September 19, 2004

What I Learned on My Summer Vacation by Jeff Gates

Planning large-scale family vacations is an art. But like any endeavor of this magnitude good project management is key. So when my sister informed us my niece would be getting married over Labor Day weekend, we began to plan in April.

You don’t go to Northern California for a quick weekend. The wedding would be a good excuse for a longer getaway filled with familial bliss, fun, and adventure. Ok, flying two little girls cross-country and keeping them happy for 10 days presented some challenges and might be anything but blissful. Planning would be hard work, but the memories we’d be creating would more than make up for any bumps along the way. That’s what we kept telling ourselves.

Now that we are back, it was worth it. The wedding was beautiful. My niece was radiant (sniff, sniff). And I wish her and her new husband the best (I also wished him good luck, now that he is part of our family).

Not that our trip was easy or idyllic. Taking our East coast girls on a picnic to watch the sun set on the Pacific in Carmel was perfect only if you can forget that just as the last vestige of sunlight sunk below the water and my wife and I embraced each other, my 6 year announced she was BORED. Romance wasn’t dead. Just delayed. Yes, we will forget that part of it.

History repeats itself. My parents always looked at our family vacations as learning experiences. And so this tradition has been handed down to me. Here is what I learned on our trip this year.

  1. My 6 year old announced in San Francisco that she was gay and would be marrying her best girlfriend.

    She also announced that she doesn’t want a baby in her tummy but will adopt instead. We think she’s channel-surfed past too many birthing shows on the Health Channel and we will be limiting her access in the future.

    As for her sexual preferences, I think her announcement was a bit premature. Children her age focus on words they’ve determined have some “forbidden” qualities to them. They try these on (and on us) all the time. However, we will consult the Cheneys just so we can be prepared.
  2. Bounce Dryer Sheets

    Bounce Dryer Sheets with Scent Level Meter inset enlarged. Whew, this stuff really stinks. I can only image what Level 4 would repel.

    Bounce Dryer Sheets not only prevent mosquito bites but make crusted baking pan clean-up a breeze. I learned this gem from the mother of the groom.

    The wedding was in Gilroy. Yes, the Garlic Capital of the World. It was held in the groom’s parents’ beautiful backyard and it was easily 95 degrees (34 degrees Celsius). BUT it was a dry heat: the heat of my youth. It was wonderful —warm and comfortable. And with the heat came talk of mosquitoes and the dreaded West Nile Virus (which, while an old story on the East Coast, had just come to California). This was the happy talk just before the newlyweds cut the cake.

    I was informed by many guests that there are numerous Web sites outlining Bounce’s many virtues. I’ve tried everything to ward off those buggers at home. My wife, who has nixed any fragrances in our house, is so desperate for a remedy she’s considering lifting her ban. If you see me walking around town with what looks like a napkin sticking out of my shirt, you’ll know I’m just protecting myself.
  3. Priceline does work. With coaching from our San Francisco friends, David and Les, we were able to secure two nights at the four star Hyatt Regency in the Embarcadero with a view of San Francisco Bay for $69 a night. Emboldened by my initial success with this service I promptly secured a night in NYC’s Chelsea district at a Sheraton for $101 a night.
  4. When traveling on a family vacation, always check for local outlet malls. While rummaging through my wife’s backpack on the plane I discovered a printout of all the stores at the Gilroy Outlet Mall, conveniently located a few blocks from our motel.

    When confronted with this evidence Susie confessed but pleaded extenuating circumstances. “Both girls are just about to outgrow their shoes and there’s a Stride Rite outlet store there.”

    Only last month she trekked 90 miles to the Hagerstown discount Stride Rite only to come home empty-handed and delirious from all the backseat whining and fighting she had to referee between our two cutie pies. What’s a few extra thousand miles if you can find a pair of $40 sneakers for 50% off? Alas, they didn’t have either of their sizes.

    This may sound over-the-top to those of you without children. You laugh now. But some of you will soon understand the importance of this tip.
  5. When looking for that special something, it pays to know the secret code. Ten years ago, on a pre-children family trip to New Zealand, Susie and I tasted the best Chardonnay we’ve ever had. So buttery its finish seemed to linger forever in our mouths. Through many subsequent vacations to numerous wine-growing regions of the world I’ve searched for something that comes close to what we experienced downunder. And I’ve come up empty handed.

    Last year I learned the wine industry’s phrase for that buttery taste: malolactic fermentation. Now that I know the code, I can walk into any fine liquor store or winery and spout the gospel. That is, I can get to the point quickly and the experts know immediately what I’m talking about.

    On this trip, we spent a few afternoons driving to and fro a number of Carmel Valley wineries. One fine vintner told me that the Valley was too cool at night to produce grapes that would ferment just so. Napa, he said, with its warmer climate would be a much better place to look. Despite his caution, we did find a very good white with a “toasty finish of sweet butter and lemon zest” (alas, Maryland’s antiquated liquor laws make it illegal to mail a bottle to our home).

    But looking for discounted tennis shoes and buttery Chardonnay wasn’t my only consumer quest. And once again, discovery of the code proved of major importance in my search.

    Except for a few vintage pieces, I haven’t bought a sport coat for at least 25 years. But, of late, I’ve wanted to have one. Often the vintage variety is too heavy for this climate. And, while I can safely wear jeans to work, a coat is just a good piece to have for those special occasions. But, like wine, I am particular.

    DC, with its abundance of conservatives, isn’t the place to find interesting jackets. Pinstripes and blue blazers are not my style. I like the cuts and fabrics reminiscent of Post World War II idealism much more than the dowdy blandness found in our nation’s capital.

    The nubby material on 1940s and 1950s coats is much more interesting. But I always had a hard time describing it. And I thought that San Francisco might be a better place to shop.

    When I walked into one store I fumbled as I once again tried to find the words to describe my taste. The salesman immediately responded with “Oh, you mean a bouclé.” Well, ok, sure. “No, bouclé is the nubby material you’re looking for.” And so it was. He immediate brought out a jacket and it fit me like a glove —like it was waiting for someone just like me to say the magic word.
  6. And finally, the Sunday New York Times and United Airlines’ Economy Class seats don’t mix. The only good part about traveling home on a Sunday is the New York Times. No matter how you’re getting home (except if you’re the designated driver), the Times can keep you occupied for hours. On our five hour sojourn East, it plus a tearjerker movie filled in the time nicely.

    However, the seat pitch on United’s Economy class seats (not to be mistaken for their special Economy Plus seats closer to the front of the plane) makes reading the paper near impossible.

    If you store your paper in the pocket in front of you, suddenly you realize you have no place to put your knees. This becomes especially acute should the person in front of you move his seat back to a more comfortable position to accommodate his legs. And, rest assured he will as the domino effect begins, fanning from the front of Economy as soon as the seat belt sign is turned off. In addition, his seat back now cuts off the light that is situated just so above my head. Reading the Times in the dark is not fun. Note to myself: next time discard the Classifieds before boarding the craft.

Doesn’t this trip sound like it was fun? Well, it was, most of the time. And so educational. Look at everything I learned.

When things got tough and we started sounding like our parents my wife and I simply declared ourselves to be “The Dysfunctional Family” with a chuckle. Yes, history does repeat itself. But at least we can laugh about it now rather than wait for our children to laugh years from now when they inherit our home movies.

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