Saturday, August 30, 2014

First Day of School!



Little Bear started school yesterday. My manager was generous enough to let me work at home so that I could walk the boys to the bus in the morning, which was really special to me. (Side note: one huuuuuuge thing that I like about my position is that I can work at home sporadically, which lets me do things like this, or go to the Halloween parade, or something similar to this.) He was so, so excited about going to school! He has the same kindergarten teacher that The Boy had, and he was looking forward to getting there.

It was a good day for him, although interrupted for an hour or so (he missed recess) because of a doctor's appointment. I'm not entirely sure why the doctor's appointment was the first week of school - likely scheduling issues, because it's tough to get the immunization appointments close enough to the start of the school year because everybody needs them.

I have mixed feelings about full-day kindergarten. That's a LOT of time for 5-year olds to be in school. Then again, due to the economic necessities these days (single parent homes and two-income homes), half-day kindergarten is a difficult and costly option. But, it's fairly exhausting to kids like Little Bear and The Boy, who were used to half-day preschool before starting full day kindergarten. I distinctly remember the conversation with The Boy last year: "I'm not going back, Daddy. It's too long." The kindergarten at Minedeo does a nice job of mixing up the day so that they're not sitting still TOO much. Little people - particularly little boys - need to move around a lot. It's in the genetics.

The boys got home from the bus at the normal time, around 4 o'clock. Little Bear was an absolute little hellion, giving a lot of attitude and picking fights with his brothers, so The Wife sent him upstairs to calm himself down. After about 15 minutes, we hadn't heard any noise from upstairs, so I went up to check on him, and he was asleep on the bean bag chair. He woke briefly when I was giving a bath to The Boy and The Baby, went to the bathroom, drank some water, and put himself back to bed, this time in his bed. Around 4:45, he came into our room, climbed into bed with us, and slept until a shade after 6:30. Not too bad - 13 hours of sleep after his first day of school.


The Baby's response, up until a week ago, to my question, "What did you dream last night?", was "Elephants and Batman!" Last weekend, he started coming up with actual stories which might be descriptions of real dreams. This morning, he dreamed that he and I (he named me particularly) went for a walk to the playground and played super heroes. That was what we actually did last night, so that's cool. Yesterday morning, he said that he and I went to the zoo, which is what we did last weekend, so that's also cool.

His bedtime and potty training have also turned a huge, huge corner. He's started taking himself to the bathroom on a regular basis. He still has some poo accidents, but they're less frequent than before. Yesterday, he took himself to the potty twice to go #2! Bedtime has also been easier. When I've put him to bed this week, I've read him a few board-book type stories, we talked about his day, and then I gave a big hug, turned on his music, and left the room. When he wakes up - which he will inevitably do, around 9 or 9:30 - once he gets slightly calm - he'll drink some water and go back to sleep.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

School Days

The Boy started school yesterday. He had a good first day: he likes his teacher, some of his friends are in his class, He gets music once a week, gym twice a week, and art once a week. Music and art might be twice per week, I'm not certain. He likes his new teacher so far.

I am truly amazed at the change in him, from the start of kindergarten until now. Don't get me wrong - he's still a little kid and my baby. But, he's much more comfortable and settled into the school routine, and he just looks like a school-aged kid. The glasses help, I suppose.

Little Bear starts on Thursday. He had his meeting with the kindergarten teacher(s) today, to test his academic levels - which is kind of a joke, because he's probably slightly ahead of where The Boy was last year, and he's a young 5. It's kind of like, okay, welcome to grade 3, go nuts, kid.

With The Boy, I'm not worried about him getting frustrated with school and tired of the material, at least for a few years. This is a creature of routine and schedule, of regularity and procedure. He will be my baseball stats man, my left-brained engineer. He will get bored with school, eventually, but he will enjoy the procedure and routine longer than his brothers. Little Bear, on the other hand, is less of a creature of routine and procedure. He is far more a creature of passion, of love, and of loyalty than his brother is.

When The Boy swings a baseball bat, he does it with precision and care, making contact with the ball often. When Little Bear swings the bat, he swings from his heels and puts his whole body into every swing. He misses, often, but when he connects, the ball travels far and fast. When The Boy plays violin, he carefully distributes the bow, moves his fingers, and is relating his notes to the notes on the page. When Little Bear plays, he uses the whole bow on every note and plays with his whole body. Little Bear taught himself to ride a bike without training wheels a shade less than 2 years (chronologically) than The Boy did, because he did it. He wants to be faster and stronger, and he wants to do everything his older brother does.

Public school, these days, does a great job of attempting to quash passion and creativity. Round peg and square hole and all that. As I stated earlier, I'm glad The Wife is in the building as often as she is, to keep an eye on him. I know he's going to be a popular kid: he's outgoing, friendly, quick to smile, and a generous person. I hope that's enough.

I know I said the same things last year, when The Boy started school, and he blossomed hugely, and I'm sure - intellectually - that Little Bear will do the same. I just hate that the boys are big enough to be leaving the nest more often, and more of their lives will be shaped by their schooling and their friends. It's a necessary part of growing up, both for them and for us as parents.

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Friday, August 22, 2014

Back To School Night

Tonight is "Back to School" at night at Minedeo for The Boy and Little Bear. It's really exciting, because Little Bear is entering kindergarten this year. We're hoping that he's going to have the same teacher as The Boy had last year, as we have a good relationship with her. The Boy absolutely loved her, and Little Bear got along with her as well - he tagged along frequently when The Wife went to school to volunteer time. The Wife and Grandma (who both spent a lot of time in the school last year as volunteers) trust her, and that's good enough for me. I met her a handful of times, and was in the classroom three or four times, and she seems like a good teacher.

One of the side benefits of having a stay-at-home wife (well, a "works Friday night, Saturday morning, and Sunday morning" wife) is that she can be a presence in the school on a regular basis. I don't expect preferential treatment, or anything like that; I truly believe that my children are intelligent enough to earn any preferential treatment that they get. Having an educated professional in the school on a regular basis means that we have a finger on the pulse of the building, getting an idea of what's going on and who the teachers to request and to follow really are. Schools, and teachers, are only human; things fall in the cracks sometimes. Having a parent in the building regularly means that we have someone who can fight, if necessary, to make sure nothing gets lost in the cracks.

Not to mention, one kindergarten teacher with 24 kids and one teaching assistant is not the best ratio. So, another body in the room means that the teacher can spend more time teaching and managing and less time wiping noses, settling restless children, and setting up lesson supplies.

The boys spent some time the other day making "school supply bags" for their classmates: plastic bags with pencils, erasers, crayons, etc. Grandma is an amazing shopper, and when the office supply stores have sales for teachers, she gobbles up plenty of supplies for donation. Most of the places will have 1 cent sales on stuff like that once or twice a year; she'll purchase a whole bunch of stuff for the express purpose of gifting to classrooms. (She does other, awesome stuff, too; she's not confined to 1 cent pencils 'n'at. But, imagine if 5-10 parents per homeroom spent a buck on school supplies for the classroom during the 1 cent sales?) They'll deliver the supplies later this week so every kid in their classes will start the year well.

I'm interested to see how Little Bear copes with school. He's like me: very sensitive, very self-aware and self-conscious, and very empathetic to the people around him. That didn't serve me particularly well through most of my school career; the only thing that saved me from being a regular target was that I was bigger than most of the other kids (thereby meaning there were smaller, weaker, and easier targets) and smarter than the other kids (and able to redirect most attempts at bullying and/or teasing right back at the offender). The Boy was built for school: he like rules, boundaries, routines, and paperwork. Little Bear is more of a free spirit.

Granted, I still think Little Bear likely has the most native intelligence in the house, me and The Wife included. If you put him in an academic 2nd or 3rd grade class, he'd do fine. I just worry about him dealing with negative people and negative authority figures. The Boy is likely to be top ten in his class, after high school. He's that kind of kid. It wouldn't surprise me to see him as valedictorian; it wouldn't surprise me if he followed the example of his uncles C (on her side) and B (on my side) and have a few questionable English grades in high school knocking him out of the top 10. Having said that, I can also see The Boy turning entirely off in a class because a teacher isn't as smart as he is, so who knows? School is different in 2014 than it was in the 80's when I went.


The side effects of school are starting to rear their heads. This fall, The Boy and Little Bear are playing fall baseball on Monday nights; The Boy has a boys' choir on Wednesday evenings, and he'll have violin lessons on another afternoon (maybe the same afternoon, after the rehearsal). The Wife has orchestra on Tuesday nights and quartet on Thursday nights; I have quartet on Monday or Wednesday nights and chorus on Tuesday nights. She works on Friday nights and Saturday mornings. So, we start the staggered chauffering of children from place to place.

It's much harder at this point than it will be later: the kids still have to be in car seats, so it's tough to get a friend at the same rehearsal/practice to throw your kid in the car to drive somewhere. When they're a little bigger, and don't need the car seats, then they can hop in a car and go. Now, it's tricky.

I anticipate a quartet rehearsal or two at the baseball park in our future. Sigh. May that be the worst issue we face this school year.

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Thursday, August 21, 2014

Family Fun

Last week was a "family week" for me. I took Wednesday off, completely; and I took half days on Thursday and Friday. The objective was to take the boys to Idlewild on Wednesday; and, on Thursday and Friday, take The Boy and Little Bear to Sandcastle one day and do something fun with The Baby on the other day, whichever wound up working better with The Wife's work and meeting schedule.

Idlewild is a little amusement park and water park located about sixty-seventy-five minutes east of Pittsburgh. It's designed for the littler kids: the biggest rides require a height of 48 inches, and a kid who is at least 36 inches can go on almost everything with a parent with them. Last week was the last week that it was open during the weekdays - college started back up this week, and the college kids that work there disappear, leaving the parks understaffed. The Baby spent the day with Grandma, which we later regretted - we all wish that The Baby had come with us, even though he hates rides at this point of his life. We miss him, and our family is incomplete when he's not with us, even if it would have made some of the rides challenging.

At the entranceway, there is a Storybook Village, where kids can walk through little exhibits describing the nursery rhymes. Mother Goose has a house at the beginning, and you walk through Gepetto's shop, and the Three Little Pigs' brick house. There are some pens with friendly goats and sheep and chickens and such as well. It's a nice little walk, about fifteen minutes' worth. Considering that it poured down rain all the way there, and was still drizzling, this was a good starting point. It stopped raining about 2/3 of the way through Storybook Village, and it was sunny by the time we got back to the car, dropped off raincoats, and went into the park.

The park is marvelous and perfect for my boys at this age. The lines, considering the rainy morning, were quite manageable, and we didn't really have to wait for longer than fifteen minutes for anything. All four of us went on the "Rollo Coaster," an up & down wooden roller coaster. The Boy & The Wife went on the Wild Mouse roller coaster - Little Bear, who is coming in at 47 inches, was not tall enough to go on the ride. The Boy, on the other hand, is 48 and a half inches, so he was able to go on everything in the park. He had an awesome time.

Across the bridge, we went into the small person's area, and Little Bear got to go on everything, including small bumper cars. They both did a good job driving the bumper cars - they're the ones that have a "go" pedal, and you have to turn the wheel all the way around to go backwards to get out of a jam. The Boy was still not quite old enough to think that all the little rides were for babies, but I think he's going to outgrow them next year.

The water park was a little problematical, because it was juuuuuuust a bit too cold. The boys played in Captain Kidd's Kingdom for a little while - it's got small but cool water slides and some water trays in which to play. Little Bear gave up quickly, because he's got exactly 0% body fat and doesn't handle the cold well at all. I went on a few of the big water slides: a racer, with mats; a body slide; and a tube slide, because the total wait for all three rides was about 10 seconds. The Boy joined me after a few minutes, because he was tall enough to go on them. He didn't go on the tube slide, because it was enclosed and he hates those. We went on the "racer" ride about three times.

Both boys passed out in the car on the way home (we left at 7) and slept through the night.


Thursday, I took The Boy and Little Bear to Sandcastle in the afternoon. It was fun: we did the wave pool, we went to Wet Willie's, and we had cheese fries. It was too cold to stay for too long, though.


Friday, I had a wonderfully simple day with The Baby. We went to the comic book store together, then to Starbucks to enjoy a coffee (me) and some apple juice (him). We had cake pops, because Friday! The Baby struck up a conversation with two older ladies who were sitting across the communal table with us. He was very friendly and polite, and they were charmed by him.

After that, we discussed what we would like to do, ultimately settling on going to the JCC to play in the playroom. His walking is good, but not great, so I didn't want him to feel uncomfortable running around the playground. We played in the playroom for an hour and a half (he was perfect on the potty, I might add), and then we went home. It was fun and a nice bonding moment. We mostly played with the letter tiles, because..... letters! He didn't want to build with the big Legos at the playroom. The train table was out for repairs, which was a bummer.

Lately, he's been asking for me at bedtime. We're getting adjusted to a "normal" bedtime routine: bath, pajamas & teeth, snuggle and read stories. He likes "Don't Wake Up The Bear" (Marjorie Murray) and "Bugs Bugs Bugs" (Bob Barner) from my Kindle program, and from iBooks, "Hello Ninja" (N.D. Wilson, Forrest Dickison), "Duck and Goose Feelings" (Tad Hills), and a Scholastic adaptation of "Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed." They're all short and cute, and he "reads" them with me. After that and some hugs and conversation ("What was the best thing that happened to you today?"), I turn on the "Deep Sleep Lullabies" by Austin & Austin and leave the room. This has only developed since we got back from France - the ability to leave him in his room to sleep.

Granted, we have to go in a couple/few times before we go to bed, but it's MUCH MUCH MUCH better than having to sit with him for an hour or two.


Saturday, I took the three boys to the zoo. Well, we went to Giant Eagle (to get bread for sandwiches), the bank (because I'm poor), and the farmer's market before the zoo. We walked around the whole place kind of quickly (The Baby was in a stroller in deference to his leg) and spent a decent amount of time at kid's kingdom so they could run and play. We were at the zoo for around three hours, which was nice.

A duck and a duckling passed The Baby's stroller, about a foot away from it. He was amused.

Elephants are always a favorite.

The Baby wasn't afraid of the sheep and goats, even though he remembers getting bitten by a goat last fall.

It was a good week for me. I loved spending time with the kids - it's good to have this time!

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Sunday, August 10, 2014

Paris Wrap-Up: Gallimaufry

The French don't seem to use the bathroom a lot. At least, restrooms are scarce and difficult to find in Paris. There are for-pay restrooms in various places, but not the plethora of public restrooms available in the United States.

Patrick said, "You Americans are far too worried about dehydration." Thinking about it, it's true: I didn't see Parisians walking around with the jugs of water that Americans do.


Dogs are everywhere in Paris. Restaurants, stores, streets, everywhere. Lapdogs, though: the only German Shepard-type that I saw was with policemen. Smoking, too, was normal and prevalent. It was very usual to see a person sitting at an outdoor cafe with a cigarette, a leash, and an espresso.


Portion sizes in Paris were reasonable and controlled. They provided good food, not a lot of food. I never left a meal hungry, but - unlike the states - I never left a meal feeling overfull. Our restaurants could learn a thing or do: provide less food, but make it of  a higher quality (less preservatives and crap in it).


Wine was served with every non-breakfast meal. While I'm sure there are the same amount of alcoholics there as here, it seems like people drink for purpose way less than in America. I do understand that it could be the very small sample size of the areas we were hanging out; however, I hope the reason is that they're taught to use alcohol at a young age instead of pound it at an older age.

A half bottle of wine for the same price as two cokes? Yes, please. Tastes better and is better for you (debatably).


A sandwich, in France, means ham. A croque monsieur is a ham and cheese sandwich. A croque madame is a ham and cheese sandwich with an egg on it. I didn't see a turkey sandwich, or a roast beef sandwich, or a Reuben, etc., while we were over there. The crepe sandwiches were also ham. The meat served with breakfast was also ham.

Then again, we were told that Parisians tended not to eat breakfast. Maybe a croissant on the run with an espresso, but no formal meal like we have. No pancakes, and the French toast that I found contained ham in between the slices (lunch). Parisians don't drink the "buckets of coffee" that Americans do. The relative proliferation of Starbucks in Paris might mean that that isn't correct, but it's a nice thought.


We were told that Paris really empties out in the summer. The Parisians leave for the provinces, leaving the city for those that have to stay and for the tourists. The pace of life there was really, really slow and deliberate. Not quite southern states slow; similar tempo, but it was a different brand of slow. The three hour dinner with Peggy kind of shows that: it was only three courses, but the pace was relaxed and easy.


I also didn't see a lot of gyms or people jogging. It could have just been the tourist areas, although there were some people jogging through the gardens at Versailles. Yet, the native Parisians were slender and beautiful. Just goes to show you that diet is such a major feature in our health, as or more important than exercise.


Patrick was funny, particularly when he was talking on the cell phone. "Voila," as you know, is a wonderful expression in French that we use all the time in English. He would say, "Voilalalalala," which is hysterical.


Having tour guides made everything better. They didn't tell you anything, really, that you wouldn't know from reading books and guides about the area; but  it makes it more efficient to move from place to place without some serious study. The Louvre, in particular, is way too big, and it might have taken two to three times as long without a guide.


Not to keep harping about the restrooms, but there were four restrooms in the international baggage claim area at JFK. I'm not entirely sure if there were four sets of restrooms in Charles de Gaulle airport put together.


Pepsi has not made inroads in Paris. I don't think I saw one bottle of Mountain Dew anywhere in the country. Lots of Coke products, about which I'm entirely indifferent. See: the previous comment about soda and wine.


Wifi in the two hotels was awful. The last couple of blog entries were delayed because the hotel wifi was playing havoc with uploading photos to my Picasa account and to iCloud, and the workaround was just too much of a huge pain. You could spend money to upgrade to the premium wifi, but I have a religious objection to paying for what should be free wifi.


There is a group that annoys Parisians more than Americans do: the Chinese tourists. The Parisians consider them, as a group, ruder and more annoying than Americans, mostly because they have a tendency to cluster together and not let people through or around them very easily. There are also some significant cultural misunderstandings about how to stand in line; then again, that's not limited to just the Chinese. Some African men were causing us issues in JFK, and a southern Asian family tried to (literally) bulldoze their way into our line with an overloaded luggage cart.


We did not need to remove our shoes to get on the Air France flight from Paris to JFK. We did ends to remove our shoes, later, to get from JFK to Pittsburgh. That is not a judgment, merely an observation.


To show the effects of substandard wifi: I entirely missed the blog entries on the Monday night performance at Ver Sur Mer, Thursday’s performance at the Irish Cultural Center and the subsequent dinner with Aunt Peggy, and Friday’s meetup with my cousins near Notre Dame du Paris. Sigh. Well, some of the entries are going to be out of order.

Friday: Notre Dame, Family, and Our Last Evening

I had a really, really cool experience in the Notre Dame Cathedral. Molly and Katie had decided that they had enough of looking at old churches and wanted to shop while I explored the thousand-year-old cathedral. While I was standing in line to get into Notre Dame, I noticed - using the Swarm app by the Foursquare folks - that my cousin, Matt, was about two blocks away from me.

A little history: Matt, and his dad, Tom, have been very, very close to my family while we were growing up. We saw them at every major holiday, and they were some of the few extended family folks that we saw just to see - real friends, as well as family. When I was going through my troubles, Tom (in particular) was really there for us: quietly, firmly, and consistently. They're just awesome people. I saw on Facebook that they were flying to Charles De Gaulle airport on Thursday morning, and we exchanged a few Facebook messages, finally trying to hook up on Friday afternoon. Good news? It actually worked!
Matt was there with his son, entering high school. Tom was there with Matt's daughter (his oldest grandchild), having spent a few days in Barcelona beforehand. So, I got to meet up with them in a bistro right outside of Notre Dame, have a glass of wine, and catch up a bit. They walked me to the restaurant where the tour group was eating our final dinner in Paris, took a picture or two with Molly and me, and went on their way. How incredible is that? The world is much, much smaller than we think.

Notre Dame, incidentally, is amazing. I took a picture or two, but you can find better shots of it online. The flying buttresses, the stained glass that is hundreds of years old, the sheer beauty, delicacy, and intricacy of the carvings all combine to blow away the senses. It's really awesome. I caught the end of mass (Shabbat services?) on my way around the temple.


Dinner a Chez Clement was amazing. The creme brûlée dish served as dessert, in particular, was one of the greatest desserts I've ever eaten. It's a different texture in France than in the United States, which I enjoyed. The rest of the meal was a pork steak, rice, and a salad,  and those were good as well.

The only moderately disappointing thing about the final dinner was that we were not able to have the "end of trip celebration" we had planned. We wanted to do a silly song contest: Molly had rewritten the words to "Mister Sandman" to be "Monsieur Patrick," after our tour guide. Highlights included referencing his orange pants and rhyming "wallet" with "toilette." Others had planned a couple of silly little things, as well, and we would have given the tips to Patrick and the driver, JeJi. They sang the "Monsieur Patrick" thing on the bus ride back, though: Molly and Katie along with Donna and Jean from Sidekicks. Still, considering that that was the only disappointing thing on the day, we did pretty well.

A group of 19 people went to the Moulan Rouge show after dinner. They said that the show itself was marvelous: amazing dancing, great skills showing (juggling, ventriloquism), awesome costumes, and just cool stuff going on. The gentlemen agreed that the lack of tops on many of the costumes was a highlight. I wasn't there, so I can only report what I heard. The only down part was that the seats were far too close together for American rear ends and the price was extraordinary: around 100€ per ticket for the 9pm show, not counting drinks.

A further group went on to the Eiffel Tower to take a boat tour and to see the tower light up and sparkle. After around 10:30pm, the tower lights up, and every fifteen minute, the tower lights sparkle and twinkle like fireworks. It's really quite striking.

We went back to the hotel. A small group of us had several bottles of wine and cider that we didn't particularly feel like dragging back on the plane, so we decided to share them with friends. It was a pleasant bonding evening. Around 10:30, we walked down to the river (where I had gone jogging the previous morning) to see the Eiffel Tower light up and sparkle. We took pictures making it look like Katie and Molly were holding the little tower in their hand, just because.

Wakeup call is 5:45am so we could get to the airport on time, so we finished packing and went to bed relatively early (11:00).

Thursday: Jardin du Luxembourg, Memorial de la Shoah, La Closerie Des Lilas

The performance today was, as is normal for our trip,  a great performance for a great audience. It was in the Jardin du Luxembourg, which is a big, beautiful park situated in the middle of the city. We were there, briefly, on Wednesday while looking for a public bathroom.

Our bus parked just inside the park gates, and our performance was inside of a large gazebo overlooking a shaded area and beautiful pond. Apparently, there is an active concert series, and the audience gets to see a wide variety of shows and performances throughout the summer. The gazebo has a large stack of chairs along the back, which are dragged out by various audience members to sit. (Which is a difference between here and Pittsburgh - can you imagine how long a stack of public chairs would last at home?)

The performance was interesting. Jennifer woke up with laryngitis. That's a real predicament, because she is a great lead singer and the lead for the quartet, Sidekicks. We need to do an hour long performance, and the three songs that Sidekicks sang were an important part of that. Plus, they're my favorite non-wife quartet (as in, quartet that doesn't have my spouse in it). So, it  required a bit of improvisation and some movie magic to make happen.

Fortunately, with Molly along on the trip, we had a major ringer. One of the songs Sidekicks sang this week was "What a Wonderful World," for which Molly knew the melody. A second song was the Beatles song, "With a Little Help From My Friends," which she also basically knew. There were more than a few differences in the quartet's interpretation, but they had about twenty minutes to rehearse before they sang. (....which, if you didn't know, is not nearly enough time to do this sort of thing.) They pulled it off quite well; if you didn't know Sidekicks, you might not have guessed.

There was a cool guy sitting off to the side and really enjoying the performance. He yelled a huge "Bravo!!!!" after every number. Another guy had a good time videotaping the performance; if he gets us on YouTube, then I hope that he labels the chorus correctly. Several audience members came up to me after the performance to shake my hand. That's always cool.

I've enjoyed people's reactions to our performances in France. They've been appreciative and friendly, and the audiences at our performances have been wonderful. We got another encore call yesterday, which now makes two encore calls in my barbershop career. France has been an awesome place in which to sing.


After the performance, Molly and I split from our group and left with Molly's aunt, Peggy. Peggy moved from Pittsburgh to Paris in 1970-ish and has been there ever since: done a little bit of acting, a little bit of working, and now works for the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. Her position is combing through the French archives and doing translation work. We've seen her once or twice a year since I've known Molly, so it wasn't exactly like seeing a long-lost relative; however, this was our first time seeing her on her turf, and that was really nice. 

We took a bus to the Jewish section of town and walked around for a bit, looking at some historical sights (a beautiful, old synagogue) and seeing some of Peggy's favorite places. We had wine and wonderful ice cream at Ma Bourgogne, which is a neat little cafe overlooking the park one Place des Vosges. We saw Victor Hugo's house, which was kind of cool, and a cellist sitting outside playing "My Way." 

Peggy's workplace is the Memorial de la Shoah, the French Holocaust museum. We are usually aware of Germany's role in the Holocaust, but the French complicity - the Vichy government's assistance in sending Jews to Germany, and the German occupation's enthusiastic persecutions and murder - is not necessarily understood. I was also unaware that France has the largest Jewish population in the world, outside of Israel and the United States. 

On the other hand, the museum has on its outside wall the names of French people who were involved in saving Jewish lives during World War II, and it was nice to see that. The museum is open late on Thursday nights, so we got to see the whole thing. Interestingly enough, the French national archives did not want to give out the files for the Jewish residents during the 1930's and 1940's, but they eventually reached a compromise: the room in which the files are kept are, officially, not part of the museum but belong to the archives.

After that, we went to a beautiful little cafe, La Closerie des Lilas, which was one of Hemmingway's hangouts. We dined with one of Peggy's friends, who, in turn, was friends with the piano player "on duty" for the evening. It was a very, very French sort of evening: dinner took about two and a half hours. Nobody was in a rush. The conversation swung from topic to topic, mostly in French (Peggy's friend was not an English speaker), with Peggy translating when necessary. 

The cafe was, like most of them, half indoors and half outdoors. The tables were small and very close together. There were potted trees spotted throughout the outdoor area, and the courtyard was fenced in with bushes. Right outside was a statue commemorating a general and from the mid-1700's. It was an adult crowd, except for the table next to us: there was an 8- or 9-month old baby, with whom we shared our potato chips. Obviously, with three small boys at home, small children interest us instead of annoy us. They were replaced by a couple, one of whom was from Boston and visiting for the week, so it was nice to have another American around. After our nice, leisurely dinner, Molly sang a couple of songs with the piano player: "All of Me," "Fly Me To The Moon," and "Mack the Knife." The last one was kind of neat: she knew the first verse, and I had pulled the rest of the lyrics up on my phone before they got to the end of the verse.

After we left the restaurant, it was nearly 10pm. We took a cab back to the hotel, and is went to bed while Molly went down to the hotel lobby and hung out with some of our friends until late-ish.


Carol told me that the rest of the group looked around the gardens for a couple of hours. There were drink and snack kiosks all around, and most of them sold beer and wine in addition to soft drinks and snacks. A little different from the United States! There were playgrounds,  and beautiful plants, and a few street performers and buskers (the human statue people) in various places. 

The pond was a big, beautiful pond, with boats and ducks and fish. It is larger than you'd expect it to be, but you can say the same thing about the park. We weren't especially close to the portion of the park that we traversed to find bathrooms the previous day. 

The dinner was a beautiful veal, served with an amazing chocolate tart dessert. The restaurant was a smallish place; the chorus filled up the entire inside portion of the restaurant. The decoration was nothing like the previous evening; where the previous restaurant was ostentatious, this one was plainly and simply colored and decorated.

After dinner, people were given free time. A group of people went to the same bar - Indiana - that we did during the previous evening, but they had a rougher time. Apparently, there was a woman there who did not like the singing and the group of people, choosing to mock / yell at them while they sang one song. Oh, well.... there are jerks in every crowd.

On their way home, they got very, very lost. What should have been a fifteen minute walk turned into a forty-five minute walk. They figured that, once they got sight of the lighted-up Eiffel Tower, they were lost. The Eiffel Tower was in the entire opposite direction, and they should not have been able to see it. C'est la vie.

Molly went downstairs after we got home, to look around and hang out. I didn't; I went to sleep.

Monday: Ver Sur Mer, or Gold Beach

We sang tonight in Ver Sur Mer, the small town that contains Gold Beach (from the Normandy Invasion). It's a tiny little town, population around 1,500... and pretty much everyone in town (at least 300, 350) were at the performance. It was a multipurpose room in the community center - karate class posters hanging on the wall. The town sponsors a small concert series, with around 4-5 acts per summer. We were one of the big features.

Side note: an interesting feature of the towns in the Normandy region is that the houses all seem to be painted / stained the same cream color. We walked around the town a little bit, and that impression was confirmed. Plus, again, the streets are all these narrow former horse trails, and I have no idea how the bus drivers manage to guide these huge busses through streets that are narrow for bicycles, much less automobiles.

A picture of the civic center (that's the town's school on the left):

Pictures of the quartets that sang:

Pictures of the chorus from the rear of the auditorium:

The interesting thing was that the concert wasn't supposed to start until 8:45pm local time, and the concert organizer said that "tradition" was to start ten minutes late. We probably started closer to five minutes late, just because we're Americans and therefore different.

I did the MCing, alternating between French and English. My French pronunciation is okay, although as the night went on and I got mentally tired, I slipped more towards Spanish than French translations. I'm pretty sure I was somewhat understandable - at least, the audience got the gist.

The audience - wow. I honestly think that might have been the best audience for which I've sung in my barbershop career. The room was entirely packed, standing room only, with a nice mixed audience. The hung on every thing we sang, and some of the audience members sung along! (It was a respectful type of thing, not the annoying thing it could be.) And again, the audience knew the words to songs that our American audiences don't: We'll Meet Again, etc.

Every single thing we sang got a great response - lots of applause and smiles. Everyone was nodding and moving in their seats, and they clapped along at appropriate times. At the end of the concert, the audience requested two encores. That's freaking astounding.

I've been in barbershop for ten years. I've sung with international qualifying choruses, and I've directed choruses. I have never had an encore request in my time in barbershop. They utterly refused to let us go until we sang more music.

Let me tell you: that's an amazing feeling, I will never, ever forget that. It's one of the very few times that I've been utterly speechless on stage.

Afterwards, the concert organizers gave us cookies and wine / apple cider. It was a great reward from a great audience. More than one of the ladies came to me and said, "We might as well go home now - it won't get better than that."


When we got back to the hotel, I face timed with the kids. They had just gotten home from camp, and it was very nice to see them. They seemed happy. We had face timed with The Baby earlier in the day, which was very cute. The Wife and I appeared on the screen together, and his response: "Hi, Dad. I miss you, Dad." When prompted by Grandma, he said, "Hi, Mommy."


We met a group of Austrians in the hotel bar. We had chatted with them earlier, and we were going to sing for them but ran out of time before our performance. So, since they were hanging out at the bar while we were coming in from the performance, we sang "We Are Family." They really appreciated it.

A few minutes later, I was singing as a bass with Joe, Gordon, and Bob. We're having a fun and silly show on Friday night, and the guys and I are going to sing something. The Austrian guys really liked our song, so we sang some more for them. They sang some songs for us, and we sang more for them. It wound up being a mini-performance, where we sang all of the polecats that we knew for them. They bought us drinks, which is an awesome thing. Beer in Europe is different.

Turns out that one of the guys has lived, off and on, in Illinois with his wife, who is American. So, he speaks fluent English. They really enjoyed the singing, even if the rest of the group didn't really speak English.


Interestingly enough, English is turning out to be a common tongue in the EU. Students in France learn other languages just like students in other countries; enough of them learn English, and enough students in Germany or Austria or Spain learn English, that they can speak with each other. A French student might not learn German or Spanish, but since they know English, and the German students learn English, they can communicate. It's an interesting sociological thing; much like how English is the common tongue in India, where many, many different languages and dialects are spoken. But, since enough of them learn English...

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Happy birthday to me

As I've been saying all day, I'm way too young to be 40. Although, as my wife has said, maturity has nothing to do with chronological age.

Let's recap, shall we?

20 years old, August 1994: entering my junior year of college, starting to rethink whether or not I should be a music major. Taking a lot of music ed classes in the fall to make up for entering the program a bit late. Still was pretty sure that, if I was going to teach, I'd be an amazing teacher. Disenchanted with baseball because of the strike.

25 years old, August 1999: just finished my master's degree in Michigan, just finishing up getting a job teaching in the Detroit Public Schools. Still pretty sure that I was going to change education as we knew it. Received an excited call from my mother in the middle of David Cone's perfect game to get to a television set. Rooming with AB, introduced him to the mother of his children and our good friend S.

30 years old, August 2004: just married, house hunting, about three weeks away from being told I wouldn't come back for a fourth year from Columbia High School because politics. Starting to become violently disenchanted with education as a profession; I was always a great teacher, but a crappy professional. I was never mature enough to handle the professional indignities and subjective supervisor behavior.

35 years old, August 2009: one year into cancer treatments, Little Bear was born, finishing the last three months of my education career (excepting the dead cat bounce of teaching in Pittsburgh, which confirmed my desire to leave education) with an amazing successful concert under incredibly adverse and stressful conditions. Four months from moving to Pittsburgh and desperation-Hail Mary selling my house in New Jersey.

There's more gray in the beard, which is kind of distinguished-looking, I guess. It hurts more to get out of bed in the morning, and it takes longer to recover from workouts and long plane rides and stuff like that. Yet, my relationship with my wife has never been stronger, and I'm confident enough in my professional career and my personal life. I'm in good enough shape to play and run with the kids, and - knock on wood - even my asthma seems to be getting better right now.

Guess I'm more mature than I thought, darn it. Haven't turned into my father yet, fortunately. (Sorry, Dad.)

Could be a lot worse, right?

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Sunday, August 3, 2014


This morning, Friday morning, was our "late" morning for the week. Wakeup call was 7:45, and go time was 9:15. We drove out to Versailles, and we had a 10am guided tour of the palace.

A word about the technology: we had a Whisper System for the group, which is a radio-based device with an earpiece. The tour guide would speak into their microphone, which was the only broadcast system. Our radios were set to that frequency, and we could hear them speak (but not talk back). It was truly an amazing device: the crowds throughout Versailles were intense and a bit pushy, but we could clearly hear and understand the tour guide. We used the Whisper System both in the Louvre and in Versailles. Highly recommended, for sure.

Plus, having the tour guide was awesome. Kiko, our tour guide at the Louvre, took us to the major pieces in the museum - the tourist pieces - while giving us a broad, general overview of the rest of the museum. You know, this stuff is over there, that stuff is over here, that sort of hitting. Sylvie, our guide at Versailles, did the same thing. We walked reasonably briskly throughout the rooms in the big tourist area of the palace, and she described the major contents of the room, from where they came, their use, and the history. The coolest bit was that Sylvie was able to maintain the continuity of the story even as she was flowed out of the room by the traffic.

Versailles was - um - wow. Amazing. Opulent. Rich. Regal. Astonishing. I quickly run out of adjectives to describe the palace and the gardens. The difference between the normal quality of life in Paris - small buildings, clustered closely together, with people on top of people on top of people - and the size and scope of the palace at Versailles was striking. Its luxurious, sprawling splendor..... man, I'm not entirely sure what to say about it.

I'm not a political creature by nature. I don't care if you're republican or democrat: as long as you want to sing one of the four parts, I'm cool. I am also not one to advocate a revolution. But, looking at the difference between how the normal French people of the time lived, and how the royalty lived..... I can see how some rancor could develop.


After we finished the tour of the palace, we had a few free hours to explore. Some chose to stay up near the palace and explore the town, while my group of friends chose to follow the tour guide to the gardens. The palace in Versailles was designed to go along with the massive gardens, and the engineers of the day devised creative solutions to draining the marshland native to Versailles and building a canal to get irrigation up there. The architectural layouts of the various sections of garden are amazing.

After Sylvie gave us a brief rundown of what was where we walked down along the Grand Canal of Versailles, which was truly an engineering masterwork for the time. There were amazing plants along there, and Romanesque statues lined the sides of great, sprawling pathways. There are enormous fountains along the way, but those are only turned on for short periods of time on the weekends. Kind of makes sense: the piping on the fountains is a few hundred years old and a bit leaky. One of the fountains was under renovation, which is normal; they are always working on keeping the palace in shape.

At the end of the Grand Canal, there are a handful of food carts and restaurants. Molly, Barb, Jim, the Covells, and I ate at the same restaurant, La Flotille. It was absolutely wonderful, and we splurged on a half bottle of wine (which, interestingly, was about the same price as the two sodas our friends bought). There is something about enjoying a good glass of wine in an outdoor restaurant in Versailles.... heartily and enthusiastically recommended.

After lunch, we walked down to Marie Antoinette's residence. We did not pay the 10€ to enter, but we did take advantage of the free public restrooms. The courtyard of the area, anyway, was very nice and surprisingly tasteful, consider the excessiveness of the rest of the palace area. A quartet sang "Going to the Chapel," in the actual chapel of Marie Antoinette's residence, which was fun.

We meandered back to the palace, around the building, and into a little piece of town, where we bought some souvenirs and discussed the presents we would get for the children. We took a picture of the large statue of King Louis with the palace in the background, then we got back on the bus to head back.

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