Hiking @ Goldsmith

We found a new place for a nature walk: Goldsmith Woodlands in Andover.  We covered about half of the trails in a two-hour walk.

The town provides a rough map.

flowers
Just a random bush. I think they’re rhododendrons?
kids
All three kids, two human and one dog, heading down the trail
trail
Looking down the trail. Most of the trails are about as well-groomed as this.
bessie's point
Looking out from the end of the trail at Bessie’s Point (click to expand)

 

Alpha and Beta in the Land of Rat

Friday-Sunday: The Planning

The Friday before February vacation, Meghan and I meet up for lunch and she drops a bombshell: “what if we take the girls to Disney next week?”

Last minute scheduling aside, this presents some very large hurdles: cost, PTO requests and balances, and arranging transportation.  We kind of, sort of had the money but I had earmarked it for other things.  I don’t get a lot of time off in my new job, and I’m husbanding what I do get for something we’re planning towards the end of the year — and we’re normally expected to schedule PTO in advance.  Last minute plane tickets tend to be expensive, crappy flights.

gecko camoflaged by mulch
If look carefully, you’ll notice that there are geckos everywhere around Disney. This one is particularly well-suited to mulch. (click to expand)

Meghan wanted to do this, I was on the fence, so we compromised and decided to go.  Meghan is vivacious, I’m the responsible one.  A decent life lies somewhere in between, and I’ve learned over time to let go a little while still reigning her in enough that we don’t meet financial doom.  It did mean that I would be working on this vacation.  I’m fortunate to have a job that only needs a laptop and an internet connection, and an accommodating boss.

The most important decision we made was to keep it a secret from the kids.  We had to make all the arrangements, prepare for the trip, and talk about it all weekend without letting them catch on — no small feat.  Oh, and we had already planned to see some friends in Connecticut on Saturday.

We had to come up with a bunch of cover stories.  Beta needed new shorts, and we can’t buy them without her trying them on.  We had to get the dog to boarding before Monday without arousing suspicion, since we needed to be at the airport before 6 am.  We needed to get the kids showered and in bed a little early, even though Monday’s a vacation day.

The final cover story: why we’re getting up before 5 am, which we had to provide the night before so the kids wouldn’t worry when we woke them, but something that wouldn’t make them too excited to sleep.

Monday: Getting There

4:30 am: Mom and Dad rise and shine!
4:50 am: kids roll out of bed and stumble downstairs
5:00 am: in the car
5:20 am: arrive at the airport long-term parking garage
5:30 am: shuttle drops us off at the airport
5:31 am: Alpha asks “why are we at the airport?”
5:33 am: security line, and we can’t keep the secret anymore
6:20 am: take off!

Our flight to Orlando had a long layover and transfer in Detroit.  Both legs were packed solid.  There was a class trip going to Disney that got on the plane in Detroit.

During the layover I got some real work done, while Meghan and the girls got some lunch and amused themselves.

3:45 pm: land in Orlando
4:15 pm: arrange some ground transportation

Orlando airport is huge.  It has monorails to move passengers between terminals and the main building, but each terminal is pretty big in it’s own right.  They’re also building another terminal right now.

We discovered that our on-property hotel of choice, The Swan, is not owned and operated by Disney and does not come with the typical benefits like a free bus ride between the airport and the hotel.

We secured a taxi driven by a guy named Victor, who hails from NYC.  Our ride was very entertaining, as he got more comfortable his vernacular got very… colorful¹ but his stories and running commentary were among the best from a taxi that I’ve ever had.

4:45 pm: check into The Swan
5:00 pm: take a shuttle to Disney Springs to get dinner

Beta and living statue
The living statue would make you think she would stay still, and would then do something surprising (like put her hand on your shoulder or lift your bag out of your hands) then turn back into a statue.

Disney Springs, formerly known as Downtown Disney, is basically a mall with shops and restaurants dotted throughout.  There aren’t any rides, so it doesn’t require a park pass.  After looking around a bit and engaging in strong negotiations over who wanted what, we picked The Landing because it offered food that everyone would like while dining on a dock over the water.

To be honest, Disney Springs isn’t quite as much fun as it used to be.  The stores aren’t unique anymore — they’re the same as any mall.  The Landing was also a little disappointing, with fine-dining prices but takeout-quality food.  We refused to let it get us down, though, and watched a beautiful sunset from our table.

7:00 pm: head back to the room
7:30 pm: Beta goes swimming in the hotel pool
8:30 pm: bedtime for everyone

Tuesday: Animal Kingdom

Morning dawned clear, bright, and warm.  After a buffest breakfast at the hotel we went our separate ways: Meghan, Alpha, and Beta to Animal Kingdom and I back to our room to work for the day.

At lunch I went exploring to see what was around the hotel and found a beach, playground, and much larger pool complex with a water slide, two hot tubs, and a waterfall/grotto.

About the same time I was wrapping up work, everyone else came back to rest up a bit.  Beta wanted to swim a bit, Alpha did not, so Beta, Meghan, and I suited up and walked down to the pool.  Alpha stayed behind to charge her introvert batteries.

We played at the big pool for over an hour, until we started getting hungry.  We decided to go back to the Animal Kingdom to get dinner, try a few more rides, and watch the light show.

After a light dinner at one of the short-order restaurants we headed over to “the Himalayas” to try out a ride that Alpha wanted to see called Expedition Everest.  It’s a roller-coaster that is partially inside the “mountain” (so it’s pitch black, like Space Mountain) and rolls backwards for part of the ride.  Very intense, very fun, especially after dark.

The girls also convinced me to take two cruises on the Kali River Rapids.  I managed to stay merely damp after the first pass, but I was completely soaked after the second.

We went back to the hotel after that.  The light show was wrapping up and we wanted to beat the crowds back to the shuttles.  It was also pretty late, after 9 pm, when we finally got upstairs.

Wednesday: Epcot

This was a rainy day.  This was also a tricky day, activity-wise, because Meghan was only able to take half the day off and had to work during the afternoon.  We had breakfast at the hotel again, and I headed upstairs while the rest of the family went over to Epcot for a little while.

Everyone was back in the room at noon, as the drizzle started outside.  I knocked off work a little early (hooray for getting my crap done!) and took Beta over to the hotel’s game room while Alpha recharged her introvert batteries again.

About 2pm we decided that we wanted to go (back) to Epcot – me, Alpha, and Beta.  Meghan was still working but had arranged reservations at the Garden Grill at 4:45.  It’s Meghan’s favorite restaurant in Disney.

The rain remained light and drizzley while the girls and I toured the World Showcase in Epcot.  We stopped in a few of the “countries” along the way, from France (where the ferry dropped us off) and counter-clockwise around through China, which is almost exactly opposite.

While we poked around a shop in China the rain picked up, then picked up some more, so we stayed inside and waited for it to slow up — the clock was ticking and we had a date with Meghan in an hour.  I refused to pay $9 per poncho.

A little after 4 pm the rain appeared to lighten up so we made a break for it.  We got out of China and were in front of Norway, the next country over, when the skies opened up into a torrential downpour.  We were soaked to the bone in seconds, before we could even dart under an overhang.  So much for being dry at dinner.

We squished our way up to The Land in time for our reservation inside, a couple of minutes late but sooner than Meghan.  The rain not only stopped after soaking us, but the sun popped out before we arrived at the restaurant.

After dinner we took the slow ride that goes around the restaurant, and headed out to enjoy the rest of Epcot.  We went over to the ride in Mission: Space (not to be confused with Spaceship Earth, a.k.a. the golf ball) which is a pretty cool G-force type ride.

The rain continued to come and go so we wound up buying a couple of ponchos and an umbrella for the walk home.  This was a fortunate decision on Meghan’s part because the rain came back in earnest while we walked back to the ferry.

Thursday: Boardwalk, DVC, and Heading Home

Our last day, but a late flight (9 pm) so we had time to have some more fun.  I arranged with my boss to put off work until late in the day, since there were no meetings scheduled.  Meghan had to work in the morning and doesn’t have flexible scheduling.

kids at the beach
Alpha and Beta on the beach. Across the water is the Boardwalk.

We were a little disappointed with the Swan overall² so we decamped for the Boardwalk, just next door (and a Disney resort) with shops and things to do.  I took the girls out to play and walk around while Meghan sat in the lobby with our bags.  We discovered that Epcot is just a short walk away.

After making a circuit around the “harbor” it was lunch time.  Alpha wanted to read but Beta and I were still a bit restless.  We headed down the walking path towards Hollywood Studios.  Not to go into the park, just to see where the path goes and look for alligators.  (We didn’t see any.)

Even after all that we had a few hours before we needed to get to the airport so I wandered into the DVC office to gather some information.  Meghan and I have talked about buying back into the vacation club for about a year, as changing fortunes have allowed us to travel and vacation more frequently and the DVC can actually be viewed as a money-saving way to travel.  As the agent brought our information back up we discovered that Meghan had been making inquiries while she was at Epcot the day before.  There was an open house at another resort where we could get all of the information, so game on: I judged that we were both ready to plunge back in, and got us a ride to the open house.

beta posing on swing
Beta posing for the camera as she swings

This was late in the day, getting close to the time we should really start heading to the airport, so we had to hew to a tight schedule with the sales guys.  We arranged it perfectly, though, and got back to our starting point in time to meet Victor (remember Victor the taxi driver? we liked him so much we called him back for our pick-up³) at our pre-arranged pick-up time.

Our flight out was pretty uneventful.  We took off on-time at 8:45 pm and landed at 11:30 pm, a bit of turbulence in between.  The kids stayed awake, I worked for a bit, Meghan napped (a first for her on a plane!).  We rolled back into our driveway at half-past midnight.

All in all, a success!

Footnotes

1: We don’t worry much about letting our kids hear profanity.  We have taught them some simple lessons: profanity is what you say when you don’t have the vocabulary to express yourself; profanity doesn’t make you cool, and certain people will judge you poorly when you use it; profanity is just words.  Moreover, making a big deal about “bad words” just increases the taboo-ness of them, which makes them more desirable. Return

2: Our time at the Swan ranged from merely average to disappointing.  The room was of average quality, but we’ve stayed in downtown Manhattan for the less per night with more included as part of the nightly fee.  Some of the disappointment was due to poor expectations: we thought that it was a Disney resort with same benefits like ground transportation from the airport included; some disappointment was because they nickel-and-dimed us to death (e.g. a $25-per-night “resort fee” to cover the complimentary internet access and pool, which we only got partially refunded). Return

3: Victor’s cell phone is 321-945-1003, call a few hours ahead to arrange a ride with him (dispatch will only send the next available).  His voicemail box was full but he responded promptly to our texts.  He seemed to genuinely appreciate having a guaranteed fare.  There are cheaper methods to get in and out of the airport if you’re by yourself, but none quite so hilarious. Return

Neil Gaiman in NYC

Meghan gave me an awesome Christmas present: tickets to see Neil Gaiman read from his latest book, Norse Mythology at The Town Hall on February 9, 2017 in New York City.  She only purchased two tickets and it’s a Thursday night.  Too bad kids — you’re staying home!  (We arranged for our neighbor’s adult daughter Sam to stay with the girls for the night).

looking up the aisle on the trainAs the day approached I watched the weather forecasts with growing interest.  Snow was forecast for Thursday, the day of the event and the day we planned to travel to NYC.  By Tuesday the forecast was clear: snow, and possibly a blizzard.  Driving to NYC was out of the question, and flying would be problematic as well.  We have easy access to trains, though, assuming they would run in a blizzard.

The storm could not wait to arrive and it was snowing hard by the time we left the house for our local train stop.  In order to head south on Amtrak, we take commuter rail from our house to Boston’s North Station, the subway (or walk when the weather is nice, which is to say not this time) from North Station to South Station, and pick up Amtrak there.  The Amtrak train was scheduled to depart at 11:15, so we left the house by 9 am to catch everything on time.  As usual, we forgot a few minor things like toothbrushes, and had to purchase them when we got there.

pink unicorns
We watched people skating at the park for a while, until the pink unicorns came out — then it was time to leave.

Amazingly enough, train service ran perfectly despite being a real, legitimate, certified blizzard.  We had periods where we could not see the landscape at all, but the train continued to rock along at 100+ mph (verified via Waze on Meghan’s phone).  The ride from South Station to Penn Station is about 4 ½ hours.

By the time we got to NYC the snow had wound down, though it continued to snow back home for another six hours.  The streets were messy and wet, with snow piled up at every corner.  The hotel is only a few blocks from Penn Station, a few blocks from Times Square, and a few blocks from The Town Hall — NYC is great that way.

meghan at beer authority
I still wonder what she’s thinking here

We ate dinner around the corner from our hotel at the Beer Authority. The food was yummy, the beer selection is well-curated, and we had a very enjoyable time.  (I thoroughly enjoyed a Founders Porter and Meghan tried a Timmerman’s Strawberry Lambic that was surprisingly tasty.)

top of the empire state building at night
We popped out of the hotel, went around the corner, and had a (relatively) great view of the Empire State Building

We killed a little more time before the show by wandering the local neighborhood.  Times Square is always blindingly bright, but within a few blocks are much nicer views.

Finally, the main event: Neil Gaiman.  “Norse Mythology” was finished some time before the 2016 election, and every story in it is a faithful retelling of stories from the original eddas, but the story he chose to read was eerily appropriate: a book about the gods building a wall around Asgard to keep the ice giants out.   The reading was followed by a pair of previews, one for the American Gods miniseries (based on his excellent book), and one for a movie adaptation of an old story of his, How to Talk to Girls at Parties.  Finally, he came back out with Ophira Eisenberg for a Q&A session.  Mr. Gaiman is, by turns, very thoughtful and very funny.  Despite the cramped seats made for midgets with abnormally short legs we really enjoyed ourselves.

Neil Gaiman on stage
Neil Gaiman. He read a segment from his latest book, Norse Mythology, about building a wall around Asgard

The next morning we ate breakfast at the hotel and killed some more time waiting for our 11 am train.  We visited the Empire State Building’s lobby and checked out a few adjoining blocks.  Our train was delayed for nearly an hour due to “missing equipment”, but we got back to Boston by dark and back to our car by 6 pm.  (Rush hour on the subway is never fun, but all in all it wasn’t too bad.)  Glad to be home!

Wentworth-by-the-Sea 2017

Meghan’s employer invites all employees and their families to an annual three-day retreat at a fancy spa and hotel called Wentworth-by-the-Sea.  This is our second year.

Last year we mostly stayed n the hotel due to a snow storm, but this year we ventured out a bit to take in some local color.  We found a state park called Fort Constitution (also known as Fort William and Mary), which is situated inside the grounds of a Coast Guard station.

Fort Constitution
Fort Constitution, as seen from the water (or closest I could get it from the little tip of rock that extends out)

I don’t normally pay much attention to geology but the bit of rock that juts out into the water is very eye-catching.

striations in sedimentary rock
I was drawn to the striations in the rock. This is a great example of sedimentary rock with lots of iron in it.
striations in sedimentary rock
A different section, with a shoe for scale. The layer inclusion on the right (might no be the technical term) is what caught my eye

We also drove around a bit; the town is reminiscent of Mystic, CT.

NYE 2016

Date: Evening of December 31, 2016
Location: Boston, MA
Event: New Year’s Eve

baba and alpha
Baba and Alpha, watching the carousel

We rang in the New Year in traditional style: a night out in Boston.  This year we had the very good fortune to be joined by Baba (Meghan’s mother, the girls’ grandmother).

Most years we take a train into the city to avoid issues with ‘amateur night’ drivers, but not this year. Being a Saturday, the commuter rail only runs a limited schedule; there are extra trains but not until later in the evening.

We reserved parking right next to the Commons (Parking Panda to the rescue!) but planned to start the night at Quincy Market.  I dropped the rest of the family off there and ran downtown to park the car.  I made the short walk back to meet with everyone again in about fifteen minutes.

The Black RoseWe shopped a bit before getting an excellent early dinner at The Black Rose.  We’ve been there several times; despite it’s location right next to Quincy Market it doesn’t have the air of a tourist trap.  It does have excellent Guinness on tap, though!

Let me back up a few days before I present the next photo: both girls have had braces on their teeth for a long while, until this past week.  Beta will be getting a second round when she gets a little older, but for now they both have brilliant smiles.

Alpha Mom and Beta
Alpha, Mom, and Beta, dinner at the Black Rose in Boston

Dinner was followed by a little more window-shopping, a brief stop for Blink, the Greenway Carousel, and dessert in the market.

We walked from Quincy Market to Boston Common, about a mile.  We stopped for hot chocolate and hot apple cider across the street at The Thinking Cup Cafe.  Both were very good.

Finally, at 7 pm: fireworks.

fireworks
NYE 2016 Fireworks – my phone’s camera cannot do them justice, but they were right over our heads

After the fireworks, our decision to park across the street paid off.  We picked up the car and made it out of the city before the rest of the traffic.

Baba slept over our house to avoid amateur night traffic, rain – the threat of rain made good shortly after we got home – and for a promise of waffles in the morning.  Meghan and her mom stayed up to watch a show, Hinterland, but everyone was asleep well before midnight.

Pleiades

Living in our new home town occasionally yields surprises, some good and some not. Tonight’s surprise is definitely the former.

We’re located no more than 15 miles from Boston (as the crow flies) and we’ve come to expect a certain level of light pollution from the city and surrounding suburbs, including our own commercial strip here in town.

So color me shocked when Meghan strides in at 10 pm tonight, returning from a friend’s house, and announces that she can see the Pleiades.

We head back outside to look and, as we stand where the driveway meets the street we count six of the seven sisters. If I recall correctly that was considered good in ancient times; seeing all seven was reserved for the eagle-eyed among us. Pretty good for front-yard star gazing.

Teaching the dog about Santa

For the last month or two, Quinn and I have been going out for walks after the kids are in bed. Its quiet, the dog has a great time, and we get to talk for an hour (tonight it was iPad woes and trying to remember this story about the SR-71 and a Navy Hornet). I’ve been feeling better, and am a little smaller, so its a win all the way around!

It is now bunny season. They are everywhere, and they are not smart. They will sit very still, even after Butter sees them. They will sit very still until she’s almost convinced herself that they aren’t really there. That’s when they bolt, and Butter tries to take our arms off bolting after them. The worst part is that they never seem to run into cover, they run along it, so she can see them for the longest possible time.

Bunnies.

So, tonight there was a real winner. He sat, still as a stone, until Butter was about 6 feet away from him. Then he ran, along the road, for about 20 feet (if you’ve ever seen Butter run, you know that’s not nearly far enough) to the corner of a fence. And sat there staring at the dog, who was on high alert and at the very end of her leash. It would be worrying, but her ears flop into her eyes, so she just looks ridiculous.

Quinn says, “I wonder what she would do if I ran after the bunny, and pretended to catch it.” I can see the wheels turning in his head, even in the dark.

“Don’t you dare.”

But the bunny isn’t moving, even as we keep walking toward it (he was between us and home; I don’t torture bunnies for fun). Quinn keeps giggling to himself, thinking about chasing the bunny, and the dog’s reaction. And the bunny still isn’t moving and we’re back to a 6 foot lead.

I sighed. No way around it. “Please chase the bunny.”

So he does. He runs towards the bunny, who is completely confused, and takes a second to start running, too. Butter tried to take off with him, but I was ready for it and she didn’t get anywhere. The bunny high-tailed it towards the back of a house, and Quinn went after it, just into a shadow.

This is where the fun starts, you see. He made growly, eating noises. Butter could not believe it. Quinn caught the bunny and ate it. She spent the rest of the walk looking for her own bunny to catch and eat. (He did not really catch the bunny, but Butter was firmly convinced her dad was a mighty predator tonight.)

Quinn wants to get a toy bunny (safe for dogs) and carry it with him on our walks. He’s going to chase another bunny out of harm’s way, and bring back the toy to give to Butter. She will firmly believe that he’s sharing his kill with her. He says, “It will be like teaching her about Santa Clause!” because she will be firmly convinced that is was bunnies taste like.

I’m not sure if this is going to be hysterical, or the start of many bad times for the local bunnies.

Good thing there’s lots of them.

Weird Al Yankovic, In Concert

Weird Al Yankovic, promotional photoWeird Al Yankovic was a big part of Meghan’s and my childhood, and pretty much anyone in our generation.  You could say he’s a hero of sorts.  When I found out, quite by accident, that his latest tour had dates near us I bought tickets the same day.  The only decision was which venue.

I chose the Lowell Summer Music Series; as Meghan said, if it rains we would be able to say that not only have we seen Weird Al live, but we saw him in a high school gymnasium.  (The high school next door is the rain location.)  It’s outdoors and BYOBlanket; so long as it didn’t rain and move indoors the kids are free.

So, on the appointed date and earliest possible time after work (which was earlier today, as I write this) we packed up the kids and a blanket and headed to the park to stake out a spot.

Mandatory Fun stage background
The stage, shortly before the show started. They waited for dark so they could recreate the roaming camera scene from the ‘Tacky’ video (which was the opening number)

The show was flawless.  It was small enough to be fun, large enough to let the crowd’s energy really flow, and turned-down enough that I wasn’t deaf at the end.  Alpha and Beta spent most of the show in a corner of the park with some other kids, but they enjoyed the show immensely as well.  Their view was better than ours, despite the distance — they could see over the crowd, while we had to contend with the sound booth/tent.

weird al in a fat suit
Weird Al in the fat suit singing ‘Fat’. My childhood has been redeemed. Apologies for the potato quality, all I had was my cell phone and the stage lighting was particularly bright and direct during this song.

There was a good mix of old and new songs over a couple of hours, interspersed with video clips while the band changed costumes.  Among other songs (in no particular order), there was Tacky (the opening number), Dare to Be Stupid, the aforementioned Fat, Amish Paradise, White and Nerdy, an awesome arrangement of Like A Surgeon set to the “unplugged” arrangement of Eric Clapton’s Layla (really), a couple of polkas interspersed throughout (of course), and closing with Yoda.

Mandatory Fun
Cover of Weird Al’s latest album and tour

The girls were buzzing as we left the park, and wide awake despite a) being 10 pm, b) after a regular day of school, and c) on the first week of school.  They can sleep in tomorrow, there’s no school, and Meghan and I aren’t setting an alarm — our jobs are flexible enough that we can afford to be a little late.

Butter has a terrible, no-good, very bad day.

Butter did not have a good day today. She’s been licking her paws and scratching her face to the point she’s starting to lose fur. Sprayed her with some anti-itch spray, and that didn’t help much (but she did put herself in her crate for an hour).

sad pitt bull
She looks so miserable

Off to the vet we go. He looks her over and says yes, it’s allergies, benadryl what she needs, and by the way her anal glands are full.

So, poor Butter is itchy, has been sprayed with nasty stuff, went to the vet, had a finger up her rear to express her gland, and is due to take two pills later.

I said I should just trim her nails to make it complete, but Quinn says that would be too cruel. I think he’s right.

We’ll just let her sleep for now.

Stargazing At MOS

There’s a small, boring backstory: Meghan renewed our membership with the Museum of Science (MOS), then asked me if we should renew it (she asked me via text, so she may have a different order of events).  I said we shouldn’t, since the girls haven’t been interested in going and we basically did not go at all last year — HOWEVER if we were to actually go just once I would be happy to renew while we were on-site.  Despite talking about this all over text, Meghan’s disappointment was evident as she dutifully cancelled the renewal.

I considered my options carefully, as the couch isn’t a particularly comfortable place to sleep, and gently reminded her that the MOS has an observatory that they open on Friday nights to view the stars — therefore it would be open later that night, and I would happily renew while we were there.  All we had to do was get the kids on board with going, or figure out what they would do while the two of us went.  (The girls thought this was a cool idea.  50 points to Gryffindor.)

Saturn
Credit to https://bkellysky.wordpress.com/

A few hours later we found ourselves standing on the roof of the MOS parking garage, waiting for our turn at the telescope.  Sadly, I could not photograph the view from the telescope, but it was a surprisingly clear view of Saturn.  A number of other people have taken photographs that are pretty similar to what we saw.  Happily the docent was informative and happy to answer questions, and didn’t make us feel rushed.  The MOS seems to have crowd management around the telescope down pat.

While we were waiting our turns, we took a few other pictures of Boston and astronomical phenomena, and watched the city bustle around us.

Jupiter and moon
Look to the left and up from the moon, that’s Jupiter. High, thin clouds were moving in, backlighting the view and obscuring the dimmer stars. The photo was taken with my cell phone, apologies for the potato-like quality.