The ice-skating debut

Northstar-Village-Ice-Skating

Skating at Northstar (not my kids)

They were so excited to go ice-skating, I wasn’t about to stand in the way. And so, on our first full day of our annual trip to Tahoe this weekend, I waltzed L and R into the skate rental shop at the Village at Northstar and got us our skates.

“What’s it like, Daddy?” L asked.

“Are we gonna fall?” R followed-up, not even giving me a chance to respond to her sister’s query.

“It’s…fun,” I said, trying to be as convincing as possible. “We’ll take it slowly and I’m sure you girls are gonna love it.”

Before you start thinking about what a great dad I am, know this: I abhor ice skating, much like I despise a great many other winter sports. I don’t like the way the shoes feel on my feet, I can’t ever skate for more than three or four sweeps of my feet before I fall on my ass, and I’m SUPER neurotic about any sport during which I can fall and break my wrist and impact my life as a writer. There are an infinite number of things I’d rather do than ice-skate.

Yet there I was, wobbling my way over to the rink, desperately trying not to fall while I held the girls’ hands and tried to keep them from falling as well.

When we got to the entrance, a bunch of drunk dudes clapped to commemorate my successful walk from the bench where we laced up. The girls turned around and smiled. I was mortified but my kids had no clue. They were loving every minute of it.

Our “session” began with both girls trying to skate out into the middle of the rink—and both girls falling squarely on their butts in a matter of seconds. Neither got frustrated, but both looked to me for guidance. So I did what any other self-respecting parent would do in that situation: I encouraged them to “get comfortable” by holding on to the railing while they “skated” around the perimeter of the rink.

Around the rink we went, one-half skating, one-half walking. Every few panels of glass, one of the girls would slip and fall on the ice with a thud. Every time, the fallen child resumed the position of the afternoon and continued unabashedly.

When we finished our first lap, I asked the kids if they’d had enough. “NO!” they both shouted.

When we finished our second lap, I asked them again if they’d had enough. “No way Daddy!” they shouted.

When we finished our third lap, before I could even ask the girls how they were feeling, they both turned around and told me we were going to continue.

Mercifully, however, it was Zamboni time. Workers rushed onto the ice and guided everybody off. The girls and I followed suit. When we made it safely outside of the rink, Powerwoman convinced the kids to put their boots back on. Miraculously, we had survived, and nobody had chipped a tooth.

To say I was relieved by the sudden change in plans would be an understatement. But the girls were genuinely bummed. Even though they never really got the hang of ice-skating, the kids loved it. Even though I wasn’t much of an instructor in the rink, they were thankful and appreciative of the time I spent with them inside.

The whole experience was a lesson in opening the mind. The kids didn’t care that they didn’t “succeed” at this new sport. They had fun trying. They felt awesome doing it. And that was enough.

Moving forward, perhaps it can be enough for me, too.

Everybody loves sledding

L at top, R at bottom.

L at top, R at bottom.

The one winter sport everyone in our pod loves: Sledding.

We’ve been in Lake Tahoe for three days at this point, and we’ve managed to hit the sledding hills every day.

Our sledfest began yesterday in the backyard of the house we’re renting near Carnelian Bay. I built L and R a course and they spent the better part of two hours slipping and sliding all over it. Some of the runs they used the saucers we found in the shed. Most of the runs the girls just went down on their bellies.

Yesterday, we took the show on the road, heading over to North Tahoe Regional Park, where a friend (and local public relations maven) said the hills might be good. Inside the park we came across two separate hills—a considerably steep one that dropped almost straight down into a cul-de-sac and a less formidable one that bottomed out into a snowdrift.

Naturally (see this post), the girls opted for the easier hill. And after some hemming and hawing from L (she was frustrated her younger sister was so good), both of them got busy.

The next three hours were highlighted by cheers and giggles and wipeouts and declarations that each girl was “the best sledder in the world!” Powerwoman and I had a blast, too, taking turns holding the baby while the other could careen down the hill after our other kids.

In one sequence, R and I went down the longest of the runs on the easy hill and wiped out into a tree. I feared my middle child was hurt. Until she turned around and told me “crashing was awesome.”

By the time we had to leave for lunch, none of us wanted to leave. So when we got back to the house, the big girls and I hit the backyard course again, incorporating a beach ball into the fun. Years from now, when my kids look back on this trip, something tells me they’ll remember the sledding above everything else. I probably will, too.

What are your family’s favorite winter pastimes?

Testing limits on a family trip to Lake Tahoe

Big Girls. Waiting for a tether to the top.

Big Girls. Waiting for a tether to the top.

The last eight hours of our Lake Tahoe sojourn comprised an exercise in testing the limits of the big girls’ comfort zones.

There were tears. There were laughs. And everybody learned a bit along the way.

The scenes played out at Northstar California, a great ski resort outside of Truckee in the northern part of the Lake Tahoe region. We were here last in January 2015 (I wrote about parts of that trip in this Expedia Viewfinder piece), but L and R really didn’t do more than drink hot cocoa. This time, I was determined to get them to do something different. I was determined to get them out on the slopes.

I knew neither of them would go for skiing—L is way too much of a control freak to surrender to gravity, and R is scared of anything she considers to be “fast.” So I told them snow tubes were like giant pool floaties, and convinced them to go snow-tubing.

Before we could go tubing, however, we had to get ourselves up the mountain. So we hit the gondolas.

I could tell when we approached that both girls had serious misgivings about the ride. R kept asking if the gondolas ever fell off the cables. L kept wondering whether we sat or stood. Thankfully, because the gondolas move (slowly) as you embark, the girls had no time to overthink it when we boarded; they just got in and sat down. As the gondola started climbing up the mountain, both kids relaxed considerably. They smiled. They laughed. L marveled at the silence. R hooted at some skiers below.

When we arrived at mid-mountain, I led the girls hand-in-hand across the ski slopes to the snow-tubing center. We checked in at a yurt. We walked out to the tubes. We clipped in to a cable that towed us about 600 feet up the hill. Through this point, the kids were having the time of their lives, giggling and joking about the giant floaties in the snow.

As we walked over to the top of the J-shaped snow-tube course, their moods changed considerably. L asked how we’d get down. R wondered if the floaties tipped.

Just as I was starting to wonder how I was going to talk them through the experience, the man who was helping people into their tubes suggested that the three of us go down together. I thought this was a great idea. The girls were too petrified to respond.

So he used our tethers to tie us together. Then he pushed us down the hill.

What followed was, quite literally, a blur. I remember our flotilla spinning and banking high up a wall at the bottom of the run. I remember noticing both girls had their eyes closed. That’s about it.

When we came to a stop, both girls were bawling. As I helped them out of their tubes, L hit me a few times on the arm, yelling about how she’d never forgive me. R just kept asking: “Why did you make us do that? Why, Daddy? Why? WHY?”

Looking back, I guess maybe the snow tubes were a bit adventuresome for my kids. Still, IMHO, the only way they’re going to appreciate new experiences is if they try ‘em. Once the tantrums subsided, both girls were excited to take the gondola back down the hill. That’s a victory in my book. And hopefully the start of some limit pushing we can extend next winter.

Embracing tourist traps on family trips

L, panning for gems.

L, panning for gems.

As a native New Yorker, I like to consider myself a pretty discerning human being. I can smell a poseur from a mile away. I know when food isn’t fresh. And when it comes to vacation destinations, I’m usually the first in a crowd to call, “tourist-trap,” when such a distinction is warranted.

One might think that traveling with L and R has softened me a bit on this last point, but, in reality, the opposite has happened: Lest I expose them to something cheesy, I’m more of a skeptic than ever before.

For this reason, when we travel, we end up rejecting group/tour options and doing a lot on our own.

With this in mind, you can only imagine the conundrum I faced during our recent trip to Lake Tahoe, when the girls spotted an advertisement for a (totally contrived) gem-panning attraction and insisted we go. This is the very sort of thing from which I strive to protect the kids. Yet from their perspective, it involved gems, which meant it was non-negotiable. We simply had to go.

So we did. And they got their bags of dirt. And we walked up some stairs to a makeshift aqueduct, where we also found “pans” to sift the dirt. So the girls sifted. And they found gems. Dozens and dozens (and dozens) of gems. And they squealed with happiness. A lot.

At first, I was miserable. Sure, I pretended to be excited for their behalf, but inside, I silently screamed, “I CANNOT BELIEVE WE ARE ACTUALLY SPENDING OUR VACATION DOING THIS.”

After the fourth piece of squeal-inducing quartz, however, it hit me: The kids were having lots of fun.

Then, a miraculous phenomenon occurred: I started having fun, too. I found myself breathing heavily as I tried to unearth a shark tooth from wet sand in the pan. L showed me a sparkly green gem and I legitimately was impressed. R decided to name one of her agate crystals, “Princess Purpleflower,” and I laughed so hard I cried.

The four of us panned for gems for nearly an hour, and we could have done it for three. At one point, I looked up to see about six other people watching us, smirking. I didn’t care.

On the drive home from Tahoe, I asked L to rank her favorite parts of the trip and gem-panning held strong in her top three (star-gazing also was on the list). To be completely honest, I’d put the panning in my top three, too. And I’m not even ashamed to admit that here.

No, I’m not encouraging everybody to accept entire vacations full of shlock.

I am, however, arguing that, especially on family trips, it’s perfectly acceptable to suspend disbelief every once in a while. As Elsa sings in Frozen, let it go.

Remember, just because you think some place is a tourist trap doesn’t mean your kids will. Everything you encounter on a family trip is new to them—even places that are totally contrived. Once you fight your own skepticism about these experiences, once you see the place through their eyes, you might actually enjoy yourself. I know I did. And if it means finding another quartz crystal named Purpleflower, I’m open to trying again.

Starry, starry night

L eating s'mores, before the skies got dark.

L eating s’mores, before the skies got dark.

She still hasn’t stopped talking about the rings.

Sure, L and I learned about galaxies during our Monday night tour with an outfitter named Tahoe Star Tours, and, yes, we spotted stars including Vega and Polaris. We even peered through a giant telescope to gaze upon planets such as Jupiter and Mars.

But for my Big Girl, the biggest moment of our way-past-bedtime adventure in a dark parking lot on the edge of the Northstar California ski resort was seeing Saturn for the first time in real life.

Of course she’d seen pictures of Saturn before. She even had tried drawing it—part of a bigger picture about a planet called Cats (where, obviously, all of the inhabitants were, well…um…cats). But to see it through the lens of a Celestron 14 HD telescope, a device that enlarged the planet so clearly that we also could identify its moons, now THAT was a treat.

“It’s like someone painted it up there, Dada,” she said as she peered into the eyepiece. “An orange dot with the most beautiful rings.”

I couldn’t really blame her for the excitement; the four of us had a blast during this week’s 4-day family excursion to Lake Tahoe (other posts to follow soon), but Monday’s evening activity—which L and I did solo—was the undisputed highpoint of the trip. For both of us.

The experience began promptly at 8:30 p.m. L and I drove down from our hotel, The Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe, and met Tony Berendsen, who owns Tahoe Star Tours, at the entrance to the resort’s satellite parking lots. Down the hill, on the edge of one of the lots, Berendsen had set up what he called a “Cosmoarium,” a tiny klatch of chairs around some firepits.

He welcomed us with s’mores and hot chocolate (which L loved), then regaled us with a presentation that included (in no particular order) original poetry, videos, songs (“California Stars,” which was written by one of my faves, Woody Guthrie), pop-quizzes, and more poetry.

(Berendsen himself is quite a supernova. The amateur astronomer has been gazing into the heavens above the Sierra for the last 20 years. He is a past president of the Astronomical Society of Nevada, telescope operator for the Fleischmann Planetarium in Reno, and president of the Northern Nevada Science Coalition. He’s also an accomplished poet.)

After the video, after one of Berendsen’s poems, L started to lose interest. Thankfully, by then the skies had darkened enough to start gazing, and Berendsen led us over to a part of the lot where his son, Ryan, had set up an array of telescopes, and stepstools so L could see.

We gazed upon Jupiter first: a big white ball in the middle of the eyepiece. Then the Berendsens pointed out some stars—Vegas, Polaris, and others—and we looked at them with our naked eyes. Finally, Ryan repositioned the telescope (with the push of a button), trained it on Saturn, and invited L to climb the stepstool for a closer look.

That’s when she saw the rings. And screamed, “I see the rings!” A lot.

We spent the next 15 minutes or so ogling those rings, learning about comets and looking for the Milky Way. Finally, around 9:30 p.m., L declared she was tired and we called it a night.

In the car on the way back to the hotel, L pulled a Berendsen and waxed poetic about planets and comets and galaxies and suns. She spoke of alien life forms (“I bet they wear tutus”) and gravity (“That’s what makes us pee, Dad”).

Her best insights focused on Saturn; how the planet had rings because it was engaged to be married, how it became orange because the rings are made of gold, and how, someday, the four of us are going to take a spaceship and vacation at The Ritz-Carlton, Saturn (which, apparently, according to my daughter, currently is under construction), so we can see the rings up-close.

The stories have continued relentlessly since that night, getting more elaborate and creative by the day.

As a learning experience, our tour with Tahoe Star Tours quite literally was out of this world. As a family travel excursion, it was something my daughter will remember for the rest of her life.

What’s the most incredible family travel excursion you’ve had and why?

Lessons from a Travel Etiquette Survey

What's worse at 30,000 feet: These, or bad parenting?

What’s worse at 30,000 feet: These, or bad parenting?

It’s no secret that I think most airlines could improve the way they treat family travelers. Still, some of the findings of a recent study published by Expedia (in the interest of full disclosure, a client) and Northstar have me bummed out.

This data, part of the 2013 Airplane Travel Etiquette Study, indicates that “inattentive parents” are the most offensive airplane etiquette violators in the skies today. A whopping 41 percent of 1,001 survey respondents tabbed slothful parents for the top spot. (Other offenders in the Top 5: rear-seat kickers, smelly passengers, drunkards and chatty Cathies.)

Do I agree that inattentive parents are a scourge in the skies? I do. But I also know that not all traveling parents are inattentive. The fact that these parents annoy other travelers SO MUCH puts the rest of us moms and dads in a bad spot. It makes us guilty by association—just because we fly with kids.

There’s a bigger problem here, too—the notion that lousy parents are THE WORST of the etiquette offenders.

Under-supervised kids are annoying in any setting, don’t get me wrong. But are they more annoying than rude grown-ups? Or sloppy drunks? Or people who won’t shut the heck up? Or people who clip their toenails in mid-flight? Or armrest hogs?

It concerns me that people think not. And it has me thinking about ways to change public perception.

One obvious solution is to call for parents to stop failing as parents when they board a plane. Another solution: To get fellow passengers to be more understanding with those of us who travel with our kids. Perhaps some sort of public awareness program could help; material about “practicing patience,” or something like that. (Seriously, y’all, who’s with me here?)

Of course I think the biggest change can come from the airlines themselves.

If these companies actually would enact policies that benefit family travelers instead of policies that alienate us, maybe thinking would change. If airlines would add perks for family travelers instead of taking perks away (man, I miss pre-boarding), maybe people would realize we are just like they.

At the end of the day, observing proper etiquette comes down to obeying a simple code of behavior. The best place to change perception in relation to this behavior is at the top.

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