Monday, September 2, 2019

Why did the little boy ask why and then why again?

Avi wants to know the "why" of just about everything these days.
Avi, my three-year-old grandson, has recently launched into the "Why" stage of life. So he's wondering now why the sky is blue and water wet, why the sun is hot and ice is cold.

Curiosity is a good thing, but when every explanation is met with a question it all can be a little, er, annoying. Fortunately, the why of life can also be funny.

Here's a mostly true conversation Avi and I had just the other day:

Avi: What happened to your hair, Pops?
Pops: It fell out.
Avi: Why?
Pops: Because I got old..
Avi: Why?
Pops: Because I wanted to stick around so I could play with you.
Avi: Why?
Pops: Because you're so darn cute.
Avi: Okay ... gimme a cookie.
Pops: Why?

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Leaping into the future with Bailey and Avi

2019 edition of the grandchildren.
I blinked and my grandchildren leaped into the future, Bailey heading off to Kindergarten this week and Avi back to preschool. Because their mom -- my daughter, Lauren -- teaches in a nearby elementary school, all of them are now together under the same roof.

Lauren spends her days teaching kids with special needs while Bailey and Avi spend their time showing off just how special they are. Hey, I'm their Pops so I have the right to pop off every now and again!

Truth to tell, the kids are absolutely normal. They run around and play, manage to get into stuff that often drives me bonkers -- why do the kids put beans in their ears? -- and often fight with one another like cats and dogs.

They also both remain pure spirits with hearts of gold, filled with the innocence of youth and unconditional love.

Avi: Always smiling and ready for fun.
After a morning that had me thinking it would be easier to herd a bunch of cats then control my grandkids at play, I finally managed to get Avi into his crib for a nap. As I went to close the door, Avi called out that he wanted a hug. He wrapped his little arms around my neck, then kissed me on the cheek before settling down with a contented smile across his face. A moment later he was asleep.

I then got Bailey to quiet down by handing her my iPad. As she got comfy on a couch in our den, happy to spend some quality time on YouTube, I was thinking I might grab a quick nap.

Bailey: Now in kindergarten and ready to read.
Bailey had other ideas.

"Pops", she called out, "won't you come snuggle with me?" And that's how I got to spend some quality time with my granddaughter and JoJo Siwa -- trust me, JoJo is very big with 5-year-old girls.

In a world that often seems turned upside down, at times dark and troubling, Bailey and Avi provide a measure of light. It might seem counterintuitive, but with all their ranbunctious play and zest for life, they offer up an island of calm, a sense of normalcy ... hope.

And isn't that the way it should be with all of God's children?

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Back to New York and Into the Heart of Darkness

Times Square goes dark after power outage in Midtown Manhattan.
Wendy and I had much to cheer about during a recent trip to New York.

Two musicals, "Tootsie" and "The Prom", had us and a few thousand other folks on our feet applauding while Billy Joel enjoyed much the same response from 20,000 fans -- that would include Wendy and me -- attending a concert at Madison Square Garden.

But the loudest and most enthusiastic cheers came when the lights flashed on across an expansive swath of Manhattan where we spent an interesting couple of hours in the dark. We weren't alone!

Tens of thousands of tourists and locals, in one of the most densely populated areas of the country, were caught off guard when a transformer blew in Midtown and the lights of the city blinked off and stayed off for nearly five hours.

Made it to Nathan's ... Hot diggity dog!
A Jennifer Lopez concert at Madison Square Garden was abruptly stopped, thousands of fans forced to make their way through the darkened structure onto Sixth Avenue. Shows in the theater district were canceled and tourists with rooms in Times Square's towering hotels were stranded at street level. The outage slowed or stopped subways throughout Manhattan, with ripple effects in the outer boroughs and, just as troubling, street lights and traffic signals across a 60-block area west of Fifth Avenue blinked, grew dim and went dark.

As luck would have it, Wendy and I were on a walking tour of Midtown when first word of the blackout reached us. Since it was still light, we didn't notice anything unusual. After all, unusual is the norm in the Big Apple, ground zero for all things bizarre!

We had arrived in the city a few days earlier and stayed busy eating our way across Manhattan at a few of our favorite spots -- Ben's Kosher Deli in Midtown and Rafele's and S'Mac in Greenwich Village. We also booked several tours -- NBC Studios at Rockefeller Center and Grand Central Terminal, the High Line in Chelsea and, as mentioned earlier, an evening walking tour of Midtown.

We even managed to make it out to Coney Island -- 45 minutes away by subway -- where we took in the sights, including a visit to Nathan's for a little nosh!

Spent some quality time with the on-air talent of the Today Show at NBC.
A few hours later, just outside Grand Central Terminal, the first stop on our walking tour of Midtown, I received a text detailing a possible problem in the area. Our guide Nick was also getting news of the blackout and was trying to figure out the best and safest way to proceed.

Eventually we made it to the southern fringes of Times Square. The block we were on was filled with tourists and all appeared light and bright. But a block north the area seemed swallowed up in a black hole that grew ever darker in the far distance.

Naturally, Wendy and I left the group and immediately headed off into the heart of darkness. Our journey began around 5th Avenue and 42nd Street. There was a smattering of light and people as we trudged toward our hotel, The Warwick, on 6th Avenue and 54th Street.

Blackout hit just moments after we explored Grand Central Terminal.
The only real problem we encountered was when we got to 45th Street. That's where the traffic lights began failing. For the rest of our hike home it became a bit of a challenge simply to make it across each intersection.

We were in total darkness -- the sort of I can't see my hand in front of my face darkness -- after turning onto 54th Street, just a block or so from our hotel. Once there, we made it into the lobby, filled with hot and frustrated tourists all quivering and softly aglow from the light given off by dozens of candles strategically placed about the room.

After quizzing the desk staff -- no, there was nothing new to report and, yes, we could climb nine flights of stairs to our room but, no, that wouldn't be a good idea -- we grabbed a couple bottles of tepid water and made the strategic decision to wait out the blackout on the street.

Coverage in the NY Post.
And that's exactly what we did, along with a few thousand other folks unable or unwilling to make it up to their rooms. Mostly we stayed busy on our phones tracking down the latest news and sharing bits of information with strangers sharing info with us. The good news is most everyone remained calm and in reasonably good spirits despite the hot and humid weather.

It would take another couple hours before the power grid was completely rebooted and Wendy and I made it up to our room. We had just enough time to pack, get a couple hours of sleep, clean up and head to the airport.

By the time we made it back to Atlanta, the city that never sleeps was rubbing the sleep from its metaphorical eyes and opening up for business once again.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Exploring the left coast aboard the Norwegian Bliss

Sunrise as we enter San Francisco Bay.
Wendy and I spent some time recently traveling about the left coast, from Los Angeles to Vancouver, with stops in San Francisco and Victoria.

Most of the getting from here to there was done aboard the Norwegian Bliss, one of the new class of mega-ships that is filled with an assortment of bells and whistles -- water slides, hot tubs and pools, go karts and a large laser tag venue, restaurants, bars and a wannabe shopping mall.

The ship has a crew of 1,200 and can accommodate well over 4,000 guests. The Bliss isn't exactly blissful -- way too many people -- but it is new and sparkly and, I'm thinking, a perfect getaway for young adults traveling with kids.

Anyway you parse it, the lovely Miss Wendy and I are no longer, ah, young and our kids were at home taking care of their kids.

Wendy making her way across Santa Monica Beach.
Fortunately, extending our journey out west both before and after the cruise was a winning idea that turned what could have easily been a lackluster holiday into a memorable adventure.

We stayed in Santa Monica for two days before visiting relatives and friends around Mission Viejo. Santa Monica is a lovely beach community with shops and restaurants, expansive green spaces and an iconic pier filled with additional shops and restaurants.

There's also an amusement park for tourists and, better yet, miles of walking and cycling trails along the nearby beach.

We spent a couple hours following the trail into Venice Beach and exploring the aging hippy community there that has morphed into a sort of hip-hop, grunge and bikers mecca. The area, jarringly, also appears to be home base for many homeless and disenfranchised folks from across Southern California.

Bucket list alert: Cruising under the Golden Gate Bridge.
When we weren't walking or window shopping, we were eating. Wexler's, a New York-style Deli -- aren't they all! -- was conveniently located just a few blocks from our hotel and helped jump start our vacation on a gastronomical high. Can you say pastrami ... hot pastrami!?

Santa Monica proved to be a tasty starter on our holiday getaway, but after dashing about Southern California we were ready for the main course.

The Bliss, despite its shortcomings, managed to deliver us to a couple of world-class ports: San Francisco and Vancouver.

Both cities are touristy delights. They share much in common: expansive green spaces, soaring skyscrapers and picturesque neighborhoods.

They also have splendid waterfronts featuring a pleasant blend of souvenir shops, retail outlets, restaurants, bars and marinas filled with a wide and varied assortment of sailboats, fishing skiffs and sightseeing vessels.

Vancouver's Waterfront offers grand view of city's skyline.
Wendy and I spent a couple hours walking along the waterfront in the City by the Bay, from Pier 39 -- chock full of tourists and a pod of seals -- to Fisherman's Wharf, then up to Ghiradella Square and Russian Hill Park. Off in the distance we could just make out the outline of the Golden Gate Bridge that, hours earlier, we had cruised under as we made our way into San Francisco Bay.

A few days later we were in Vancouver where we spent a longish weekend hoofing it across the city. We went on several walking tours and eventually made our way from Gastown -- an intown neighborhood filled with restaurants and nightclubs, fashion boutiques and art galleries -- to Canada Place, Coal Harbor and Stanley Park.

After our six-hour trek, I posted a few photos and this blurb on Facebook: Take the big city vibe of Manhattan, striking architecture of Chicago, waterfront beauty of Miami and diversity of San Francisco ... stir briskly and garnish with a hockey puck and, voila, Vancouver on the rocks!

I stand by the A-Plus review, however it turns out that the top highlight of our time out west came a couple of days earlier and 60 miles south of Vancouver. After mentioning to several friends that we would be stopping in Victoria, most everyone told us we had to visit Butchart Gardens because, well, it's incredible.

One word to describe Butchart Gardens: Spectacular!
They weren't exaggerating!

The gardens, a National Historic Site in Canada, is about a 40-minute drive from Victoria. It spreads across 55 acres and features 900 bedding plant varieties serviced by 26 greenhouses and 50 full-time gardeners. In a word, the gardens are spectacular -- okay, they are also beautiful and delightful, mesmerizing and other-worldly!

Wendy and I happened to visit when most of the 160,000 Tulip bulbs planted months earlier were on full display. The colorful and fragrant flowers shared space with a wide variety of other plants and trees, including English Daisies and Elephant Ears, Dogwood trees and Trout Lillies, Christmas roses, Hyacinth, Skunk Cabbage, Forget-Me-Nots and Poor Man Orchids.

I don't know the difference between a petunia and a pansy, but the pleasant blend of flowering plants, water features and hardscape designs had me -- and a million other visitors each year -- entranced and thrilled we made it to Butchart, the bloomin' center of the world!

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Frigid trip a really cool adventure

Ian, Larry and me all dressed up and ready to explore.
My brother Ian and I were on our way to Jackson Hole Airport, returning to Atlanta after spending a long weekend exploring some of the iconic natural wonders in and around the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Parks.

"So, how was your stay," our Uber driver asked as he gingerly maneuvered about the icy roadway between Jackson, Wyo. and the airport.

"Chilly," I said.

The driver chuckled, then responded that that was probably one of the main reasons tourists visited the area in winter, "to get a taste of real frigid weather."

He's probably right; at least that was one of the primary reasons that I and two of my brothers -- Ian and Larry, who had said his goodbyes earlier that day -- had decided to make the trip.

We weren't disappointed.

Temps ranged mostly from lows in the single digits to highs in the mid-20s. Most mornings and late evenings, however, the mercury would dip into minus territory. It was a numbing sort of cold that I had never experienced, a frosty frigidity that attacked with an unforgiving icy grip.

First Stop, the Grand Tetons just outside of Jackson, Wyo.
That's not to say there weren't warm and unforgettable moments during the trip. All three of us had spent time in the area and seen most of the major attractions, but the region glistens with an icy charm during the winter that melts away in the spring and summer.

Since we were all a little skittish about driving on icy roads, we booked two, day-long tours and left the driving and navigating to seasoned guides. The first focused on wildlife around the Grand Tetons and the second on the natural wonders to be found in Yellowstone.

Turns out, even in the dead of winter, there's lots to discover and lots to see if you know where to look. Fortunately Steve, our guide, knew where the elk and bison were wintering; also, a herd of mountain goats, some coyotes, a bald eagle or three, and a wandering moose.

So, why did the moose cross the road? Because he could!
The wildlife was strikingly positioned about the majestic peaks and tranquil valleys of the Grand Tetons, a poetic placement that managed to be both natural and wondrous; thanks and a tip of the beanie to Mother Nature!

The next day we traveled an hour or so north of Jackson in a specially outfitted van -- really big tires to handle roads and trails filled with slush -- to explore the natural wonders of Yellowstone.

The National Park spreads across 3,500 square miles of land in the northwest corner of Wyoming -- it bleeds over into Idaho and Montana -- and I imagine we managed to cover about 50 or so miles from the park's southern entrance to the Upper Geyser Basin.

The area, filled with the largest concentration of geysers in the world, was decked out in a dazzling coat of ice and snow. The sky was a frigid blue, the perfect backdrop for all the natural wonders and beauty on display.

Yellowstone is a geothermal wonderland.
We even got to see Old Faithful pop off before venturing off on a short hike that included an up close and personal look at a series of hot springs and mud pots. The surrounding landscape, meanwhile, offered up an extravagant mural of wintry delights: icy brooks and waterfalls, snow-covered woods and mountain peaks, and achingly beautiful meadows that -- at least poetically -- stretched into tomorrow.

The trip, as expected, was memorable -- and, yes, brutally cold! The weather, however, was manageable because we spent 30 minutes each morning dressing for anything Mother Nature might toss our way.

That meant after tugging on a base layer of Merino wool underwear, I followed with a pair of warm and water-resistant socks, thermal snow pants, a flannel shirt, sweater vest and fleece hoodie, quilted puffer jacket, balaclava and woolen beanie. Finally, after pulling on and lacing up a pair of Merrill Thermo Chill Mid-Waterproof boots, I was good to go. And go we did.

Up Next: Someplace warm and toasty!

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Big adventure aboard a really big ship

Leaving Cape Liberty aboard the Anthem of the Seas.
The Anthem of the Seas is big -- really big! That, in a nutshell, is both the good and bad news that Wendy and I experienced, up close and personal, on a recent cruise aboard this floating city.

The trip began in Cape Liberty, NJ, a port about 20 minutes east of Newark with an expansive and memorable view of the Statue of Liberty and skyline of lower Manhattan. The week-long cruise had us puttering about the Atlantic, first to Bermuda, then Boston before returning to Jersey.

The getting from here to there was half the fun -- okay, maybe most of the fun. I did mention that the ship was big, right? It's also bright and shiny and still has that new-boat smell -- its maiden voyage was in April of 2015.

Anthem of the Seas is 1,141-feet long with a gross tonnage of 168,666 -- by comparison, the Titanic had a gross tonnage of 46,328 and the aircraft carrier Enterprise 93,284. As I said: Big -- really big!

The ship can hold 4,905 passengers and has a crew of 1,500. There are 16 passenger-accessible decks, with a total of 2,090 cabins. Wendy and I shared one of the 1,570 staterooms with balconies that had a small sleeping and sitting area, two closets and a chest of drawers.

Anthem, docked in Bermuda, dwarfs sailboats in nearby marina.
The bathroom featured a Lilliputian-sized shower, sink and toilet, a smallish nook for toiletries and a half-dozen or so towels.

It's also worth noting, simply for the whiz-bang factor, that there are 373 inside staterooms featuring "Virtual Balconies" -- floor-to-ceiling 80-inch high-definition TV screens streaming live views from outside of the ship.

There's more. Lots more. Wendy and I stumbled across lots of gee-whiz stuff when we weren't sleeping or eating -- there are at least 20 or so restaurants, cafes and buffets on the ship -- including a high-tech bar serviced by two robotic bartenders, an expansive shopping mall featuring high-end retailers and a lounge, Two70°, that soars three decks high and offers up a 270-degree view on the world!

NorthStar offers great view for those who dare.
For the young and young at heart, way up on deck 15 and 16, there are wave and skydiving simulators, three rock-climbing walls and an observation pod, the NorthStar, that can hold up to 14 people as it rises several hundred feet up and out over the top deck of the ship. Oh, there's also an assortment of swimming pools, hot tubs and wading pools, lounges and chairs.

The cherry atop this cruising sundae, the SeaPlex, takes up a huge space neatly hidden away at the back of deck 15. The large indoor gym can be transformed easily into a wide-range of kid-friendly venues -- basketball court, roller-skating rink, a school for young trapeze wannabes and an arena for bumper cars!

Wendy and I were looking for something a little less strenuous and a bit more entertaining, in a song and dance sort of way. No problem.

The Music Hall, a 2-story lounge on decks 3 and 4, serves as a nightclub and intimate music performance venue; there's also a cozy piano bar and a number of smaller clubs and bars featuring a variety of performers.

But the most notable entertainment can be found at opposite ends of the ship in the innovative and picturesque lounge, Two70°, and the Royal Theater, a massive space on decks 4 and 5.

Bermuda filled with world-class beaches and memorable views.
Two70° is the home for Spectra's Cabaret, a splashy musical review that is both an edgy concert and light show, featuring a creative mashup of high-tech gadgetry, dancers, singers and aerialists! It matters little that the story anchoring the show is indecipherable.

At the other end of the ship, in The Royal Theater, there was an edgy and entertaining mix of shows, including a couple of comics and two full-blown musicals: The Gift and We Will Rock You.

The Gift, an original Royal Caribbean production, is a musical journey of fantasy and illusion that begins one stormy night with the arrival of a "Magical Gift". At least that's how the show is described on the cruise line's website. After watching the musical I had no idea what "The Gift" actually was, but enjoyed the theatrical sets, singing and dancing. The bottom line: The story was lame, but the telling was first rate!

Fun for the kids: Rock climbing wall and a giraffe!
We will Rock you is a musical based on the songs of the British rock band Queen. The show tells the story of a group of Bohemians who struggle to restore the free exchange of thought, fashion and live music in a distant future where everyone dresses, thinks and acts the same.

Wendy and I aren't exactly rockers or big fans of Queen, but the story, performers and music -- We are the Champions, We Will Rock You, Bohemian Rhapsody -- had us tapping our aging tootsies and rocking out in a geezer sort of way!

Although we had seen the musical on day four of the cruise, we popped into the theater on the last night to catch the final 20 minutes of the show. Good move!

The musical ends, the performers take a bow and the stage goes dark. As the audience begins shuffling out, a sign lights up with the questioning message: Do you want to hear Bohemian Rhapsody?

Well, of course we do!

The memorable tune had everyone up on their feet, swaying to the music and stomping their feet. It was a grand and energetic way to end the night and a good way to end the cruise. Up next? The Big Apple yet again! Stay tuned.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Remembering Ella Rufus ... and saying goodbye

Ella Rufus: A happy, yipping ball of fur.
Ella Rufus came bounding into my life when my daughter Lauren decided to give herself a belated graduation gift. For years Lauren had yearned for something sweet and cuddly to pamper and the tiny canine -- a Westie-Shih Tzu mix -- seemed to fit the bill.

Ella started off as a yipping ball of energy that pretty quickly morphed into a yipping ball of fur. She turned prematurely gray -- Ella, not Lauren. The look suited her well, a pleasant blend of salt-and-pepper shagginess with large eyes, a cute wet nose and a puppy's innocent attitude.

Ella was playful, a sweet and gentle pup. At least that's what she became after a somewhat rocky start. The problem is Ella didn't know what it meant to be a dog and we -- that would be her humans -- had no clue how to help her understand a doggie's role in the world.

Lauren and Ella cuddling
After a night or two of keeping her barricaded in the kitchen, a friend suggested we get a crate. We did. A big crate. A really big crate. Bad idea! I covered the bottom in newspaper. An hour later one corner was filled with pee and poop and the newspaper had been meticulously ripped to tiny shreds.

Another friend suggested we get a smaller crate, a much smaller crate. We did. And, at least for a week or so, we all settled into an easy peace. Lauren walked and fed, played and cuddled with Ella. At night we gently tucked her into her tiny home.

All seemed well with the world, until it didn't.

Ella decided unilaterally that she no longer wanted or needed the crate. What had become a nighttime ritual turned into a nightly war, Ella strategically placing her paws around the opening of the crate as Lauren, with a little assist from me, attempted to push and shove her into submission.

We might have won a battle or two during the crate incursion, but Ella, happily bedded down with Lauren, or Wendy and me, or in the den -- heck, pretty much wherever she wanted to settle for the night -- had plainly won the war.

Over the next dozen years or so, Ella gamely and loyally followed Lauren to several different apartments, back to our home and, eventually, joined Josh and his doggie duo -- Joey and Maggie Mae -- when Lauren and Josh got married.

Ella and I find a comfy spot for an afternoon nap.
Ella Rufus remained a happy ball of fur, feisty and playful, filled with a streak of independence. She played around with Joey and Maggie when she was feeling sociable and, a bit later, happily ignored the new kids on the block -- Bailey and Avi -- when they were in need of a little unconditional love from a little doggie with a big heart.

We all blinked and a year or so ago it became clear that Ella, now well into doggie dotage, had slipped into the autumn of her life. The twinkle in her eyes had dimmed in recent months and she moved about slowly in search of her happy spot: on her haunches, resting comfortably in the center of a sunbeam that streamed through a nearby window.

Today, sadly, Lauren let her go. Ella Rufus was sick and tired and needed to rest. She remained a bundle of furry love till the very end. I like to think that she's made it across the rainbow bridge and is once again ignoring Joey and Maggie in a playful sort of way. I'm also pretty certain that she's already searching out a new happy spot that will be keeping her warm and comfy forever.