Archive: Summer Vacation, June 2008

[pulled from material found on]

What I did on my summer vacation

Saturday June 28, 2008

Categories: Varia

Well, we're back, and before I tell you all about it, let me advise you that if you are traveling with three small children, it is not a good idea to start the day with a five-hour drive down the Jersey Turnpike, followed by five hours of traveling on an airplane. Because see, the things you need to make such an experience valuable -- Xanax, Stolichnaya -- also increase the chances that you will have a meaningful encounter with state authorities, to say nothing of with other cars on the road (which may not be such a big deal if, like us, you happen to be driving a rented Canyonero, but still).


Oh, and a BIG thanks to Erin for nine days of splendid blogging. It's such a blessing to be able to leave this here blog in such expert hands when I have to be away. She really should have her own blog, don't you think? Except scratch that; who would look after Crunchy Con in my absence? Never mind.

Well, onward. A couple of days before we flew off for our Baltimore-Washington-NYC vacation, I said to Julie, "I'm not really looking forward to this vacation." She replied, "Think of it not as a vacation, but a trip. It'll lower your expectations, and you'll be able to deal with it better." That proved to be good advice. In fact, things turned out better than I expected, but it was still pretty exhausting for Mom and Dad, it must be said. We have gotten to the age, and so have our kids, when "vacation" really does need to be a week at the beach, and nothing more demanding.

But Julie had a conference at Johns Hopkins she wanted to attend, and I had a business-related thing to take care of in Manhattan, so we decided to make a family vacation of it, and see old friends along the way. I ate well and learned a lot. What follows is a short(ish) travelogue about crab cakes, cassoulet, the most singular and amazing toast paste in the world, Orthodox Christianity and Orthodox Judaism, museum rip-offs, the cost of housing, traditionalism, osso buco, astonishingly good red wine, bresaola, not being able to go home again, rediscovering home you didn't realize you had, and the singular unpleasantness of driving on the New Jersey Turnpike. I think it's worth a read. You decide.

We flew into BWI Airport and rented the aforementioned Canyonero (actually a Dodge Durango, which was so comically huge that we christened it the Canyonero instantly, and made fun of it the whole time, even though by the end, I kind of, um, liked the behemoth). We canyonero'd down to Washington, installed ourselves in the Omni Shoreham in Northwest, and took the kids to the National Zoo.

The great thing about the National Zoo is that it's free. The bad thing, at least that day, was that it was too damn hot for many of the animals -- including the pandas -- to show themselves. We'd all had enough of that before long, and trudged back to the nearby hotel, with the boys whining about having to do all that walking. We reminded Matthew that when we lived in New York, he walked from home to the Brooklyn Bridge, and across it and back with no problem -- at age two! Living in a place like Dallas, where nobody whose not homeless walks anywhere, really does soften one up. I say this sitting here at my desk with my hips and knees aching from all the walking we did the last week or so.

Later, I said goodnight to Julie and the kids and went downtown to meet and have dinner with my Beliefnet colleague, Beltway man of mystery David Kuo. I've thought about this, and I believe I can say confidently that if our wives ever tired of us, I would gay-marry that David Kuo. He had me at "cassoulet." We started our conversation talking about our shared love of cooking, and I asked him what he liked to cook. He said autumnal dishes, like cassoulet. He didn't know that I'm such a cassoulet fanatic that I once stopped in Paris on a trip back from the Middle East, just to eat good cassoulet. David and I had a great time over dinner, talking about food, travel, conservative politics and Jesus. We also had a fantastic bottle of Italian wine, a 2004 Montepulciano d'Abruzzo, which was really one of the more memorable bottles I've ever enjoyed. You always hope to have evenings like that, with good food and great company.

The next morning, we parked the Canyonero at Union Station, and ambled to the Air & Space Museum, where aviation-fanatic Matthew went off like he'd washed down a mouth full of Pop Rocks with a gargantuan swallow of Coke (which killed Mikey, the kid from the Life Cereal commercial, by making his head go all splodey-dope, I don't care what says). Julie and I were feeling all good about the public museums in Washington charging no entry fees, which make them so accessible to families, when we decided to have lunch at the Natural History Museum's cafeteria, known to us now as Home of the Seven Dollar Slice of Pizza. I heard myself talking like my dad ("This is highway robbery," etc.) How I wish we'd have gone to the supermarket, bought bread, peanut butter and apples, and made lunch for the kids ourselves. How often I would think that over the course of the week that followed.

We trudged over to the Newseum, which I really wanted to see, not least because some 9/11-related quote of mine is etched in stone on an exhibit, I'm told. I was in the mood to feel better about my profession, given how catastrophic the news about the newspaper business is these days. So we get there, and find out that it would cost $53 for us to go in (the two little kids would have gotten in for free). Er, no thanks. You could buy a whole pizza at the Natural History Museum for that! I was surprised how much the fat entrance fee to the Newseum bothered me. I don't expect a private museum to let people in for free, but good grief, $20 for any non-pensioner over 13 to go in to see a museum about an industry fewer and fewer people care about anyway? Come on.

We went back to Union Station and met our old pal Terry Mattingly, who hopped into the Canyonero with us and guided us back to his place in suburban Baltimore, where we stayed with his wonderful family for the next few days. "You're TMatt!" Matthew said, putting a face to the name he knows via reading over Dad's shoulder at the computer. Terry is a big advocate of public transportation, and now, having driven in rush hour Washington traffic, I understand the point. Driving Julie back and forth from Hopkins on Saturday and Sunday for her conference, and having to wend my way through Baltimore in the Canyonero, I was reminded of how much I hate driving. (Though I did pass a Subaru that had a bumper sticker saying, "Draft SUV drivers first," and had a troglodytic Red State urge to roll the window down and flip the dude off; the Canyonero was getting to me).

On Sunday, we joined the Mattinglys at Holy Cross Antiochian Orthodox Church, their parish, which is pastored by our old friend Fr. Gregory Mathewes-Green. It was a moving experience to me to be able to receive communion from him. If you've read his wife Frederica's wonderful book "Facing East," a memoir of learning to live and pray as a member of an Orthodox parish, you'll remember me as "Rod the Journalist," who came to Pascha liturgy once upon a time. Through my friendship with the Mathewes-Greens, I've been a part of this parish, in a manner of speaking, for almost 15 years. The last time we visited, back in 2002, it was painful to have to leave during the Sunday liturgy, which was so beautiful, and the preaching so powerful, and go fulfill our Sunday obligation at a Catholic parish, which was thoroughly modernist, ugly and dispiriting. But on this Sunday, we were able to stay, and to commune.

During the liturgy, listening to the incredible choir, I had an unexpected feeling: I found that I missed my home parish, St. Seraphim, something fierce. I'm not sure why. It certainly wasn't because of any deficit in Holy Cross, whose worship was superlative and sense of community palpable. Whatever the reason, I reflected on how much I love my own parish and its people, and how much has been given to me and my family in that parish. I have never in my life known this sort of thing, of being fully a part of a local community of believers, and I was surprised to discover in somebody else's church how dear my own had become to me. That was an unanticipated blessing, one that has stayed at the forefront of my thinking this last week. (More on which later).

That afternoon, while Julie was at the conference, I took the kids over to renew an acquaintance with an old Louisiana friend who is now an Orthodox Jew (N.B., he was born and raised Reform, but embraced modern Jewish Orthodoxy; which means, in part, that he's quite conservative in his religion, but liberal in his politics). We had a long conversation about the religious paths we'd both taken since our youth, and how we'd both ended up in traditions that are quite alien to the ones in which we'd been raised -- and traditions that are very, very minority ones in America.

Of course my friend N.'s embrace of Modern Jewish Orthodoxy -- and a particular kind of Orthodoxy (i.e., these are not black-hat hasidim) -- makes him, his wife and child a tiny minority within a minority. And the requirements of faithful observance of his religion are far more demanding than are mine. We talked for a long time about the challenges of preserving our separate Orthodoxies in the lives of our children, and grandchildren, and the vital role having a community plays in that process. We spoke of how difficult it is to live with any sort of meaningful tradition amid corrosive modernity. And we spoke of how difficult it is for we who have chosen these traditions to raise children who don't assert the right to make another choice, as we ourselves have chosen.

I left N.'s place determined to read more about how modern Orthodox Jews make lives for themselves and their communities within a contemporary context. How are they "in the world, but not of it" (as distinct from the more cloistered Orthodox Jews of the hasidic communities)? Is this feasible? Is this sustainable? N. rattled off some dispiriting (to him) statistics showing that the only Jews who are maintaining high levels of marrying Jews, and having Jewish children beyond the replacement rate, are the ultraorthodox. He said that even the modern Orthodox like him are "believing like Orthodox, but having families the size of Conservatives."

Taking my leave, I picked Julie up at the university, and we all drove back to Frederica's place for a party in our honor. We had the most wonderful time, truly; Frederica's daughter Meg, who lives with her husband and kids in the area, had thoughtfully bought only beer and wine from the region. At one point, after dark, Frederica and I wandered over to their nearby church, and saw Lucas and a little boy he'd befriended, the son of former parishioners who were back in town that weekend, running around on the suburban lawn chasing fireflies. It was a Spielbergian moment that nearly brought tears to my eyes.

And let me tell you what nearly drove me to my knees in awe. On our last night in suburban Baltimore, Terry took us to eat crab cakes at the G & M Restaurant and Lounge, a neighborhood place not far from chez Mattingly. TMatt raved about the crab cakes there. I've had good crab cakes before, but child, child, nothing prepared me for these. These Arcadian lumps, each the size of half a softball, were, no kidding, among the most delicious things I have ever eaten in my life. I couldn't believe how good they were. It was pure rhapsody. This was the Platonic ideal of the crab cake. I couldn't stop talking about them, and in retrospect, have to thank the Mattinglys for their kind indulgence of a motormouth foodie who had hit upon a taste of nirvana. You can mail-order those crab cakes, by the way, if you follow that link. They ain't cheap. But oh man, oh man...

We went back home, and I prodded Terry to tell stories of his interactions over the years with U2, about whom he's been writing since they were nobodies. He ended up relating one of the best rock and roll stories ever, though one not involving him: it's about a pick-up drummer in the crowd at a 1973 Who concert, who volunteered to play after Keith Moon passed out mid-concert and was out for the evening. I'd never heard of this, but you can see documentary evidence on YouTube, of the first notes this fan, Scott Halpin, played with the Who. Amazing stuff.

The next morning, we pointed the trusty Canyonero northward, and headed towards New York City. I don't know how this happened, but about halfway through the journey, I saw a "Welcome to Bucks County, Penna." sign on the side of the highway. "Oh no," I wailed to Julie -- because see, we'd already passed the Welcome to Bucks County sign about an hour earlier, going in the opposite direction. Somehow I'd gotten turned around, and we'd double-backed, adding about two hours more to our trip, in the end. As Julie, who was suffering from a gran mal allergy attack, said to me later, "If you hadn't felt so bad about it, I would have strangled you." By that point, no court on earth would have convicted her.

After many tolls and much angst, we finally pulled up outside of the Hotel Wales on the Upper East Side. We'd had friends who'd stayed there before, and really liked it, and it was the most affordable hotel we could find that could accomodate all five of us (our government stimulus check stimulated the Manhattan hotel industry). And it was well-suited to our needs: Julie had a business appointment in the neighborhood, Lucas was desperate to see the arms and armor exhibit at the nearby Metropolitan Museum, and we were scheduled to have dinner with friends who live only a 10-minute walk from the hotel.

As it turned out, the Wales was an excellent choice. The staff could not have been friendlier or more helpful, and the room was perfect for us. What's more, the downstairs restaurant is Sarabeth's, which makes the most insanely delicious scones. And it's a few blocks away from an old favorite restaurant of ours, Le Pain Quotidien, to which we repaired as soon as we got settled. Since we were last there years ago, LPQ has developed its own line of hazelnut paste, called Brunette (it's like Nutella, without the chocolate). We tried some on bread while we were eating there, and the whole family became instantly addicted. We bought a jar to enjoy back in the hotel, with the intention of my going back to get some to take home. Later, on our last morning, I decided I didn't have time for that, that we would just order some on the Internet. But it's not for sale on the Internet! Man, I'm sure regretting that.

That first full day back in the city, Julie and I thought, "Why did we ever leave?" The Metropolitan Museum and Central Park are such treasures. But Day Two started with us taking the subway to Brooklyn to visit the old neighborhood and old friends. It was hot and very, very crowded, and a near-complete pain in the tuchus to navigate with three small children. We'd taken a cab the evening before across the park to have dinner with other friends, and the total for both cab rides was $20. It's just so dang expensive, and problematic, to live in NYC with three kids, we concluded, at least on any salary available to me. The rewards of life there are significant, but so are the costs.

Anyway, Brooklyn was wonderful, as we expected. We dropped into our old Maronite parish, the Cathedral of Our Lady of Lebanon, but the clergy we knew and loved there had transferred. I knew Fr. Marini, who baptized Matthew, had transferred out, but I was surprised to discover just prior to our trip that our beloved Msgr. Ignace Sadek, for whom Lucas is named (one of his middle names), is now teaching at the Maronite seminary in Washington. We'd intended to visit him while we were in DC, but couldn't get back into the city. That's another big regret.

Nevertheless, I prayed at the Shrine of St. Charbel there in thanksgiving for this parish, its clergy and its people, and for its continued flourishing. We can't thank them, and God, enough for what they meant in my family's life.

We also stuck our head in Sahadi's, the Middle Eastern market on Atlantic Avenue that had been a regular haunt. No place else smells like Sahadi's, the air perfumed with spices. Julie talked to Charlie Sahadi, telling him how much we missed his place. He asked where we'd come back from. "Texas?" he said. "That's quite a shlep, my dear." We said hi to the folks at Damascus Bakery a couple of doors down, but were disappointed that our friends at Heights Chateau wine shop weren't in. We stopped by Book Court, our dear independent bookstore, and bought some stuff. Then we met our old pals Werner and Rita Cohn for lunch, and were thrilled to see them. They're the kind of people you want to be when you get old.

Then it was up to the Brooklyn Heights Promenade and its playground to meet more old friends. Truly, the years we lived in Brooklyn were blessed. Yet most of our friends from those days, the ones with kids, have left for elsewhere, for much the same reason we did: it was simply not affordable. Sad, but that's life. We subwayed back to the Upper East Side, took showers and headed over to our friends' place for dinner. I'd wanted to take a bottle of that incredible Montepulciano as a hostess gift, but wondered how I'd find it in NYC. Wonder of wonders, a wine shop two and a half blocks away from the Wales had several bottles. You can get anything in New York!

This dinner was truly the crowning glory of our vacation. We got to visit the indefatigable Father Wilson, who was at table, and met other wonderful new people. On the menu: osso buco, bresaola, an astonishing organically grown Chilean red wine that exceeded even the Montepulciano. We finished with eaux-de-vie, and if the kids hadn't been exhausted, and facing a long trip the next day, I'd probably still be at table. Again, one lives for times like this. There is little better than being at a table with good food, good wine and good friends.

The next morning came far too early. We packed, and had a quick visit with our erstwhile Dallas friend Mitch Muncy, who now heads the Institute for American Values. He and his family recently relocated to Princeton, NJ, and it did my heart good to learn how well they're doing there. Too soon, the Canyonero came back from the valet, and we had to tell Mitch and NYC goodbye. The drive back to BWI was far less eventful, thank goodness, and we made our flight with no complications. But it was a very long trip, and when we pulled into our driveway in Dallas after 10pm, all the kids were asleep, and Julie and I were dead on our feet.

Sadly, the sunlight the next morning revealed that our cucumbers have nearly succumbed to the triple-digit temps that afflicted Dallas in our absence (this, even though our faithful neighbor watered our garden). But we were very happy to be home.

In fact, I was surprisingly happy. I confess that I don't love Dallas. I don't love the heat, I don't love the architecture, and I don't love the flatness. I love the Washington area, and I love New York City, both places I've lived before. But I do love the people of Dallas, and I love my church, and I love that it's possible to live here in Dallas in a normal house without going deeply into debt to buy housing. (How do people do it? How do people live in the Washington suburbs, paying $300,000 for ordinary houses, and often more?) I sometimes think about what it would be like to move back to NYC or Washington, but this trip revealed to me that such a thing would be more difficult than I could have imagined. For all the things that drive me crazy about it -- for instance, the fact that since we returned, we've all been struck by horrible allergies, in that usual Dallas way -- Dallas has become home to us. And that's not something you give up lightly.

Well, look, I just see that I'm already late for Sunday liturgy! That was my vacation story. Regular blogging now resumes.

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