Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Fair

Part Three: The Fair

I recently read a hilarious article by Garrison Keillor (who is so famous that his name is recognizable to spell-check) about state fairs, and I thought I would share a little here.

"The State Fair is a ritual carnival marking the end of summer and gardens and apple orchards and the start of school and higher algebra and the imposition of strict rules and what we in the north call the Long Dark Time. It isn't the World's Columbian Expoposition, the Aquarian Exposition, the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, the Exposition Universelle, the Gathering of the Tribes, or the Aspen Institute. It's just us, taking a break from digging potatoes."

In my case, the entire summer is me, taking a break from digging potatoes. The fair is just the coup de grace.

Let me just say, that I love summer. Each spring, I get an itch to be out of the structured world and into the world of freedom. Into a world where I don't have to drive the kids to school, or to any activity, where we can sleep late and do whatever we feel like every day. A world where we stay up too late, drink too much beer (well, not the kids...), get too much sun, and eat too much ice-cream. A world where we don't take photos, or write blogs, or complete projects, (nor do we even work on them) where, in fact, we are so busy trying to catch up from all the trips we take and friends we have hosted that we can't even THINK about projects. A world that everyone needs, but that would kill us if it lasted forever. And the fair, usually appearing just as Labor Day marks the official end to summer, cooks all this hedonism into bacon-fat and wraps it in fried dough. What would summer be without the fair?

"Some state fairs are roomier, some gaudier, but there is a great sameness to them, just as there is a similarity among Catholic churches. No state fair can be called trendy, luxurious, dreamy - none of that. Nothing that is farm oriented or pigcentric is even remotely upscale."

Growing up, I went to the same fair each year as a child. (And to preserve my memories of that fair, I refuse to go back as an adult) I remember the excitement I felt looking out the back window of my parents' car as we waited in line to park in a grass field and I could see the rides touching the sky in the distance. Since we moved here, I've been looking for the perfect fair for my kids, and after trying out some not-so-great ones, I think we've finally found ours. We found a fair out in the country, that has been going for 142 years, and celebrates true farminess. Where we can see an ox pull and a zedonk (half zebra, half donkey), pat some bunnies and goats, and don't feel like we have to shower afterward.

As a friend told me before we went, "It's such a sweet, country fair. But, you know, it's still a fair..." Yeah, we know. It's a fair where marginally sober barkers talk you into letting your kids throw darts for the chance of winning a framed, alcohol-themed poster (or, even better, a poster of trashy, half-naked girls).

Just kidding. She actually walked away with a giant, pink, inflatable hammer that says "girl power." Her choice. (?)

It's a fair where you can eat your weight (and we did) in cotton candy, corn dogs, and root-beer flavored snow-cones. Where you can buy a half pound of fudge and eat it in the car on the way home. Where your husband goes to get ride tickets and comes back carrying a sausage and an icy cold Labatt's Blue in a can.
It's the fair, and it's summer, and it's coming to an end. Next week is the first week of my "real" life, and I'm looking forward to it. It's time to settle in and go back to school, to go to bed early and practice restraint, to have a schedule and work towards goals. It's time to begin that "Long Dark Time" that allows us to deserve summer in the first place.

"You drive past the fairgrounds a few days later on your way to work. It looks like the encampment of an invading army that got what booty it wanted and went home. And now you are yourself again, ambitious, disciplined, frugal, walking briskly, head held high, and nobody would ever associate you with that shameless person stuffing his face with bratwurst and kraut, mustard on his upper lip, and a half-eaten deep-fried Snickers in his other hand. That was not the real you. This is. This soldier of the simple declarative sentence. You have no need for cheap glitter and pig fat and pointless twirling. You have work to do. Onward."

Celebrating Emerson

Well, due to technical difficulties to which I am not privy to at this time, I have been unable to post my last blog. So just to catch up, it was the first part of a three-part blog recapping some highlights of the summer. Hopefully it will be up soon...

Part Two: Emerson's Never-Ending Birthday

Let me just preface this blog by stating this fact: I was born in the winter. And this other fact: my only sibling was born in the summer. It stunk. He had the outdoor BBQs with baseball and swimming and ice cream that seemed to last forever, and I had a two hour birthday party, after school (it always seemed to be a school day) when it was already dark at 4pm. I've always been envious of the summer birthdays, and someday I will travel to the southern hemisphere and have a birthday on the beach...

But wait a minute, this is a blog about Emerson, my golden, summer girl, born on a beautiful, July morning five years ago with the early morning sun shining through the windows. It seems like we spent the entire summer celebrating her birthday.

The festivities began with a family party in Vermont, which was supposed to be a party celebrating all summer birthdays (of the twelve people in our family, six have birthdays that fall between the end of June and the end of July) but inevitably turned into a party for the youngest of the bunch: Emerson and her cousin Bennett, who is 1 year and 4 days her senior. They spent the day tubing, swimming, squirting my dad with water guns, and then opened their presents wearing bathing suits, and blowing out their candles wearing life-jackets. Ah, the sweet life of those born in the summer...

Emerson got most of the things she put on her birthday list: dress-up clothes, matchbox cars, crafts, and cds (Mary Poppins, Sound of Music, and Free to Be You and Me, which dominated our vacation listening...) and "I even got some things that weren't on my list!" as she told me afterward. She is still so appreciative of what she gets, which thrills me. Although this year she did get a little cheeky towards the end... but that will come up later.

After the kids had cake, they also roasted marshmallows around a fire next to the lake. Could it get any better than that?

It would be a week before Emerson's actual birthday arrived, and this year we were camping at Lake George when it came. She was very excited the night before, and in the morning when she woke up. Matty and I gave her two presents from us at breakfast, which she wasn't expecting at all.

The first one was nail-polish, which she has been asking about incessantly. Needless to say, she was thrilled about that. (Documented here with our twilight-zone camera)We also gave her some clothes for Lila (her doll, not her friend) as she has been using Ophelia's tiny baby clothes and didn't have any "pretty dresses." A second thrill.
Emerson put Lila's new dress on immediately, and we ate breakfast, and headed to our birthday destination: Six Flags Lake George, the Great Escape. It's sort-of unbelievable that this is the way we decided to celebrate a five-year-old's birthday, and as we sun-screened up outside the gate, I thought to myself that we might be crazy heading into a crowded, hedonistic pleasure dome with our two children, but the day turned out to be awesome. We spent a little time on the rides (which Emerson was moderately into) but most of our time at the water park, which is heaven to Emerson. She had a blast on the water-slides and in the wave pool (she swam all the way out to the origin of the waves, an area that was dominated by teenagers, and loved every minute of it), and the whole family tubed around the lazy river. I never thought I would ever have a great day at a theme park, but by some great accident, our day worked out really well, and Matty and I even got to take turns going on roller-coasters while the kids slept. We ate a bunch of junk food, went on the rides the kids loved about ten times each, took no photos, and loved every minute of it. We're even thinking of getting a season pass to the Six Flags near us next summer.

When we got back to the campsite, we had dinner and smores, we sang to Emerson, and I painted her nails. (We had great fun taking goofy photos with our crazy camera on this trip...)

It was a happy day, but when she went to bed she told me "mommy, I don't feel like I'm five today. I still feel four." I agreed that although it was her birthday, it didn't really feel like it. Even with the big day out.

The next day, we left Lake George to go to Burlington, and on the way out of town we stopped to get a Christmas-tree ornament (our family tradition is to get an ornament from every vacation) and Emerson's cheekiness began. As we were paying, she noticed a box of silly bands (a fad that we had avoided all summer) next to the counter. "Mommy, can we buy these for me, as a special thing because it's my birthday?" Birthday? How many birthdays does a child get? A lot, apparently, because we walked out of the store with them. It was really easy to say yes to something so cheap and harmless, and for some reason I had been feeling like her birthday didn't really feel like her birthday. And it worked out well in the car - she shared them with Ophelia, and it kept them occupied for a surprising amount of time on the trip.

We went out to dinner the night we arrived in Burlington, and had our waiter bring out a candle for Emerson on her desert. For some reason this felt more authentic, whether it was having the actual candle for her to blow out, or for other people to witness it. I don't know, but it felt to me that her birthday was complete. But she had other ideas. Everywhere we went in Burlington (and after we got home) she would say "can we just please get this for me, just as a special treat, because it's my birthday?") But I'm not sucker. And as I reminded her, she had yet ANOTHER birthday party yet to come.

One thing that is tricky about having a child with a summer birthday, is the fear that everyone will be on vacation when it comes time for the party. So far with Emerson this hasn't been an issue, and this year was no exception. A week after we got home from vacation, we threw Emerson's third birthday party of 2010 at our house with all her friends, and it was a great success. She spent the afternoon and evening with her favorite people, and couldn't have had a happier day.
"What if somebody leaves my party and I haven't had the chance to play with them?" This was Emerson's concern a few days before her party. How did I get so lucky to get this sweetest child, who is worried about including everyone at her party? She did just fine though. She got to play with "all her best friends."

As Emerson went to bed the night before her party, I was getting everything out to make her a chocolate layer cake. "I can't wait to see my cake tomorrow! With all the pretty flowers on it..." I hadn't planned on that. Fortunately Matt found one at Whole Foods that fit the bill. She thought it was the most beautiful cake she'd ever seen, and I'm pretty sure she thought I'd made it too. (Don't ask, don't tell)
And how many kids can wear this dress in one day?

One more...Emerson was appreciative of all her gifts from her friends too. That is the wonderful thing about being five. It's some hair ties, a dress for your doll, a beach towel picked out by a seven year old. But when it comes from your friends, it's the greatest treasure of all time. Emerson felt so lucky to have those presents. And I feel so lucky to have the greatest five-year-old ever. Happy Birthday Emerson!

And for Ophelia? Her birthday falls on Thanksgiving this year. As Emerson says, "we'll have a nice turkey dinner, and a pumpkin pie cake..."

The hills are alive, with the sound of Griswolds (ah ahhhh...)

September is fast approaching, and although summer doesn't technically end until the third week of the month, the troops are getting geared up to return to a more scheduled existence, and I am getting geared up to pick up the blog. But in the spirit of summer continuing just a little bit longer, I'm going to recap some of our summer happenings, and hopefully get my blog on in the process. So... a summer in three parts:

Part 1: The Vacation

Matty and I, unsurprisingly, don't live with a lot of middle class frills. Matty has gone through the summer months with three pairs of shorts, all with holes, and two covered in paint splatter. I have gone through the summer with two pairs of shorts: one, as a friend pointed out the other day, is see-through, with some stains here and there, and another is a bathing suit of Matt's that he never wears (because I'm always using them as shorts). Matty and I don't go on dates, we don't hire babysitters, we don't frequent Target of Walmart for all those little things that we don't need, we don't have fancy cars or a fancy house, we don't have baseboard molding, the list
goes on... but we do have a lot. We have each other, our health, healthy children, enough to eat, warmth, central air (which I never thought I would appreciate like I did this summer), great friends, family near by (but not too near), and countless other things. And we feel fortunate for what we have. We also prioritize for things that are really important to us. Mainly, healthy whole food for our family, a good education for our kids, and travel. Both of us have always been in agreement that we could easily give up a million little things to ensure these big ones. And we've done it... so far. We've had to make some amendments to our original lifestyles, like picking and preserving a lot of foods to make good food cheaper (which I'll get into in another blog, I'm sure) and downsizing our trips, from a trip to Italy and three trips out west to vacations in Eastern Canada, and New England. But we always look forward to our vacation every year, as a time our family can be together for 2+ weeks straight, without work, or email, or phones, or any other everyday concern. This year's trip was our most local yet - Vermont, (about 15 miles from where I grew up) New York, (just across the Vermont border) and back to Vermont again, this time to Burlington for a little flair. But we could have been anywhere. We don't have to go very far to be away...

We spent our first week of vacation at a cabin on a lake with my brother and his family, in the next town over from where our parents live. My brother and I have been planning this as a viable way to visit our parents, while still having our own space, for a while now, and this year we finally put the plan into action. It was a great, relaxing week of kayaking, swimming, fishing, tubing, and campfires. The girls got to play with their cousins, and we got to drink a bunch of beer and take outdoor showers in the moonlight (and in my brother's case, in an electrical storm). But this idyllic week of listening to a loon's call reverberate across the water was not without its Griswoldian moments. First and foremost, I forgot my bathing suit, which I realized about ten minutes after I arrived, when Emerson asked me to jump in the water with her. But in keeping with the spirit of only buying what we need, I said to myself, "who needs a bathing suit? I'll just use my adopted shorts of Matty's (which is a bathing suit anyway...)" So in I jump, only to find (or not find as the case may be) that I had forgotten my other pair of shorts (and my one pair of pants that fit) in the drier at home as well. Nice. Thankfully, my sister-in-law DOES remember to pack her clothes, so I adopted one of her skirts for a few days. But as the days grew chillier, my want of a bathing suit grew to become a STRONG want of a bathing suit, and I went out and bought the only one that fit, and covered enough of my body to qualify as buyable. It's ugly and was overpriced, but it's mine now, and it made swimming in the colder temperatures much more enticing. All in all, the week was awesome. I also forgot our charger for our camera battery, so I went light on the photos, but here are a few.

Jessica looking hot on her sixty-second birthday...
The second half of the week, my brother and his family took off, and my mom left (with her friend, in a bright yellow Westphalia) on a cross-country trip, (for her 75th birthday adventure) so we had the cabin to ourselves. It was nice and peaceful. Sometimes a little too peaceful, and that mixed with rain drove us to partake on some side trips...

to the Cabot Creamery to see how industrial cheese is made,

(the highlights of which were: for Matty - hearing a woman speak with a real Vermont accent for the better part of an hour, for me - listening to the aforementioned woman get all revved up about the packaging machine. She had no idea what rennin was, what cultures they used to make cheese, or even where the milk came from that they put in their products, but "can you believe that this machine knows exactly where to put these boxes, with the right amount of space between each one? I just don't know how it does it? Let's wait right here for a while and see if we can see it in action...", and for Emerson - free samples.)

and hiking,

which drove us to hunger, and to the closest place to eat, which happened to be a little bakery (famous apparently, according to the framed clippings on the wall) with a Philadelphian proprietor who split his time between acting the part of an eccentric, (I must have heard the same lines at least six times) antagonizing Canadian tourists ("do you know the difference between a Canadian and a canoe?...) and grossly overcharging us for our pastries. Vermont country bakery indeed. I'll take the Cabot cheese lady and her box packer over him any day.

Anyway, moving on...

We spent our second week of vacation in Lake George, NY. Earlier in the year I had solicited vacation ideas from anyone who had some to offer, and a friend of mine at work told me some of his best childhood vacations were spent camping on the lake. We were looking for somewhere we could camp near some sort of body of water (without which our children would be ready to go in a day's time), and hearing my friend's enthusiasm as he waxed nostalgic about family vacations he took thirty years ago convinced me that this was the place for us. ("... and we would get so excited for the man to come around each night and deliver wood for the fires, and there was a steamship called the Minne Ha-Ha that we would see from the shore and wave to...")

Although when we pulled into the campground, I was not so sure...

Before we arrived at the campground, we drove through the village of Lake George, which was a shock to the system in and of itself. It was a lot busier than I thought, and as I scanned the main strip for a restaurant we could eat at that night, I was met with neon, corn-dogs, and pizza places. Oh, and lots of fried seafood. (Which was our joke the whole time - it's the poor man's ocean.) I rationalized that it would be better at the campground - quieter, more in the wilderness.

Or not. The campground was just up the road a little bit, and straddled the main two-lane highway, so that we had to cross a busy road to get to the lake from our campsite. After we registered, and as we drove up the hill to our campsite, past throngs of toothless, heavily tattooed, and scantily clad people at each campsite along the way, (at which point I wondered out loud if having a tattoo on your face or neck was a prerequisite to stay there) I was comforted by the thought that when we had chosen our campsite on the internet, that it had seemed off the beaten path.

Or not. At least not like we had expected it to be. There were only woods behind us, and we were not surrounded by a mess of other campsites. Except one. And we were so close to these neighbors, and there campsite was so much bigger than ours (at least three times the size) that it looked like there had been an oversight, and that our campsite was actually the place where our neighbors were supposed to park their car. Matt and I both got out of the car and stared, silently, in disbelief, before the profanities started flowing.

But there were kids in the car (the hot car, this campsite was in direct sunlight) and a tent to set up, and things to unpack, and as I reminded Matty, we thought we got the short end of the stick last year when we somehow ended up with a handicapped campsite at Acadia, but it turned out to be the most awesome, quiet, convenient campsite there, so maybe this won't be so bad... After setting up our tent - squeezed in between our fire-pit and our neighbors picnic table -

and spent a bit of time figuring out which one of us was going to sleep on the gigantic rock that was underneath the floor of our tent - we kinked Emerson's sleeping bag so that she was diagonal, and threw our bag of clothes on the rock so she wouldn't accidentally move onto it in the night - we departed, hot and grumpy, for the lake. Nothing like a nice, refreshing swim to get us back in business.

Or not. On the walk down to the lake, we were able to witness, up close and personal, the toothless, heavily tattooed, scantily clad people we had passed while in our car with the windows rolled up. And they were loud. And drunk. And growing in numbers. And it was only about 4pm. The campground beach was also not at all like I had imagined it. It was a big enough beach, but instead of extending along the waterfront, it extended back from the waterfront, and the roped-in swimming looked small and confining. And packed. Did I say packed? I meant to say PACKED. With large, scantily clad, loud, drunk, smokers with tattoos on their faces and necks. We got in the water to cool off, but didn't stay long for fear of losing our children in the throngs of people. It did feel nicer to be cool, but our spirits were not high. We went back up to our campsite, changed, and went out for a mediocre dinner, all the while speculating about what our too-near neighbors would be like (they weren't there when we were setting up, or when we got back from swimming) and how long we were going to last here. (It was Saturday when we arrived, and we were supposed to stay until the following Friday. Both Matt and I said we would be out of there and on to something new by Tuesday morning, Wednesday at the latest.)

When we arrived back at the campsite, the neighbors were there, tattoos on neck and all, loading their campfire up with wood, smoking cigarettes, and drinking Twisted Teas, with a fresh 12 pack on the table for later. They were a family of five, with two older daughters and a toddler around Ophelia's age who, of course, came running over the minute we pulled up. We had planned on turning in early that night, as we had no firewood yet, but the mom offered Emerson a chair by their fire, and juice, and smores. I stood there, uncomfortably, for a little while, hinting at Emerson that we would be going back to our tent soon, but before I knew it, Matty had one of their drinks in his hand, and that was all it took. We spent that entire evening with our neighbors, Brian and Ruby, drinking their Twisted Teas, telling tales of our life with children, life while camping, and just life. When it started raining that evening, we moved into the screen tent they had over their picnic table, and the next night, we brought over beer, and did the entire thing again. Ruby and Brian were generous, compassionate, interesting, and fun, and their daughters were respectful, polite, and smart. We had so much fun that weekend. Our smoking, drinking, scantily clad, heavily tattooed neighbors were awesome. Wicked awesome.

And the rest of our vacation was awesome too. The day after we got there, everyone cleared out. The campground went from being redneck-party-central to being sparsely populated with like-minded campers. We got new neighbors - two school teachers and their children, who we talked to a bit and were very nice (and who I swore smoked joints by the fire after their kids went to bed.) The beach and the campground turned out to be a beautiful area for swimming, and much bigger that we had previously thought. We cooked the rest of our meals at our campsite, had a fire every night, took a trip on the Minne Ha-Ha, and happily stayed until Friday morning.

Not that the rest of the trip didn't have it's moments. Our camera battery died shortly after we got to Lake George, so we resorted to our old camera, that turned on when it felt like it, and often took photos that looked like this. Which we actually found hilarious after a while. Distortion is a appropriate way to document this trip, I think.

We took a hike that we thought we could accomplish easily in a morning - four miles round trip and described as "not easy" (but not as "difficult")

- and ended up climbing 2200 feet in under 2 miles. I carried Ophelia the entire way, and as we were almost at the top, our snacks gone and our water dwindling, and me feeling very dizzy, I got the acute feeling that we were, in fact, insane. We made it though. (Emerson walked the whole way!)

And after a brief stint at the top (not to look at the view, but for a ride home - unsuccessfully) we went down as fast as we safely could, where I drank two pints of water and scarfed down a burger in under a minute.

We also experienced the craziest, loudest, brightest electrical storm I had ever seen/heard/felt. Or at least I experienced it. The other three slept through the whole thing. We woke up the next morning in a dry tent to a blue sky, and no one would have known it had happened if I hadn't born witness.

All and all, we were very lucky on our vacation, just like I think we are very lucky in life. Lucky in life because we haven't been dealt (yet, hopefully never) insurmountable tragedy. Lucky on vacation because vacation is what you make of it, and we make ours great. Lucky on vacation because we have the ability to laugh at our situations, and ourselves. Because we don't need great pictures, or any pictures, or for things to happen perfectly. We just need to have each other.

I don't know how much of this vacation the kids will remember, but when I think back to Emerson's excitement when she saw the man driving towards us to deliver wood for our campsite, and as I see her diving in the water and screaming "there goes the Minne Ha-Ha!" I realize that to her none of the "bad" stuff mattered. She didn't see it, and won't for many years. Her memories of our trip - what she has of them - will be as pure as my friend's memories, who recommended the trip in the first place, and hopefully they will stay for as long as his have.

We ended our trip with a weekend in Burlington where we washed the dirt off our bodies, ate out at great restaurants, took in the city sites, watched tv, and swam in the hotel pool. And, yes, after spending my week camping in the same pair of shorts - swim-shorts, if you remember correctly - I bought myself a new dress.

Our last night of vacation was spent eating at a great restaurant with friends of ours we coincidentally met on the street. We ate fresh, local food, and drank a bunch of fantastic beer while the children played in a grassy spot near by. It was a perfect ending to a perfect vacation.

Viva Vacation!

Viva Griswolds Everywhere!