Tag Archives: vacation

That Time When


I do it all for the stories.

I love stories. I love collecting them and mentally filing them away so I can marinate in them whenever I want. I love telling stories, both via the written word and through old fashioned word of mouth. And I like retelling them years later, even to those who have already heard them and know them by heart.

Stories are my currency, my stock-in-trade, and they become our historical record long after we shuffle off this mortal coil. They are the thread that weaves together generations and the wind that gently carries whispers of the past. They are the closest any of us will come to immortality.

But before our stories can be told, they have to be lived.

It is amazing to me how the entire concept of vacation has changed since becoming a parent. If you’re like us, you have one family vacation per year. Assuming you take family vacations up until your kids are 18 — and factoring in most kids don’t remember much before the age of 5 — that leaves a measly 14 vacations. Fourteen chances to create lasting memories that give your children Kodak Moment level goosebumps. Just more than a baker’s dozen opportunities to make and collect your stories.

For me, it’s all about “That Time When.”

I think back to family vacations when I was young and there was that time when we went to my aunt’s beach house on Cape Cod but ended up playing a billion games of Ping Pong in the basement because none of us liked the beach. Or that time we went to Six Flags and I instantly overcame my fear of rollercoasters because a 13-year-old girl in a bikini asked me to ride with her. And who can forget that time when we went to Amish Country and ended up fighting with a buggy driver after I called him a hypocrite for being against the consumption of tobacco for moral reasons, yet having no issue profiting off the smoking industry.

But now I’m a dad. A working dad. A working dad who knows my countdown from 14 has begun, and desperately wants to create some “That Time When” moments for his own family.

With some help from HomeAway, I was able to do just that. Instead of staying at a hotel, we used HomeAway to find an absolutely perfect, pet-friendly lakefront cabin in Vermont. We had a kitchen to cook our meals instead of paying for room service, a beautiful pond for swimming and fishing instead of a hotel pool, and we saved money by not having to board our dog. All that for roughly $150 a night. Cheaper than a hotel and better than a hotel.

Now, here are our moments.

Continue reading That Time When

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When In Doubt, Change Your Perspective

will_sunset“Dad, you’ve gotta come up here.”

My 6-year-old beckons from atop a lifeguard stand on a Harwichport beach. It’s after sunset and we have the expanse of sand entirely to ourselves, save the cormorants dawdling by the ocean’s edge. My initial reaction is to refuse, since climbing the lifeguard stand smacks of effort and I’m totally exhausted from the frenzy of a day with kids on Cape Cod. Plus, I loathe the beach, and my first thought is not to extend my time there. But 6-year-olds are nothing if not persistent, so up I went.

Then he asked me questions. Why is the sky black on one side, but orange on the other? Why is the water salty? Where does all the sand come from? How come the ocean meets the sky way far out, and does that mean we can touch the sky if we sail far enough? Some I answered, some I didn’t know, and others I simply left up to childhood imagination.

“You know what I like best, Dad?” he asked me, head cocked to one side.
“No pal, what do you like best?”
“I like that it’s all the same stuff we’ve been looking at, but different. Because we’re high up.”

I always thought I hated the beach (and the subsequent beach experience that goes along with it) for simple reasons. I hate the heat, I burn easily, I don’t like swimming, I loathe taking my shirt off in public, sand is annoying, and beaches are usually crowded. Fairly straightforward, summertime, fat guy laments. But after my most recent beach trip with my son, I’m thinking I had it all wrong.

Will made me stand with him in the surf to let the waves tickle our toes. I hate that feeling. It’s not the fact that I’m wet that bothers me, it’s the feeling of being off balance. As the waves break on shore and the water sweeps past, I feel like the Earth is giving out beneath me, taking away my solid ground. Or at least the illusion that I was on solid ground to begin with.

And looking out at the horizon has always made me uncomfortable, because nothing is scarier to me than uncertainty. I’m someone who has never had a passport because I’ve never left the United States (except for Canada). I prefer familiarity to the great unknown, which is probably why I’m partial to the mountains over the ocean. I can almost always see the top of the mountain, and with a lot of effort I know I could eventually get to the top. But even though I’m aware a long ocean journey would eventually find land, the never-ending nature of the sea overwhelms me. As does losing sight of the shore.

The strains of U2’s “Beautiful Day” drift toward us from a wedding reception farther up the beach. Will walks ahead of me now, holding his shoes in one hand and scanning the sea-swept ground for shells (and Great White Sharks, naturally). From my angle, it looks like if he kept walking along the shore he’d eventually curve off into the horizon where the sea touches the sky.

Part of me wants him to charge into the unknown with reckless abandon and total confidence, going places I would never dare. But another part of me wants to carry him out of the surf and away from the tides completely, to be safely on the shore. As if the shore — with its shifting sands and seismic inconsistencies– is really any safer.

The beach during a crowded, 90-degree day is still my version of hell. But for me to continue saying “I hate the beach” just isn’t accurate. The beach at night is nice. After sunset, walking on cool sand, and sitting atop a lifeguard chair with my son — this version of the beach was nice and it was all ours for a little while.

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Working Parents Squeeze In Their Moments


The canoe glides along silently, save the “plunk/whoosh” sound of the paddle slicing through the water’s surface. The gargantuan clouds are puffy and impossibly white, but not foreboding — no rain checks needed today. A summer zephyr gently prods us along toward a cove spotted with lily pads, as the oldest and I look to add to our summer bass total.

“Dad, this is very calm. And peaceful,” he says from the front of the canoe.

But all I can do is look down into the clear water to see the milfoil just below the surface. Thick, green submerged weeds like fuzzy fingers reaching up from the depths. I can’t help but feel this invasive species is reaching for me, trying to rob me of time like it’s suffocating the water quality in the pond.

I’m only on Day #3 of my vacation, but already my window is closing and one thought is flashing in my mind like a neon sign — DO MORE!

This is the curse of working parents.

I work two jobs (three if you count the blog) and I struggle to provide as a breadwinner and a father. Rent, bills, and canoes aren’t cheap, which makes the hours at work numerous and quality time scarce. I get three weeks of vacation every year, but I use one for conferences and the other around Christmas when things are crazy. That leaves one week. One week solely for my kids. One week to do everything.

Lately I’ve been envying my wife for being a stay-at-home mom, which is ironic since I’m not even sure I could do her job. Or that I’d want to do it, if we’re being honest. I know her role is filled with damn hard work and days she questions her sanity when our youngest won’t nap because his 1-year molars are coming in and he’s drooling blood in a fit of rage. I know sometimes she feels like she wishes she could trade places with me.

But stay-at-home parents have the thing I’m most envious of — the knowledge that they’re doing the most important thing in raising quality human beings.

They are in the trenches and doing the grunt work. Sure they’re unappreciated now when the kids are young, but in 25 years they’re going to realize my wife was always there. The reliable one. The go-to parent. And they’ll have a bond with her that will be deeper and stronger than one can imagine.

Me? I’m the guy working on the computer. Answering one last email and sending one final freelance pitch. So on vacation, I really pour it on.

“Let’s go the museum!”
“Hey, how bout a baseball game?”
“Want some ice cream?”
“Time for fishing!”

Where MJ is a fire that burns slowly and steadily, I flash hot and bright and then fade back into the office. She’s steady as the tides, I’m a tsunami. I’m an annual meteor shower and she’s the moon.

Working parents don’t witness milestones, they’re told they occurred. The phone call at the office that he got his first tooth. The video she sends you of his first steps, and hey — at least we saw it before all of Facebook. So there’s that. It’s enough to make us feel like spectators, or subscribers to the newsletter of our own lives.

Which is why when vacation hits, I get a little desperate.

We tried to get Will to ride his bike without training wheels last year. It went horribly. He wasn’t ready or physically able, and it ended with lots of crying, pouting, and frustration. Will was also pretty upset.

But this year, I vowed to make sure Will could ride his bike by the end of the summer. And I was going to see it, dammit.

When we went at the beginning of vacation a week ago, it was…rough. I was too hard on him and placed way too much pressure on the poor kid, and his performance reflected that. I was trying to force it so I didn’t miss it, and in the process I damn near ruined everything.

Yesterday was my last day of vacation. After we went fishing, I nonchalantly asked if he’d like to try bike riding one more time. This time, I took an entirely different tack. I told him it didn’t matter if he did it, only that he improve from last time. I had him sit down first and envision a successful ride, and then try to emulate in real life what he mentally pictured. I smiled and told him stories of my learning-to-ride failures as a precocious kid.

He fell. A lot. But then, well…he didn’t.

Once my attitude was positive, so was his. He refused to accept my help because he wanted to do it on his own, and he constantly repeated affirming messages to himself throughout the whole thing. “Just keep trying, Will” and “Will, remember to pedal, steer, and not panic.” 

And then off he went, pedaling furiously away from me as I jogged to catch up. As apt a metaphor for parenting as there ever will be. But this one — learning how to ride a bike — this one is ours. Will’s and mine. I needed a win, badly, and my wife saw that and graciously let me have it. Because she’s awesome and far too good for me.

Back on the pond, the interesting thing about milfoil weeds is there are no known biological controls to fight them off or slow them down. In time, and like time, they come whether we like it or not and eventually they change the existing habitat. Armed with that knowledge, my vacations in coming years have taken on a whole new meaning and level of importance.

If you only have a week, you’d better make it count.

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A Sinking Feeling

In case you missed Part I of my camping saga, you can read it here.

Last Saturday, after completing our hike up Mt. Cutler in Maine, MJ and I were on top of the world.

We were sore and our muscles ached, but we were proud. For the first time in a long time we felt victorious. Like conquering heroes. And the best part was we completely reconnected and plugged back in—to each other. We ate a delicious lunch at a cool little dive place on the way back to camp, and spent most of the meal smiling and just grinning at each other across the table like newlyweds.

I was deliriously happy. And the only thing that could make me happier was the thought of a refreshing swim in gorgeous, spring-fed Granger Pond.

MJ and I changed into our bathing suits, grabbed some towels and hopped in the car to get to the lake. Yup, that’s right. We needed the car because the road to the lake is INCREDIBLY steep. We found that out the first night when we ignored recommendations and walked to the lake. At first it was cool because it was a full moon and there’s some kind of mineral in the gravel road that sparkles. The end result was us feeling like we were walking on a diamond-encrusted road in the moonlight. But eventually we started to wonder if we were on the right road.

Then, all of a sudden, the lake just opens up in front of you and it’s stunningly gorgeous. The walk back up that hill? Not nearly as much fun.

So anyways, we drive our car down to the lake and I’m so excited. I’m hot, sweaty, tired and oh-so-ready for a cool dip in a Maine pond. I took off my shirt, threw my towel on the beach and waded in to what might’ve been the most refreshing dip of my life. The water was on the colder side with just the slightest shock after you submerge yourself. But after our hike it was exactly what I needed. I eagerly dove in and started swimming out towards the middle where there was a floating dock.

Like an excited little kid I proceeded to do cannonballs and dives off the floating dock, feeling absolutely glorious in the process. I was alternately swimming around, floating on my back and splashing MJ (who was slightly pissed because the water was too cold for her). When she wanted to get out I pouted like Will when we cut playtime short.

As I exited the water I smiled broadly. Absolutely exhausted but simultaneously refreshed, I was just looking around at our pristine surroundings and taking it all in. I grabbed my towel, dried off, put my sandals on and began walking towards the car in complete bliss. Until…

Suddenly a dark realization descended upon me with the force of an F-5 tornado. The color drained from my face and my heart sank into my toes. My entire body seemed to freeze and enter into a full-blown panic all at the same time. As my right hand desperately patted my right thigh, a sinking feeling set in and I knew, in that instant, I was sunk.

I had gone swimming with MJ’s car keys in my pocket. And now they were gone.

Unless you’ve ever lost your wife’s keys while four hours from home in the deep woods of Maine with no spare set, I’m not sure you can understand how idiotic I felt. Not to mention scared because I had to tell MJ. Except when I told her, she didn’t believe me. Which actually makes everything 100 times worse because I had to repeatedly persuade and convince her that I’m that inept.

“Baby, your keys are gone. I’m so, SO sorry.”

“Bullshit. You’re kidding. The keys are in the car right?”

“Honey, I know I screw around with you but I’m serious. I lost the keys. We’re totally screwed.”

“No, no, no. You’re kidding. I know you’re kidding.”

“I’m not kidding, I swear. Why do you think I’m kidding?”

“Because if you’re not kidding, you’re fucking dead!”

I immediately began looking for the keys in the water. But when I couldn’t find them in the shallows I looked despondently out towards the dock off of which I jumped, that sinking feeling growing exponentially. I asked Paul, the owner of the camp, how deep the water was out by the dock. The look on his face told me all I needed to know.

“Well, it’s about 40 feet deep out there. But that’s the least of your problems. A few years ago we sunk a radiator and tied the cable to it so we could hold the dock in place. When the cable broke we hired a guy with SCUBA gear to reattach it. But when he swam down there, he couldn’t find the radiator because the bottom is so soft.”

Great. The lake swallowed an entire radiator. There was no way I was getting my keys back. The only silver lining was the help we received from the TREMENDOUSLY nice people at the campground.

Frank took us up the hill in his golf cart to call AAA, but not before the other campers and their kids began scouring the pond for us. Triple A tried to call a locksmith, but couldn’t find one who would come out. Surprise, surprise seeing as we were in an area where the moose out-populate the people. When we searched on our own, we were told it wasn’t possible to make a new key because MJ’s car key has a fancified double-sided thingamabob component that couldn’t be duplicated.

That left us no other choice, and I had to make the phone calls I was dreading.

And so it goes that my unbelievably nice mother-in-law had to go to our house, find the spare key and drive it 40 minutes up to my dad. From there, my saint of a father drove 3.5 hours up to Maine to drop it off. And then he declined our invitation to stay in the tent while we slept in the car, and drove 3.5 hours back to his house.

Now those are great parents!

I’m such an idiot. Only I can turn a great weekend into a drama-fest. We had this amazing time on the mountain and then I lose my keys to a radiator-swallowing lake, which not only murders our Saturday, but also the Saturdays of my in-laws and my parents. And I wasn’t done there.

The only stroke of luck we had was that MJ had left the passenger side window down so we could retrieve our things. Clothes, food, gear…all inside the car. Except I had turned the alarm on before I lost the keys. So when I opened the door, the serene Maine woods was suddenly polluted with a jarring horn blasting away repeatedly, wrecking the experience for dozens of people trying to enjoy their weekend.

Frank was nice enough to drive me up and down in his golfcart to the car, which was parked down the huge hill. But in my tradition of screwing up, I had forgotten a few things. And since I had bothered everyone enough, I decided to walk back down to the car.

When I made it down there, I couldn’t bear the thought of setting off the car alarm again. So I decided to go through the window.  Faced with the problem of having to get my 265-pound body through the window, I did what every red-blooded American male would do.

I decided to go Dukes of Hazzard all over that bitch.

As you can imagine, it did not go well. I took a running start and jumped as high as I could. Halfway up I realized I was nowhere near the level of Bo and Luke, and ended up doing this weird half-jump, half-dropkick thing as I thudded against the car door. With my career as a TV stuntman dashed, I decided to go in head-first. It only went a little better than my Dukes attempt. But I did manage to get everything I needed out of the car. Except myself.

To exit the car, first I tried go feet first. Didn’t work. So I went out head-first. I managed to wiggle my fat ass to the point my hands were on the ground but I was stuck halfway out. Completely upside-down doing a handstand with half my body in the car and half out, I flailed wildly and ended up kicking the steering wheel and laying on the horn in the process. Then, just for good measure, I suffered the indignity of my shirt falling down exposing my gut. Finally I wriggled my way to freedom, collapsing in an overweight heap next to the car.

As I stood up, it was just in time to see a teenage girl—frozen in place and staring at me in horror—while on her way down to the waterfront.

“Car trouble,” was all I could think to mutter. She quickly walked away. I don’t blame her, I would’ve too.

So I owe my mother-in-law and my dad big time. Not to mention MJ, who was (for the most part) very understanding about the whole thing. I still think I was helped immensely that there were witnesses so she couldn’t kill me right then and there. And I think I just need to resign myself to the fact that I will never have a normal…well, anything. Stories are great and weird stuff is wonderful for blog fodder, but I’ve had my fill. Just one normal weekend is all I ask.

So remember, practice safe-swimming everybody. And keep your keys on shore.

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It’s All About the Climb

The sunset from our campground

I knew MJ and I needed some time for ourselves to reconnect. I just had no idea how urgent that need was.

It seems we get bad news at home every day. Being threatened with lawsuits for not having enough money. Our bank fails to read paperwork and act accordingly. Our car insurance company still hasn’t sent a check to fix my car after I was rear-ended last week. And, of course, MJ’s adjustments to the new meds, which make her mood and temperament a nearly lethal game of Russian Roulette.

Basically our home serves as a reminder of what we can’t afford, what we’re about to lose and is a symbol of everything that is wrong in our lives.

So we escaped to the smallest of small towns in Denmark, Maine for a weekend of camping. No kid and no dog. The first time we’ve camped in four long years. We got up to Granger Pond campground close to sunset and it was just freaking beautiful, as the picture to the left attests. We could tell right away we’d love it there. Everyone was SUPER nice. Within two minutes of arriving, Paul and Sue—the owners—made us feel like we were old friends. And a nice guy named Frank offered to take me out fishing right then and there before we had even unpacked.

MJ enjoying the sunset

But the best thing about it was the air.

On Cape Cod I smell the salt air all day. Some people love that, but not me. I love the mountains and the country. And the air in Maine stimulates my olfactory senses to the nth degree. I take one whiff and I’m simultaneously energized and at ease. And happy. Breathing that air is a privilege, almost like a reward for good behavior. It’s the kind of sensory memory you revert to when you need to find a happy place. And we found it.

But despite our happiness with our surroundings, we were still slightly ill at ease. Probably because after three-plus years of constantly caring for Will, combined with the recent months of merely trying to survive MJ’s medical maladies, it seemed we didn’t exactly know what to talk about. Not to mention the wood we bought was crap and wouldn’t burn, so we didn’t have a fire. We went to bed disappointed and worried the weekend would be a wash.

View from the base of Mt. Cutler

When we awoke Saturday morning I was determined to have a great time. So I quickly jumped online and searched for the nearest easy day hike. A Google search later and we were off to nearby Mt. Cutler.

Perhaps I should’ve read the hike description a little more carefully. Or stopped to realize that the “Mt” stands for mountain. But what can I say? I was excited to be out and doing something with my wife. Which is probably why I decided flip-flops would be adequate footwear.

From the moment we started on the trail, it was clear this wasn’t going to be a walk in the park. It was steep from the get-go. Really steep. And it stayed that way.

At first it was exhilarating because the scenery was beautiful. Huge rocks that we had to scale and narrow passages with precipitous peril lurking just beyond the ledge. It definitely got the blood pumping.

MJ climbing Mt. Cutler

But soon trouble started.

First of all, I’m not proud to admit that the way I’ve been dealing with our struggles lately is by eating. I’m huge. As in 265 lbs. Which would be OK if I were 6’5″ and built like a linebacker. But I’m 5’10” and out of shape. So picture a fat guy hiking and climbing up 60-degree inclines…in flip-flops.

But while my problems were physical, MJ’s were mental. After more than an hour of strenuous hiking, it appeared we were nowhere close to the summit. We rounded a corner hoping to see relief, but instead we saw an even steeper route up the mountain. MJ began to get panicked and started to have an anxiety attack.

I wanted to be sensitive and tell her we could turn around. But I couldn’t.

Somewhere between the parking lot and that point on the mountain, this had become more than just a hike. I don’t know how or why, but it transformed into a referendum on our marriage. I suddenly felt like this hike was the most important thing in the world, and the fate of our marriage hinged on the outcome.

Maybe it was all the disappointments and hardships as of late. Or frustration with feeling like I’m losing my wife to a condition I have no real way of combating. Whatever the reason, I knew there was no way we were turning back. And I’m not afraid to say I got emotional and delivered a fairly impassioned speech to MJ right there on the side of the mountain. I tearfully told her she could make it. That we could make it. That we HAD to make it.

And so we forged ahead. Exhausted, limping and moving at a snail’s pace. But moving nonetheless. Until…

We made it!

I won’t lie, it was emotional at the top of Mt. Cutler on Saturday.

I’m proud of us. Proud because we proved a lot to each other. I needed to know I could count on MJ to push herself beyond her comfort zone and achieve a goal. And I needed to see if I have what it takes to stick out the difficult times when I feel the challenges are too great to overcome. I needed to know we could get through things together.

This hike was not at all unlike marriage in general.

I don’t care how ready you think you are, you can never be totally prepared for the ups and downs that come with sharing a life together. Like wearing flip-flops for a mountainous hike, I was completely ill-prepared for the trajectory of our lives. But despite the hurt and the pain, you trudge through. You rely on one another for strength, always make sure you’re moving in the right direction and don’t stop until you get to the top.

Some people ask what’s the point? You work like hell to get to the top and then what? You stay there for a short while and then have to make your way back down.

My answer is simple. With apologies to Miley Cyrus, it’s all about the climb.

For better or worse, what I love about marriage is getting to experience a journey with the woman I love. To enjoy the good times, weather the bad and take pleasure in an adventure that lasts a lifetime. So when someone asks me what the reward is after you make it to the summit, I don’t hesitate with my answer. The reward is being lucky enough to continue the trek all the way to its end. Together.

MJ and I did more than climb a small mountain in southwestern Maine on Saturday. We renewed ourselves. Our marriage. We recommitted to one another and provided each other reassurance that we can do it. Despite the odds and all the bullshit that life can conjure up, we can make it.

Turns out that feeling of security was put to the test just hours later. Come back later in the week for Part II of our camping trip. But first, enjoy a little video.

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