Life lessons from a broken tooth

IMG_20160623_143119“There are consequences when you don’t listen.”

I tell my girls this simple, non-threatening phrase at least 10 times every day. Most days, it amounts to nothing more than hot air—they’re being idiots, I utter my mantra, they ignore me, and I take away a Shopkin for 24 (or sometimes 72) hours. Some days, however, I utter the phrase and end up looking like the family travel version of Nostradamus.

We had one of those latter experiences last week in New York City. L had been a bit sloppy all day, and by the afternoon, she was having trouble standing on two feet. By the time we returned to our hotel, she was quite literally jumping off the walls. In flip-flops.

I told her about the consequences and asked her to stop. She didn’t. I repeated my line about consequences and asked her to stop again. She grunted at me. When I mentioned the consequences and asked her to stop a third time, I made sure my tone was even kinder and sweeter than before.

That’s when she slipped, fell face-down on the marble floor of the hotel lobby, and broke off a triangular chunk of her left front (grown-up) tooth.

At the moment of impact, everybody froze. Powerwoman was worried L had hit her head. R was worried she was going to get blamed. I was just sort of dumbfounded. Seconds later, L started crying in a way I’m not sure I’ve heard her cry before. My wife and I tried our best to stay calm, comforting our eldest while we waited for the gushing blood, convinced we were going to have to hop in a cab and rush the kid to a pediatric dentist right then and there. But the blood never came.

In fact, after about three minutes, L quieted down, dried her eyes, and said she felt fine. Just like that, the crisis had passed. The only lasting effect: My kid looked (and still looks) like a (very adorable) pirate.

Thankfully, as we found out later, it was a clean crack—though she lost about half of the tooth, somehow the crack missed the pulp chamber (that’s the part where the nerves are; the part that REALLY hurts if you expose it). Yes, she’ll need reconstructive work on the tooth later this summer. She’ll probably also get a crown on that tooth at some point in her 20s and have it for the rest of her life.

Another thing L will take away: A classic example of those consequences when you don’t listen.

Personally, I consider this the ultimate souvenir. My friend (and kick-ass travel guru) Rachel Rudwall has this theory that everything in life is either a great experience or a great story down the road. I’d say my daughter’s tooth adventures in New York check both of those boxes. For all of us involved.

Three lessons from our first flights with three kids

We got home a few hours ago from our first official airplane trip as a family of five—and all of us lived to talk about it. But because family travel is so organic, because every trip is different, Powerwoman and I learned some new things about flying with our brood. Here are three of the most salient lessons.

You can never be too prepared

This was the third round of the whole flying-with-baby thing, and Powerwoman and I thought we had everything covered with extra diapers, extra wipes, extra outfits, and plenty of pacifiers. What we neglected to remember was that our big girls might need backups, too. Imagine our surprise, then, when L spilled an entire glass of apple juice on her sister at breakfast this morning. Thankfully, we were able to find the ONLY kiosk at Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) with kid-sized pants AND kid-sized shirts (the girls opted for bedazzled numbers; they are ridiculous). Still, for about an hour of searching and calming a wet and upset Little R, we were not exactly jazzed about the oversight. The lesson: Always bring a pair of backup clothes for every child, no matter how “big” you think the big ones might be.

Shrieking and crying are two different things

Baby G’s nickname has become The Happiest Baby on Earth. Just because she’s happy, however, doesn’t mean she’s quiet. About a week before we left on our New York adventure, G rolled out a new habit of shrieking. She practiced this shriek again and again over the course of both flights. At first Powerwoman and I were nervous about what fellow passengers would say. It turns out that shrieking bothers other travelers a heck of a lot less than crying. In fact, most of the other passengers (except for one crotchety old man) laughed when she shrieked, even going to far as to comment about how much it seemed she was enjoying the flight. The lesson: Just because your baby is noisy on a flight doesn’t mean it’s going to irritate other people.

In a pinch, airplane food doesn’t suck

Normally I like to bring TONS of food on plane flights to control what the girls eat. This time, however, we were rushing to get out of the house to catch our flight from San Francisco International Airport to EWR and I left most of the best snacks in the refrigerator at home. Of course I didn’t discover my blunder until we were on the actual airplaine. D’oh! Once I stopped berating myself for this mistake, I accepted that the only alternative was airplane food. And it wasn’t bad. We opted for a bunch of cheese plates, which came with grapes and apples. No, the kids weren’t stuffed to the gills, but the food provided ample nutrition until we landed in Newark and were able to get other stuff. The lesson: Sometimes, even with the pickiest eaters, airplane food is enough to sustain you.

I could go on and on about other lessons from the flights but these were the three that stuck out most. For you, dear readers, I hope the general takeaway is that even we “experts” still learn stuff. Nobody’s perfect. That’s one of the things that makes family travel so much fun.

What lessons have you learned about flying as your family has grown?

Remembering a tragedy with kids in tow

20160613_145801I remember every horrible moment of Sept. 11, 2001—planes crashing into buildings, buildings falling and shaking the ground, my city changing forever. I left New York for California shortly after the attack. Today, since we’re back in the Big Apple for the week, Powerwoman and I took the kids near the World Trade Center site.

We didn’t go to the museum because we didn’t think that was a good idea with three kids. We didn’t go to the memorial because two of those kids were a bit crazier than we had hoped. So we improvised. And we headed to meet friends at a playground in Battery Park City, giving the girls history along the way.

I was the one sharing details. I started with the Freedom Tower, talking about how tall it is and when it was built and all sorts of basic stuff like that. Next I described the buildings that used to be there—how they were identical twins and how they scraped higher into the sky than any other building in the city. I told them about how my father spent a decade working on the 57th floor of one of the towers, and how I loved going to work with him so I could look down on the Big City and marvel about how small it was. I even told them about the restaurant at the top, and about the observation deck, and about how from anywhere up there you could see for miles.

L listened passively, probably more focused on what kind of monkey bars awaited us at West Thames Park. R, on the other, hand, wanted answers.

“What happened to the other buildings that were there?” she asked.

I told her they fell down.

“Why?” she asked, because she’s 4.5 and because she’s my kid.

After a few measured breaths, I told her they fell down because bad men wanted to hurt people and made them fall.

We were walking and talking during the conversation to this point, but when I said “made them fall,” my middle daughter stopped and fixed her gaze on the Freedom Tower. In the seconds that followed, all sorts of things went through my head. Was she scared by the notion of bad men? Should I have used more euphemisms? Should I have used fewer of them? I heard lines from Springsteen’s “You’re Missing.” I saw people on the subway, crying, covered in dust. I prepared myself to answer follow-ups about how the bad men made the towers fall, or what happened to the people in the towers when they fell.

But she went in a completely different direction: “Daddy, were you here when the Towers fell? Did you see them fall?”

And I simply couldn’t respond.

Every time I tried to open my mouth, my throat closed up and I couldn’t speak. Every time I tried to breathe deeply, I couldn’t get the air through my nose. R asked the question again, looking up at me this time with those big, brown eyes.

That’s when I lost it completely, mercifully stuffing my face into my shirtsleeve before my daughter saw the tears streaming down my face.

I never mustered an answer. Matt Villano, the dad with all the answers, the dude who incessantly harps on bottom lines so everything contributes to life experience, had NOTHING. I had visualized a similar exchange hundreds of times before today, and never imagined coming up empty.

And yet, oddly, I don’t regret it one bit.

Someday, the kids will learn the story. Someday, they’ll know what I know. Someday, they’ll know what I saw. What R did learn today was that whatever happened to those towers 15 years ago was something that made Daddy (and a lot of other people) really sad. I think that’s enough of a lesson for now.

Space and comfort: The New York family travel unicorn

Living room at Q&A

Living room at Q&A

Anybody who ever has traveled with children under the age of 10 understands that the two most important considerations when booking a hotel room: SPACE and COMFORT. The reasons for this are simple. Kids like to be kids, which is to say they get silly and cranky and loud and wiggly, no matter where you are. In these instances, it’s good not to be right on top of them.

Many destinations offer thousands of accommodations that fit this bill. New York City, however, typically isn’t one of them.

Nope, my hometown is famous for rooms the size of closets. I’ve stayed in a bunch of these types of rooms on return visits in the years since I left Manhattan for good (in 2002). Every trip—even those during which I didn’t have kids yet—I swore: Never, ever would I attempt to spend a family vacation in a room that small.

This is why I’m so excited about the hotel we found for our trip to the Big Apple next week. Technically, the place is called Q&A, and it’s part of a national brand named Furnished Quarters. It might as well be called NEW YORK HOTEL UNICORN. The company specializes in accommodations that comprise furnished apartments and all of the amenities of a hotel resort (restaurant, bar, fitness center, etc.). The room products are like apartment rentals or high-end AirBnBs. They’re just the nicest ones you’ve ever booked.

I stumbled upon the company by accident, really; I was complaining to a travel industry friend about the size of New York hotel rooms and he scooped me. A few days later, I booked a two-bedroom furnished apartment at Q&A. For relatively the same price as a hotel room in Times Square.

Of course our hotel is NOT in Times Square (thank goodness). Instead, it’s in the Financial District, on the southern (well, southeastern, really) tip of Manhattan.

I’m excited about the location because it’s a short walk from the National September 11 Memorial & Museum (to which we’ve never been), and is close to the Governors Island ferry (stay tuned for an original piece about this), the parks at Battery Park City, and pretty much every subway line. It’s also a hop, skip, and a jump from Park Slope, where we’ve got a bunch of friends and family. (It’s also close to the Brooklyn Bridge; yay Little R!)

But, really, I’m most excited about the space. To spread out! On a family trip! In New York!

The fact that Powerwoman and I will have our own space at a New York hotel feels almost decadent. The notion that L and Little R will have their own space feels indulgent. The fact that all of the little ones will have room to stretch and wiggle and run and be kids feels almost too good to be true. Bring it on.

Pop-up introduction to NYC

Brooklyn Bridge pop-up

Brooklyn Bridge pop-up

We’re less than one week before our first family trip to New York City—the metropolis both Powerwoman and I call home.

My wife and I are excited for a week of pizza, bagels, bacon-egg-and-cheese sandwiches, and black-and-white cookies. The girls are excited to see buildings that actually scrape the sky, the Brooklyn Bridge, and “the biggest park ever.” And they’re getting excited about other stuff every day.

We’ve pulled out all the stops to educate them about NYC in advance. Among our materials: Old photos (including some with the Twin Towers), anecdotes from their grandparents (all four of whom also hail from the NY area), our own artistic renderings, and a mix of books—some geared toward grownups, others for kids.

One book has emerged from this mini-library as a fave: the new Pop-Up New York book from Lonely Planet Kids.

The book, which retails for $9.99, is short and sweet, with eight spreads and six pop-ups in all. R’s favorite: The Brooklyn Bridge, which opens up to reveal both sides of the icon (and a boat passing underneath). L’s favorite: The Empire State Building, which has a pull-up tower that basically means the image doubles in size.

(Personally, my favorite is the hot-dog stand with a pop-up umbrella. But it’s not about me.)

In fact, the girls have been so excited about these two pop-ups in particular that Powerwoman and I have decided to organize the trip so we can visit BOTH icons IRL when we’re there. For R, who is obsessed with bridges of every kind (if you remember, she loves the Golden Gate), this is a particularly big deal; she notes daily how much she can’t wait to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge.

Thanks, Lonely Planet Kids, for sparking excitement in my kids about our next trip.

Pilgrimage to Golden Gate Park cardboard slides

I’ve never been a fan of the concept of a “bucket list.” My thinking: Death is an inevitability for all of us, so why should it drive any of the decisions we make in life?

Instead, I am the kind of guy who really tries hard to live in the moment. One moment I’ve been regretting in recent weeks: Never making the time to take my kids to the historic concrete/cardboard slides in the Koret Childrens Quarter of Golden Gate Park.

And so, this morning, because I was in the city with the big girls and we had some free time, we went.

For those of you who never have heard about these slides, know this: THEY ARE OLD-SCHOOL AND AWESOME. The slides themselves date back a while (not as long as the park, which dates to 1888, but a while). To ride them, you need sand (to speed things along; think shufflepuck) and a piece of cardboard on which to sit. The more sand on the track, the faster you go. The thinner your cardboard, the easier it is to control.

Cardboard slide, Golden Gate Park. My kids are in HEAVEN. #sistergram

A photo posted by Matt Villano (@mattvillano) on

I first tried the slides on one of my first adult trips to San Francisco, back in the 1990s. Even then, decades before my kids were born, I knew: Someday I had to bring my kids there.

R was having a rough morning but L did not disappoint. She first tried the slide without cardboard, but after sporting a strawberry on her buns, she changed her game and was hooked from there. Over the course of the 45 minutes that followed, the kid must have gone down 30 times. She LOVED it.

In fact, if we didn’t head to the carousel immediately after the sliding session, I’m not sure we ever would have been able to convince L to join us.

It was THAT cool.

Make time to visit the Koret this summer. And remember: The earlier you arrive with kids in tow, the more likely it is that you’ll have most (if not all) of the place to yourselves.

The check-in ritual when we travel with kids

Crazy jumpers.

Crazy jumpers.

Forget the minibar. Forget the views out the window. When our wandering pod checks into a new hotel, the big girls have one thing and one thing only on their minds: They must rip off their sneakers and jump on the bed.

This fascination repurposes sacred sleeping spaces into trampoline parks immediately. It usually transforms hospital corners into a mess of wrinkles and kinks, too.

It also often irks Powerwoman, who loves a nicely kept room (and isn’t afraid to fight for one).

Imagine the girls’ excitement, then, today when the three of us checked in for the night at the Hotel Vitale in San Francisco. No mom. A king-sized bed. Sparse décor elsewhere in the room to minimize risk of head injury. It was a perfect storm of bed-jumping awesomeness. And jump these little ladies most certainly did—for 25 consecutive minutes.

The routine was fast, furious, and, obviously exhilarating; these kids enhoy few activities as much as jumping around like Tiggers.

Sadly, I admit the experience also was incredibly nerve-wracking for dad. Would L jump on R’s foot? What about when R decided to “take a rest” by laying down on the bed—would L jump on her head then? To what extent can the peeps in the next room hear the boxspring making all that noise? These were just some of the questions I asked myself while the girls re-enacted a scene from Rebounderz here in the room.

Why do they love hotel-bed jumping so much? Maybe it’s the fact that we don’t really let them jump on beds at home. Maybe it’s because the kids have been pretty spoiled by spending tons of time in fancy hotels over the course of their short lives. Maybe it’s the manifestation of their secret desires for a padded room at home where they can run and jump like maniacs.

Whatever the reason, I’m not about to be the guy to shut down my kids’ bounce routine. They love it. I love that they love it. Sounds like a win to me—especially on a family trip away from home.

What sorts of rituals does your family have for family vacations?

What the Cincinnati gorilla incident teaches us about family travel

RIP, Harambe

RIP, Harambe

By now you’ve probably heard the horrible story of the boy who fell into a gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo, Harambe (the gorilla who grabbed him), and the zookeepers who shot and killed the gorilla in an attempt to protect the boy’s life.

You also likely have read someone’s opinion on the entire unfortunate incident. Many (unfairly, IMHO) blamed the mother for negligence. Others (also unfairly, IMHO) blamed the zoo for unnecessary violence against the primate. Still others defended the zoo’s actions as sad but appropriate.

One thing nobody really has focused on: What the entire debacle can teach us about family travel.

The primary lesson is more of a reminder than anything else: WATCH YOUR KIDS CLOSELY. This goes beyond sticking your kids with temporary tattoos of your cell phone number before you head out. It’s bigger than coming up with a central meeting spot if you’re separated. Instead it’s as simple as you can get: JUST KEEP TABS ON YOUR KIDDOS AT ALL TIMES. Guard them like a basketball player might guard an opponent—always aware, always ready to anticipate the next move. Should the child’s mother have been paying closer attention to her boy? Yes, it seems she should have. But as the father of three, I can say safely that a lot can happen in an instant, and even the most diligent (and neurotic!) parents—moms and dads, mind you—can lose track of a child for seconds or minutes in a foreign place.

(It happened to Powerwoman and me when we lived in London; we “lost” L for about seven minutes at the Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Playground, and they were the longest minutes of my life. Thankfully, when we found our oldest girl, she and a new friend were playing happily in the belly of a life-sized pirate ship. But I digress.)

Some of the secondary lessons are a bit subtler:

  • Take the time to lay down the law. Especially when you’re visiting museums, zoos, or attractions with spaces that aren’t open to the general public, it’s important to set some ground rules and explain to your kids where they can and cannot go. We don’t know if the mom in this case told the kids in her charge that animal enclosures were for animals, but if she had—and if she had explained why—her son may have been more respectful of the barrier.
  • Know when to cry uncle. Reports indicated the mother in this case was at the zoo alone with four or five kids, including an infant. That seems like an awful lot for one parent to handle in a place chock-full of distractions for pint-sized minds. Even if you think you’re perfectly capable of parenting a gaggle—I know I think this about myself—in certain situations it’s perfectly acceptable to phone a friend (or mother or mother-in-law) for an extra set of eyes/pair of hands. And if you have any reservations about your ability to monitor your brood in a busy place, DON’T GO UNTIL YOU CAN GO WITH HELP.
  • Educate, educate, educate. Every family travel moment provides opportunities to educate our children about the new things they experience. In the case of visiting a zoo, there are countless opportunities to share fun and interesting facts with the kids about the different animals they might see. In the aftermath of this horrible incident, I’ve learned that an adult gorilla has ten times the strength of an adult human. I don’t know if the mom in question shared this information with her kids beforehand, but I’d like to think that if the kids knew this in advance, they would have been that much more aware of keeping a safe distance from the animal on site.

Perhaps the most important family travel lesson from this gorilla incident: Try not to judge other parents. It’s easy to read a few short pieces of information about how other moms and dads fared in an important decision-making situation and be critical of their choices. It’s a lot harder to read the same data and start from a point of compassion. Remember: None of us parents is perfect. We all screw up. Thankfully in this case no humans got seriously hurt. Let’s learn from the mistakes so Harambe doesn’t die in vain.


New family travel fave: Flathead Lake Lodge

Sunset at Flathead Lake Lodge

Sunset at Flathead Lake Lodge

No, I didn’t have my family with me on a recent trip around Glacier Country, Montana. But I didn’t need three kids in tow to appreciate the family travel awesomeness of Averill’s Flathead Lake Lodge (FLL) in Bigfork.

I stayed at the lodge two nights as part of the week-long #PictureMontana summit through my client, Expedia. I walked away with a new addition to my travel-dream list.

Much of what makes FLL kick-ass appeals and applies to guests of all ages. Horses you can ride every day. Boats you can take out on Flathead Lake. Communal meals in an authentic western lodge. S’mores by the campfire every night of the week. The fact that the place is all-inclusive means you don’t have to fumble around for cash or credit cards, and don’t have to worry about the a la carte pricing on activities. The fact that it’s been there for more than 70 years means it’s oozing with history.

(True story: Chase Averill, who’s my age, runs the place now. His dad, Doug Averill, ran it for years and still plays a pretty important and visible role today. His grandpa, Les Averill, started the place in 1945.)

But the lodge also is PERFECT for families. My accommodations—Cabin 2—had two bedrooms, one with a queen-sized bed and another with two twins (which would have been perfect for L and R). During the summer season, kids have dinner together 30 minutes before the grownups, then head out on horseback rides to give the grownups some time to themselves. There’s cornhole and beach volleyball and board games galore.

Heck, on the night of the weekly steak fry, everyone gathers ‘round to hear a cowboy sing folk music.

(Also, the beach at the lodge was made for skipping stones. See the slo-mo video of me doing that here.)

The reality is that absolutely everything is included in the one-week stay—lodging, food, activities, and more. The only thing that’s not technically part of the package is alcohol; instead, FLL encourages you to bring your own and help yourself to it whenever you desire.

I’m not going to lie—at $3,808 per adult, $2,842 per kid ages 6-17, $1,546 per kid ages 3-5, and $182 per infanct, the place ain’t cheap. It would cost our family of five $12,236 plus airfare. But when you consider what seven days of this experience would cost if everything was priced individually, the rate is reasonable. What’s more, when you consider that FLL serves up a dude-ranch experience unlike any other in the West, it seems even more worthwhile. The only question left for us: When do we return?

Room-service breakfast FTW

One of our favorite places to stay: the Fairmont San Francisco

One of our faves: the Fairmont San Francisco

Powerwoman and Baby G are headed out of town next week so my wife can conduct some research at a major university, which means I’ll be flying solo with the big girls for quite a while.

Most of this time will be spent winding down their respective school years here at home. I also have promised L and R we can spent at least part of the time doing something we Villanos do pretty well: Traveling. We won’t go far, just from our home in the northern reaches of Sonoma County down to the big city of San Francisco for a few nights. The only must on our agenda: A visit to the new SF MoMA.

As I started contemplating what to do for the rest of our time away, I decided this time I’d let the girls choose. And so, after snack time, I asked each of them individually to name three activities or experiences she would like to see on our agenda.

Both kids tabbed “room-service breakfast” at No. 1.

On the surface, this was completely shocking in the absolute best way—room-service breakfast is one of my very favorite guilty pleasures when traveling, and I love that my two oldest girls agree.

The more I thought about it, however, the less shocking this selection really was. Whenever Powerwoman and I want to celebrate something special on a family trip, we splurge for room-service breakfast and make a big deal out of it. We reinforce this ritual by talking about how much we love it, even when we’re not, in fact, having room-service breakfast ourselves. The fact that L and R chose this means they’ve learned from our examples and appreciate the choice.

Put differently, it means we’ve taught them well.

Lest you think we’re going to spend the entire time eating omelets and French fries in bed, the other two items on their respective lists were carousel time and the California Academy of Sciences (which they love because of the exhibit where butterflies can land on your head).

Throw in a trip to the sushi boats restaurant for dinner and it sounds like a pretty awesome family getaway to me.

What are your favorite things to do on a family vacation?

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