Tag Archives: vacation

Losing Sight of the Shore

I fear the ocean. The waves, the unseen terrors, drowning, that salty taste that has always turned my stomach, the sand — it all combines to burrow into my mind and pushes my big red mental DANGER button. My wife, on the other hand, can’t get enough of it. And because I love her, I swallowed my oceanic disdain.

We went kayaking yesterday. Walking to the beach in our life jackets and helmets brought vastly different reactions. MJ was drawn to the sea like a magnet, as if being beckoned by an old friend. She practically galloped toward the waves and let her toes feel the water. As for me, I saw frenzied foam fingers of the deep crawling up on shore to claim me, as the ocean inevitably retakes all things.

We paddled out head-on into the waves in an attempt to get safely past the break. It didn’t work. A 5-footer crested at the wrong time and knocked MJ out of the kayak, which left me and my considerable weight in the rear to tip over backward. The current caught me and for a second my feet couldn’t find the bottom. I panicked and began mentally writing my own obituary until I saw MJ floating nearby. Laughing. Smiling. Literally soaking it in. My feet found sand and my hands grasped the kayak and paddle. I flipped it over, got in, and tried again. Success.

The undulating waves soon made me nauseous but MJ was glowing, so I paddled. We saw cliffs with ancient striations and layers that prove all paths eventually lead to the sea. We saw the house where Dr. Suess lived and the nearby mountain that inspired the home of the Grinch. I silently wished I was in such an apropos place. We saw ocean caves carved by water, time, and pressure. But nothing prepared me for what we saw next.

A sea lion popped up next to our kayak. It looked at me and I back at him in stunned silence. It was close enough to reach with my paddle on my right side and slightly behind me, but I didn’t move. I didn’t even tell MJ. We just looked at one another for a few seconds and then he was gone. And I was moved, although I’m still really not sure why.

I didn’t have time to ponder it much because suddenly the water in front of us was filled with dolphins. A pod headed inland with fins slicing through the water’s surface in between all the boats. A baby dolphin jumping a couple of feet out of the water right in front of us, like it was a planned show. In my amazement, all I could say to MJ was “Wow. It’s like they did this on porpoise.”

She scrunched her face up in a disapproving manner at my pun, and turned back toward the dolphins. I’m not sure why I couldn’t admit to being amazed — to being moved — in that moment. Perhaps because we were far from land and the waves were getting bigger. Maybe because I’m not quite ready to realize all the wonderful things I miss by never losing sight of the shore. After all, I’m the man who has never lived outside of Massachusetts or traveled outside the country. Who has never had a passport. Who has a nearly debilitating fear of airplanes and boats. Who loves familiarity more than anything.

Yet aren’t I familiar with dolphins and sea lions now? Not ones in the aquarium, but in the wild. Far from shore in a plastic kayak pitching all over the place and making me sick and uncomfortable. But without discomfort and trepidation, I wouldn’t have this new experience. Any experiences. How do you know yourself if all you’ve known is familiarity?

On the way back to shore our guide told us to stop and grab some kelp. She urged us to take a bite, saying it tasted like salty lettuce. Caught up in the moment, I took a bite. It was disgusting. But now I know for sure it’s disgusting, because I tried it. I don’t have to guess. I lived it out there in a place I didn’t want to be and never would’ve gone without a nudge.

We capsized on our way back to the beach too, paying the chilly price owed to the sea for beholding its bounty. But this time I smiled more than I grimaced.

The sea is deep and frightening, but it also holds beauty and treasure that can only be seen by those willing to paddle out of their comfort zones. I’ll never be a professional sailor, but losing sight of the shoreline every now and then is a new life goal.

I’m almost 40 and just realizing I may not know myself at all. That’s scary. But then again, imagine how much I don’t know and haven’t seen.

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From Cynic to Convert: How Disney Won Me Over

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Hi Disney. It’s me, Aaron. Can we talk?

Look, I know in the past we said some things that were…unfortunate. OK fine. I said the things. It’s just, you know, sometimes you can be a little overwhelming. The crowds, the price tag, the movies that (until fairly recently) never seem to give a crap about dads, the unyielding amount of merchandising, your SUPER devoted fans who tend to border on overzealous maniacal obsession — it all seemed just a bit, well, MUCH!

So yeah, some things were said in the heat of the moment. Some promises of never bending to your will or succumbing to your charm. Some pointed remarks to Disney-loving friends and family members about how brainwashed they are. And bold assurances that despite not having set foot on Disney property in 30 years, I was never going back.

Sooooo…yeah. I’m sorry about that.

I was recently invited to the Disney Social Media Moms Celebration, an invite-only social media conference at Disney World.  I went with my wife and three kids to stay at the Disney Beach Club Resort, mere steps from Epcot, and partake in trips to Disney World’s three other parks — Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, and Hollywood Studios.

And it was awesome. Like, freaking wonderful. I thought about pretending otherwise so I wouldn’t have to publicly admit how wrong I was, but brutal honesty is my brand. And if I’m being honest, I really loved Disney.

I could talk about a lot of things pertaining to the conference that helped make it great. Things like getting a sneak peek at the first half hour of Finding Dory, getting to watch Alice Through the Looking Glass three weeks before its release, hearing from Disney executives and film producers who gave us peeks behind the curtain as to the inner workings of the park and the movies we love, and the heavily discounted park rates we received as conference attendees.

But that’s not how you won me over, Disney. Wanna know what the turning point was?

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The look on Sam’s face when he saw Mickey Mouse in real life was something that will be gloriously imprinted in my memory until my life fades to black.

Other parents repeatedly told me it was magical, but I ignored them with a sarcastic roll of the eyes. But even if I had believed them, it still wouldn’t have fully prepared me to be in that exact moment. To see his eyes go wide, the realization set in, and watch as he gleefully careened into his favorite character’s arms for a gargantuan hug was a moment for which I was ill-prepared — especially since it was during registration and I had no idea Mickey would even be there. Everyone always prattles on about “Disney Magic,” but let me tell you — it’s real. That moment pictured above? That’s real, tangible magic. It got a little dusty and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little choked up.

Yes, I was a fairly ardent Disney cynic. But I’m also a dad, and the fastest way to my heart is through my kids. You make them deliriously happy, you’re A-OK in my book.

Except for you Rapunzel. You’re suspect.

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Lest you think I’m just caving because I was offered hotel and park discounts, some free products, and behind-the-scenes experiences, there were things I didn’t care for.

The name of the conference, Disney Social Media Moms, is really unfortunate. There were a half dozen or so dads in attendance, and sponsors were generally pretty good about including the fathers (Hanes brought us boxers in addition to bras for the lady folk). But why not just change the name of the conference?

“Disney Social Media Parents Conference” would be perfect. It’s one little word, but the shift toward inclusion from an esteemed organization like Disney would be a HUGE step for involved fatherhood. Amazon just changed the name of its parenting program from “Amazon Mom” to “Amazon Family,” and I’d love to see Disney follow suit.

And as someone with a definite fear of crowds, I did have a hard time navigating the packed Disney parks. Combine that with pushing a double stroller while simultaneously dodging the plethora of people using motorized scooters, and it’s safe to say I was pretty frazzled at the end of each day.

But all of that was outweighed by the good.

The Beach Club Resort was absolutely beautiful, a 5-minute walk from Epcot, and featured a lagoon-like pool the kids could’ve stayed in all damn day.

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Meeting the characters (except for princesses, who Sam seemed to fear like they were the stuff of fiendish nightmares) was phenomenal and even Will (8) was staring at them in wonder and excitement.

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Also, my kids love animals. A lot. Especially Sam, who calls all the animals at the zoo his friends. So imagine his delight when we went on the Kilimanjaro Safari in Animal Kingdom, and saw rhinos, giraffes, and hippos!

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Notice the baby elephant nursing!

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And managing to catch heartwarming moments like this one, in which Sam thought his MagicBand (the FitBit-esque wristband you wear at Disney that gets you into your hotel room, onto the rides, etc) was a walkie-talkie that connected him directly to Mickey Mouse.

Yet for a brief idiotic moment, I actually cringed while on this dream vacation specifically because I knew I had been wrong and would have to admit it. I repeat, I was momentarily upset because I was having too good a time.

Being steadfast is generally a good thing, as sticking to your principles is an admirable quality. However, Disney reminded me there’s a marked difference between steadfast and simply stubborn. My stubbornness was preventing me and my family from having a good time, and missing out on some truly remarkable memories we’ll have for the rest of our lives.

Disney isn’t perfect. Nothing is. But I get it now. I understand the “magic” is in watching the looks on your kids’ faces when their minds are blown by meeting their favorite character they’ve only ever seen on TV. And while I’m still not one of those “OMG DISNEY IS THE BEST EVARRRRR!!!!” folks, I understand the draw now.

Part of the magic is the escape Disney provides.

I heard from people who were different growing up and had some pretty hard times, but their brief Disney vacations provided moments of acceptance and true happiness. And for someone like me who talks about gun violence, domestic violence, child negligence, politics, and other controversial and important issues on a daily basis, I realized there’s room for the lighter stuff too. It’s not a cop-out to enjoy a little Disney respite, it’s actually good for the soul. The world’s problems are still there waiting to be tackled, but reconnecting with my family in the “happiest place on Earth” left me refreshed and gave me a severely needed break.

Long story short, sometimes it’s good to be wrong. Especially when wrong is as cute as this.

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I’m sorry, Disney. We cool?

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That Time When

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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

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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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