Catching Up.

It’s been a while now since I last posted, what with summer and its myriad events taking up much of the Miller family’s time and all, but now that it’s mid-September I guess I really haven’t much of an excuse any more. Try as I might to put it off indefinitely, I’m afraid there’s no use fighting the inevitable much longer. It’s time to do some catching up.

As alluded to above Long Beach, in the summer, can’t seem to let anybody settle down for a weekend of mere leisure. I swear that from May through September there is on every single weekend some sort of festival celebrating a specific style of food, music, culture – you name it, there’s a festival for it. There’s a Crawfish Festival, Bayou Festival, Blues Festival, Jazz Festival, Funk Festival, Lobster Festival, a Sea Festival, Greek Festival, the E Hula Mau Hula dancing Festival and Competition, and more. There’s Seal Beach’s Fish Fry, what’s called “Taste of the Coast,” (wherein local restaurants peddle their food from booths on the Long Beach Pier), and of course the annual Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.

This last event we generally avoid at all costs, being the blue-state, hybrid driving, solar oven using socialist elites that we are, but fortunately for us we can hear the damned cars all weekend, even from many miles away. So we got that going for us.

The extracurricular activities aren’t limited to weekends, either: there are several “Stroll and Savor” weeknights (same concept as “Taste of the Coast;” here though the restaurants along Second Street serve their food to passersby from the sidewalk outside their location), Thursday night Concerts in the Park, and a Wednesday evening Farmer’s Market that has not only the requisite local produce on display but also provides music, crafts, and booths serving everything from ribs, Asian chicken, Spaghetti and New England style fried seafood to sweet crepes.

Of course we still haven’t figured out how to check out a calender of events before the summer starts, so our routine usually involved dilly-dallying around with Sarah for the first half of a Saturday before finding out, purely by accident, that one of the aforementioned festivals was starting oh my god TODAY! Then we’d run around feverishly tossing stuff in the backpack, thinking “What luck! If we hadn’t happened to have passed Rainbow Lagoon on our way to rushing Sarah to the emergency room with most of a tube of Mentos stuck up her nose, we’d never have noticed that the Incan Quechuas festival was in town! Screw the hospital – we’re dancing to charango and wooden flute renditions of classic rock songs today!”

Which Sarah would be fine with, of course, even with the Mentos, because like all kids she loves anything with lots of singing and dancing. Her favorite, so far, is the Crawfish Festival, which has tons of Cajun, Zydeco and New Orleans style music, a neat dance area, and more boiled crawfish than anyone has ever seen outside of Louisiana. We went last year, as well, but never got around to sampling the food due to the nearly two hour – yes, two hour – wait in line for the salty red critters. That, along with poorly marked entrances and some god-awful parking, led to much grumbling among the festival-goers and, consequently, a lot of bad reviews on Yelp. Ouch. As we all know, if there’s one thing that’ll make you take a good hard look at yourself and reevaluate your place on this earth, it’s a bad review on Yelp.

Not that we minded, having gone pretty much just for the music (Sarah being only two at the time), but this year the organizers seemed to have taken the poor reviews to heart and worked out many of the bugs. We had a great time dancing to the live music, watching all the older, purple-clad and parasol-wielding ladies and gents parading around to “When The Saints Come Marching In,” and yes, dining on mounds of steaming red crawfish with corn and boiled potatoes.

Which, to be honest, wasn’t much to write home about. We’re from New England, dammit, and we grew up on lobsters – like, whole lobsters, some weighing even more than two pounds. Crawfish, it turns out, are so tiny that in order to get anything resembling meat out of them you have to chew and suck on the body in a disgusting and primitive manner, looking not unlike one of those monkeys one sees at the zoo always making short work of some nut or tropical fruit. It’s embarrassing, of course, but the humiliation of exhibiting oneself this way pales in comparison to the revulsion one experiences upon witnessing the masses around you doing the same. I had a roommate a long time ago who similarly tucked into his roasted chicken legs. It’s damned unnerving, it is, and it nearly puts you off your own food.

But we still enjoyed it, and that includes Sarah, who attacked her crawfish with aplomb. She’s got a good palate, that one, which I have to admit makes me particularly proud, though nothing could prepare me for my surprise on a subsequent weekend when, while visiting the aforementioned “Taste of the Coast” on the pier, she downed – happily – three beautiful, briny, recently executed oysters on the half shell. I kept waiting for her to, y’know, gag as she chewed up the unfortunate bivalves, but it never happened – in fact, she even asked for more. A month or so later she and I were having lunch by the marina after a nice ferry ride, and she had a couple oysters then, too, so it’s not, at least for now, just a fluke.

So yes, the festival experience has been enjoyable, but this being southern California, we also found time to visit all the beaches: Long, Seal, Huntington, and Santa Monica, Pier included.  Throw in two trips to see family (One to Hawaii and one to N.E. – both sans me), a couple of days in San Diego and, of course, Disneyland, and it’s been a busy summer.  I for one am glad that it’s over, if only so that my skin color can return to it’s natural, corpse-like hue. Now we have fall to look forward to, which, after we slog through September, will bring all sorts of other opportunities for weekend fun.

Pumpkin Patch, here we come!

On Second Thought – No, I Don’t Need To Be Reminded Of What Snow Is Like.

It’s finally warming up around here, and I’m starting to find myself actually looking forward to spring.  Of course, I say that now – come May I might be singing a different tune. I guess I’ll just  have to admit that I’m a little wishy-washy on the subject of climate. Many of my friends, I’m sure, have had the occasion to note a slight inconsistency – if not contradiction – in my frequent complaints about the weather. I’ve often said that I prefer cooler temperatures, but have of late found myself cursing the surprisingly cold and wet climes of this year’s atypical Southern California Dec-February period. So what gives?

It is an incontrovertible fact that heat makes me extremely uncomfortable and lethargic – a fact born out by my body’s inclination to sweat like crazy whenever the temp reaches 70 degrees. Sure, everybody sweats, but for the purposes of visualization I would ask you to recall the movie Broadcast News, specifically the scene where Albert Brooks’ character Aaron Altman gets his chance to anchor a live broadcast. To say he is nervous is an understatement; once the camera rolls you can see his demeanor is that of one who has been pulled off the street and thrown into an unmarked van by faceless malcontents who then forcefully tighten his necktie and hogtie him before driving him to a large, heated oven in which he is unbound and forced to read the local news from a teleprompter on live T.V.

If you’re unfamiliar with the film I should clarify that that didn’t actually happen – what I mean to say is that he looks as if it had. But the point is he stutters and his eyes dart about. He tries in vain to loosen his tie, and sweat pours off the poor man’s brow in visible rivulets. By the end of the broadcast his hair is pasted to his scalp and his shirt and jacket are soaked. It’s pretty damned embarrassing, really, and it’s not an inaccurate description of how I look in warmer conditions.

Why would I move to Southern California if I hate the heat so much? Well we live in Long Beach, which is, as the name implies, a coastal town. Consequently it’s usually pretty breezy and pleasant; temperatures here, even in summer, are a far cry from the suffocating conditions usually found in Los Angeles. Let’s just say that when it gets to a hundred or so in the valley (which happens every year – they have a “fire season” the way Florida has a “hurricane season”), then it’s probably a livable 80 degrees in Long Beach during the summer. The rest of the year it’s really not that bad – like those brisk, late October days back home, after the leaves have dropped but before any snow has fallen. And there are not only palm trees but various species of deciduous trees in the region, too, trees which necessitate actual raking in the fall. Quite nice, all in all, and normally I can’t stop singing the area’s praises.

But these last couple of months have tested my affinity for cooler temps. I mean, it’s been damned cold! For weeks and weeks, it seems, we’ve seen daytime highs barely touching the 60’s, and overnights have been near freezing. Just the other night is was a frigid 35 degrees or so, a condition that required both the thermostat turned up and the addition of an extra duvet. None of the houses out here have any insulation, mind you, and the furnace provides only intermittent blasts of weak, warm air – air that then makes an immediate dash to the nearest window in order to hasten a quick exit. On top of that it’s been raining constantly. I’m not talking Washington state kind of rain here, but you have to admit one doesn’t move to Southern California so that one can spend one’s evenings constantly running out to the guest room with a tarp and several buckets in a desperate attempt to keep one’s spare bed and secret porn stash dry, does one?

Now I’m only two years removed from having lived in New England – which is to say through very snowy winters and rainy, rainy springs – so I realize I have no excuse for whining about this. Most likely I’ve just developed thinner blood, having avoided the last three seasons of waist-deep, New England snow. I obviously need some toughening up, a little taste of how cold and snowy things can really get.

It was in this spirit that we drove up to the San Gabriel Mountains a couple of Sundays ago for a little reminder.  For those of you who don’t know, the San Gabriel Mountains are a relatively short range which traverse east to west between San Bernardino County (east of Los Angeles) and the Mojave Desert to its north. The highest range (about 10,000 feet) is Mount San Antonio, known to its younger, sassier neighboring mountains as Mount “Baldy.” In the winter the peaks of Mt. Baldy, like other mountains in the vicinity, are covered in snow, and the nearby town of Wrightwood is known for its skiing and snowboarding.

The trip itself takes only about an hour and a half – no worse than a typical commute into L.A for me, but potentially taxing for a three year-old, particularly one unaccustomed to car rides lasting longer than 20 minutes. Fortunately we had gone once before, on a day trip this past Christmas Eve, however by the time we reached the road leading to the spot of that earlier jaunt it was clear that we weren’t going to find the same degree of snow we had enjoyed previously. The landscape was only sparsely dotted with dirty patches of the stuff, and the location of our previous boogie-board revelry – a large clearing off of a two-lane country road that had plenty of small hills for sledding – was now revealed to be some sort of staging area for construction vehicles.  We were already at a high altitude and, having been in the car for over an hour and a half, we weren’t exactly looking forward to having to drive back home, so we just kept driving up.

Eventually we came to the center of Wrightwood, where we were greeted with good and bad news: good news – lots of snow; bad news – traffic at a standstill. As I mentioned earlier, we were on a narrow, two-lane road; it snaked through the tiny town at a steadily increasing elevation. There were several signs along the road advertising a ski resort up ahead, clear evidence that not only would we find a place to play, but that the grinding traffic would continue. This was not, needless to say, the pleasant part of the trip. We were pushing two hours in the car, we had no real way to see how far we’d have to go before being able to pull over, and the hybrid battery on the civic was nearly drained from constant uphill driving. Sarah was getting fidgety and we were getting irritable, and since we were barely moving I decided to dig out some of our snacks in order to distract her from her growing discomfort. I grabbed her thermos, which I had secretly filled with chocolate milk before hitting the road, and turning around in my seat (Lizzy was driving), I asked her excitedly, “want a surprise?”

“Yes!” she said.

“Here it is!” I said, and popped the top of her thermos.

Now one of the interesting aspects of any drive up the mountains is the change in air pressure and the potential effects it may have on you or, in this case, on any items in your car. Everyone is familiar with the ear-popping, and we all know how to remedy the situation with chewing gum or a good hard swallow, but perhaps fewer of us take the necessary precautions to prevent the inanimate objects around us from becoming affected. If you have a bottle of water in your car you might loosen the cap, for example, in order to allow the air in the bottle to escape as the pressure gets lower. Otherwise, the pressure in the bottle would be much higher than the pressure outside the bottle (assuming that the bottle was air-tight); a sudden breaking of the seal would undoubtedly cause the contents to then exit the vessel forcefully. It’s the same concept behind those cans of air freshener you’re forced to use after befouling a friend’s bathroom.

This particular atmospheric phenomenon, it turns out, had manifested itself in Sarah’s thermos. Perhaps you’ve seen this kind of thermos before – it’s a smallish, stainless steel thing with a hard, plastic screw-on top. There is also a hinged lid which reveals, upon pressing a small, oval button on the front, a rubber straw running through it to the bottom of the thermos.  They’re particularly popular among the toddler set for their convenience and ease of use: pour in the beverage, screw on the top, pop open the lid and there you have it. And there, in the car, in front of my smiling daughter, at 9,000 ft, I did just that – I popped open the lid.

The jet of chocolate milk that issued forth probably surprised me more that it did Sarah, at least at first. Perhaps that was because children have a natural buffer-moment of a second or so before registering surprise, or perhaps it’s because the milk struck me first before shooting upward onto the ceiling of the car and then into the back, where Sarah sat defenseless in the car seat. Either way, in the first split-second following the eruption it seemed as if we might escape the incident with only a laugh. After a beat, however, and once I had finished my expletive, it seemed to have dawned on the girl that the “surprise” I had offered her had turned out to be an awful, sticky act of aggression. Then the crying started, and if you’ve ever had to talk down a frightened and shocked three-year old during a long car-ride, then let me tell you it’s even more fun when covered in chocolate milk.

We eventually found a place to pull over and were able to do a little sledding, though it wasn’t without difficulty or incident. I won’t go into details;  suffice it to say that every other resident of Los Angeles County apparently had the same brilliant idea that we had. At the end of the day, though, we found our snow, and I was reminded of why I moved away from that kind of thing in the first place. It’s the reason, I think, that everyone who moves from the north to the south shares, and it can be best summarized by the phrase that was going through my head in an endless loop as we trudged through the wet snow, weaving around the dozens of cars parked messily along the side of the road and barely avoiding getting hit by the ones that were still creeping uphill in traffic:

I just don’t need this kind of shit.

I Wish That I Could Go To Just One Party That Didn’t Have The Word “Birthday” In It.

Wait, did I ever say that I would actually post here on a regular basis? Is that really what people do when they have blogs – post things regularly?

They do?

Really?

Oh.

My bad. So anyway, Sarah turns three today – three! – and as you would expect we’re all pretty excited. Admittedly, the significance of this particular day might be stronger felt if we hadn’t been celebrating her birthday for a whole week already, but who am I to complain? The more parties the better, right?

Believe it or not, we’re the kind of parents who fully intend to keep these annual ceremonies small-ish and manageable. I’m looking for a word here – dignified doesn’t really work, not with children…tasteful, no… free of clowns, jugglers, balloon animals and bounce houses, too wordy…how about…underwhelming. Yes, that’s the word. We’d like to keep all of these parties underwhelming. The idea is that Sarah will grow up having learned the value of a nice, quiet evening spent with a small group of well-chosen, and ethnically diverse, friends. I’m thinking tapas. She’ll thank us, I’m sure.

Well, okay, so I’m kind of kidding. Bounce houses and jugglers are actually awesome, and Sarah has already shown an affinity for balloon animals (at least, those not attempted by me), so of course we’d never deny her the pleasures of a normal , whimsical childhood. We do still prefer to keep things small, however (and if a clown dares to come within 50 yards of us I will call the cops), but as any parent knows, what we’d prefer to do and what winds up happening are often two different things. Particularly when one factors in the needs of one’s extended family members, Sarah’s current schoolmates, and the kids and parents from her past “mommies” group – many of whom have already had you over to their kid’s birthdays so you know what that means.  Well I don’t know about you, but there’s no way that we’re fitting all these people under one roof in one day, so it looks like we’ll have more than one party – in this case, make that four parties.

We had our first party last Saturday, and I have to admit it went swimmingly. And no, it wasn’t at a pool, smart guy, it was at a gym, specifically the “Kidnastics” in Los Alamitos. Kidnastics, as the name implies, is a pretty straight-forward and self-explanitory concept, and if you need any advice or guidance as to what it entails then for you I feel only pity.  We have been going to this gym weekly, and it’s an absolutely fabulous time for all involved. This was actually a duel birthday party, an old playmate of hers having turned three a week prior, and was a co-production of the respective parents. You would think that that would lessen the workload, especially taking into account that both we and the other parents wanted to eschew all excessive elements (no gifts please, no decorations, and no party favors), but that would only have been the case if one parent hadn’t offered to make the cakes at home rather than buy one fully decorated, as is customary. That parent was a fool.

That parent was me.

I do all of the cooking around here, but baking cakes is not my thing. Oh, I’ve tried – I remember struggling two years ago on Lizzy’s birthday, hovering over a large mixing bowl with my cheap, Target-bought hand mixer, waiting what seemed like hours for the damned butter and sugar to cream. Well, I had no intention of doing that again, and vowed early on to use only store-bought cake mix, but I still wanted to do something nice. I knew there would be at least 15 kids so I decided to make a double-layer sheet cake, which I could then frost decoratively. Both kids’ names would be written, in perfect script, with icing.

Figuring out how many boxes of cake mix would be needed for the sheet cakes was a trick – it turns out two boxes will fill one sheet tray with a bit left over, which means that I would need to mix up four boxes, eyeball how much to put into each sheet tray and then bake either a small cake or several cupcakes with the leftovers. There was also the matter of adjusting the cooking time (since most boxes include directions for a smaller cake), baking them without overcooking the sides or undercooking the middle, and then – if I were lucky enough to get this far – inverting the cakes out of the trays cleanly without destroying them.

And yes, ultimately I had to run back to the store for more ingredients – not only because I wrecked one cake by undercooking it but because I realized, after staring at the sheet trays and going over the numbers in my increasingly panicky head, that I would not have enough to feed all the kids and the parents. So two sheets of cake turned into four (plus the one that I had to redo), and the amount of icing I had planned to make doubled.

[On a side note – if you’ve made cakes from a mix you know that you still need some ingredients – the first mix I bought required lots of butter, eggs and milk; the second (when I went back the store was out of the original stuff, natch) needed oil, eggs and water. Add to that the ingredients required to make the icing – 10x sugar, Margerine, shortening, milk, vanilla and food coloring – and you suddenly know with absolute certainty that anyone who says it’s cheaper to make your cakes at home rather than buy them fully baked and decorated is a complete ass.]

So ten boxes of cake mix, two dozen eggs, a bottle of vegetable oil, one pound of butter, a half pound of Margerine, six pounds of powdered sugar, a half gallon of milk and an immeasurable amount of shortening later, and I had my two cakes. Each cake was decorated in light blue and dusty-rose pink (initially designed to be gender-neutral but ultimately looking very pastel), and each read Happy Birthday!!! Isaac and Sarah in purple icing. A large candle in the shape of the number “3,” purchased at the local Ralph’s, would top off the ensemble.

As I said, the party went off without a hitch – the kids played happily while the parents chatted, we didn’t run out of pizza or drinks, and the wonderful staff at Kidnastics not only entertained and monitored the children while the parents gabbed, but also cleaned everything up at the end.

And, of course, we didn’t even touch the second cake.

So that’s one down and three to go. Sarah’s classroom is having a little thing today (another joint venture with a classmate), we’ll do something just the three of us this coming Saturday, and then we’re heading out to New England to visit the family where yet another party, this time with lots of alcohol and seafood on the menu (finally!),  awaits us. At this rate I figure we’ll be done celebrating some time this coming August.

Oh yeah – anyone need a cake?