Summer vacation

Isn’t funny how the anticipation grows for a vacation, and when it’s over you’re thrilled to be home. That’s how we’re feeling tonight. Or maybe that’s just how we feel after our whirlwind Wisconsin vacations.

I think perhaps whirlwind is an understatement when it comes to describing our latest six-day affair.

Let’s start from the beginning …

My graduate class, meetings and magazine proofing filled my calendar Monday. I worked a full day, and it was past 5:30 before I could get home to join the packing party. For the record, I was going on about four hours of sleep because I’d been up until nearly 2 a.m. the night before working on graduate homework and preparing a presentation for my class.

And talk about a big news day last Monday …

Kates and I had hoped to be out of the house by 5 -- 6 at the latest -- but it's never that easy. In 10 years of vacationing and road trips, I don't think we've ever departed when we planned. After all, I didn’t leave work until around 5:30.

As it turned out, very little about this trip went according to plan.

Nevertheless, Kates and I finished packing our clothing bags -- which of course includes two little girls now, and their accessories -- and I loaded the car with all of our camping gear. When we finished, there was barely enough room to put the girls. We were packed to the gills, as they say, and pulled out of The 'Ville around 8:30.

Right off the bat, we got two gems out of Phoebe's mouth.

First, “We’re going to Iowa, baby!" -- because our plans called for driving as far as we could into Iowa and spending the first night of our vacation in a hotel.

The second ...

“Phoebe, let me know if the trunk pops open and things start falling out, ok?”

To which Phoebe responded, “Well, then you're going to have to stop.”

By 11:30, we were nearing Des Moines and began looking for a place to stop for the night. But to our surprise, the parking lots were full at hotel after hotel. And when I stepped inside to check for available rooms, the clerks reported that all rooms were occupied. We must have stopped at hotels along four or five exits, and took a swell driving tour of downtown Newton, Iowa, before we found a place around 1:30 a.m. in Grinnell, a good 53 miles north of Des Moines.

Really, we lucked out. It was a cozy, well-kept Best Western, and we got it for almost $20 cheaper than any of the other places we stopped. We also got a great night's sleep.

* * *

Tuesday morning we reloaded the car and checked out of the hotel just before the 11 a.m. deadline. We stopped for some bunch and gas at a convenience store. Then it was off to our next destination: The Farm.

As we drove, we fired up some movies for Phoebe on her DVD player. And Faye just ogled at her monkey mirror. In the meantime, Kates accompanied me and took care of the music on our iPod.

Lately, I’ve reached a point where I’m tired of my playlists and I'm retreating to the days of listening to albums in their entirety. The really good ones. The favorites. The Grammy winners. … I pitched the idea to Kates of listening to albums, from beginning to end, and she was game. I threw out titles, and she either picked from those or selected her own favorites. …

The move conjured some sweet reminiscing about pre-marriage days and weekends of driving across northern Illinois to see each other and going to church functions, popping homemade CDs into the car stereo, listening to them all the way through and then replacing them with another one plucked out of the three-inch-thick CD case that was always with me in my car. Those were the days.

Funny thing about that last album, though. Kates and I love the last track on this album -- “Don’t Stop” with the USC marching band. The iPod played the second-to-last track, “Tusk,” and the anticipation surged between us as we waited for the grand finale to kick up. But then the iPod went silent. Apparently, when I recently reset my iPod, “Don’t Stop” was left out. Our hearts sunk at the thought we wouldn’t hear it – arguably one of our favorite road trip tracks – during this trip.

* * *

We were forced to make our first pit stop of the day in Solon, Iowa, when Faye began crying out of hunger. So while Kates and Faye solved that issue in a gas station parking lot, I decided to take Phoebe for a short walk through the vintage downtown. We ended up at a quintessential got-everything hardware store, occupied solely by a gray-haired woman who I presumed was the store’s manager. And Phoebe, wasted no time telling the woman our family’s life story, about how we were on our way to Wisconsin to go camping and her mom was feeding Faye in the car.

The story telling went on for so long that I ended up feeling compelled to buy something out of gratitude for the poor woman who stood patiently listening to Phoebe. Out of my wallet I pulled out a few dollars and bought Phoebe a purple flowered pinwheel that she had been playing with in the store. In an instant it was her new favorite toy.


And oh, by the way, the town also had a newspaper. ...

By mid-afternoon, we had traveled into Wisconsin and took a lunch/rest/bathroom break at a Culver’s. With Faye needing to eat again, Kates stayed in the car with her while Phoebe and I headed inside to order food. There, good ol’ Pheebs was at it again – bouncing around the restaurant and telling stories to the teenage girls behind the counter.

Adding another element to the fun, she shouted repeatedly, “We all scream for ice cream! We all scream for ice cream! We all scream for ice cream! …” Finally, one of the girls filled a spoon with a sample of the flavor of the day and handed it to Phoebe. But that stopped Phoebe in her tracks, she turned shy and refused to accept the spoon. … So I happily accepted the spoon on her behalf and downed the sample myself.

* * *

We arrived at The Farm around 5, where Kates’ parents were preparing dinner. Uncle Rod and Aunt Helen were on their way with Great-Grandma P.

I’ve professed our love for The Farm and its secluded qualities on this blog before. Unfortunately, our stay this time lasted less than 24 hours, but it was refreshing nonetheless. Phoebe always enjoys playing with the vintage toys and raiding the video cabinet of Disney animated classics on VHS.


More importantly, our visit was a chance to introduce Faye to her Great-Grandma P. Really, that was the primary reason for the entire trip. Phoebe and Faye are blessed by the fact that all four of their great-grandmothers are still living, and we managed to spend significant time with all four of them – with keepsake-worthy generational photos to prove it and show to the girls when they’re older.

After seeing Great-Grandma P. at The Farm, we saw Great-Grandma S. and Great Grandma R. in Sheboygan on Thursday and Friday, respectively. We saw Great-Grandma H. as we started back toward The ’Ville yesterday morning.

Age is catching up to them, making every chance we get to see them that much more special – and the lost opportunities ruled by the long distance that separates us that much harder. Every meeting is always memorable in its unique way.

Great-Grandma S. has a tendency to suddenly break into song, especially lullabies when the kids are around. As we stood around her in her room at Aunt Ruth’s home, Great-Grandma S. held Faye and broke into a sweet lullaby.

At Great-Grandma R’s house – her “Mad Men”-esque late ’50s ranch – the joy was in watching Phoebe run and play in huge back yard.

With Great-Grandma H, the joy was purely in watching her hold Faye, her namesake, for the first time.

* * *

We said our goodbyes to Kates’ parents and The Farm after an outdoor lunch on the deck Wednesday and hit the road again.

We made a late afternoon pit stop in Montello, Kates’ birthplace. We stopped at a convenience store on the main drag so Kates could feed Faye. We grabbed some supper at the store, and Phoebe led me on walk to admire the quarry.


Our next stop was one of our favorite camping destinations in this country, Kohler-Andrea State Park, nestled near Sheboygan on the shore of beautiful Lake Michigan. But the camping part of it was sort of secondary. The whole point of going there was to take advantage of some opportunities to see many family members Kates and I have in Sheboygan.

And this is when the excitement really began. Because we had been so looking forward to leisurely days at our campsite, hikes through the campground and along the Lake Michigan dunes, building sandcastles on the beach and swimming in the lake.

But none of that happened.

Still, perhaps the coolest thing to occur throughout our trip happened as we approached the park entrance around dusk Wednesday night. There, near the gate, was a pack of deer that stood still and watched us as we drove by, almost as if they were saying, “Greetings and welcome to the wilderness!” It was an epic moment.

As we drove the interstate and approached the campground, we could see storm clouds and lightning flashing in the distance. But I was betting the building storm was going to miss us to the north. Kates and I wrestled with the idea of checking into another hotel for the night – if only to ensure Phoebe’s happiness and to keep our camping gear from getting soaked. Ultimately, we decided to just go for it – the camping that is – and chalk up the storm to a part of the natural experience.

As I checked in at the office around dusk, I asked the park rangers what they knew about the weather that night, and they, too, predicted the worst would be north of the campground. But they also pointed to another large storm cell to the west that appeared more likely to hit the campground.

So, we located our campsite, and I worked quickly to unpack the car and set up our camp as the storm clouds got darker and the thunder grew louder. Kates and I set up the tent. Kates headed inside with the girls, and I began shoveling sleeping bags, duffel bags and other camping accessories into them.

I finished just in time. Moments after I stepped inside the tent, the sky let loose with a rush of rain and the thunder echoed loudly above us.

And there was Phoebe, standing straight as a board, arms at her side, fists clenched and crying, “I wanna go home! I wanna go home! I wanna go home!”

Faye, meanwhile, lay kicking in her Pack-N-Play, eyes wide open, wondering what all the fuss was about.

All we could do was sit in the middle of our tent and wait it out – as the water running under our tent made its floor feel something like a water bed.

Then, we started thinking of all the things I failed to retrieve from the car. Snack food and Phoebe’s activity bag among them. Eventually, there was a break in the rain and I made one more trip to the car.

About that same time, Phoebe announced she needed to go the bathroom. Fortunately, a set of pit toilets was within eye shot of our campsite. To save time, we let Phoebe go without shoes, and I scooped her up for the hike to the bathroom. … But about halfway there, I stepped into ankle-deep water. The road had flooded and all I could do was trudge through it to get to the bathroom. Phoebe did her thing, I carried her back, walked through the flood waters and promptly grabbed a towel to clean my feet back at the tent.

Then the rains came again. This time, Kates kept Phoebe calm with some bedtime stories while I finished setting up the inside of our tent.
Phoebe and Faye slept easily through the night. Kates and I couldn’t say the same. We tossed and turned all night – and the rain just kept coming. It rained steadily until about 5 or 6 Thursday morning.

Phoebe would have slept until noon had we let her.


* * *

With our camp site drenched and our bodies suffering from a lack of sleep, we dressed, loaded the kids in the car and headed into town for breakfast. At McDonald’s.

After all, we hadn’t packed much food and planned to go grocery shopping for our camps meals Thursday morning, knowing we were going to arrive at the camp late Wednesday. … At McDonald’s Phoebe was thrilled to get her “pan-a-cakes,” as she calls them. I always enjoy the breakfast burritos and Kates had a plate of biscuits and gravy. Camp food would have been preferred, but on this particular morning, a McDonald’s breakfast never tasted so good.

After a run to Target for our camp food and some supplies, we headed back to our camp. According to plan, Kates’ cousin, Jessi, rolled in with her two little ones a few minutes behind us. We were looking forward to an afternoon of catching up and playing at the beach.

Again, that’s not what happened.

During an earlier pass through the campground entrance, Kates and I thought we saw a notice posted about the beach. But we didn’t read it closely and shrugged it off. … Jessi brought with her the news that the beaches were closed because of high E. coli levels. Wonderful.

While Kates and Jessi babbled on, I made sandwiches for the kids. And nearly melted under the hot sun. At some point, we also decided to put Faye in her crib in the tent for a nap, only to hear her crying fiercely a few minutes later. When I went to the tent to check on her, she was burning up and I immediately pulled her from the tent for some air. I shudder to think what could have happened had she not started crying and we left her in there much longer.

To say the least, the kids were getting restless and it got to a point where we had to get out. We had to do something. … The kids wanted to go swimming. So Jessi presented us with the option to drive into one of the nearby towns for an afternoon at the community pool. It sounded like a great idea, we loaded up the kids and headed to the interstate again.

But as we headed south toward the town, dark storm clouds were swirling in front of us again. They only grew darker as we approached them. And then as we exited the interstate and arrived in town, the sky let loose a downpour – the kind that impedes your vision and pretty much forces you to pull off to the side of the road.

At this point, I’m thinking, What drought!?

We kept driving, though, and eventually pulled into a Culver’s parking lot. There, we sat in our vehicles – us in ours; Jessi, her kids and Aunt Ruth in theirs – until the rain let up enough that we could move into the restaurant. Inside, the dining area was nearly empty as the employees gathered around the entrance watching the storm.

We bought the kids ice cream and some sides for ourselves and proceeded to spend the next couple hours taking up room in a set of booths, mostly catching up on each other’s lives and swapping baby stories. In the meantime, Phoebe and Isaac literally marched around the restaurant counting and singing the ABCs.

By 4 in the afternoon, the sky had cleared. While us adults would have been content to go back to the camp, the kids had been looking forward to swimming. They were crushed by the mere suggestion that we wouldn’t go. We didn’t know the status of the community pool, whether it was open and whether more rain was on the way. But it was worth a try.

It turned out, in a week of so many memorable moments – not all for the right reasons – that our time at the pool Thursday evening, arguably, was the best of them all. It was a wonderfully designed pool with waterfalls and fountains and water slides and inviting shallow areas for small children. It was more like a mini waterpark than your standard community pool.

Phoebe wasted no time wading into the water, and I couldn’t help but follow her. We splashed and chased each other. We swam under the fountains and water falls. She practiced jumping off the deck into my arms, and I teased her by counting down but sometimes counting out of order. It was classic father-daughter time, and it was so refreshing.

We gathered our things and left as the sun was setting. Polka music was starting up and the smell of bratwurst was coming from the grills as the annual German Fest was starting at the adjacent city park. From there, we headed to Aunt Ruth’s for pizza and our visit with Great-Grandma S.

It rained again that night, causing another restless night of sleep.

* * *

Friday morning our vacation time was waning and becoming more of a final sprint to see the rest of the great-grandmas and a few remaining family members before returning to The ‘Ville. We spent most of Friday at Great-Grandma R’s house, playing in her back yard, relaxing on her deck, dining on Subway sandwiches for lunch and of course capturing some family photos. That evening, my parents joined us back at our campsite and Dad grilled up some of his famous hamburgers. We took a stroll around the campground and visited the beach …


As we were saying our goodbyes to them, Orrin and Kelli arrived, pitched a tent for themselves and stayed with us through the morning. It was their first meeting with Faye. We roasted marshmallows and made s’mores. The time went way too quickly.

The next morning my alarm went off at 6 a.m. I was determined to get our camp packed and be on the road by 8. We had a 10 a.m. appointment with my parents in Lake Mills to meet up with Great-Grandma H., and I had work I needed to get back to at home. We had to be in our house before the day ended.

On a mission, Kates and I packed up as much as we could while the girls continued sleeping. Then, once the girls were awake, Kates took care of them, Orrin helped me take down the rest of our camp. We managed to have the car packed within a couple hours. Beyond that, I was just impressed I got everything – even with some additions we'd picked up since the start of our trip – stuffed back into our car.

Before hitting the interstate we stopped yet again at a convenience store for food and gas. … We found my parents at our designated meeting spot around 10:30 and then followed them out to Great-Grandma H’s home. Something of a repeat of our Easter weekend visit, it was a special visit, made even more special to see her meet and hold Faye.

A couple hours later, we were on our way again. This time, we were heading home.

Like an alarm clock, Faye was crying for food and forcing us to stop almost exactly every two hours.

And we’d spent so much time at fast food joints and convenience stores that I don’t want to get near any more for a long, long time. We stopped at a Dairy Queen for a late lunch and an Arby’s – amid more rain – for a late supper. I’m literally sick of fast food.

As we crossed the Iowa-Missouri state line, we could see another storm building and lightning flashing ahead of us. It was only fitting after all of the storms we faced. We thought surely The
'Ville was getting showered, but that last one never hit, going southeast of town instead.

We rolled into our garage at almost exactly midnight. We had arrived before the end of the day, as I had wanted. 

We carried our sleeping girls to their beds. Then, I proceeded to unpack the car in a zombie state of my own, piling the duffel bags, toys and grocery sacks in the kitchen.

We slid into bed around 2 a.m. And that was our summer vacation.


How sweet it is ... again

In my concert experiences, it's almost always better the second time.

That was the case last night as Kates and I left the kiddos with a friend and trekked to Kansas City to see the one-and-only James Taylor at the famed Starlight Theatre. It was our first outing post-Faye, but her and Phoebe were well-behaved and Kates and I thoroughly enjoyed a night as adults on our own.

The first time we saw James Taylor, back in Chicago, Phoebe and Faye were nowhere on the horizon – nor was moving away from Chicagoland. Yet, we were running late the night and barely skirted into our seats before the show started. And afterward, I remember feeling slightly disappointed by the singer-songwriter’s song selection that night. Don’t get me wrong, it was a great show – it’s James Taylor! But I wanted more.

Last night, I was fulfilled.

Ninety-five degrees and sunny, Taylor arrived on the stage to a standing ovation and then, as he did in Chicago, took a few moments to greet fans in the front rows and sign autographs. Then, with an accomplished 11-piece band behind him, Taylor fired up a 25-song concert that covered his array of hits while moving back and forth from rocking blues to lovely serenades. (On a sidenote, the security presence was noticeable at the entrance to the park and at the ticket gates after what happened in Colorado Friday night.)

Bill Brownlee put it well in his review for The Kansas City Star … 
Drawing on material culled from over four decades of recordings that have made him a revered figure among millions of baby boomers, the masterful singer-songwriter entertained and uplifted fans for over two engaging hours. His elegant sensibility was as refreshing as a bottomless glass of cool water on a steamy July evening.

The innocuous blandness that weakens much of Taylor’s work was largely absent during his 25-song performance. He opened the show with a clever feint. “Hey Mister, That’s Me Up On the Jukebox” is a song about a weary man lacking inspiration. Taylor, by contrast, seemed wholly energized. He danced like a carefree fool on “Sun On the Moon” and chatted about his inspirations for classic material like “Sweet Baby James.”

When he pulled out “Carolina in my Mind” – after telling the story of how he grew up a huge Beatles fan recorded his original version for Apple records – Kates and I looked at each other, both with chills running through our spine. There’s nothing like when a voice you admire so greatly and have heard on the stereo countless times comes alive, and Taylor performed the song wonderfully, with a quartet of backing vocalists delivering some golden harmonies.

As usual my amateur video doesn't begin to do it justice.

Country Road” featured a rocking guitar solo and some commanding drums. “God Have Mercy on the Frozen Man” featured flute and brass. “Handyman,” one of my guilty pleasures in Taylor’s catalog, featured Lou Marini on saxophone. And “Steamroller” included some dazzling instrumental jams on trumpet, organ and guitar.

Taylor’s backing band was simply superb. It featured percussionist Luis Conte, who’s played with Madonna and Phil Collins. Drummer Steve Gadd has played with a range of greats from Paul McCartney to Bon Jovi and on Steely Dan's classic Aja album and Simon & Garfunkel's famed Concert in Central Park. There was Grammy-nominated jazz keyboardist Larry Goldings had played with Norah Jones and John Mayer. Marini was a member of the original “Saturday Night Live” band.

Taylor drew a huge ovation, rightly so, after performing “Fire and Rain” and closed his first set with “Sun On the Moon.” Before performing the last song, he doled out some of his humor, announcing the intermission and adding, “I don't know why we do it. All we do is go behind the curtain and stare at the clock for 20 minutes.”

When Taylor returned to the stage, I was kicking myself for not bringing one of my records. In Chicago, he signed autographs briefly before starting the show and then did it again for a lengthy – bordering on annoying – amount of time before the second set. He did the exact same thing last night. … From where Kates and I were seated I would have had a straight shot to the front of stage. And for as long as he worked the crowd, I’m quite sure I would have had gotten in there. The thought of grabbing a record and Sharpie passed through my mind before Kates and I left, but I let it go, thinking there wasn’t a chance I’d get close enough.

About midway through the second set, Taylor played one of my favorites and one we didn’t get to hear in Chicago: “Mexico.” Taylor and the band put a fresh, Cuban flare on the song, which highlighted some brass and Conte working the conga drums.

A few songs later, Taylor delivered my other lasting favorite from his career and another he didn’t play in Chicago: “Your Smiling Face.”

Then he closed his second set with the classic “Shower the People” and a surprisingly upbeat version of “How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You” that had the crowd on its feet and dancing.

For the encore, “You’ve Got a Friend” had the crowd singing along, their voices echoing through the venue. The backing vocalists, while performing the hand-jive, added some spunk to the fun “Not Fade Away.”

After a bow, Taylor and his backing vocalists gathered at center stage for one more. A sentimental favorite of mine and Kates, the beautiful “You Can Close Your Eyes.”

We headed home, listening to James Taylor on the iPod and feeling fulfilled.

The setlist
“Hey Mister, That’s Me Up On the Jukebox”
“That’s Why I’m Here”
“Carolina in My Mind”
“Country Road”
“The Frozen Man”
“Handy Man”
“Little More Time With You”
“Slap Leather”
“Sweet Baby James”
“Fire and Rain”
“Sun On the Moon”


“One Man Parade”
“Anywhere Like Heaven”
“(I’m a) Road Runner”
“Another Day”
“Secret O’ Life”
“Your Smiling Face”
“Shower the People”
“How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)”

“You’ve Got a Friend”
“Not Fade Away”
“You Can Close Your Eyes”


Birthday Mad Libs

So it's Kates' birthday week.

We celebrated yesterday by taking in the lunch buffet at our favorite local pizza joint and then with an ice cream cake last night. We'll be hitting the town Saturday evening for some sweet music, too.

One of the other highlights: A Mad Libs birthday card Kates received from Chloe.

When completed, Kates' Mad Libs story went like this ...
Dearest Faye,

Happy birthday to the most silly chair in the whole wide cow! I hope your cheerios come true on this cloudy day. May your year be filled with joy and shoes. I hope you know how proud I am of what a cute carpet you have become. I can hardly believe you're turning 4 years old! My, how the babies have flown. I hope you spend your special day doing something that will make you feel dreamy. With any luck, you'll get that newfangled husband you've been saving for! Happy birthday, my darling park!

Hugs and dogs.

Your friend, Phoebe


Great Recession’s impact on young adults a sad song

So I read this today. Good stuff.
Here’s a test, boomers. Play “Born to Run” or “Can’t Buy Me Love” for your adult son or daughter. Chances are they’ve heard the tune.

Then ask to hear their music. Chances are you’ll have no idea what you’re listening to.

If that describes you — or me — our curfew may be closer than we think. We can love “Twist and Shout,” but it’s time we heard our kids’ music, too.


Mad dreams

So I was having some crazy dreams last night.

And I think I’m suffering from “Mad Men” withdrawal.

Since we finished Season 5 the other night, the series kept crossing my mind throughout the weekend.

I don’t remember much about the dreams I had last night. I just know they weren’t happy dreams. I remember standing around a table in the offices of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. I think Joan, Don and Peggy were there. And we were fighting about something.

The next thing I remember – and I’m not sure if it was connected to the “Mad Men” dream or if it was connected to another unrelated dream – is me sitting up in bed like a gunshot. I shouted a quick, loud “Hey!” My arms and hands took some kind of ninja pose.

Just as Kates was walking back into our bedroom from feeding Faye.

I startled her so badly I nearly gave her a heart attack. To her, I was reacting as though I thought she was an intruder, but I’m clueless about what caused me to sit up and react the way I did. Kates put her hand to her chest and said, calmly, “It’s just me. There’s no one else.”

I don’t remember lying back down. I don’t remember Kates crawling back into bed.

I have no idea what happened.


Call it whatever

So I introduced Kates to "Call Me Maybe" over the weekend. Now she can't get it out of her head.

It's the biggest hit of the summer. Hands-down.

Unbelievably, Kates had not heard of the song. ... Although, I'll give her some slack. She has spent much of the summer caring for Faye and Phoebe, who spends most of her days watching a mix of PBS kids and the Food Network.

Kates' discovery was spurred by a friend's posting of the Cooking Monster "Share It Maybe" spoof that boomeranged around the interwebs last week.

See it for yourself ...

And today, another spoof popped up. This one comes courtesy of the Star Wars saga.



The madness of Mad Men

So one of one of our summer projects has been catching up on “Mad Men” this summer.

We dove into the madness with the launch of Season 3 and fell in love with it. We could hardly wait for Season 4. But we only managed to catch part of it. Because our TV blew up. We lost track of “Mad Men” and other assorted television programs we liked to watch. Yada, yada, yada …

So thanks to AMC’s Sunday morning “Mad Men” marathons during the spring and the launch of Season 5, we managed to record every episode, from the beginning. We now know how it all began. We got to bask in the joys and sorrows of Season 3 again – I still say the Season 3 finale is the best episode of the series – and we are caught up on all of the latest drama of the Drapers and the venerable Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.

In the meantime, here's the entire plot of the first four seasons in a handy, way cool 7-minute video ...

Hands down, “Mad Men” is my favorite show on television right now. Not since “Lost” ended have I been so entertained and addicted to a series. Once the excitement of Faye’s birth died down, Kates and I got rolling a few weeks ago and we were watching two or three episodes a night, sometimes staying up until 1:30 in the morning. If sleep wasn’t so important, we might have pulled a couple all-nighters. “Mad Men” is like a good book you can’t put down.

Last night, we cleaned the final two episodes of Season 5 from our DVR, and we’re eagerly anticipating Season 6, whenever that may be. Although, now that I think about it, the season sort of ended on a nice note, if, for whatever reason, it doesn’t make it back.

Then again, as Rolling Stone wrote of the finale ...
Joan has found a larger work space for SCDP, and the shot of her with Pete, Roger, Don and Bert all standing in a row, looking out at their new view, was not only an incredible visual, but it reaffirmed that despite all of their personal messes and the tragic loss of a partner, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce – Sterling Cooper Draper Harris? – is here to stay.
Going all the way back to Season 4 and “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword” Kates and I had a “Whoa …” moment when we realized there were characters by the names of Phoebe and Faye in the same episode. If I remember correctly, I also think that was the last episode we watched in real-time before our TV blew up … And now. How could we ever have imagined establishing connections to both of those names?

Now I’m about to spoil some of the events of seasons 4 and 5. So this is your warning.

Oh, Faye. As Season 4 progressed, I thought Faye was the best thing to happen to Don. She had him opening up about his past and putting away his demons. I really liked her.

Then Don went and cheated on Faye with his secretary, Megan, and Kates and I questioned what the heck he was doing. Even though we should have seen that coming from the moment Sally fell into Megan’s arms at the office. Sally had run away from home and that was also the day Mrs. Blankenship died at her desk right outside Don’s office. That was a pretty classic episode, too.

Now, Don and Megan are married and living a pretty charmed life in an amazing Manhattan apartment that has me gazing around the rooms in every scene it appears. Don and Megan have had their disagreements, but their so darn cute together it makes me squirm thinking about what Don – or Megan – will do to ruin it.

Roger's office looks like the inspiration to George Lucas' Cloud City.

And I think one could develop a pretty mean drinking game based on “Mad Men.” Has anyone else noticed how much the characters say, “Jesus” ?

As we left the agency at the end of Season 5, Lane is gone. Peggy grew up. Joan is a partner after a questionable and shameful agreement to get the Jaguar account. And Pete is as slimy as ever.

Season 6, I can hardly wait.

Here are some good reads I collected during the spring ...

a ‘Mad Men’ Goes Back to the Office
a A Conversation With the ‘Mad Men’ Cast and Creator
a How ‘Mad Men’ Landed the Beatles: All You Need Is Love (and $250,000) ... The scene in which this song played was indeed a trip. And I loved it.
a 'Mad Men'-Era Decor ... Only on Pinterest.
a The Top Man at ‘Mad Men’ Isn’t Mad Anymore


My All-Star Weekend, Part II

Prince Fielder is the Home Run Derby Champion again … I had predicted Prince and Jose Bautista in the final round with Bautista winning it all, but I’ll take it.

And the National League slaughtered the American League in the Legends & Celebrity Softball game, but I’ll get to that later.

The All-Star Week in Kansas City is in full swing, and I’m having the time of my life.

* * *

Sunday, I was in Kansas City again to work my third and final shift as a volunteer at FanFest.

The morning was like déjà vu all over again. I was awake at 5 a.m. On the road at 5:30. I arrived in downtown Kansas City around 7 and spent some time walking the neighborhood once more, checking out the sites and soaking up the scenes before checking into work.

By 8, our army of blue-shirted volunteers was many the FanFest stations. It was Day 3 of the five-day FanFest, and the majority of us were working our second or third days. We had the system down pat, and the MLB staffers were raving about how committed, hard-working and positive Kansas City volunteers were. Apparently, volunteer teams in previous All-Star cities had underachieved.

As we waited for the gates to open, my eyes wandered around the floor and all of the attractions. It was the quiet calm before the storm of fans.

I also logged a few more mascot sightings. There was Dingo and Raymond. I also saw Bernie Brewer again. I only managed to get a photo with one on Sunday – but it was with one of my favorites -- Wally the Green Monster.

My responsibility during my Sunday morning shift was to man one of the most popular attractions at FanFest, “Steal a Base, Steal a Taco.”

It worked like this: The fan stepped up to a base at one end of a carpeted base path; at the other end of the base path is a base, a mat and a large video screen projecting highlights of major leaguers stealing bases. When the fan steps up to the base, he or she gets to select a Major League player to race. The options were Matt Kemp, Derek Jeter, Ichiro Suzuki, Alex Gordon and Jose Reyes.

I won’t soon forget the names after rattling them off repeatedly from 8 to 1 Sunday. Between all of the Yankees fans and Royals fans, the attraction manager was right when he told us beforehand that we would probably see Alex Gordon steal a base 10,000 times before our shift was over. Derek Jeter got equal play.

So after the fan selects his or her player, a video clip begins that shows the player taking his leadoff while the pitcher checks the runner and readies to throw home. Once the pitcher made his move, the Major Leaguer and the fan take off for second base. The object for the fan was to beat the Major Leaguer to the base. The fans who succeeded were awarded a foam taco hat.

My job was to encourage the fans and operate the remote control that selected the players and video clips.

I loved welcoming kids to my station and helping them select their player. Then, I’d give them some instructions and encourage them to take a big leadoff. …With the kids, I’d kneel down to their level and talk them through the steps as the video played. After watching the videos for awhile, I knew exactly when the pitcher was going to make his move and was shouting, Go! Go! Go! a split-second or two before the pitcher lifted his leg. The adults who stepped up to my station usually arrived making comments about their age and fear of embarrassing themselves, to which I usually laughed with them and encouraged them to take a huge leadoff.

Meanwhile, spectators lined the sideline wall behind me, taking it all in and watching the games play out. They applauded the kids who ran fast, showed good form and slid into the base ahead of the tag. And they laughed at the ones who stumbled and landed on the base with thuds.

Clearly, I was having fun, the smile on my face was prevalent again and there was nowhere else I wanted to be Sunday morning. At one point, after leaning into a kid and setting up for another run, I overheard a nearby spectator say to another, “This guy right here, he’s loving his job.” That – aside from the experience of just being present at the All-Star festivities – made it all worth it.

* * *

Around 12:30, the next shift of volunteers arrived. I stayed a few extra minutes to train my successor on running the attraction. And then I was off for some more FanFest playtime of my own.

I had accomplished most everything I wanted to do Friday, taking in most of the attractions and exhibits, and I would have been satisfied if I couldn’t come back. So everything on Sunday was a bonus. I walked the floor on the lookout for more mascots and autograph opportunities. And I tried a couple things that I didn’t get to earlier. It would have been nice to get my caricature drawn, too, but every time I passed that station the line was too long.

I found Gaylord Perry answering fans’ questions in the All-Star Clubhouse and successfully added his autograph to my All-Star baseball. Later, I caught Lou Brock at the MLB.com set and was within arm’s length of him, but a couple of security men blocked me and the other autograph seekers, saying he couldn’t sign because of some agreement with MLB.

Eventually, I did one of the things I said I wasn’t going to do during the weekend by stepping into one of the autograph lines – for Bret Saberhagen. The line seemed to be moving fast, and there was less than an hour left in his time slot, so I figured it was worth a try and I had nothing to lose. As my bad luck had it, however, the pace of the line slowed over the last 15 minutes or so and I was among the final dozen people in the line when Saberhagen stepped away from the stage. … From there, he headed to the MLB.com set to talk baseball there, and I thought I might have a better shot. But when Saberhagen stepped off the stage, he blew off those of us waiting for autographs, reminding us he’d just finished signing two hours’ worth of autographs. Understood.

Before I left, I briefly watched Andre Dawson sign autographs as part of a State Farm promotion. By the time I got there the line had been cut off. … I would have liked to see Joe Carter, who had been at FanFest that morning, too, but my volunteer responsibilities kept me from catching any glimpse of him. Nonetheless, like so much of the weekend, I relished the experience and just knowing that those guys were in the same building.

* * *

By 3 Sunday afternoon, I was making my way down I-70 to Kauffman Stadium for the Futures Game and the Legends & Celebrity Softball Game, otherwise known as All-Star Sunday.

With all of the TV trailers and special event tents set up in the parking areas closest to the stadium, it was more difficult than usual to settle into a parking spot. Usually parking at Kauffman is a fairly easy thing, but on Sunday I might as well have parked in Overland Park.

I had quite a hike from my car to the stadium. But I made it. Managed to snap some photos of the festivities and fan interactions in the concourse. Bought a souvenir cup filled with Mountain Dew and a personal pizza from a concession stand. And I arrived at my seat as they were beginning to introduce the lineups for the Futures Game.

Going in, the Futures Game was of little interest to me because I knew virtually nothing about the guys playing in the game. The rosters for the game are comprised of baseball’s hottest prospects and minor league all-stars. I hadn’t heard of a Wil Myers until I attended FanFest Friday, and suddenly his name was all over the place as the weekend continued. … It wasn’t until the highlights of past Futures Game – which starred guys like Ryan Braun, Mike Moustakas and a host of current Major League all-stars -- started showing on the jumbotron that I bought in and realized I was about to see something special. It was young guys on the cusp of greatness.

Early on, it looked as though the World Team would dominate the game. They took a 3-0 lead after two innings with the help of two home runs, including a two-run shot by Cubs prospect Jae-Hoon Ha. But it was all United States from the third inning on the Americans won 17-5. Not surprisingly, the MVP of the game was Tigers prospect Nick Castellanos who put on a good show, going 3-for-4 with a walk, a home run and two singles, and three runs scored.

By about 6:30, the stadium was buzzing with anticipation for the Legends & Celebrity Softball Game. Thankfully the skies had cleared, the temperature had cooled and it turned out to be a beautiful night … As I arrived at the stadium Sunday night, it didn’t look so promising. Storm clouds appeared to be rolling in and a steady sprinkle fell for the first couple innings of the Futures Game.

Continuing the mascot fun, Sluggerrr and a few of his friends took the field for some between-game entertainment. The bit featured Slugerrr at a DJ’s table on the infield and spinning popular tunes while Mariner Moose, Billy the Marlin, Raymond and Ace acted according to the music. All of it ended with the mascots reenacting the finale of “Dirty Dancing.” Watch this bit I recorded …

Then the event I’d been waiting for: The Legends & Celebrity All-Star Game.

I’ve watched this game every year on ESPN since my youth, and in some ways it’s more entertaining than the Home Run Derby, which becomes more of a snoozefest the longer ESPN allows Chris Berman to host it.

In fact, ESPN has ruined its broadcast of the softball game, too. From a television viewers standpoint, it’s nowhere near as entertaining as it was back in the days when Harold Reynolds and Kenny Mayne played the conniving ival coaches of the two teams. Plus, ESPN edits the crap out of it to cram it’s taped version of the game into a one-hour timeslot after the Home Run Derby, which gets the benefit of airing live.

Which made it all the more fun to watch the softball game live and in-person.

The legends playing in the game this year included Rollie Fingers, Steve Garvey, Dave Winfield, Rickey Henderson and Andre Dawson along with, of course, Kansas City favorites George Brett, Mike Sweeney, Joe Carter and Ozzie Smith. Bo Jackson managed one of the teams and received the some of the loudest ovations of the night, with Brett and two representatives from the Wounded Warriors. Rick Sutcliffe managed the other team.

As for the celebrities, Jon Hamm, Jennie Finch, Haley Rinehart, Horatio Sanz, Eric Stonestreet, David Cook, James Denton and Bill Self were among those in the game.

The sentiment was the same as FanFest. I was just thrilled to be in the same building as these people and watching them play it out on the field.

Anybody with a Kansas City or American League connection played for the American League team and anyone with a St. Louis or National League connection played for the National League team.

Chris Rose and Kevin Millar were on hand as emcees, making observations and interviewing the players before innings. During an entertaining interview with Bo Jackson as the game was getting underway, Bo told the men that Eric Stonestreet was his sleeper and chided Rickey Henderson, saying Rickey was so old that he pulled a hamstring getting off the bus earlier in the day.

The Kauffman Stadium crew kept it fun, too, with pop music playing on the sound system throughout the game, games and giveaways between innings and performances by the Royal Thunder drum corps.

Much like the Futures Game, the softball game started close and the National League team ran away with it.

Bill Self was mostly booed by the University of Missouri fans who outdid the Kansas University fans’ cheers. That was until Self smashed a home run over the left field wall, the second of back-to-back-to-back set of home runs bookended by Mike Sweeney and Chord Overstreet.

Jon Hamm hit a home run, too. But during a between-inning interview he did late in the game, I could only view him as Don Draper, the smug Manhattan creative director in “Mad Men,” one of our favorite TV shows.

The game ended with the crowd prodding Bo Jackson, who hadn’t played in the game, to step to the plate for a hack at brining the American Leaguers back from their 21-8 deficit. But Bo swung at the first pitch and popped it up for the game’s final out.

Check out photos from the game here and here.

A few minutes later, the stadium darkened, and the night ended like this …


This day in sports

So Phoebe and I were sitting at the kitchen table this afternoon. I was browsing the web, and she was playing games on Kates' computer when I saw a tweet from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporting Zack Greinke and Ron Roenicke were ejected in the first inning of this afternoon's Brewers game. ...

This conversation took place as a result. ...
Me: Wow!

Phoebe: What, Dad?

Me: The Brewers pitcher and manager were ejected in the first inning of their game today.

Phoebe: Why? Did they fall down or something? (Barely looking up from her game)

Me: No. I guess they were fighting with the umpire.

Phoebe: Why?

Me: I don’t know. I’m about to find out. (As I’m clicking on a link to the story.)

Phoebe: Do you want to turn it on and watch the show?

Me: No. I don’t think it’s on our TV right now.

Phoebe: Oh. Well, you want to turn on the show and watch it later?

Me: Yeah, I’ll probably watch the highlights later.

In other sports news, it makes me sick that Ray Allen is leaving the Celtics to join the Miami Heat. Ugh.

My All-Star Weekend, Part I

When Major League Baseball announced two summers ago that the 2012 All-Star Game would be played in Kansas City, I was determined to do whatever I could to experience it.
But when details of the festivities began filtering out, it became clear it wouldn’t be easy. The most desirable events would be costly and very tough to access. Tickets to Monday’s Home Run Derby and Tuesday’s All-Star Game are virtually untouchable. However, when I received an email several months ago with news that MLB was seeking volunteers to staff some of the All-Star events, I figured That’s my ticket! and jumped at the chance.

For me, this was a once in a lifetime opportunity I did not want to miss.

I applied and stepped through all of the hoops along the way, passing a background check and eventually attending a meeting on a hot morning in mid-June at Kauffman Stadium where MLB and Royals staffers laid out more of the ground rules and job opportunities for the All-Star weekend. They told us more than 6,000 people had applied to volunteer in Kansas City – an all-time record for MLB’s All-Star weekend. That number thinned to about 2,000 as the process moved along and in the end that number figured to decline further.

Each of us was put through a brief interview and told to watch for an email in a few days notifying us of our selection to work events and allowing us to sign up for specific jobs. There would be no opportunities to work the big events at the stadium though; those were being handled by Kauffman Stadium’s regular summer staff.

Sure enough, I got the email, and there was a virtual mad dash to get into the All-Star volunteer website and sign up for the most desirable shifts. Volunteers could choose to work at FanFest or be sort of a roving volunteer to be called upon to work charity events or pick up people from the airport. Without a doubt, I wanted to work the Fanfest and successfully signed up to work three shifts spread over the weekend.

Finally, all of the volunteers were required to attend an orientation session Tuesday at the Kansas City Convention Center where FanFest would take place. We received our job assignments and responsibilities for the weekend and a quick tour of main hall where the festival attractions were being constructed at those very moments.

As we walked through the floor, I could hardly keep the smile off my face. It was exhilarating to know the event I’d been anticipating for two years had finally arrived.

I had punched my ticket, and I was in.

* * *

On Friday I was awake by 5 a.m. and on the road at 5:30, driving toward Kansas City to work and attend FanFest. I arrived in downtown around 7, which gave me plenty of time to do a little exploring before I was to report at 7:30 for my first volunteer shift.

For five days beginning Friday, Kansas City is the center of the baseball universe. The city had been decked out in All-Star banners and colors for weeks. Friday morning the Barney Allis Plaza fountain were dyed royal blue.

At 7:30, the doors of the Convention Center opened and I joined the throng of volunteers ready to work the first FanFest shift. MLB and Royals staffers were scurrying around making final preparations as we waited in a hallway. Eventually, we were herded into a ballroom to receive our matching blue FanFest polo shirts, a hat and a button.

The room full of blue was a sight to see. … As the day went on, equally amusing was the army of people in matching blue shirts and khaki shorts marching down a hallway and through FanFest every time there was a shift change. You could almost hear the “Mission Impossible” theme, or any other relevant theme music that comes to mind, playing in the background.

Throughout our orientation sessions, stories were told about a section of All-Star Weekend volunteers who make it an annual ritual, and I experienced some of that firsthand as I overheard a couple talk about coming from Colorado to volunteer. I watched another small group of older adults greet each other warmly and exchange hugs as they renewed a bond they apparently formed working past All-Star weekends; one of the women said it was her seventh year working Fanfest. Another woman I worked with during my first shift was from New York. The manager of the zone I worked last night is a St. Louis resident who got hooked when he worked the All-Star Weekend in St. Louis a few years ago and has done it every year since. A lot of the volunteer managers, who are working 15 hours a day every day throughout the festivities, are college students looking to gain experience for their majors. Throughout the All-Star Weekend all of these people are building friendships that will last a lifetime.

Aside from the joy of experiencing the festivities as a baseball fan, that was perhaps my favorite part of this whole thing: meeting new people, talking each other’s backgrounds, careers and love for sports – and making neat connections along the way.

My first assignment Friday morning, with about 10 other volunteers, was to welcome fans at the gates and help hand out goodie bags stuffed with freebies. From there, fans stepped on escalators that took them up to the FanFest floor. It was a five-hour shift from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., but the hours passed fairly quickly. There were busy stretches and slow stretches, but I never felt bored. Working beside me was a lovely woman from one of my old stomping grounds, Olathe. She was a teacher whose look and mannerisms were downright Paula Deen.

And that brings me to another fun FanFest observation: It made for great people watching. Mostly, I got a kick out of watching people’s behaviors. Some people just do as they please, oblivious to their surroundings or what they might be missing. … A couple times, for example, I watched people who were in line to receive goodies that stretched along several points of a table. These people would receive the first one or two items and then veer out of the line, seemingly because they were too impatient to wait any longer, and failed to notice the key component a little further down the line. Then I’d watch as they realized their mistake and wish they hadn’t stepped out of line.

As fans streamed through the turnstiles I found myself playing a variation of the state license plate game. But instead of checking off the 50 states, I was mentally checking off the 30 Major League teams represented on T-shirts, jerseys and hats. Thinking back on the day, I think I saw representation of every team except the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Chicago White Sox. There were, of course, a lot of Royals and Cardinals fans. Yankees, Cubs and Red Sox fans, too. And there were a lot of Texas Rangers fans, which – when you consider the proximity of Texas to Kansas City relative to other Major League cities, the number of Rangers players in this year’s All-Star game and the team’s growing popularity – isn’t all that surprising I suppose.

And the team mascots. With the number of them roaming the Convention Center, I went on a little mission of trying to get my photo taken with as many of them as possible. Like when you go to Disney World and you try to have pictures taken with as many Disney characters as possible. … I successfully posed with Bernie Brewer, StomperHomer and T.C. Bear. I also logged sightings of Sluggerrr, Rangers Captain, The Oriole Bird, RaymondWally the Green Monster and Mariner Moose but couldn’t get to them because I was tied to my volunteer responsibilities.

* * *

At around 1 in the afternoon, the next shift of volunteers arrived and I was relieved of my duties. The volunteer uniform came off and it was my time to play. … By volunteering, I have an all-access pass to FanFest.

I started strolling the floor as a fan, and again I could hardly keep the smile off my face. I kept thinking, I can’t believe I’m doing this. Just like in “Tangled,” but without the doubting

… The bulk of the attractions and interactive games are aimed at children and youth. There’s diamonds where kids can take lessons and practice their skills. There’s batting cages. There’s a whole section devoted to video games. One of the most popular games is “Steal a Base, Steal a Ticket,” a simulation game where a fan races a major leaguer, who’s shown stealing a base on a large screen. If the fan slides safely into the base before the major leaguer, the fan wins a free taco. … Seeing so many parents enjoying the festival and attractions with their kids, I wished I could take Phoebe to experience it. Unfortunately, the timing just isn’t right.

… There are tables of memorabilia collectors and dealers galore. You can take your pick of any team paraphernalia you wanted. But it’s pricey.

… I filled my bag with freebies. A commemorative All-Star baseball from Chevrolet, a couple of mini foam fingers, a magazine from the Baseball Hall of Fame, a packet of grass seed and fertilizer from Scott’s. Taco Bell also was giving away free tacos every two hours, so I snagged one of those for my lunch, too.

… I took in displays of select Hall of Fame items – from Cal Ripken’s spikes to George Brett’s famous pine tar bat to rows of jerseys and caps worn by hall of famers. There was a neat display, too, of all of the MLB trophies that will be given to this year’s award winners and champions, including the 2012 World Series trophy.

… There were a lot of photo opportunities to take advantage of. I had my picture taken with the World Series trophy. With some legends of baseball -- they were cutouts -- as part of a Pepsi Max promotion. And I posed against a backdrop of fans as though I was making a game-saving, home-run-snatching catch.

But the thing I looked forward to most were the player sightings and interactions. Armed with a special All-Star ball I’d purchased just for autographs, I had my first encounter as I was walking through the festival and stopped at a stage where MLB.com was filming analysis and interviews. I spotted a pool of autograph seekers forming around an older gentleman with a thick mustache and eyebrows. It was Jack Morris – a hall of fame pitcher in my mind – whom I watched growing up and greatly admire for his memorable appearances in the 1991 World Series with the Twins and the 1992 World Series with the Blue Jays. … Later, I checked out the all-star clubhouse attraction where Royals great and former manager John Wathan was conducting a Q&A with fans. I hung around to hear some of his stories and got his autograph, too. Later, I caught former Mariners/Yankees pitcher Jeff Nelson at the MLB.com stage and Royals phenom Wil Myers. … It turns out George Brett was around in the morning, and there were a number of greats, including Willie Wilson and Rollie Fingers, appearing throughout the day, but again my volunteer responsibilities kept me from getting near either of them.

* * *

At 3:30, my playtime was up and I had to report back to the volunteer base for my evening shift. My assignment for the night was to be a utility player, which meant I would go wherever a volunteer was needed. I spent most of the night helping fans sign waivers, which were required to participate in any of the interactive games.

Later, during the final half hour, I was asked to help direct fans to the exit, which led to more fun dealing with people. Myself and a couple more volunteers were stationed near the escalators at the main entrance, which is where many fans figured they could also exit. Oh, the eye rolls we took when we told people they needed to exit at the escalators on the opposite side of the hall. Worse yet, some people proceeded to press the matter and complain, “But we’re parked on this side of the building!” The thing was the exit escalator would take them to same area in the lobby where they entered the building. Other fans were more appreciative of our efforts, thanking us for directing them to the right spot. I love dealing with people.

The first day of FanFest had officially closed. Soon I was dismissed from my shift, thanked for a job well done and free to go. I exited the air-conditioning of the convention center and entered the 97-degree heat enveloping downtown Kansas City, at 8:15 p.m.

I found my car and negotiated the traffic leaving downtown. As I spotted the sun setting in the east, I thought about how cool it was that I’d started my day driving alongside the sunrise and I was about to drive home alongside the sunset.

It was an amazing day. I’m wishing I was back there today -- seeing all of the Tweets, photos and action on social media today is making it more difficult to miss --  but more important responsibilities and chores prevail. I will return tomorrow, though, and it has the makings of being even better.

Good reads & links ...
a Kansas City is on deck for All-Star FanFest
a Warm regards from a town that’s more charming than cool ... Worded perfectly.
a Security is ready for All-Star Game
a KC plans an all-star effort to spruce up the town
a All-Star Fan Fest news video
a Fans flock to first All-Star Week events
a Joe Posnanski: Kansas City