every at-bat just about goes like this: Batter hits the ball, ball doesn't roll past the imaginary pitcher's mound, a horde of defensive players descend on the ball, fight for the ball, and finally, one comes up with it and throws to first. (FYI, this league has no outs, and everybody bats and gets one base per her hit.) Luckily, we are split between girls and boys that the battle for the ball has been civil; we've seen teams of mostly boys tackle each other to get to the ball.

My other quibble is that the summer season started so late -- early July instead of mid-June. I guess that might have been a result of the reclocated games, but it means we are going to miss our last three games (it's only a seven-game season, also shorter than last year) while on vacation.

Annoyances with the league itself notwithstanding, coaching has been fun. Littlest is hitting the ball well. Players can try hitting coach pitch (four tries; afterward, it's back to the tee), and Littlest tried tonight and on his two at-bats, hit both pitches on his first swings! The hits didn't go far, and he really only just half-swung and made contact, but at least he's aiming at the ball accurately. I've theorized baseball will be a good sport for Littlest, because it's just him and the ball (unlike soccer, in which it's him, the ball and a bunch of other kids -- he tends to chase his friends instead of the ball). We will likely move to coach pitch next year in another, more organized league.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Chillin' by the pool

The boys started a brief camp at The Little Gym -- Ninja Hideout! It runs three hours every day from 1-4, Monday through Thursday of just this week. The boys learn some martial arts moves, do some gymnastics, make some crafts and get a snack. And most importantly, I get three hours all by myself.

Today, I took advantage of those three hours by lounging by the pool at the Jewish Community Center we belong to (I've mentioned this before, Salt Lake City doesn't have YMCAs, and the JCC here is really nice, and I can appreciate the unlikelihood of Catholics living in the most Mormon place on the planet and belonging to a Jewish Community Center). The boys did a Little Gym camp last year, and I did the same thing one day -- went to the pool and relaxed without children.

Don't get me wrong -- I love taking the boys to the pool and actively swimming with them as much as possible. But once in a while, being there without them is nice. For three hours, I didn't have to listen to arguments about who got what snack. For three hours, I didn't have to worry about if I got enough sunblock on them. For three hours, I didn't have to be constantly alert on where they were or if Littlest would swim back to the side after jumping off the diving board. For three hours, I got to read a book, close my eyes, jump off the diving board, and simply relax.

Needless to say, I enjoyed my afternoon by the pool. I did tense up off the diving board (for those who don't know this, I only started jumping off the diving board about four years ago, and I'm still not that calm in deep water) a couple times -- I guess I wasn't that relaxed (and I've seemed to have forgotten how to breathe out when I hit the water, which went up my nose a few times and perhaps added a little stress to the experience). But I made it back to the side of the pool and out of the water, eventually sitting back down on my deck chair to chill again.

I'm not sure what I'm going to do with the rest of my free afternoons this week. Wife might get annoyed if I do this every day (I'm trying to convince her to take a long lunch and join me at the pool without kids, just like the olden days), so I probably be constructive one day and get stuff done around the house, likely in the yard. I have this long bag full of metal sticks and little dimpled white balls that I think were used in some sort of outdoor game I used to play, and I might try shooting nine holes of this long forgotten game this week as well.

Aw, who am I kidding? I'll probably be sitting by the pool again tomorrow ...

Friday, July 8, 2011

Summer stall

After a fun Fourth of July weekend, I was looking forward to an eventful accompanying week. Alas, it was not meant to be. Littlest has been under the weather for a couple days with a mild fever that has wiped him out, and the weather itself hasn't cooperated -- overcast, humid days on which you aren't quite sure what to plan. As a result, the week went by fast and seemed unproductive. I look at the calendar and see we are past a third of the way through summer, with vacation coming up soon, then August, and then fall ... and when I get negative like that, it makes me cringe over weeks like this past week even more. There isn't much you can do about a kid getting sick or the weather sucking, except to look forward to the next day and hope it's better. So here's hoping tomorrow is better.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The little black book

During the mid-1990s, my sister gave me a blank journal with a black cover for writing. I was restless then as I am sometimes now about not writing enough. I didn't own a computer yet in 1996, so the journal, for one summer, became my primary writing outlet. I was working extreme mornings in Madison and would get home usually by 1 p.m. every day, giving me free afternoons. We were living in an aparment complex with a pool, so on summer weekday afternoons, I'd bring my Walkman, a book, the journal and a towel and relax by the pool ... and sometimes write.

At the beginning of that summer, I had gone for a walk in our neighborhood listening to a tape of songs off the radio from 1984. I hadn't listened to this tape in years, and it resulted in such a rush of nostalgia that I wanted to write it all down. That summer, I began to do so, in the blank journal my sister gave me. The summer after, when we bought a PC, I wrote some more -- four stories in fact that were part of a grand plan to be an author. I never achieved that plan, but started writing nostalgically again when I began this blog. For now, this blog is part of a different plan -- not as ambitious perhaps, but just as important, just as effective in satisfying my need to write.

Back to the journal: I would sit by the pool and write, some of it stories from my youth, some of it what was going on at that present moment of my life. I only filled up about a third of the journal, then never brought it back to the pool after that summer. It has stayed on my bookshelf all these years, never written in again. One of the stories I wrote was about my most memorable season of baseball, and with me blogging about baseball lately (in 1978, 1979 and 1980), I broke out the journal to see what I wrote about 1981 15 years ago.

I'm not sure if I'm going to transcribe the baseball story exactly, start from scratch, or proceed with a combination of the two approaches, but just reading this journal again after years has been worthwhile. Eventually, I'd like to get the few stories I wrote from the black book, as well as the four stories I wrote from my journal, onto this blog. It seems like just the project I need for summer writing.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Baseball 1980

Littlest started a short t-ball season tonight. T-ball for 3-to-5-year-olds is chaotic to say the least (more so this season because the grass on the fields are like golf course rough and grounders are dying as soon as they hit the ground), but the Orioles had fun in their first game. His season opener seemed like a good segue into recalling my third year playing baseball as a kid, way back in 1980 (after having blogged on my first and second years).

After my Instructional League debacle, I surprisingly still wanted to play organized ball in 1980. I was moved up to Pee-Wee and was placed on the Reds, with my best friend Chris and some other friends from my grade school. Mr. Ronan and Mr. Balduf were my coaches -- both nice adults and patient coaches. This was real baseball -- no tees, no coaches pitching, no pitching machines. I had arrived.

I played third base and outfield this season. I liked third more, but after this season, I was an outfielder for the rest of my brief career (and honestly, I was probably a better outfielder). I can remember my big defensive play -- fielding a grounder cleanly, throwing all the way across to first base and getting the batter out.

I had a few hits that season, but I wasn't a great hitter by any means. I was probably near the back of the pack talent-wise on our team (I didn't earn a game ball until the last game, kind of by default because I hadn't got one, though I might have got one for my defensive gem if not another one of the smaller kids also made his big defensive play that game as well). Oddly, I don't remember too much else from this season. I just think I was an OK hitter, though I'm sure I struck out a lot. I did get hit by two pitches, one by my friend Rocco, and the other by a kid I didn't know but whose face I can still picture 31 years later. Neither HBP hurt much but still contributed to me being nervous at the plate (this would become a big issue later). And I don't remember exactly how we did as a team. I think maybe we finished fifth in a 10-team league? We were an average team with a couple good pitchers (Chris included) and some kids playing their first year of player pitch.

This I remember -- I loved playing baseball this year. I loved baseball this year, period: collecting baseball cards (the last year I seriously would), playing Strat-o-Matic (the first year I would), watching the Cubs stink it up, following a Brewers team I liked (especially Paul Molitor, who was also playing third base until this summer, when he moved to second), and wondering if George Brett would break .400 (he finished at .390). My third year of baseball wouldn't be as eventful as my fourth, but it was fun nonetheless.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Independence daze

July 4 went late last night, so I'm writing about the Fourth of July on the Fifth of July. The Fourth was quite a fun day.

Our day started with the neighborhood parade. Wife believes we have attended every parade since we moved into the neighborhood. Eldest and his best friend decorated their bikes to ride in the parade; Littlest decorated his scooter and rode with his best neighbor friend. After the temperature reached 101 on Sunday, clouds and an occasional drizzle kept it cooler (if not a bit humid) for Monday.

We returned home and let the boys play with their friends. We had been thinking of going to the pool, but the overcast skies dispelled that. Our later-afternoon activity was a barbecue some friends of ours (parents of one of Eldest's classmates) were hosting. The party was low-key at first but still fun. It got more exciting when Eldest's friend's dad broke out some pop-its (those little papers filled with gunpowder that pop when you throw them against the ground) and smoke bombs, the smell of which made it feel like Fourth of July long past. The party really picked up when the host and some of his friends who play in an informal band performed. They played only a short set, but they were good, and Littlest went crazy dancing to their songs. He even found a girl his age who was dancing and began to dance with her. Littlest loves music so much, and watching him dance is just great. If he enjoyed a ward garage band this much, he's going to go crazy when he sees Earth, Wind and Fire later this month.

We left the barbecue in time to return home and walk to Sugar House Park for the big fireworks show there. We found our usual spot away from the major crowds of the park, plopped blankets down, broke out the glow sticks and waited for the fireworks. For some reason, this year's show seemed shorter than years past, but we still enjoyed the spectacle. Littlest grew tired and even fell asleep in the wagon on the way home. Eldest and I stayed up and watched our neighbors blast off some of their fireworks. Our Independence Day ended at 11:30 p.m. with us thoroughly exhausted.

My only complaint yesterday was the lack of sun. I know the boys loved the Fourth of July, and will continue to do so as they grow up. I always loved the Fourth -- it's such a perfect summer event, and I'm such the advocate of perfect summer events. July 4 is a little bittersweet because it somewhat feels as the apex of summer (even though it's not the midpoint). Children don't think that way, so why is it such a challenge for me sometimes? Perhaps I'm just feeling that because I'm writing this on July 5. Keep reminding yourself, there's plenty of summer left.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Because the night

In the midst of a long summer weekend, we let the boys stay up later than usual the past two nights. Instead of the usual 8-8:30 p.m. they normally would start winding down at, they stayed up past 9.

Occasionally, the boys stay up late when circumstances dictate -- for example from recently, when Eldest had a late baseball game or swim meet. But last night and tonight, they stayed up later just because it's summer, we have nothing imminent in the morning, and they were having fun playing. Tonight, we went for a late hike to watch the sunset. We got home at about 9:25, and the boys weren't asleep until 10.

Summer evenings are rough here in Utah -- the weather finally cools off a little (especially today), and sunset is so late. In Chicago, it was dark by 9 p.m.; here sunset was 9:02 p.m. today. With the boys not quite old enough to stay up past 9 consistently, these long days create a dilemma. I'm more apt to let them stay up. They won't get this late play time during the school year (or even much during the week).

Growing up, we used to play outside when it was dark. I know it scared my mother when we'd play Jailbreak or Ghost in the Graveyard, but inevitably, the night bumped into play time. I don't even know if kids (and I don't mean teens, but younger kids) play outside after sunset here in the summer because it gets dark so late. I wonder how parents handle this in Alaska ...

One of Eldest's friends went to a drive-in movie last night, and he said he wanted to go sometime, too. I will take them, but not in the middle of summer when the movie won't start until 10 and they will fall asleep 20 minutes in (which his friend did). Maybe September? In the meantime, we have a late night ahead Monday night to see the July 4 fireworks at the park near us. Last year, Littlest fell asleep on the walk home. But letting him stay up late was well worth it.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Baseball, Year 2

Eldest's baseball season is over, and he finished strong as one of the team's most consistent hitters (after a lot of strikeouts earlier in the season). The Cardinals experienced and up-and-down, but still fun, season in the machine-pitch league. One of the downs was when a girl on the team accidentally got hit in the face with a bat in the dugout. Another player was goofing around swinging the bat and inadvertently connected with the side of her face. She was OK, and luckily, it wasn't worse.

When it happened to me when I was 8, it was worse.

I blogged in May about my first year of organized baseball. Here's the second year. It wasn't as fun. I played t-ball at Norwood Park in 1978, which wasn't the closest park to our house. Likely, my dad signed me up at Norwood simply because I played basketball there (he did, too). In 1979, I was signed up at Oriole Park, three blocks from our house. I was excited to play again (particularly with many of my friends playing at Oriole), and was looking forward to hitting real pitching rather than off the tee. My dad informed me that I was placed in the Instructional League. I didn't know what that meant, but might have been impressed by the big name.

We went to the Instructional League orientation, where I was in for a shock. I'd still be hitting off a tee. And there were no teams -- just a big group of kids being taught the game. I already knew the game; I didn't need to be instructed on how to play! Instead of real uniforms, we got an orange T-shirt and a hat. Maybe we'd be broken into teams for practice games, but that was as organized as we'd get.

At the site of that tee, I ran out of the Oriole Park gym crying. My father followed me and convinced me to come back, and even though he told me this was for the best, I want to believe now that back then, he was as disappointed as I was. I was one of the few third-graders in the league, which I believe was in it's first year. I had friends my age playing PeeWee, but maybe because they had experience and I didn't, I was held back.

I went to several practices, but in retrospect, it felt like a baseball camp, which, for someone fixated on teams and stats and standings and structure, wasn't appealing. I think coaches started pitching to the Instructional Leaguers by the end of the season, but I never made it the end of the season. Part of it was apathy, and part of it was an airborne bat.

One practice, I arrived and volunteered to temporarily be catcher during batting practice. I didn't put any catcher's equipment on, nor was told to do so by the coaches. After all, no balls were being thrown at me. I just stood way back and waited for the ball to be hit, and if there was a practice play at home to be made, I'd be there.

Fate had other ideas. The batter swung, threw his bat, and nailed me right between the eyes. I remember crying a lot. I remember one of the coaches driving me home and asking me if I was wearing a helmet (I was crying so hard I think he thought I answered yes -- I wasn't). My mom, who would later say my forehead had swollen up, ran me to the emergency room, where X-rays showed no break (I don't believe that diagnosis 32 years later). I came home to find the kids on my block had made me a get-well card.

After getting hammered with the bat, I stopped going to Instructional League practices. I had lost interest, and my parents, who may or may not have been pissed that the coaches had allowed my injury to happen (one catcher's mask would have prevented it), didn't push me to go. I learned more the next summer, my first year in PeeWee, than I did in my summer of Instructional League. What I did get out of the summer of 1979 was a uniquely directional nose. The Resurrection Hospital ER said my nose wasn't broken, but as I got older and my nose grew, it started growing at an angle. If you look at my face today, really study it, you will see my nose veers off to the right a little. This had to be set into motion that day when the bat hit my face and damaged it just enough not to be seen by a doctor but to send my nose on a gradual journey starboard.

The odd thing about the summer of 1979 was that I loved watching baseball more than ever, but unfortunately got stuck playing baseball in an ill-conceived league. I would have been better off learning the game by actually playing games. That's why I'm happy Eldest got the chance to play machine pitch this year in which scores were kept and he learned the mechanics of the game, and that's why Littlest, who begins t-ball again next week, will be part of a lineup, bat, and run the bases, even if scores and outs aren't kept.

(Click here for part 3 of my youth baseball saga, another year on the Reds.)