Benny and his friend Griffin at Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Stop Reinforcing My Bad Message

Benny was getting a little restless in church this morning, so Ron got out a slip of paper and pencil and started making a baseball scorecard. I gave him a Look, and Ron reluctantly put it away. Afterwards we had this whispered discussion:

Me: I think we should have a new rule -- no baseball in church.

Ron: Why not?

Me: Because it sends the message that church is boring and Benny should get entertainment.

Ron: Well, I'll have you know that Benny told me he'd heard church was boring, but that he didn't think so.

Me (outraged): Who told him church was boring?

Ron: He said you did.

Monday, April 02, 2012


Thursday dawned overcast and gloomy and threatened rain as we emerged from the hotel parking structure. Legoland appears to be part of a larger complex, an office park on steroids, and while the avenue to the park was nearly deserted at 9 a.m. on a March weekday, I couldn’t help but wonder how the other companies liked sharing their slice of Carlsbad with thousands of rabid Lego fans. On any given summer weekend day, you're likely to see as many as 10,000 people enjoying the 128-acre park, according to California Weekend Getaways.

Benny in the Legoland parking lot

I hoped the rain would scare off most of them. I handed over the “2 for 1” coupon we’d won at a Dinosaur Preschool auction, and the ticket lady included a small card with a little rain cloud on it, warning that Legoland gave out no rainchecks, refunds or compensation due to bad weather.

I made a beeline for hot tea and a toasted bagel while Ron and Benny boarded a little water cruise. Benny liked it so much, and the line was so short, that I accompanied him on a second trip. We floated past dinosaurs, animals and national monuments like Mt. Rushmore, the Statue of Liberty and the Golden Gate Bridge, all made out of Legos.

The clouds were still glooming over us, but Benny was in heaven, just tall enough to go on rides by himself, but young enough to like climbing on play structures and riding on plastic horses. The park was obviously designed for 10 times the crowd, so we easily hopped from ride to ride and Benny rode all his favorite rides twice.

We made our way to Pirate Shores, which was mostly water rides, and lo, the clouds parted and the sun beamed down, allowing us to try out the water rides. I liked the play structure with a giant swinging bucket on top; when the bucket filled up, it dumped water all over the kids, to much screaming. Then, the minute we finished with the water rides and headed for the Pirate Shores exit, the clouds closed in again.

Ron at Pirate Shores, in a spirited naval battle. Note how blue the sky is in this picture, while gray in the others.

The only long line was for little two-person train engines on a track high above the ground, but the line curved around a play area where kids could build Legos while they waited. Behind us was a mother with a toddler who was showing his displeasure at the wait in a way that only a toddler can do. The mother must have a degree in Early Childhood or something, because she handled the whining and moaning with amazing aplomb. At one point she said to her son, in a calm and cheery voice as she pointed to the paved ground: “Would you like to pick a clean spot where you can have a fit?”

Benny and a sleeping Lego knight

The highlight of the day for me, however, were the insanely detailed Lego models of New York City, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and other cities. The three of us stood agog in front of a mini-San Francisco, complete with the TransAmerica Pyramid, Coit Tower, cable cars, Lombard Street, Fisherman’s Wharf, Victorian homes, Chinatown and the waterfront, right down to little Lego sea lions sunning themselves on Pier 39 and the wormlike Vaillancourt Fountain.

If nothing else, Legoland proved that you can make a model of anything out of Legos: Benny and I wanted to go straight home and try to make a Lego volcano, a Lego Callisto or maybe just a Lego bowl of cereal.

All in all, a successful vacation and a quick retreat from reality. Our landlord found the termite nest in the basement – just a small one, they said – and destroyed it, so we won’t have to move. And with the Honda Fit getting an average 35 miles per gallon on this trip, I’m starting to plan our summer vacation: a two-week road trip in the Pacific Northwest.

California Coast: Morro Bay to Santa Barbara

Ron, Benny and I at Santa Barbara's Old Mission

As we neared Santa Barbara around 7 p.m., I switched on our Garmin navigation system again. My guidebook listed only one Santa Barbara hotel in the cheapskate section, called the Franciscan Inn, so I gave the address to Greta. She guided us unerringly to a small hotel on a quiet residential street, where I nabbed a two-bedroom suite for the price of a double.

We loved the Franciscan Inn – it must be a madhouse in the summer, so close to the beach, but it was pretty and cozy. Ron and Benny made a beeline for the heated pool the next morning, where they met a lady from Portland, Ore., and her 6-year-old son, Evan. Ron, Benny and Evan splashed in the pool while the mother described her son’s difficulties in kindergarten and I told her a few hair-raising stories about San Francisco’s public school lottery system.

By now it was obvious we weren’t going to make it to Legoland until Thursday, but that gave us a whole day to see the mission in Santa Barbara and slog our way through L.A. traffic. Santa Barbara’s mission was gorgeous: we walked through the grounds and chapel, marveling at the landscaping and artwork and reading the tombstones.

In the gardens at Santa Barbara's Old Mission

Then it was time to face L.A., and Greta came into her own again, keeping us on a straight course through the maze of freeways until we emerged on the east side at San Clemente, which prompted many unnecessary Nixon impersonations. Benny was asleep again, so he couldn’t ask “Who’s Nixon?” and Ron was deprived of the chance to describe Watergate in loving detail.

He was awake as we neared Carlsbad, late and crabby and hungry. Benny craned his neck to look at every freeway exit, asking “are we stopping here? What about here? Are we staying there?” We stopped at two Carlsbad hotels – both full, then got on I-5 again and found a dumpy Holiday Inn Express with a closed door and empty desk. I left the car to find a sign on the door that said: “Clerk away from desk. Do not pull on door, it is locked.” I pulled on the door anyway, then returned to the car to consult Greta, and watch through the front windshield as various people approached the entrance and pulled irritably at the door.

Greta’s lodging suggestions did not sound appealing, so Ron pulled out his iPhone. In seconds he had found the Carlsbad Beach Resort, which had just had a cancellation and could offer two nights at a cheapo rate with a queen bed and room for a roll-away. We checked in and then walked to a Mexican restaurant, where we had tacos on the outside patio lit by strings of lights and tiny bonfires between the tables. Benny brought his baggie of green plastic army men and set up his snipers and arranged his bagpipers, executing high-level military strategy between the water glasses until it became too dark to see.

We went to bed early that night, for the next day: Legoland!

Sunday, April 01, 2012

California Coast: San Francisco to Big Sur

Well, the capricious gods who rained termites and unauthorized credit card charges down upon us in mid-March apparently felt we deserved better, for they sent us a wonderful vacation in Southern California.

The plan was to leave at 8 a.m. Monday morning, but I felt moved to clean the whole apartment for the termite people, the building manager and the cat lady, so we didn’t back the Honda Fit out of the garage until noon. As usual, I packed too much: too many clothes, too many beach toys, too many books. The plan was to meander down the coast along Highway 1 South to Los Angeles, where we’d pick up Interstate 5 South to Carlsbad, named after the Czech spa town Karlovy Vary and home of Legoland.

To support us in this quest, we had our Garmin GPS navigator, which I named Greta. Greta was no help in the first day because she hates secondary roads, so we had to trick her by plugging in Pacifica and then Santa Cruz to keep her on Highway 1. Even then she tried to sneak us over to 101 or I-5, insistently demanding we turn off at 152 or 46 until I turned her off. Benny sat in the back and acted out complicated scenarios with a road atlas, two stuffed leopards and a sheep. The weather stayed clear and bright as we twisted and turned through Santa Cruz, Monterey and Carmel. Benny fell asleep and I kept sticking my head out the window to get a better look at the dramatic Big Sur coast, which is mostly state park.

We stayed the night in a cottage-like room at Big Sur Lodge and paid an astonishing amount of money for dinner, served next to its enormous fireplace and carved wooden pelican. The next morning we hiked around Pfeiffer-Big Sur State Park, and as we headed back to the Lodge, I saw a boy hiking in the opposite direction say “Hi, Benny!” It was Evan, a third-grader from Benny’s Lucky Elementary in San Francisco.

Benny and I at Pfeiffer-Big Sur State Park

Benny also bought another stuffed animal to join Leopard, Leppy and Sheepy: Dragony, who is – you guessed – it a dragon. (Benny was never big on imaginative names except for a stuffed horse a Business Times colleague gave him, named Deadline.) Dragony quickly fell in line with the rest of the pack, and Benny spent the day teaching them all about state capitals from the road atlas.

We left Highway 1 south of Big Sur to follow a poorly marked little road to Pfieffer Beach, which my 2010 California guidebook swore was free. (We didn’t consult Greta on this, knowing she would be appalled.) After about two miles, we crossed a large stream flowing across the road and pulled up to a big wooden tollbooth. The National Forestry Service had apparently moved in since 2010, and now wanted an entrance fee. Actually, I didn’t mind after all I’ve read about laid-off forest rangers.

After fording rivers in our Honda Fit and paying $5 to get there, I expected a lot from Pfieffer Beach. Well, it was worth it. The beach has purple sand (a result of manganese garnet particles washing down the hillside) and massive sandstone arches carved by the pounding waves. It was definitely a northern California beach, with giant rocks, high winds and icy-cold water. Benny ran around shouting, thrilled to be liberated from the car, Ron running after him snapping pictures.

Pfeiffer Beach

Finally, chilled through, I left them there and went back to the car, where sat and listened to a World War II podcast (“The Battle of Britain”) and watched a lady haul a large cooler out of her SUV and repack it three times.

Back on Highway 1, Ron and I had a “refreshing little discussion” about whether to stop at Hearst Castle or Pinnacles National Monument, but decided to push on. We drove along Morro Bay (distinguished by that huge rock jutting out of the harbor and its equally huge electrical plant) and steered away from the coast to cross another set of ridges. Finally we emerged into flatter, sandier lands, driving through Pismo Beach and heading due south to Guadalupe.

We resisted visiting Guadalupe’s sand dunes, described by my guidebook as “the biodiverse, coastal dune-lagoon ecosystem on the planet,” thus proving that any place can sound remarkable if you stick enough adjectives in front of it. After all, Ron and I happen to be in possession of “the largest carpeted feline resting system hosting a single Maine Coon-descended female with a moon-inspired name on the planet.” What does the previous sentence describe? Callisto’s kitty condo in our living room.

This is, of course, no reflection on the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Preserve, and I would have loved to learn more, but the interpretive center is only open Thursday-Sunday from 10 to 4, so we missed our chance to see “one of the best examples of coastal dune scrub in the country.”

Instead, we skirted Vandenberg Airforce Base, which was conducted complicated military maneuvers involving a swarm of helicopters. A delighted Benny strained against his seat belt, trying to track all the helicopters rising and landing around us.

Then we found the coast again and turned up in Santa Barbara. We had truly arrived in Southern California.