Appreciating the little things on a big family trip

View from the boat.

View from the boat.

In many ways last week’s family trip to New York City was a homecoming—though we’ve lived in California since 2002, both my wife and I hail from the NY area.

The two of us always have agreed that we’ve wanted the girls to know the City. This is why we packed our itinerary with pizza and bagels and black-and-whites and Mister Softees—in many ways these are some of the very things we associate with NYC. It’s also why we spent so much of our visit experiencing things that we have taken to be quintessentially New York: Riding the subways, ogling skyscrapers, playing in Battery Park, and getting lost in the American Museum of Natural History, to name a few.

Central Park was high on our to-do list as well. One classic NYC experience there that neither of us ever had done: Rowing boats from the Loeb Boathouse and paddling them on The Lake.

Naturally, then, when our friends suggested doing this on a sunny Tuesday, we jumped at the chance. The boats are one of the best values in New York: $15 to rent a boat for an hour, and only $3 per hour after that. (You’ve got to give them a $20 deposit, but you get that back when you return the boat.)

The boats hold a maximum of four people and Baby G was (and is) too young to go, so Powerwoman stayed back with the babe, and I took L and R out my myself.

Rowing the big girls in the blazing sun was hard work, but it also was a great adventure. For everyone.

Donning their oversized life jackets, the girls yelled at me to, “stroke!” as we paddled under Bow Bridge (this was big for R; she loves bridges) and out into the main lake. We followed the shore to look for turtles. We happened upon a couple making out beneath a low-hanging branch. We marveled at the tops of the buildings near Columbus Circle. We even rowed aground near the west side to grab some leaves.

And even without the turtles and the leaves and the get-a-roomers and the skyscrapers, it would have been an awesome day. Because it was new for all of us.

The lesson, of course, is that family travel doesn’t always have to be a big, expensive ordeal. Yes, we flew across the country to spend a week in New York. But looking back on our trip, the very best hour IMHO was the one I spent on a rowboat in Central Park with my big kids—an experience that cost a whopping $15.

You can bet we’ll do it all over again next time. Maybe then I’ll even have them row.

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.

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