Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Best Kind of Lost Weekend

OK, so I disappeared for a few days without notice, without giving you a forwarding address, without even mentioning I was heading out of town. Sorry. My sister and her family were visiting my hometown of Pearl River, N.Y., for the past few days, and we high-tailed it out of here to spend some quality time with them. Look at that photo of me with my brother and sister on the tube, surrounded by our cousins. If that ain’t quality time, I don’t know what is. Yes, we’re balancing on a rubber raft in the middle of my cousin’s pool. Not bad for almost 46, eh?

This was the first time I’ve seen my sister and brother-in-law and two nieces in three years! How crazy is that? Siblings should not go that long between visits, but getting back and forth between Austin, Texas, and upstate New York can be expensive and time-consuming when you’re dragging two or three kids in tow, so it doesn’t happen very often. But when it does....look out!

I truly cannot describe for you just how much fun we had this weekend with aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews all together for hours and hours on end. Plus, if I did, I’m sure you’d think less of me. I haven’t played musical chairs in decades -- and never with a margarita in hand while twirling around to Jimmy Buffet’s “Margaritaville.” And I don’t know how long it’s been since I jumped in a pool to splash around like a kid, as opposed to the sedate wading I typically do while holding Chiara these days.

We laughed, we ate, we sang, we ate, we did the locomotion in a conga line around the pool. Let’s just say, if Dennis ever wants to blackmail me, he just needs to go to the video tape. Yes, we have a video tape, a looooong video tape.

Here I am (below) last night with all but one of my Pearl River cousins (only my godchild was missing) just minutes before my sister and her family left for who knows how long. Even then, just before the tears set in, we were still trying to cram in a few more antics to recapture the very close childhood we all shared growing up -- more like siblings than cousins. A very good childhood indeed.

And here is the woman at the center of our show, my grandmother, known as E-ma to all, who will be 96 on New Year’s Day. She continues to amaze us with her agility, her determination, her support and her love. That’s four generations right there: My sister, Tricia; my brother, Fred; my dad, Sal, and me. Sitting down is E-ma with five of her nine great-grandchildren. Underneath is a photo of her with all of her grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and a few extra cousins who are like grandchildren.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Zen of the Aquadoodle

Chiara received an “Aquadoodle” for her birthday from Grandma Mary Ann and Popi Neil this week. Basically this is a mat that comes with a special pen that allows kids to draw with water. It even includes little step-by-step instructions on how to create cats and dogs and houses. The beauty of this, for parents at least, is that kids can’t draw on the carpet or couch or counters because the pen, which is loaded with water, works only on the Aquadoodle mat.

I watched as Chiara and Olivia sat there drawing hearts and lines and happy faces. Then, within a few minutes, the drawings began to fade. As soon as I saw it, all I could think of are those Buddhist monks who spend hours, sometimes days, creating sand mandalas only to sweep them away after they are complete, dismantling their own hard work in a fraction of the time it took to create it.

Now maybe that concept is a little esoteric for the preschool set, but there is something very Zen-like about a toy that encourages children to perfect a little drawing only to watch it disappear moments later. It’s a lesson in detachment, one that certainly would come in handy during the school year when the kids come home with backpacks filled with papers that accumulate on countertops and end tables until I judiciously file the “keepers” in the art box and bury the rest in the trash when no one is looking.

Imagine working hard on something -- painting a picture, knitting a sweater, creating a scrapbook -- only to have it vanish into thin air right after you finished it. I’m thinking of writing my next blog post on the Aquadoodle just to see how it feels, only you’ll never get to read it. If a blog entry disappears before uploading, does it make a sound?

Monday, July 21, 2008

My Birthday Baby

Chiara turned three years old today. Hard to believe. That’s her up there in her princess outfit and tiara, looking very birthday girl-ish. This photo captures the moment she was waiting for. Earlier this morning, when her godfather called to sing “Happy Birthday,” she told him, “It’s not happening yet.” She was referring to the arrival of the “Happy Birthday Party Cake.” As far as Chiara is concerned, it’s not a birthday or a party until there’s cake. She has a point.

Every once in a while since late last night she would say, “After I wake up will it be time for cake...After I get dressed will it be time for cake...After my nap will it be time for cake.” By the time dinner rolled around and the cake was sitting on the counter taunting her, it was all she could do to maintain control. She could barely eat dinner because she was so focused on that cake.

Now she’s in bed, talking about her new birthday toys (the biggest of which is a “recycled” doll house of Olivia’s that we took down from the attic and dusted off). But still, dancing through her head, is a vision of the Blue’s Clues birthday cake that I have promised to make for our Friday family reunion with my sister and her family. It’s going to be a long few days between now and the arrival of the big paw print cake.

Here’s one more birthday photo of Chiara in yet another princess outfit that Olivia helped her put on. There’s something about this photo that I just love:

Sunday, July 20, 2008

There's no place like home...

Well, we arrived home from vacation last night, and despite the fact that the house is a mess and there is laundry to do and groceries to buy and bills to pay, it's good to be back. I enjoy going away, but I enjoy coming home even more.

This morning we hit the 10:30 a.m. Mass at our parish. The stifling humidity in our un-air conditioned church could have made for a very unpleasant experience, but our pastor gave a homily so brief it must have broken some sort of preaching record. It wasn't just brief; it was really good. That's pretty hard to do. He was able to say in one minute what many other priests can't seem to say in 15 minutes. Reflecting on the parable of the weeds sown among good seeds, he talked about how God allows good and bad to co-exist alongside each other, open always to the possibility that change could come about at any point along the way. God always sees the potential in all of us, even when we don't see it in ourselves -- or in others.

If you read my previous post about discovering our true selves, then you know I like this idea that we all have the potential to become what God intended us to be, no matter how young or old we may be. But I especially like the notion that the weeds in today's parable are there on purpose, or that they may even have a purpose other than the typical destruction we attribute to weeds. After all, look at dandelions. To the person with the perfectly trimmed lawn, they are are a blight, but to a child, they are beautiful flowers, and to the gourmet, they are delicate salad. It's all in the eye of the beholder, and, fortunately, our Beholder sees all of us with very generous eyes, as if we, too, are all flowers in the making.

There's one more reason I like this weed parable translation: It gives me the perfect excuse for letting my garden grow wild for at least another day or two.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

As we prepare to leave North Wildwood

Here's our trio in front of the fountain in Cape May. What is it about fountains that makes everyone pull out their spare change and start throwing it?

The moon rising over the Atlantic was really much more beautiful than anything my rather cheap digital camera could reproduce, but here it is anyway. The orange tint to the moon, the reflection on the water, the dunes with gently blowing grasses, even a perfectly placed planet just to the right of the moon, which you probably can't see. Just a perfect scene.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Last chance souvenirs

We went down to "Exit 0," as they say in these parts, to visit Cape May and Sunset Beach for our final day of vacation. Cape May is one of those cute little villages with lots of restaurants and over-priced shops. However, between there and Sunset Beach, the kids were able to come up with the perfect souvenirs that had been evading them all week on the Wildwood boardwalk.

Olivia found a little stuffed hermit crab, which came in second only to the live hermit crab she has been begging for all week but that we vetoed out of hand because we know we'll end up cleaning out the cage and trying to keep Greta the dog from eating the little critter. (She has since declared that she will never eat crab again. I think she's down to crackers and American cheese at this point.) All week she had $20 of her own money burning a hole in her pocket, but she held out and found what she wanted, with enough left over to buy a dolphin visor and still have some change in her new wallet.

Chiara fell in loved with a cheap plastic cat. The thing is pretty darn tacky, but it was only $3.99, and she has been carrying it around and talking to it as if it came right from the Humane Society. Too cute.

Noah settled for a small car, a black bear, and a pirate sign for his bedroom door that warns the rest of us to stay away. I'm thinking of getting one of those to hang from my forehead.

Even mommy and daddy did not go away empty handed. The Sunset Beach gift shop has great T-shirts and sweatshirts really cheap. We're talking $10 for a hoodie with Cape May across the front. Really nice. Remember that if you head this way.

So now we're doing laundry and starting to pack up our roof rack for the big trip home tomorrow. We'll spend one more evening here, eating Rick's Seafood, walking on the beach, flying kites and taking in the beauty of the ocean before going back to our real life. I'm trying not to think about work, even though I can feel it trying to push its way into my sunny beach thoughts.

These are a few of my favorite things....

I realized that Olivia was the only kid whose photo was not featured on my vacation blog, so here she is at the Cape May Zoo with my favorite animals in the background. In fact, Noah recently declared that if I was in Harry Potter, my "patronus" would be a giraffe. I'm not sure if that would protect me against he-who-shall-not-be-named, but it sure would be pretty.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Sand, surf and the "true self"

The Jersey Shore may seem to be an unlikely place to read a spiritual book about unmasking your "true self," but that is exactly what I've been doing while I sit in my sand chair watching Chiara make "soup" in the 24-inch wading pool that we drag with us to the beach each day. (Can you believe we actually bring a pool to the beach? Yes, we're insane.)

I just finished "Becoming Who You Are," by James Martin, S.J., one of my all-time favorite writers. I first discovered him when a friend gave me "My Life With the Saints" a couple of Christmases ago. I followed that up with Father Martin's book on devotions. But "Becoming Who You Are" combines some of my most favorite spiritual thinkers in one slim volume: Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Mother Teresa, and, last but certainly not least, Jesus. Here is the random paragraph that caught my eye before I started officially reading this book. It was all I needed to see to know that this book was for me:

"Much of this journey involved my letting go of the need to be somebody else. Nobody in particular, mind you, just a feeling that I needed to be different. Early in the novitiate, I thought that being holy meant changing an essential part of who I was, suppressing my personality, not building on it. I was eradicating my natural desires and inclinations, rather than asking God to sanctify and even perfect them. Here's the way I thought about it: I knew that I certainly wasn't a holy person, so therefore being holy must mean being a different person." (p. 29)

Wow, how long have I thought pretty much the exact same thing? For most of my life, or at least my adult life, I have figured that the only way to become a better person was to become a different person. Now, the odd thing about that is that if you asked me who I would want to be if I could be anyone else, I would tell you -- as I have told other people when asked this very question -- that I would not want to be anyone but me, doing the job I'm doing. So it's not that I want to be someone specific; I just want to be someone different from the me I am right now. This book, however, looks at the possibility, the reality, that becoming a "better" person is not about changing who we are but about becoming who we already are down in our hearts and souls, the selves that God created us to be.

Martin quotes Merton from "Seeds of Contemplation" saying: "For me to be a saint means to be myself." The key is to figure out who we are, dropping the masks we put on for the benefit of other people, or maybe for the benefit of our own egos.

The beach is actually the perfect place to do that kind of thinking, although typically it would probably be best to do serious soul searching sans the sand toys and boogie boards and constant quest for hermit crabs. Still, when all else fails, it can work despite the most ridiculous distractions: Think 3-year-old needing to go to the bathroom in the middle of the incredibly wide Wildwood beach with nary a bathroom or pull-up in site. Think arguing with Olivia that she must release the eight hermit crabs in her bucket before they all boil in their own ocean water right before our eyes (She finally returned them to the sea, saying in true Jesus fashion, I love every one of them just the same. OK, maybe Jesus didn't say it just like that, but you know what I mean.)

I am closing in on 46 years old and I will readily admit that I still do not know my "true self," although I do think I'm coming much closer as I get older. The scales are tipping away from what I think I should be toward what I know I am. If you've ever felt that way, even for a minute, pick up Father Martin's book by clicking HERE and read it, and then read it again.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Something has gone terribly wrong

The girls are dancing around our beach condo singing and dancing to what they have dubbed "The French Fry Dance," which involves them holding their hands over their heads and acting like French fries. However it is French fries act. This used to be the Banana Dance back before we gave up all healthy food in favor of what they serve on the Jersey Shore. A banana has not been seen for days. No salad. No apples. No strawberries. If it ain't battered and fried, you won't find it here. As I write this, the girls are making "ketchup angels" on the condo living room floor. I think we need an intervention.

Monday, July 14, 2008

I can't believe I ate the whole thing

Waffles and ice cream together at last! Check out the size of this thing -- and those are fresh, homemade waffles. Four out of five Pousts were able to wolf down an entire one of these babies. The last little Poust gets a pass since she's not yet 3 years old, although she did a pretty good job on a big dish of chocolate ice cream.

Here's Noah showing us how it's done:

Wearing ourselves out

Well, we have been going non-stop for the past few days. We hit the second water park of the trip yesterday -- Raging Waters in Wildwood -- for three and a half hours of slipping, sliding, splashing and sunburning, at least for me. We usually vacation much later in the season, so I typically have a lot of time to work up to a mild tan. For me, a tan requires slow cooking over low heat, like the human equivalent of a Texas brisket. This sudden exposure to summer sun, even with 50+ sun screen, is just too much too soon. I spend a lot of time in my cowboy hat and black, long-sleeved cover-up, which makes me look dark and brooding for the breezy beach scene. I kind of like it that way, truth be told.

Yesterday, after the water park, we also made our now-annual pilgrimage to Maui's Dog House, which is the best hot dog place ever, even for vegetarians. It's a bit like ordering from the Soup Nazi, so be prepared if you go, and you absolutely should go if you are anywhere near Wildwood, N.J. They have a gazillion kinds of hot dogs -- vegetarian as well as their typical beef-veal-pork blend. I went for the vegetarian Chicago dog. Unbelievable. I actually had to check to make sure it was really a vegetarian hot dog, which are known to be pretty darn disgusting. We also had a couple of orders of "salty balls," which, if you can get past the name, are incredibly good small potatoes cooked in brine and served with drawn butter. Delicious. Everything you order comes served in a dog dish, with a side of sarcasm and annoyance. I think it's part of the schtick, which can be a bit intimidating, but it's definitely worth it.

Today we hit the beach again for the usual sand-digging and boogie-boarding and a picnic lunch, made possible by our L.L. Bean "Sunbuster" shelter, which is really the only thing that prevented the sea gulls from carrying off our sandwiches. We hunkered down for a relaxing meal, while the others on the beach were fending off the hungry birds. Dennis calls our tent the Astrodome of beach accessories, so that will give you some idea of the size. (If the neighbors had a stronger signal, I'd post a photo of the shelter.)

Tonight we head to the boardwalk for rides and more fattening but delicious food. Have you ever tried a fried Oreo? Sounds disgusting, you say? It's not. It is so amazingly good you will wonder how you've lived this long without experiencing one. Curley's fries, waffles and ice cream, corn dogs (for the carnivores in the crowd) and funnel cakes. I think I'll be running on the sea wall again tomorrow morning. We're off for more adventures. Wish you were here...

Small fry

If that doesn't say "summer vacation," I don't know what does...

Comment problem fixed, I think

I've heard from some of my trusted visitors that the comment section was allowing only registered users (aka no one) to have their say. What's that about? Anyway, it should be fixed now. Comment at will.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Fun in the sun

Well, it's been tough to get a strong enough signal to post much, which is why you haven't heard from me in a couple of days. Let's just say that the kind people from whom I am "borrowing" network access really need to jack up their signal. Just call me Pirate Mary.

Aside from signal issues, we're just too busy doing Jersey Shore type stuff to have time to post. I tried to put up some photos just now, but that ain't working either. Too bad too. We have some really nice shots of the kids looking happy, which, despite the fact that we're on a fun-filled vacation, is not always guaranteed. There is lots of sulking going on, even on the beach with the waves pounding and the sun shining and lots of happy children (none of them related to us) riding boogie boards and digging tunnels in the sand.

Right now Chiara is upstairs screaming because she wants to go wander around outside all by herself (she's not yet 3), Noah is napping on the couch, Olivia is eating Ritz crackers because she's starving, and our plans to go to the Barbecue Blues Festival down the street is on hold until the children seem more, shall we say, serene. Of course, a BBQ festival does not have quite the same draw when there are two vegetarians in the mix. Noah and Dennis are dreaming about ribs and pulled pork sandwiches. Chiara wants fries, and has been yelling about it since 2 p.m. Olivia and I will probably end up with corn on the cob on a stick. That's OK, though, because we stuffed ourselves with Mack's Pizza and Polish Water Ices on the Wildwood boardwalk earlier today. Mmm, mmm, good.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Sliding back in time

If you haven’t been to a water park lately – or ever — find one and go there immediately. That’s your assignment this summer. It is a surefire way to act like a kid again without anyone looking at you funny. Every year, at the start of our New Jersey shore vacation, we go to the water park on Long Beach Island, courtesy of Grandpa Sal and Grandma Dor, and we have the best time every time.

As I hopped into my bright blue inner tube this morning and sped down the winding water slide with is twists and turns and tunnels and dips, I could almost imagine I was a teen-ager again, something that was definitely helped along by the fact that Men at Work, The Clash and other 80’s icons where blaring through the park’s music system. It was as if I had stepped back in time to find a much younger version of myself standing there waiting for the lifeguard to give me the high sign that it was safe for me to launch my tube and make the brief but exhilarating trip to the pool below, where, if you’re not careful, there is always the possibility that you will get dumped out of your tube and under the water.

We also took a family float on the “Lazy, Crazy River,” which is sometimes lazy, meaning you just loll along in your inner tube minding your own business, and sometimes crazy, meaning water shoots at you from every direction and waves push along until you inevitably end up directly underneath the giant bucket of water two stories up that tips over and pummels you into submission. This time I held on to Dennis and Olivia’s double tube for dear life in order to keep my double tube with Chiara at the helm from heading directly into the path of the dreaded bucket, which is only dreaded if you’re under 4 or over 40, I think. Noah sits under the thing waiting for it to drench him.

Pictures will be coming soon...

Sunday, July 6, 2008

We didn't sleep much, but we had fun

Well, we survived Olivia’s birthday sleep over. The weather held out and the girls were able to do the water slide, which was way more popular than I expected it to be. We didn’t have too much excitement before dinner, except for a small inchworm found crawling across one of the baby carrots on the vegetable platter. Needless to say, the rest of the carrots went uneaten -- at least by the girls.

We had lots of giggling and screaming and little girl politics, which can rival anything going on in the presidential campaign these days. People often think that girls are so much easier than boys. The reality is that girls are just different than boys but certainly no less challenging. When it comes to boys, what you see is what you get. There are no hidden agendas, no whispering, no hurt feelings. Girls may not be as loud -- although these girls certainly held their own -- but they are just as active in their own ways.

Between splashing on the slide and eating pizza and cake and watching movies and eating popcorn (lots and lots of eating), you would think that our five slumber party girls would have crashed on their sleeping bags in 10 seconds flat, but, as is often the case with sleep overs of any kind, sleeping wasn’t really the point. As midnight approached and one girl was cold and one was hungry and one was hot and one wanted her mom, Dennis and I had to take off our fun party faces and put on our serious parent faces. Eventually we just had to tell them, No more talking! Or whistling. Or humming. Or singing. Period. They slept until sunrise and then were right back where they left off while I made pancakes and smoothies.

I think it was a good birthday weekend for Olivia, though. Hopefully these are memories that are going to stay with her for a very long time. I know I won’t soon forget this weekend, especially when Chiara turns eight and asks for the same.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Countdown to the slumber party

In just two hours -- TWO!! -- five little girls will descend upon my house to join Olivia for her big birthday sleep over blowout. What was I thinking when I said yes to a slumber party for that many 7- and 8-year-olds?!? It sounded like a good idea at the time, but now, as the bewitching hour approaches, I’m starting to wonder. Our plans to set up the big backyard water slide are on the rocks as the clouds settle in. We’ll see what we do instead. Crafts? Games? Singing? Tune in tomorrow to see how things worked out, how many girls had to get picked up by parents in the middle of the night, and how many of us get any sleep at all.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

A word of caution

In case any of you have taken my advice and have started downloading daily podcasts from Pray-as-You-Go, I feel the need to print what I hope is only a temporary disclaimer. Back when I first mentioned my new obsession with the 10-minute podcasts that offer reflections on daily Scripture readings set to an eclectic mix of music, I mentioned that as soon as I heard the soothing female voice with the British accent, I could feel my tense shoulders starting to relax. Well, I don’t know what they’ve done with that woman, but they’ve replaced her with Eliza Doolittle -- before Henry Higgins set out to turn her into a proper English lady.

For the past two nights, I have found my jaw tensing up as I try to understand the high-speed Scripture readings in an accent that I cannot place other than to say that it’s from the British Isles. Last night I actually had to take out the printed version of the reading from the Book of Amos because I had no idea what the woman was saying. There was no reflecting, no letting go of stress, no spiritual moment because I was so distracted by the accent. Today’s reading in honor of the Feast of St. Thomas the Apostle is a little better, but I think that’s only because I know the reading so well I’m not hanging on her every word.

So, if you do decide to give Pray-As-You-Go a try, and I recommend that you do, please just bear with them until they locate the lady with the soothing voice and calm demeanor. Click HERE if you want to pray, or if you think you can tell me what kind of accent this is. You will hear a musical selection, an introduction by a male voice, and then Eliza. And, for the record, I love Pygmalion and Eliza Doolittle. I just don’t like them mixed with my Scripture.