Monday, July 27, 2015

NYC- visiting Family and Friends

We are back in NYC for a week, visiting family and friends and checking in our house in Yonkers (we are renting it out, because it made much more sense than selling it, from the financial perspective)  This is our first time back east as a family since moving almost exactly 1 year ago.

My new favorite candy store- better than Dylan's Candy Bar!
We got into Kennedy at midnight, and the bear was a complete trooper-- he didn't even sleep on the plane!  And then we arrived at my brother's house at around 1 am.  Fortunately they had the bed made up for us, and we got to tool around in Manhattan in the morning.  We found a great Lebanese fast-food place,SemSom  (which is an international franchise!) an amazing candy store, and my wife's favorite pastime, shopping!  There are 3 or 4 stores that are not in Chicago, ONLY IN NY, and she enjoys shopping the bargains there. (UNiqlo, Joe Fresh, and Muji)

We then went to Brooklyn to my brother's sister-in-law's house (confused yet?) to hang out with my other brother, his wife, their kids, and my brother's sister-in-law and her wife.  We had some fun time with them at a local park, followed by dinner.  My brother's sister-in-law and her wife are great people-- the kind of people that we choose to have as relatives!  They are expecting twins in the next couple of weeks, (to be named Gustave and Camille, to which my other brother apparently responded-- "Really?  Do you want them to be teased?  How about Bob and Mike?") which is that brother in pretty much a nut-shell.  Outspoken and without a filter!

After the playground we walked by a cool Brooklyn street festival on our way to dinner, where they closed off the street and put on Shakespeare in the middle of the street, which was pretty darned awesome!  They were doing Much Ado, and while the performance looked middling to good (to be fair it was their first performance!), they had a huge crowd, who were clearly enjoying themselves, so I say MORE POWER TO THEM!  Shakespeare in the Streets is something that should happen more often!  And it will a few more times On different blocks of the festival there was music and yoga classes and fencing and all kinds of fun stuff.

After dinner, we were so tired, that we ubered home rather than take the subway, which was financially unfeasible but physically necessary.

Fun at Le Pain Quotidien
Sunday  morning we ended up having 4 get togethers with various friends.  Early breakfast with my host brother and his wife at the always delightful Le Pain Quotidien (although my brother ended up not making it- not feeling well)  We then packed up and moved north to some friends in Yonkers who are out of town and lending us their car  and beautiful house for the week.  We then had brunch in Tuckahoe, an informal high tea (ice cream, iced tea, and cookies!)  on the upper west side, and then dinner with friends in Riverdale.  

It's so much fun to see all these people from our past and pick up with them where we left off. With most of them we have been keeping in touch via Facebook, but seeing how a kid has grown in a year (and how quickly the kids can just jump into playing with one another) is pretty awesome.

This morning was lazy recovery morning, but this whole week we've got a full schedule of sightseeing, friend seeing, theatre going (scored tickets to An American in Paris!) and in general fun fun fun times.  We then pack it all up and go on the road again to Rhode Island, my ancestral homeland, where we will do it all again!  I think I might need a vacation after my vacation!

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

BOOK REPORT: NatGeo Kids Guide to Photography

Book arrives in stores Aug 4!
My son (almost 7) has gotten very interested in photography. He loves to view my various photo accounts, and see all the pictures that people post on instagram, facebook, etc.  (Sometimes I have to do a little quick editing/flipping, because there are definitely some NSFW images floating around my social stratosphere. )

As for equipment, he's got my old disabled iphone, an Ipad, an older digital camera, and a discontinued flipcam.  In other words, this kid is loaded with equipment.

But having the tools doesn't make you able to see which photos are great shots, any more than having a paintbrush makes you a great painter. You have to learn to use the tools.  And you have to practice.

Annie Griffiths

I recently received for review a book that aims to help kids learn to use photographic tools. The book National Geographic Kids  Guide To Photography , written by awesome and experienced National Geographic photographer Annie Griffiths and accomplished children's author and editor Nancy Honovich, covers all facets of photography, from aperture to editing to composition to selecting your equipment.  (sorry kid, you've got whatever I used to have!)

 Hard to understand terms and tricky concepts are clearly laid out for kids to see and comprehend.

The book is written in short and easy to understand segments, and has a series of exercises after each chapter so that kids can practice what they are learning.  Tips are given, and even bad shots are dissected to see what went wrong.

Kids are also invited to (with their parents permission) set up an account and showcase their work on the National Geographic Kids MyShot site.

MYSHOT is the only moderated online photography community where kids can safely share photos, comment on each other's pictures, and take challenges from National Geographic editors.

This is a great book.  It's comprehensive, it's interactive, it's easy to understand, and it is the next best thing to having Annie Griffiths come to your house teach your kid a workshop in photography. (And that is probably prohibitively expensive!)

The book starts shipping on August 4, but you can pre-order it online at Amazon or you can pre-order it directly from the National Geographic store.  After August 4, it will be available in bookstores.

If you do get the book, let me know how you like it in the comments!

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Fantasia at Ravinia July 12 at 7 pm

Ravinia is the oldest outdoor musical festival in the US.  It's been going since 1904, and each year it attracts nearly 600,000 visitors to listen to world-class music.  My wife has been raving about Ravinia since I've known her.  Now that we live in Chicago, a trip to Ravinia has become a must.  So on Sunday our family is off to Highland Park for our first trip there, an afternoon of fun, music, and Disney.

Fantasia & Fantasia 2000 available on
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra will play the soundtrack for Walt Disney's classic movie Fantasia, and sections of Fantasia 2000. (which was a continuation of Fantasia, with the idea of giving more classical music the Disney Fantasia treatment)

The history of Fantasia is pretty fascinating and covered thoroughly (along with the CSO connection to Fantasia 2000) on the Ravinia blog.

We've got lawn tickets, which means that we'll be bringing a blanket and some chairs, as well as picnic stuff.  (according to the Ravinia Firsttimers guide, photographic/video equipment is NOT ALLOWED inside Ravinia, so don't bring your expensive cameras.)  There are restaurants, bars, gift shops, and other shopping available at Ravinia, as well as chair rental.  There's also a Pavilion which is under cover.  You see, at Ravinia, the rain falls mainly on the plain. (sorry, I couldn't resist!)

At most concerts at Ravinia, the stage is not actually viewable from the Lawn, but there will be a lawn-screen for this concert. Ravinia also will have fun stuff for kids to do on the North lawn, their "KidsLawn", with interactive exhibits, including a classic "instrument petting zoo." Sounds like a blast!

It's going to be an afternoon of lots of fun, and an evening of lots of great music.  Here's the program:

Disney’s Fantasia and Fantasia 2000                                       
Beethoven:Movement 1 from Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, Op. 67  
Movements 3–5 from Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Op. 68

Tchaikovsky:The Nutcracker Suite, Op. 71a

Debussy (orch. Stokowski):Clair de lune from Suite bergamasque

Stravinsky:Suite from The Firebird (1919 version)

Ponchielli:“Dance of the Hours” from La Gioconda

Dukas:The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Elgar (adapt. Schickele):Marches Nos. 1–4 from Pomp and Circumstance, Op. 39

Respighi:Pines of Rome, P. 141

To find out more and purchase tickets for Fantasia, visit the Ravinia site online.

Ravinia has a number of other upcoming concerts suitable for families, including Laurie Berkner, the Ko-Thi Dance Company, and a production of  Beauty and the Beast.  See their kid's concert page.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Free Performances of the Flea Circus in Chicago July 16 & 18

If you are looking for something to do this summer, let me plug my own show!

I am performing my world famous Flea Circus at two Chicago Parks this summer!

July 16 6:30 pm  Paschen Park (1932 W. Lunt St)

July 18 2 pm Pulaski Park
(1419 W. Blackhawk St)

COST: Free (seating limited, please arrive early)

Find out more!

Would love to see you at one of the two performances.

Please let your friends know, I'm hoping to have the parks bring me out for more performances, and it will help if I can get a big turnout at these two.


Friday, July 3, 2015

Medieval Times:- Dinner Jousting in Schaumburg.

Disclosure: I and my party were given a meal and free admission to this event.  As always, my opinions and critical view are all my own. 

Last weekend our family and some friends went to Medieval Times, a medieval dinner/jousting experience in Schaumburg.   It was a lot of fun!

The experience brings you back to an eleventh-century king's feast and tournament.  You get served a four course meal by a wench (well, in our case we had a self-proclaimed mensch- a male wench!) You eat with your hands.  You wear a crown.  And you watch knights ride around on horses, jousting and fighting for the championship.

When you go, you should go a little bit early to take in all of the pageantry.  As you enter, you are given a crown, and then  have your picture taken with a princess or a lord, for possible purchasing afterwards.  You are also assigned to a color (the color of your knight, who you will be cheering for)  You then enter a great ante-room, which is also the gift shop, bar, dance floor, and fun area.  (Yes, they make no bones about it-- here you ENTER through the gift shop.)

Before too long the king's minister came out to make some announcements, sounding like a medieval flight attendant.  Finally, you get to enter the arena,  which is approximately the size of a football field.  The arena is in the round, with tables and seats flanking the playing area, and go up probably 6 or 7 rows.  Every seat has a very good view.  I estimated that the arena can seat around 1000 people, maybe even more.

The food is served in between portions of the show.  The menu is the same for everyone-- chicken, corn, roasted potato, tomato soup, garlic bread, and a pastry.  No silverware, you eat with your hands just like eleventh-century nobility did.  My wife has some dietary issues, and they were pretty accomodating, with  gluten free and vegetarian options.  The food was quite good, especially considering that they were turning out about 1000 meals per show.  You can also get served libations, including ale, mead, wine, and soft drinks.  I am pretty sure Ye Olde Pepsi is not a medieval drink, but what the heck!

The show was fun, with lots of swashbuckling, horsemanship, and a falconry exhibition.  I joked to my wife afterwards that it was like a circus, but without the clowns.  (There was some chatter/repartee between the king and the princess as a lead in to some of the competitions, but it wasn't comedy.)  In fact, now that I think about it, it's a little surprising there was not a comedy element to this.  A jester lampooning  the jousting, or a comedy fire juggling act with a pre-renaissance feel would go over quite well.  (Shades of Game of Thrones!)

The stage combat was pretty good, and thrilling to see.  

Here's a 30 second video of the end of one of the swashbuckling fights:

And here's a video I took of 2 and half minutes of fighting, including some jousting!

As you can see, the fighting is pretty entertaining.

Over all, this is a great event for families, and group gatherings (work buddies, etc) My kid and his friends had a wonderful time.  (And so did we parents!)

There are nine castles throughout the United States, and my guess is that they will build a few more over the next couple of years.

To find out more about Medieval Times in your area, go to

Thursday, July 2, 2015

GreenApple Campus Camp-- Cool Contraptions

I thought we were all set for camp this summer, but then I heard from a friend of ours about a camp (GreenApple® Campus) that seemed too good to not try. When I read the descriptions of the classes to my son, he just about cried with joy.

As devoted readers will remember, my son is very excited by the Maker Movement.  We've been to a number of Maker Faires, and a couple of years ago, he was all about building mousetraps and Rube Goldberg machines after we saw the Life Sized Mousetrap  at Maker Faire NY.



These machines continue to fascinate.  So it's no surprise that my  son will be attending the GreenApple® Campus class COOL CONTRAPTIONS.  This invention based program is all about building contraptions, vehicles and machines that move. Gears, beams, pulleys, wheels, axles, pieces that snap and flex.  All of the kind of gizmos that will inspire the aspiring Rube Goldberg. (And will hopefully inspire him to use up the buckets and boxes of springs, cardboard tubes, rubber bands, and various detritus that he refuses to throw out!)

GreenApple® Campus is an educational not-for-profit 501(c)3 organization. Their mission is to inspire the innovators of the future through creative, challenging STEM or STEAM programs for kids. All of the classes, programs, and workshops feature some combination of science, technology, engineering, math, architecture, design, and invention.  Classes are offered in robotics, programming and app development, tinkering and making.  (And there are also some Lego robotics and Minecraft modeling classes!)

They also have an entrepreneurship startup program called Startup to Achieve for kids grades 6-9 that brings you the basics of being an entrepreneur (and very cool, one of those sessions is Just For Girls, so that gender stereotypes about girls and science won't be fulfilled.)

In the Chicagoland area, GreenApple® Campus has 4 locations, plus the StartUp to Achieve program is in a couple of different places.  Go to their schedule page to find out where their classes are offered and which classes are offered when.  They've got a lot of classes available, and I'm sure one of them will be right for your tech-hungry child.

DISCLOSURE:  We are being provided free tuition at GreenApple® Campus in order to try the camp out.  As always my opinions and my son's unfettered desire to build cool contraptions are our own.  I take my critical reputation seriously, and so should you.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Home Alone

I've had the last few days by myself, and it's been kind of nice and kind of terrible.

Here's what is going on:  Once we knew when school was going to end, my wife wanted to go to Florida to see her mom. And my son is always up for a trip to Florida, because his grandma has a pool in their complex and he can go everyday and eat McDonalds.  Oh yeah, and he loves his grandmother too!

I might have gone too, but there was a big circus festival in town, and I wanted to attend.  And it cost an extra $400 to go. And I'll see the MIL next month  in July and then again in August, which is plenty.  I don't have a bad relationship with her, (slightly contentious is probably most accurate) but too much of something is still too much.

So on Saturday, after our big awesome Lego adventure, my wife and son took off, and I went to the circus festival.  It was awesome!  I saw a bunch of friends, saw some amazing shows (I counted 10 shows that I saw in a 4-day span, and I was sad because I missed a couple.)  I also got to meet some new people, and in general had a lot of fun at the event.

For the last couple of days, I've been rattling around the house.  I've been sleeping late and going to bed late, and reading, and doing some of those things I was supposed to do while my wife was gone (but not all, honey.  There's still plenty left to nag about, don't you worry! :O) )  And not one RISKY BUSINESS moment at all!  I must be getting old!

This is the first time I've been home alone for an extended time in a while.  I generally like it, but I really do miss my wife and son.  The house seems so empty without them.

Before I had a kid, I spent plenty of time by myself, (I was a little bit of a hermit-- I could spend several days in my apartment by myself and never leave it)  I just don't remember it being so lonely.  I wonder if I was just inured to it, or that I've gotten used to having my family around.  Or maybe I really do love them that much!

When they get home, I'll probably remember all the things that bug me about them, but I don't care.   They get back on Thursday, and it can't be soon enough for me.