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So Weird: Business Trip

ST. LOUIS—I listed which kid was playing when with which friend after school. I loaded the dishwasher, finished the laundry, prepped menus and set meat out to thaw. I set the rice maker and walked the dog. Then I grabbed my suitcase and headed to the airport for my first business trip since the Clinton administration.

It feels really really weird.

I’m at the , a k a NICAR, and I’m away from home for five days. I flew on a plane by myself and didn’t have to take anyone else to the bathroom or retrieve impossible-to-reach dropped crayons off the airplane floor. My Lovely Bride has all the info on where I am, but really, nobody knows where I am.

It’s starting to make me twitchy.

When I was a newspaper reporter in New Jersey in the late 90s, there was a woman who would swoop in a couple times a year with some big story that would mobilize the whole newsroom and make the rest of us drop our work to help with hers. She would glean these A1 Sunday prizewinners from public records and spreadsheets that no one else knew how to handle. I remember puzzling over why she couldn’t come to work each day like the rest of us, and why she wasn’t working on a story for today, tomorrow and Sunday.

“What is her problem?” I wondered.

I realized years later that she was doing two things: making herself invaluable (on her own schedule) and probably raising a family at the same time.

I no longer misunderstood her. I wanted to be her.

I figured out that she used computer-assisted reporting to massage piles of data to find big stories – stuff that daily reporters don’t usually have time for. When she found that whitebread Morris County, N.J., was a serious heroin destination, our paper explored how it got there (I visited Newark Airport and wrote about drug mules) and profiled all the county residents who overdosed.

I knew this NICAR conference was the way to learn how to get started, so I shelled out for the plane ticket, the hotel and the conference.

My Lovely Bride has been hugely supportive of the whole thing. No, she said, I don’t have to pay for it out of my savings. Her lawyerly training worked in my favor when she invoked what she calls the “but-for test.” But for this professional training, I wouldn’t incur these expenses. In my mind, I justified paying for the conference with my November  and last month’s . (Dear Tribune Co., Now’s a good time to send the check for that one.)

One presenter talked about how he used public records to investigate a grass-roots group that supported a local utility’s new power line in its Southwestern Virginia community. (The reporter actually stood under the line and held up a light bulb – it lit up from the random electricity floating through the air. Yikes.) He found that, ironically, the local Sierra Club president also led the grass-roots power-line group. And that his PR firm worked for the utility that put up the power line. And that the power company actually set up the fake grass-roots group.

Gotcha! They were all in bed together!

That’s the kind of reporting that makes me twitch, but in a good way. I want to commit acts of journalism to help right wrongs and shed light in dark corners. But it took the reporter months and months to put it all together. And I don’t have months and months. I have laundry to fold. Things to do.

My jealous-o-meter started to go crazy as the guy told how he had reported this story in the late 90s at the Roanoke, Va., paper that had rejected me for an internship. He went on to The Star-Tribune in Minneapolis and then The New York Times’ Washington bureau.

I could have done that, too! What have I been doing for the past eight years?

Oh right, raising my children.

I decided long ago that being married was more important to me than being a great reporter. I just had to remember that. I figure the power line reporter spends way less time with his kiddos, if he has any, than I do with mine. I love good journalism, but not at the expense of my family. I guess I’m not that ambitious after all.

I started to react the same way you might during an internship or summer job that makes you realize you actually don’t want to do that kind of work. The amount of information at this conference is overwhelming. Maybe this isn’t for me.

But one presenter said to start with a stupid story, like what’s the most popular dog breed in your city, which you can find by nagging for a database of pet-license records. And you can find all the owners’ names and phone numbers in the licensing data so you can call them up. Reporters hate pet stories, but readers Eat. That. Stuff. Up. And you can run cute dog pictures.

Or you can get the electronic records from when judges swipe passes to enter and exit the court parking garage and find out how many hours they actually work. Confirm or dispel the perception that they don’t even work bankers’ hours.

So maybe it’s a while until I use federal workplace injury data to show that (made-up example) inadequate safety inspections are contributing to deaths among Baltimore emergency room employees and utility line workers.

But ya gotta start somewhere.

I can go up the Gateway Arch Whenever. I. Want. To.

In the meantime, I get to sit in a room with a bunch of reporters and soak up all their smarty reporter energy. Plus, I get to enjoy a few days where somebody else makes the bed. I can read a book uninterrupted, and I can take the tram up the trademark Gateway Arch whenever I want to.

P.S. Heartfelt thanks to the Gideons of St. Louis for helping me enjoy a beer without using a bottlecap opener by resting it against the door lock and giving it a few swift whacks with a Bible, which happens to be a good read.

Mount *%^$^& Washmore

Sometimes it’s a good thing that doing the laundry is the crowning achievement of my day.

Like today when I spent the bulk of the day procrastinating looking for my $&*@*!^% debit card, which I haven’t seen for four days. Ditto the credit card.

Poof! Gone.

It’s unlikely it was stolen. I last used it (according to my bank) Friday morning before the men’s Bible study I attend each week when I bought a $1.99 tub of dried dates for a make-ahead oatmeal recipe at the Giant across the parking lot from the Panera where the Bible study meets. Or maybe the last time I used it was when I made this month’s charitable donation to the Maryland Food Bank. (We’re trying to give x per month over the whole year to spread out the financial hit that comes from writing a bunch of checks at the end of the year.) I looked all over the my desk, where I spent the past two weeks on some . Twice.

I’ve stood on my head to look all over the car, but maybe looking at night isn’t the best approach, so I looked all through the stupid glove box and under the seats and in the console. I looked in every one of my coat pockets, twice, and threw them on the floor in anger. I cleaned off my bureau and nightstand and went through my catch-all basket. I even pulled up the sofa cushions and looked there. I went thru all the reusable shopping bags in the back of my car in case I dropped it down in one of them.

Can I mention how I capital-h Hate looking for things? And that I have to put on such a front when I tell the children things like, “Sometimes you have to look more than once” when they can’t find things that are within arm’s reach. Even if you already looked there.

Meanwhile, I procrastinated by decommissioning my compost bin and stuffing steel wool down the holes that I think rats have made and then breaking up up and mashing down the soil as recommended by a friend at the end of the neighborhood that really has a rat problem I cut a piece of leftover basement shower wall to go in the kitchen cabinet shelf where the flour and shortening and honey have made the shelf sticky (to make for easier wiping and to prevent damage to the shelf from leaks) and I’ve put away socks and laundry and cleaned up the kitchen. I’ve gone through all the Christmas cards on the back of the piano and made a big stack for Lovely Bride’s approval to toss, storing the rest in the Christmas boxes and updated the bulletin board by the back door where we put all the holiday card photos.

I even made pie crust for scratch to use up some leftover ham in a quiche.

This is some serious procrastination.

Then I prayed to my Lovely Bride:

O Dear and Loving SuperFinder, Please use your powers from afar and tell me where I’ve stashed these fool cards!!!

I finally gave up and accepted my lot in life of being capable only of arranging playdates and doing laundry. Felt something squarish in the back pocket of jeans I wore a week ago. Well, look! @&($&%& debit card!

Now I have 90 minutes to return overdue library books and do the week’s grocery shopping.

And there goes my whole freaking day.

A Sliver Of A Moment

Oh Dear God in Heaven, thank you for this sliver of a moment.

My children are not fighting. They are not bickering or talking back. They are not turning up their noses at the food I serve. Or battling me over wearing shorts when 30 degrees out. Or teetering atop a stack of boxes on the bed to put stuffed animals on the ceiling fan and send them for a ride.

Right now, they’re both taking a nap.

Or pretending to.

It feels like when they were 1 and 4 and I considered it my Crowning Parental Achievement to get simultaneous naps, if only for 30 minutes.

The stars have aligned, the snow has come and peace has descended on the land if only for a little bit. It’s not like at night when they’re in bed and I often kick into high gear – rearranging the linen closet or revving up the washing machine or just cleaning up the kitchen for the 87th time of the day. The kids had a choice, and they both opted to curl up with a blanket on the sofa. I was planning to kill the afternoon with a trip to the Baltimore Boat Show today, but that can wait.

Of the first 22 days of January, my Lovely Bride has been on a business trip for 10. I don’t begrudge her this one bit. It’s part of paying the piper for the job she has that allows me to stay home with the children.

And I sort of look forward to the time she’s away. I’m Supreme Dictator of the House, and there’s no co-deciding necessary. None of the “Do you want to fix supper or shall I?” or “Can you watch the kiddos while I go to the gym/do an errand/have three seconds alone?” (We both ask this one.)

I don’t go all passive-aggressive and leave dishes in the drying rack for two days hoping she’ll notice and put them away. And really, what kind of lunatic am I to expect that of her? Does she expect me to fix her office printer and know when to order more paper?

I find that I tap a sort of self-reliance I first found when I became an at-home dad and again when Carla was born and I had her as an infant and Eddie still potty training. There’s nobody else to put away the dishes, so I up my game and don’t let them linger. Nobody else to fold the laundry or file the bills. Nobody else to pick up the living room. Nobody else to ask whether we should go to the free kid-level lecture on reptiles at the college up the street or use a free ticket to a boat show (honey, I promise not to buy a $300,000 yacht) to while away the afternoon. Nobody else to say, does it sound alright to you if I see which of the we can get through Netflix and then choose titles out of a hat so the kids won’t drive me to drink with bickering over who wants to watch what and turn into Monster Daddy and say nobody can watch anything? Nobody else to help me rein in my kid-soul-crushing insistence on not eating like a caveman with the need for pleasant family meals.

Nobody else to propose that Eddie work off his $20 library fine for a lost book he simply doesn’t care to look for by working with me to organize his desk, toy work bench and night stand to my satisfaction. He knows he has a problem with organization – he agreed with no fuss! And when I told Carla that I was taking away all her stuffed animals for 24 hours for the ceiling fan stunt, she didn’t protest at all. She actually brought me a few more that I had missed. (Lovely pointed out that I hadn’t punished Carla; I congratulated myself for devising a relevant punishment.)

Lovely and I actually talk on the phone more when she’s gone. When she’s in town, she’s busy all day putting out fires at work. On the road, I check her itinerary and can see when she’s free for a few hours. Or we talk at night, and it’s like before we got married and had a long-distance relationship for three years out of five.

Oh, rats. Here comes Eddie up the stairs. He was so tired at lunch he couldn’t hold his head up. Now, four seconds after I tucked him in on the sofa, he wants to use the computer to look up HHGregg’s return policy for his Wii game that’s not working. And he wants to know what determines who gets the wild card slot in the AFC playoffs, and I haven’t a clue.

Okay, so I think I’m ready for Lovely’s return tomorrow.

 

The Cat Who Loved Cheetos

It must have been a warm night, because Blatty wasn't sleeping one inch away from Eddie's nostrils.

In his nearly two decades on earth, our Maine Coon cat, Blatty, saw the world, saved my marriage and endured over-affectionate children to no end. To show our love to him as we buried him yesterday, we put a jingle ball and two of his favorite foods: bacon and Cheetos.

He first came to us in 1996, about two years after he wandered into the New Orleans house of my Lovely Bride’s college friend’s roommate. When the roommate was moving from New Jersey home to Pakistan, Blatty came to live with me as I was moving to New York. He spent his first days living on the sly in a Times Square hotel, where my employer put me up while I looked for an apartment. I begged the housekeepers not to rat me out, and only once or twice did Blatty escape into the hotel.

He loved Alley Cat brand kitty kibble those first few days, but he beelined to my lap when I had muffins or Cheetos. He would lick-lick-lick off all the salty cheesy orange dust and then abandon us to barf on the rug. We learned quickly what not to feed a cat.

Our Pakistani friend named him for the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal, a monster in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy” that was so stupid that you could defeat it by putting a towel over your head. If you couldn’t see it, it couldn’t see you.

Alrighty then.

This cat saved my marriage. Only once, I think, but it was a big one.

I proposed in December 1996, and when I had bought the ring, planned the trip, chosen the venue and popped the question, I was READY.

“Let’s get married in October,” I said. “You know, football weather. It will be gorgeous.”

I drove my Lovely Bride to tears because I didn’t know she had other plans. Apparently, all girls are born with the perfect wedding entirely planned in their heads, like Athena springing forth fully formed from the head of Zeus. Lovely had always wanted a spring wedding, with an off-white empire-waist dress with cap sleeves. And no way no how was she planning a wedding while she finished law school and studied for the bar exam.

Boy did I step in it with that one.

She was in Washington, so I stuffed Blatty in the over-the-shoulder cat carrier and sneaked him on the Greyhound bus from New York, praying I wouldn’t get busted and left on the side of the Jersey Turnpike. She didn’t know I was coming. I hid when I knocked on her door and sent the cat sauntering in with a note on his collar saying “Will You Marry Him in April?”

She still has the note.

Years later, Blatty’s back feet started to slip out from under him, like his foot pads had lost their grip. We didn’t worry, though, because we figured that’s what happens to geriatric cats. And he hopped up on the sink for a drink less often. Lovely Bride and I always said that when he stopped sassing the dog – the dog looooooooves the cat; the cat hates the dog – then it was time for concern.

On Saturday, he parked on the living room sofa and stayed for two days without eating or drinking. When he disappeared Monday morning, I made Lovely look with me behind the boiler, where I always figured he would go. We found him in the basement with legs splayed, as if he went looking for the catbox but his feet gave out. Later I found him – poof – on the basement sofa, as if that’s where he wanted to be all along. Not sure how he got up there.

My Lovely Bride phoned the vet – when I couldn’t bear to – and found out they make house calls for situations like ours. We didn’t want his last moments to include a harrowing car ride (which he always hated) and barking dogs (hated them, too) and a cold steel table (ditto).

When the vet arrived, I had to ask him to park down the block so the kids wouldn’t see his VW bug painted up like a dog – complete with 4-foot-tall tail on the trunk – and know what was up. As I prattled on during the procedure, mentioning that Blatty had lived in New Orleans, New York, New Jersey, Washington and Baltimore, the vet tech said he was better traveled than she was.

The hardest part was seeing our poor cat suffer at the end – and then seeing his life end in a blink.

The other hardest part was telling the kids.

We had prepared them by pointing out that Blatty hadn’t moved for days because he couldn’t walk any more. He hadn’t eaten or drunk for days. For a couple of nights, certain he wouldn’t  make it through, we told them to say their goodbyes and give him and extra squeeze.

Carla had the predictably loudest and most immediate reaction, wailing deeply. “When can we get a new cat?” she asked two minutes later, still sobbing. Eddie crawled in my lap and got teary-eyed and red-faced. He’s the one I’m more worried about – he’s older and will remember more, especially missing how the cat’s favorite sleeping place was curled up in bed next to my 8-year-old.  Around Carla, who was jealous that the cat preferred to sleep with Eddie, Blatty started hiding after she once tied the him to her bed for the evening.  As Carla cried, she lamented all of the mean things she had done to the cat and railed that the cat had never liked her.

We tried to think of favorite memories to share. Lovely Bride remembered taking Blatty in the middle of the night on a New York City bus to the kitty emergency room after a large animal bit a hole in his head, thinking he was done for. Okay, genuine, but not the pick-me-up we were looking for. One time my mother gave us a book about training your cat to talk by using a voice like Minnie Mouse. (It worked – we didn’t need an alarm clock for years.) Then there was the videotape for cats, showing birdfeeders and aquariums and getting our cat worked into a complete frenzy.

The kids cracked a smile.

Then I remembered a bag of Cheetos, forgotten and stashed after a road trip, and the kids sprang off the sofa before I even suggested them as a snack.

We kept the kids home from school yesterday for a three-minute funeral, which I cobbled together out of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. It always seems to rain at funerals, but it let up just enough to let us have our little service. We went back inside and cranked up “Stray Cat Strut” to shake the blues away.

Then we ate more Cheetos.

Goodbye, dear puss.

 

“Stray Cat Strut”

Black and orange stray cat sittin’ on a fence
Ain’t got enough dough to pay the rent
I’m flat broke but I don’t care
I strut right by with my tail in the air

Stray cat strut, I’m a ladies’ cat,
A feline Casanova, hey man, thats where it’s at
Get a shoe thrown at me from a mean old man
Get my dinner from a garbage can

I don’t bother chasing mice around
I slink down the alley looking for a fight
Howling to the moonlight on a hot summer night
Singin’ the blues while the lady cats cry,
“Wild stray cat, you’re a real gone guy.”
I wish I could be as carefree and wild,
but I got cat class and I got cat style.

In Tears Over The Temperature

I almost would give my left arm if the weather would shift to winter already so Eddie and I could skip our daily battles over wearing shorts to school. If it’s 45 degrees in the morning, you can’t wear shorts. It’s freezing. You. Just. Can’t.

It doesn’t help at all that the TV forecast last night said it would be 70 today – and that Eddie saw the forecast.

This morning, Eddie put on shorts and a t-shirt. I thought having him walk the dog in that, in 40-degree weather, would make him say, “Gee, it’s really cold out! You’re right, Dad. I do need to wear long pants!”

Way to go, Passive-Aggressive Dad!

He comes back inside and doesn’t say a thing. My Lovely Bride chirps, “Eddie, your arms are like ice cubes!” (Well played, sweetheart, and I didn’t even tip her off!)

And then begin about five conversations about wearing pants on cold days, consolidated into one big exchange just for you, dear reader.

“It’s 45 degrees out. You need to wear pants this morning,” I tell him.

“But Dad, it’s going to be 70 this afternoon. The TV forecast said so.”

“No, I checked again this morning. It’s only going to be in the 60s. See? Wear pants. You’ll be fine.”

His face starts to get red.

“Dad, I need to wear shorts today. For the one-mile race. It’s right after school.”

“No, it’s not until 4 o’clock. Actually the girls go at 4, and the boys at 4:15. You can come home and change.”

“Can I wear shorts under my pants?”

“No. We’re not discussing it.”

The tears start to well up.

“But Dad, I’m going to be the weird kid on the playground! All the other kids are wearing shorts!”

“I don’t care. I care that you’re dressed appropriately for cool weather.”

“But Daaa-aaaddd!!” Cue the waterworks and wailing voice, cracking with despair.

“Eddie, whining and crying and lollygagging and disobeying are not the way to get what you want.”

It reached fever pitch when he dissolved in tears at the breakfast table for this umpteenth episode of Morning Battles With Dad. My Lovely Bride jumped in.

“Look,” she snapped. “I have to work late again tonight. And I had to work late last night. And I only get to see you kids for an hour. I’d rather it not be filled with barking and whining and tears. NOW QUIT IT!”

Sigh.

It’s really not about the weather. It’s about the whining and backtalk and following directions. Blowing your nose, making your bed, wearing pants versus shorts, whatever. When Dad says to do it, you do it! Really, it’s about parental authority.

I’m such a rules guy – except when I think they’re stupid. With Eddie, I just need some sort of guideline, or else we’ll be having this argument when it’s 20 degrees out.

“But Daaa-aad, my bottom half never gets cold. It’s my top half. I’ll wear a jacket.”

“You mean the one you lost at school two days ago? Well, you can wear the one with the broken zipper. But you have to wear pants.”

I know he’s resisting this because – like me with rules and laws I don’t want to obey because I think they’re stupid – he thinks this is stupid. But if that’s what Dad says, then that’s what you have to do! Uh, right?

Driving my 8-year-old to tears at the breakfast table was not part of my plan of how to be a good father. I just don’t know how to find a reasonable compromise without letting my parental authority completely evaporate. First obey, then we’ll discuss. But if you whine and cry and scream, the discussion is over. This problem is not going to go away. What should I do?

Finally it’s 8:32 – past time to get out the door. Eddie runs upstairs to get his Star Wars book to read during free time. The minutes pass. I send Carla out the door to walk with the neighbors we take turns with in the mornings. I run upstairs to find Eddie on the floor in his room, shoes off.

“WHAT ARE YOU DOING!!!!!!?????”

I scoop up my 8-year-old and his jacket and his shoes and haul everything down the stairs.

“I had an itch. I needed to scratch it!”

“Alright, but not NOW, Eddie! Your friends are waiting and you’re going to make them all late for school!”

I tell the friends to go ahead, that I’ll walk him later.

And what are the neighbor kids wearing?

Shorts.

Ugh.

What a great way to start the day.

There She Goes Again

Ah, fall. The time of back to school, cooler weather, football and… business trip season for my Lovely Bride.

She usually travels for work in October and early November and then again in late January and February. This year started early, however, because she’s one of six chosen from 400 for a leadership development program held with another university on the West Coast. Factor in travel days plus visits to her prospects in the Northwest, and she’s gone all week.

I don’t begrudge her this time at all, because it’s energizng her in her work, which provides well for our family. And really, it doesn’t change my routine one bit. While the kids have been at school this week, I’ve kept busy with another freelance article (assigned on Thursday, due on Tuesday – awk!), and we’ve had workers cutting holes in our attic walls all week installing central air conditioning. (I want to drop the window units out of the third floor window, but it would probably crack the patio.)

The hardest part comes after the children go to bed. Then there’s nobody else to help with the dishes, the laundry and walking the dog. There’s nobody to talk to. And worst of all, there’s nobody else to fold the damn socks.

Because of the time difference and the intensity of her class, we’ve been limited to just a few minutes on the phone when the kids get home from school and she’s got a few minutes for lunch. Then when Lovely Bride called last night, I got verbal diarrhea:

Me: TodaywewenttotheAmericanIndianMuseuminWashingtonbecause

schoolwasclosedforRoshHashanahandthekidsloveditbutgotoutofhand

acouplatimesandtheACguyscouldn’tputtheductthroughyourclosetsothey

hadtoputashinytubethroughEddie’sroomthatwe’llhavetodrywallaround

andthenewspaperheldmyarticleforaweekandmightaskmetomakeitintosomething

elseentirelyandIgotthestationwagon’srotorsresurfacedbecausethebrakes

werepulsingandnowitmightcost$1,000toreplaceacracked“subframe”andI

gotanatticinsulationestimatethismorningbecauseweshouldseeaboutthat

whiletheatticisalltornup,don’tyouthink?

Lovely Bride: What?

I try to limit the whining about her absence, especially after I ran into a friend whose husband is in India for two weeks. Turns out she stays up way when her spouse is away, too, because there’s nobody to go to bed with at night. And compared with military spouses whose loved ones are gone for months or a year or more, I really have nothing to complain about.

I have tried to man up and call in some chits for a little relief. Neighbor pals watched Carla while Eddie had a soccer game Monday and practice Wednesday. And I used some “baby bucks” from our neighborhood babysitting co-op Tuesday night so I could go to a meeting for our neighborhood.

It was a big step for me to actually ask for help instead of just suffering through and dragging my 5-year-old to soccer and then snapping at her to quit acting like a dirt monkey. When I’m actually paying attention to what she’s doing, that is.

The National Museum of the American Indian was terrific, but the kids almost liked better throwing rocks into puddles on the National Mall.

During our Washington museum trip yesterday, I brought along neighbor pals Caleb and Tina. They’re the same ages as Eddie and Carla, so it’s a beautiful matchup. It actually keeps my kids out of my hair better when playmates keep them busy, though the excitement made the 40-mile interstate drive a wee bit hairy at times.

My kids were crestfallen when I made them go inside for supper the minute we got home – at the very moment neighbor kid Harris came scootering up the sidewalk. I was honest with Eddie: I didn’t want him to go out because I couldn’t bear fighting with him when it was time to come in. If he could promise to come in without complaint, then he could go out for half an hour. Ditto Carla, whom I dumped with a mom across the street watching her kids play outside.

Okay, they both said.

But then when I came to fetch Eddie, he flung his scooter down. I grabbed it and told him I was taking it away for three days because he knows not to throw it.

“But YOU made me lose the race!” he wailed.

Huh?

“I don’t care about the race,” I told him. “I care that you don’t break your scooter after I told you not to throw it down like that.”

“But the more you remind me, the more I forget!” he cried. Cue the waterworks.

“But Eddie, I didn’t remind you. Time to come in.”

Lovely Bride reminded me that spitefulness and gotcha aren’t two of the best parenting tactics in the book. Yes I know, I answered, but I thought we agreed no more nagging from Daddy.

We both sighed.

She gets home Saturday morning on the redeye and will get some shuteye while each kid has soccer. Then it’s overnight to Virginia for my dad’s 75th birthday party.

Then on Sunday we get to be a family again.

All four of us.

In our own home.

Fun In The Sun

Today I chuck my full-time job as at-home dad to share my article in The Baltimore Sun. One editor rejected an August pitch about how parents can survive the waning days of summer without eating their young, but he said a project with bloggers writing about cheap weekends still needed a Mommy blogger.

Ahem.

You mean a parenting blogger?

I’m one of four local bloggers in a package about the ultimate cheap weekend. See the or jump straight to .

A few ideas got cut for lack of space. Others are less timely as the weather cools. But file them away for next summer, because they were huge hits with my kids.

So here are the bonus ideas for you.

At no extra charge.

STREAM STOMPING

Nothing suits a warm fall day like a trip to Baltimore County’s Double Rock Park. Point your GPS to the corner of Texas Avenue and Glen Road in Parkville, and drive to the second play area in the back. In Stemmer’s Run, the wide stream down a steep slope behind the bathrooms, your kids can chase tiny fish, build dams and drop football-sized rocks into shallow pools. And like my 8-year-old son, try in vain to smash the tiny fish.

Meanwhile, you can marvel at the dense woods and wonder if you’re still in Baltimore. Teens might text their pals how lame nature is, but younger kids will probably go for this. Wear shoes you can get wet and swimsuits you don’t mind getting dirty. And don’t forget the bug spray and a change of clothes.

HOURS: dawn ’til dusk

8211 Texas Ave., Parkville, Md., 21234

BABY COWS

Answer at least one of your kids’ incessant questions with irrefutable proof and show them where milk comes from. Inside the shop at near York, Pa., which sells ice cream, baked goods and other dairy items, start your self-guided tour by looking on the wall to find papers with dairy farm facts. Out back in the “milking parlor,” watch workers attach machines to beachball-sized udders as cows give eight gallons of milk a day. Wait until the red doors open, then step around the storage tanks and stand your kids on milk crates to see.

Afternoon milking time starts daily at 3. Then children often like to help bottle-feed a dozen enthusiastic calves at 4 p.m. My kids jumped when they felt the calves’ tongues, which were muscular, ropy and sandpapery all at once.

Then sit at a picnic table as your kids run off their ice cream crazies in the corn maze for a while.

HOURS: 7 a.m. – 9 p.m. Monday – Saturday; Sundays 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

90 Indian Rock Dam Rd., York, Pa., 17403; 717-741-3485

BEACHES IN BALTIMORE

Don’t want to go take a hike? Head to the other end of Maryland and try the . Just north of where White Marsh Boulevard meets Pulaski Highway, head four miles east on Ebenezer Road past Rump Shaker Farm.

No, really.

Halfway along the park’s 1.2-mile loop you’ll find ample parking, dozens of shaded picnic tables and a long sandy beach. Along this wide stretch of the Gunpowder River, a few miles north of where it joins the Chesapeake Bay, my children spent five hours in and out of the water, building sandcastles and harassing Canadian geese. For $3 a vehicle, there’s hardly a better bargain in Baltimore.

It was hard to get my kids to stop to eat – except the $1 a scoop ice cream at the snack bar, which also serves hot dogs, hamburgers and snoballs. Walking to the nearby watersports area – which rents kayaks and other water gear starting at $15 an hour – I saw the area needs better trash pickup. The best part: my 5-year-old daughter napped on the ride home.

HOURS: 8 a.m. to sunset

7200 Graces Quarters, Chase, Md., 21027

PICK YOUR OWN

Show your kids where food really comes from by visiting a . (Find .) For listings by county, scroll down and click on the map. Try our family favorite, Shaw Orchards, on the state line. Even as toddlers, my children could pick blueberries and strawberries — more landed in their tummies than in the buckets. This month, expect apples, pears and melons. Before you go, check online to see what’s ripe.

HOURS: Monday – Friday 8-6, Saturday 8-5, closed Sundays.

21901 Barrens Rd. South, Stewartstown, Pa., 17363, 410-692-2429

Blow Your @$%*& Nose!

Does your kid produce this volume of tissues in 2 days?

I don’t know what it is with my 8-year-old son that renders him unable to blow his nose. To my satisfaction, that is.

All I want is for mucus to actually leave his head so I don’t have to hear that horrible shnurking sound of someone who can’t find a tissue. And of someone who’s going to damage his ears. And I want him to blow his nose more than once on the tissue and not just ball the thing up after a half-hearted, mucus-free blow.

Yes, I know I’m stark raving mad to actually care about this. And I pride myself on not hovering over my children, to mixed results. But if you had to listen to the shnurking as much as I do, and you went through tissues like we do in my house, and your kid left balled up tissues all over creation, you’d start to micromanage the nose blowing, too.

At first I just pecked and pecked at him.

“Eddie, blow your nose.”

“No, actually blow.”

“Don’t just wipe and toss.”

“You have to let your nostrils be open for the mucus to come out. Don’t pinch your nose shut the instant you start blowing. Then nothing comes out! Now come here, and I’ll help you blow your nose.”

Eddie: “Da-aaaaaddddd!!! Owwww!”

It got so bad that my Lovely Bride finally blew up – at Eddie and at me. It’s not like I enjoy it, but no more nagging on the nose-blowing, she said. And no more leaving snotty tissues on the floor, she told him, unless you want Daddy to send you to nose-blowing class. (We threatened a real-live, pay-for-it manners class last month, but it would have ruined the last week of summer.)

I’ve tried being really positive when he does a big snotty blow.

“Yaaaaaay! What a good nose blowing! Doesn’t that feel so much better?”

But it sounds really fake. Then he drops the tissue on the rug and the celebration ends.

Try using a trashcan, kiddo.

I finally realized that it’s about obedience and listening. And I know I’m just like Eddie – if a rule or law is stupid, then I shouldn’t have to follow it. Like going 60 on an interstate or our elementary school principal’s reminder not to walk dogs to school with your children because they might frighten other kids.

I just want him to realize that on little things like this, I’ll get out of his hair a lot quicker if he just sucks it up and follows directions.

Months ago, we had a big bed-making brouhaha, and I just didn’t get it. When I was growing up, if Mom said to make your bed, you made your bed. Why put up a fight? Now I embrace it as a way to straighten up your room, get ready for your day, and, most importantly, not crawl back into bed. So I made Eddie miserable over taking both pillows off, stretching the sheet tight, folding it down at the top, smoothing out the comforter and getting both pillows back off the floor. Eventually, I learned to accept just about anything as a made bed, except when it has a huge lump in the middle. Just get it done.

Of course, now Eddie is old enough to ask why you have to make your bed when you’re only going to mess it up again at the end of the day. Sigh. Because I said so, that’s why!

So with the nose blowing, it’s kind of the same thing.

You just can’t go around shnurffling all the time. And you can’t pinch your nose shut as soon as you start to blow because you might as well not blow at all.

So if I tell you to blow your nose, then BLOW!

Oh, and we’re having him tested by a pediatric allergist next month. Maybe there’s a pill for this.

Today, I’m A New Yorker Again

Ten years ago, this morning, I passed through the World Trade Center on my way to work. My shift started at 7 a.m., and I changed trains there every day to reach my office in Jersey City. Being in the news business, my coworkers and I got word of the attacks immediately. I phoned my wife at work in Upper Manhattan and told her to turn on the news. Before I knew it, my building was evacuated with the instructions “Go West!”

We didn’t have cell phones, so I called my parents in Virginia and she reached hers in Atlanta, and they got word to Lovely and me that we each were okay. I’ll never forget how incredibly blue the sky was that day – primary election day and the first day of school. I had left the windows up in our Brooklyn apartment, and I worried I would find our dog and cat covered in ash.

When we started dating, people asked when we were getting married. Then at the wedding in 1998, people asked when we were going to have children. In 10 years, we told them, just to shut them up.

September 11th changed that.

What were we waiting for?

On September 11, 2002, my Lovely Bride and I had left the country. The pain and memory were too fresh and intense, and we wanted nothing more than to loll about for two weeks in our Happy Place, the South of France. So we did.

We had intended the trip as the “Conception Tour.” I was hoping it would take a lot of practice to make a baby. We didn’t know, however, that my Lovely Bride was pregnant before we left. Eddie’s first cells were built out of mussels, red wine and coffee. Whoops.

Now in 2011, my wife and I were desperate to get out of the house after a week of rain, and I wanted to avoid coverage of 9/11. We found ourselves out for a late afternoon hike at Oregon Ridge Park outside Baltimore, and we noticed a couple of things. There were a number of planes flying eerily low, which happened for weeks after 9/11. We finally have kids old enough to do fun, spontaneous outings with. And hiking was exactly what we were doing in France a year after 9/11. Looking back, we realized she was so tired that day because she was newly pregnant with Eddie!

This year, we debated how much to tell the children about September 11. Previously, we shut out nearly all news of it. This year being a big anniversary, however, we decided our 8-year-old could handle most of it. Just no pictures of the people who jumped. Our 5-year-old had been asking questions she could hardly put words to, making me think she doesn’t understand much about what was going on. But she can understand that bad people slammed planes into incredibly tall buildings, which made lots of people die when they fell down.

We want our children to know about this event that their parents lived through.

That changed us. And changed our country and our world. Hurtful history, but family history.

Our history.

This morning, all four of us watched the memorial on TV, and my wife covered their eyes at parts of ABC’s rebroadcast of its coverage 10 years ago. I don’t think Eddie needs to see a 110-story building being vaporized. Neither do I. Horrible as it was, it was comforting seeing all those surviving family members read the names of those who died. The Brooklyn Youth Choir singing “America the Beautiful” sent me over the edge, though.

Later for church, I couldn’t decide if I wanted to wear an I Love New York t-shirt and grab a bullhorn and tell people all about it – or if I wanted just to hide. I took offense 10 years ago when people called it an attack on America. I felt like it was an attack on my city. Maybe now because I don’t live there anymore, I realize the nation’s outreach to all New Yorkers was genuine and deserved. When the first church song today was “How Great Is Our God,” I just lost it. I squeezed Eddie to me and wrapped my arm around my Lovely Bride and reached for Carla. This is why I’m here. Maybe not to win a Pulitzer, but for this woman. And these children of ours.

It irritated me at first that all of Baltimore was thinking today only of football, and the Ravens’ home opener against rival Pittsburgh. But walking out of church, I welcomed the distraction. I spent the day remembering. I spent the day honoring the living, too, by going on with life. And so did the whole family.

Here, Carla makes "Seven Grape Juice" my mushing up -- wait for it -- seven grapes. Tasty, but a half-ounce of juice just doesn't satisfy.

I fixed quesadillas for lunch. Eddie played the Wii. Carla made “Seven-Grape Juice” (??!!?!) and lost a tooth as the Ravens pounded the Steelers. I jumped up and cheered at her gap-toothed grin. I pestered my son about unloading the dishwasher and keeping his elbows off the table. I fixed my rain water barrel and watched Carla and a friend give new life to my sister’s 70s-era Barbie Dream House with a psychedelic paint job. Lovely Bride painted a desk. Then she and I actually fixed supper together, which we don’t get the chance to do much these days. And after supper, I threw the football with Eddie in the alley. He actually asked if I would.

Because Daddy had no fight in him today, kiddos got mucho screen time.

I told the kids at dinner tonight that I sobbed because I was sad for all the people who died, but also because I realized I have so much to live for. The Twin Towers were really big, and the awful things that happened that day were even bigger, but God is even bigger than all that. And he loves my children and me and Lovely and all the people who died and even the highjackers.

“What’s a highjacker?” Carla asked.

“The people who crashed the planes into those buildings. On purpose,” I said.

“Do you love the highjackers?” Eddie asked.

“No, but I guess I should try. But God does, and that’s because he’s God, and I’m not.”

I really miss New York today.

Thank you, Mommyland!

Growing up in my house, we were die-hard, unreconstructed thank you note writers. Even if I had just gushingly thanked a blood relative — in person — in his or her home — every year for Christmas and birthdays, we wrote thank you notes ASAP. So, nearly two months later, I thank the good folks at for running a guest post I wrote.

Two months ago.

What can I say. Summer ate my brain.

Before the snarky snarks of Mommyland ran my post, you could count my daily web traffic on your fingers and toes. A Big Day meant more than 50 hits. Then they ran my post, and my readership went through the roof. For me, that is. The next day, I got 1,599 hits or page views or reads or whatever you call it. That’s more than in the previous year and a half put together. I picked up 17 subscribers. I gotta write for them more often!

The solidarity and support was overwhelming. When my 8-year-old had a Wii meltdown, you folks told me I handled it well! (Except for the at-home dad and self-described “gamer” who lives in my neighborhood, who praised his 6-year-old’s computer skills and told me I was too harsh. Fair enough.) You expressed thankfulness for your own husbands who stay home with the kiddos. You inspired me to write more. Maybe I can turn all this into a book and make a dollar or two.

It was as if the internet gave me a big hug.

I felt like I’ve been discovered.

The next day, my blog traffic was about 500 hits, still epic for me. Then about half the day after that and half again the next day. And then school let out, and my workload went way up, and the writing went way down. (People ask if it’s easier being an at-home parent in the summer. Umm, no. Try breaking up squabbles every 12 minutes and dealing with purposely contradictory children who never want to go to the pool at the same time. Never mind that we actually have a pool membership this year.)

The wax and wane reminds me of a story I read in elementary school, “.” In it, a lab mouse and a low-IQ janitor undergo some experiment that temporarily triples their intelligence. It wears off eventually, and both return to their limited mental state. Rants from Mommyland gave me a big run, but now I’m back to being just regular old me.

Thank you, Mommyland!