Twelve : The Gateway Year

Twelve isn’t, in and of itself, a particularly noteworthy age. It isn’t 10 (double digits!). It’s not yet 13 or 16 or 18, all of which carry special significance. There was no magical owl to arrive, either. Just… twelve.

As I searched my memory for twelve, one of the first things to come to mind was The Hunger Games. Although most of the characters in the series are older than 12 (and, in the case of the second book, much older), I nevertheless remembered that 12 is the age at which tributes from each district can be chosen.

Starting at twelve, these boys and girls are thrown into a literal life or death situation. They forage for food, sleep outdoors with no provisions or cover, create and wield weapons, and fight to save their own lives… while simultaneously killing other children. At age twelve. This is, of course, Suzanne Collins’s fiction; that doesn’t necessarily make it less jarring.

Ella turned 12 last weekend. She had been eagerly anticipating it, not so much because 12 is so special, but because her birthday fell on a weekend and, for the first time ever, she was able to celebrate with friends on her big day. This past summer, I remarked to Nick that Ella seemed so much older. In fairness, she’d just graduated elementary school, so perhaps there was a natural transition from “kid” to “a bit older kid”… but still, she just seemed different – more mature, more confident, more poised.
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After her first band concert of the year; I wish I could rock a white parka like this.

This trend has only continued. The girl who once had to be hounded to complete her homework now finishes everything during study hall or immediately upon arriving home. Where as she had, only last spring, being hesitant to talk to her teachers, she now maintains full and open relationships with them, asking questions, advocating for herself, and holding her own. She takes full responsibility for everything she needs for school and swimming, with her bags and lunches packed before I can even remind her.

Ella’s not only more mature on the “doing stuff” front; she’s also somehow more grown-up in her behavior as well. She is easy to talk to and offers keen insights. She has a dry wit and makes fantastic puns. She is also quick to laugh at herself, something that only a few months ago was not really happening. She considers other people’s opinions and is excellent at owning her own mistakes – not necessarily in the moment (because, really, none of us does a good job with that), but upon reflection, she is remarkably astute at dissecting a situation, figuring out what emotions were in play (“I was nervous that I wouldn’t make it on time, so I got mad when you asked if I was doing okay”), and determining where to go from there. I know adults who still suck at this, so Ella is pretty much an emotional mindfulness guru.

Nick and I have begun to share movies with Ella that we’ve been dreaming about since before she was born – The Birdcage and Mission: Impossible were our first picks – and she not only got them, she enjoyed them. I no longer worry about introducing her to stories and songs with swear words or more adult concepts (thanks, Hamilton!), because she understands their context and we can talk about what’s going on.
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Birthday cannoli! 

So, I guess, in many ways, twelve is a turning point – for Eleanor, anyway. She can cook and bake. She babysits. She can stay home alone (for a bit), be trusted to do the right thing, and knows what to do in an emergency. She’s curious and smart. She is a tremendously empathetic and supportive friend. She is cautious but determined, quiet but bold. She is Shakespeare’s famous, “Though she be but little, she is fierce!” and all that.

I suppose, reluctantly, I can see why Suzanne Collins decided that twelve was a reasonable age for Hunger Games tribute-hood.

And yet… Twelve is still but little. At 12, Ella still reaches for my hand. At 12, she and her friends giddily discuss the latest update of an animated hair design app. Twelve is still wanting to be tucked in. Twelve is arguing with your sister argue over who has to shower first. Heck, at 12, there is still opposition to showering, for the love;  apparently, twelve year-olds dislike being clean.

Despite Ella’s awesome desire for knowledge, at 12 there is still so much she doesn’t know. She doesn’t know why people are fighting over Aleppo (then again, in fairness, most of us don’t know that, either). She doesn’t know how to set aside time to complete a big school project. She doesn’t know how to navigate social media. I mean, just a few days ago, we had to explain to her that it’s not safe to put metal in the microwave – after she removed a metallic travel mug from a 30-second nuking – because she simply had no idea. No one had ever told her: metal + microwave = bad.
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You can see her holding the offending mug in this birthday morning photo… Close one, y’all…

Somehow, I feel like maybe Eleanor wouldn’t do so well if she were dropped in the middle of a biosphere and forced to battle to the death. I suppose this mature-childlike dichotomy is exactly why Ms. Collins decided to use 12 as a starting point… but when it’s your own child you’re imagining, the Book Club discussions become a lot less fantastical.

Twelve is a gateway year. It is the only thing standing between child and teenager. And, oh, how people dread the teenager thing… Everyone knows that teenagers are, like, terrifying, angst-ridden, dramatic, trouble, troubled, hell on wheels, exhausting, always hungry, sarcastic, withdrawn, moody, know-it-all (go ahead and fill in the blank) creatures whose sole purpose seems to be to antagonize their parents. At least, that’s what society has us believe… Which means that in about 361 days, Ella will instantaneously morph into a hormonal, self-centered devil-child with whom I will argue every moment of the day. OH YAY!

If twelve is the precursor to teenage-hood, you’d think that Ella would already be showing at least some characteristics of The Dreaded Teenager. But here she is, twelve years old, still delightful, still utterly herself – every day wittier, kinder, more full of gratitude. Perhaps – just maybe – the buffer of twelve isn’t a last hurrah before morphing into a new, defiant, sweaty, completely unfamiliar human… but a merely gradual transition into an older, more mature, more certain version of the children we already know.

I’ll be the first to tell you that Ella has her moments. We have, um, clashed on more than one (like, many more than one) occasion. I am under no illusions that we will make it to adulthood without the stuff that accompanies virtually all of us on that journey. That’s not only a healthy (and inevitable, so I’d better get used to it) thing, it’s a good thing – because if the growth Ella has shown in the past six months is any indication, I don’t want to miss out on this.

So far, I really like twelve.

Happiest 12th Birthday, E-Bean. You embody the “tween” stereotypes and smash them, at the same time. Can’t wait to see what comes next!

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Becoming a Parent

I knew that having a second child would change things. I knew instinctively that no two children are alike. But I’d never fully understood what it would mean to parent siblings until having Annie (funny how that works…).

As I’ve mentioned before, Annie’s pregnancy was not planned. To say that I was less than thrilled when we got the news is a significant understatement. Although I eventually grew excited for her arrival (it took 8 months, but I got there), it was a distinct kind of excitement because this wasn’t my first rodeo.

I’d given birth before. I’d held a freshly born baby on my chest. I’d cared for a newborn. I’d raised a baby into toddlerhood, the whole shebang: sleepless nights, leaky boobs, dirty diaper testing via bum-sniff, teething, sleep training, making bizarrely chipper noises while “zooming” lovingly pureed sweet potatoes into my cherub’s mouth (and then scraping at least half of it off her sweet potato-spackled cheeks). I’d oohed over head control and sitting up and pulling up and crawling and walking and talking.

I had this mothering sh*t down.
(HAHAHAHAHAHA. I know. I KNOW.)

Perhaps the first clue that Annie, and my relationship with her, would be different from Ella was when she became stuck in the birth canal and I gave birth via emergency c-section. Instead of holding my freshly born baby on my chest, I stared at her from across the operating room as Nick stood beside her and declared that she was definitely an Annie (not a Katie, our other contender). It took hours for me to finally have my baby in my arms and once I did, I didn’t want to relinquish her (in part out of new birth haze and in part because lifting her up out of the bassinet hurt my stitches).
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The next clue came immediately; I’d been expecting it, but it hit me hard nevertheless. As I cozied up with baby Annabelle at the hospital, Nick returned home to nearly two year-old Ella. When she came to visit the next day, I remember being so overwhelmed, I could hardly stand it (yes, a lot of that was probably hormones, but whatever). Because of my surgery, I couldn’t pick Ella up; it devastated me. Seeing how much I wanted to hold her, Nick (or one of her grandmothers) lifted her onto the hospital bed beside Annie and me. I had prepared for this – for loving two children with the very same heart that, a day ago, had only loved one – but it felt so unfamiliar. Not bad; not hard; just uncharted territory. Despite my emotional pep-talks, I was unprepared.

As the oldest of our siblings, Nick and I have only experienced what it’s like to be a firstborn. We both share that stereotypical firstborn trait of Doing Things The Right Way, of Following The Chosen Path. We play by the rules and we expect others to do the same. Growing up, I was always a bit mystified by my friends with older siblings. They were constantly playing catch-up; someone else went to middle school first, got braces first, drove first, left for college first. Like nearly all eldest siblings, I was the leader and the guinea pig, all in one. I knew nothing else.

Ella is, in many ways, a stereotypical firstborn. She, too, likes to Do Things The Right Way (and finds it irritating when other people don’t). I absolutely relate to this. The sign says No Parking, so don’t park – yes, we’re talking to you (except not really ’cause we hate confrontation). The rules say that your knees must bend naturally at the edge of the seat in order to be safe, otherwise you still need a booster; OMG SO MANY PEOPLE ARE UNSAFE. This is not so hard, you guys!! Ella and I are so in sync on this.

Whether due to birth order or personality, or simply because I’d already had (nearly) two years to get to know her, I knew I’d be empathetic toward Ella once her baby sister arrived. I’d grown up with a younger brother; I understood the challenges of sharing, of having someone pester you when your friends came over, of a little sibling continuing to make faces in the car after Mom had told us we weren’t even allowed to look at one another anymore. And so, when Ella was confused and jealous after Annie was born, I was ready for the pang of recognition and empathy.

I didn’t expect to feel that way about Annie.
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Birthday breakfast.

Yet I did. If Ella wanted my attention while Annie was being put down for a nap, I made sure to finish up with Annie first – not out of obligation, but because I genuinely felt a tug on my heart. As they grew a little older and Annie began reaching for Ella’s toys, I empathized with Ella’s frustration that her little sister was all in her business… while simultaneously empathizing with Annie’s desire to enjoy the same fun stuff as her big sis. When Ella needs space but Annie wants to play, I can almost physically feel my Mama heart encompass Ella’s desire for alone time and Annie’s desire to be with her sister.

Although I hadn’t planned to, like, give Annie the shaft after she arrived, I simply assumed that I’d instinctively understand Ella more.
It hasn’t worked out that way at all.

From the moment Annie was born, I’ve been just as fiercely empathetic toward both of them. It’s been a fascinating and unfamiliar experience, putting myself in the shoes of the younger sister. The seeming injustices that were endured as an older sibling are now seen through both the big sibling’s eyes and the little one’s, and I find myself growing maybe a little wiser (and needing more wine) every time.

Ella made me a mother. Annie made me a parent.

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Annie’s birthday was yesterday, and she could not wait to be ten. Double digits! The big time! I’d worried that her hitting this milestone might make me wistful or even sad; can my youngest daughter really ben TEN?! Instead, I just felt happy that she was so excited. Perhaps that’s because, in many ways, she acts older than her years. She makes dinner, she does her homework without being asked, and I’m pretty sure she could pick a lock if she needed to (or, heck, if she were bored). But also it’s just been a really fantastic experience being her Mama, so rather than being upset that she’s hit a new decade, I’m thrilled to see what her coming decades will bring.

This isn’t to say it hasn’t gone by in the blink of an eye. Last night, we watched the video I made for her first birthday and I cried more than once – some for the people we’ve lost, but some for just how viscerally I remembered the way she used to watch Dora; when she crawled for the first time; how she fit in my arms. It’s so, so fast, this growing up business.
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But if the next ten years of Annie are even half as marvelous as the first, it’s going to be worth it, no matter how fast it goes.

Happy 10th Birthday, Nini. We adore you so.

She got this light-up skirt for her birthday. Pretty rad.

 

 

Harry Potter Birthday Magic – Chapter Two

So, as mentioned in Chapter One, when the kiddos finished up with Quidditch, we still had half of the party to go. What followed was the activity I’d spent the most time planning (and the part that Ella knew the least about, so she could still be surprised): Potions.
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After rather exhaustively searching the internet, I’d decided on six different experiments for the kids to complete. Everything was assigned a Harry Potter-ish name (white vinegar was Phoenix Tears, Basilisk Venom was blue dish soap, etc.) and the experiments were typed up, step-by-step (as part of the spell books). The ingredients and tools were set out, science-lab style, and the kiddos got to work.

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One of the tables, from above, ready to go…

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They were divided into two groups (mostly for crowd control) and we went through the experiments together, to ensure that the steps were followed exactly (in order for some of them to work properly, they had to be completed just so).

We started with “Exploding Filibusters” (combine vinegar and baking soda in a small container with a cap; shake vigorously; stand back) because I knew it would grab their attention. (I knew this because when I’d tried the experiment myself, the top exploded so violently off the vial, it hit the kitchen ceiling. That woke me up, let me tell you.) The kids had similar results; they were hooked!
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Spider Expulsion” and “Unicorn Milk Diffusion” – both involving dish soap as repellents – were met mostly with success… although if you’re going to do an experiment that calls for food coloring, I don’t recommend that you use the super-thick, “good” stuff you might have purchased when you fancied yourself a budding Cake Boss. Globs of food coloring are swell for fondant but not so swell for Potions. Trust me on this.
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HPparty36See above: large blobs of food coloring in the milk. Don’t do this.

For “Effervescent Elixir,” each kiddo had his/her own “cauldron” in which to mix their potion, with explicit instructions to follow – including placing their cauldron on a tray and giving some space.
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As the solutions frothed and bubbled deliciously, Ella and her pals understood why it was wise to keep their distance.
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The penultimate experiment – “Mandrake Restorative Draught” – was quick and fun, with some “magic” color changes occurring at its finish.HPparty43

We ended with the experiment I knew would be the most sensational, if only because it involved flame. I called it “Incendiated Basilisk Skin” and made up some story about defeating a basilisk with fire; they ate it up (not literally. That would have been a problem). If you try this one at home, be aware that you really only need a *tiny* bit of rubbing alcohol… anything else might, say, burn for over an hour in your kitchen (which will make you grateful that you tried the experiment in advance, but also annoyed because FIRE and KITCHEN are bad).
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When at last the fires had died out, leaving the basilisk “shells” in their wake, we took the kids to the backyard for their final activity: Defense Against The Dark Arts. Nick and Chris worked up a tale involving spells and charms, then sent them off to duel with their newly-acquired weapons: cans of silly string.

This was Nick’s idea, and it was brilliant. Although Ella and her guests had thoroughly enjoyed the Potions class, they’d had to focus and follow precise instructions for a good 45 minutes – so they were thrilled to have the opportunity to run themselves ragged.

And use silly string. ‘Cause that’s always a hit.
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While they went bananas in the yard, Sarah and I took the opportunity to put away the Potions lab, rinse out their cauldrons (which were party favors), and get the dining room Great Hall set up for the end-of-term feast. When, at last, the yard resembled a Jackson Pollock creation (and the kids ran out of string), we called them inside to begin the feast.

HPparty48After looking up faux castle wall backdrops, I decided – as with the Platform 9 3/4 brick wall – to just make one myself. I found grey shower curtains at the Dollar Store (sweet!) and felt pretty good about my genius design… until I began to actually hang the curtains in the dining room and the paint flaked off, piece by piece, piling up on the floor.
Turns out? Shower curtains don’t only repel water; they also repel paint. 

At least it looked kinda cool.

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Some additional feast food and drinks…

Ella had requested angel food cake as her birthday goodie (yum!). She also requested it entirely plain (um…). I was able to convince her to have one entirely plain cake (see above: the ridiculously-named “Meringue Gateau”) and one whipped-cream-frosted cake (with strawberries on the side).

As mentioned in the first post, Sarah was in charge of the cake-frosting, with instructions to make the lettering look like Harry’s 11th birthday cake from the Sorcerer’s Stone movie.HPparty49
Making Hagrid proud!

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Following the feast, we invited everyone to  fill up at Honeydukes Sweet Shop.HPparty51

Each kiddo got to take home an awesome butterbeer that Sarah and Chris had driven up from Westchester…HPparty52

… as well as an assortment of Muggle candy, all named after Wizarding sweets.HPparty53
From left: Drooble’s Best Blowing Gum (gum balls), Chocolate Frogs (made with a frog mold and chocolate discs), Pepper Imps (big, chalk-y peppermint candies), Chocoballs (malted chocolate balls), Bertie Botts Every Flavour Beans, Toothflossing Stringmints (coils of red and black licorice), and Acid Pops (lollypops dipped in Pop Rocks).

HPparty54The Acid Pops were a cool idea, but the execution – dipping the lollies in water, then pressing them into the Pop Rocks – left a lot to be desired… Sarah helped out as best she could…

Before everyone departed – wands, spellbooks, cauldrons, butterbeer, and candy in hand (or bag) – we made sure to get a couple of photos by the (crumbling, peeling…) Great Hall backdrop.

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Yes, it was a nutty six days leading up to the party. But I would do it all again to see our wonderfully Harry-obsessed eleven year-old feel – for a couple of hours – like she was maybe, just a little bit, at Hogwarts with her friends. Giving her that magical experience was really our birthday present to her; seeing her celebrating, wizard-style, with her friends was so very worth it.

Plus also we had leftover candy and butterbeer.
I’m calling it a win.

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I bought customizable labels for the Potions at this neat Etsy shop.
I found ideas – and the sign – for the Potions class herehere, and here.
The Honedukes and Defense Against the Dark Arts signs were from here.

 

 

 

 

Harry Potter Birthday Magic – Chapter One

In mid-November, Ella made up her mind: she wanted a Harry Potter birthday party (obvs). Because she had her heart set on a handful of friends attending, she sent an email to the invitees offering up several possibilities, hoping that most could make it on at least one of the offerings. Miraculously, everyone was available on exactly one of the possible dates…

… which, of course, happened to be six days from when she sent the email.
So we had six days to prepare for Ella’s Harry Potter birthday party – her ELEVENTH birthday, no less (the age when Hogwarts letters arrive). Six days to leave our Muggle lives behind and create something magical.

No pressure!

Given that this was November and not summer break (when we have usually held birthday parties), those six days were already jam-packed with Regular Life. Still, I was not about to let Life get in the way of giving Ella the Harry Potter birthday party that I she had always dreamed of.

It was crazy, but I won’t even pretend to complain. ‘Cause, let’s be real: I loved it.

The very afternoon Ella received the go ahead on her party date, she set to work designing the invitations.HPparty1
Using her quill pen and ink (duh), she dutifully wrote out Hogwarts letters for each friend.

HPparty2These took FOREVER, but she was determined…

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Official Hogwarts wax seal!

Next, the invitations had to be delivered… But Muggle mail would not do. They would arrive by owl.HPparty4
Ella convinced her sister and next door BFF to create owl balloons for her — which we then dropped off at the invitees’ houses.

For the next six days, we gathered supplies, scoured the internet, decided on menus and games and activities and take-home goodies, made decorations, created spell-books, designed an “order” of events, and got very little sleep. It was kind of incredible.
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After strategizing how the Quidditch match should go, Ella was in charge of spraypainting the hoops.

In addition to Ella, I had the invaluable assistance of my BFF, Sarah, who – last minute – was bringing her family (including her sons, J and Z — some of my girls’ best buds) to visit for the weekend, meaning they’d be here for the party. Sarah listened patiently to my incessant rambling about activities, decorations, and food. She found butterbeer at a local grocery store and had her husband, Chris, drive it up from Westchester. She insisted that, not only would she help get everything set up on Saturday morning – she was excited about helping set everything up.

Sarah gets me and my craziness and joins me in the crazy.

She also made me promise her I wouldn’t get too carried away.
Sarah knows me very, very well.

The morning of the party, we sent the kids off with Nick and Chris so we could prepare. Sarah instinctively knew where things should go and how they should look; I just had to tell her what was next. She’d arrange an activity, text me a photo (so I wouldn’t have to stop what I was doing to check things out… but also because she knew that I’d eventually want photos of everything. THIS IS A GOOD FRIEND), and then move onto the next thing. She talked me down from the ledge at least twice and convinced me that it was okay to let go of certain expectations (the candles hanging from the Great Hall ceiling were just not happening; I saved them for Ella’s actual birthday). She even frosted Ella’s birthday cake – a task I would have entrusted to approximately two other people in the universe (and one of them is not Nick).

In short, the party could not have happened without Sarah. (Nick and Chris, were tremendous helpers, too… but it was Sarah who really made it work.) When it was all said and done, Sarah was also the one who made me promise that I would blog about it. It’s taken me 3.5 months, but I’m finally keeping my promise.

—————

NOW PRESENTING:  Ella’s Harry Potter Party (part one)!

Naturally, when the guests arrived, they had to go through Platform 9 3/4 to get to Diagon Alley.
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I researched pre-made faux brick “walls” – like theater sets – but they wound up being so expensive, I decided to “just” sponge-paint an old curtain.
Turns out you don’t “just” sponge-paint an old curtain, but whatever. It worked… eventually.

As the guests came in, they were invited to drop off donations for our local Humane Society at Eeylops Owl Emporium.
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They could also flush their way to the Ministry of Magic, should they choose…
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Other Diagon Alley decorations included some recognizable Harry Potter posters – with the kids’ photos replacing Harry and Sirius Black.

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Designing these cracked me up maybe a little too much…

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I hadn’t been sure where I wanted the posters; Sarah quickly hung them above the fireplace, which was where we’d planned on taking photos, which turned out to be perfect. (Notice also the three extra Quidditch rings for dramatic effect.)
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Traveling by fireplace? You’ll need floo powder, obviously…

Ella wanted to start out with the standard Diagon Alley activities: wand-getting, wizard robe-trying-on, and procuring school supplies at Flouish and Blotts. After asking for her guests’ wand color preferences at school in the days preceding the party, Ella dutifully cut, sanded, and painted wands for everyone – and then attached labels with their lengths. Nick dramatically doled out the wands, making sure they “chose” correctly, and then the kids finished them off with hot glue and paint.HPparty11You can vaguely see the descriptions attached to each wand…

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In the end, the Ollivander’s decorating table was more detailed than this, but we were so busy helping the kids navigate Diagon Alley, no one got a photo…

While some students visited Ollivander’s, others stopped by Flourish and Blotts to grab their spell-books. (These were more than just decorations; we used them throughout the party.)
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The cover of the book, as it looked on the computer…

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Z and Annie showing off their wands and spell-books. And their semi-evil looks.

We didn’t have enough time (or resources) to procure everyone a robe, so we set up a try-on station at Madame Malkin’s and invited kiddos to take photos with their costumes.HPparty15

 

They took posing – individually, in pairs, groups, you name it.
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Annie, in her Gryffindor robes, looking appropriately brave and clever…

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Z, in his Slytherin robes, looking appropriately naughty and bold.

Ella and her buddies were in on the action, too.
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Group shot!HPparty20

Once everyone was sufficiently outfitted for Hogwarts, they took their places in the Great Hall (no Hogwarts Express, pity) for the Sorting ceremony.
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I’m not sure that Hogwarts used plastic, gold Dollar Store tablecloths, but at least our scuffed wooden benches are authentic…

The best part of Sorting was that the hat actually talked. Well, to be more precise, Chris talked… into a cell phone (from a different part of the house)… that was dialed into a cell phone we’d placed in the tip of the hat. I’d theatrically announce each kid as loudly as possible (so Chris would hear me) as s/he put on the hat.”AND NOW, WE WILL FIND OUT WHICH HOUSE MISS ELEANOR WILL BE IN!” Chris would then – using a British accent and rhyming couplets (no joke) – “sort” the kids, which we would hear coming from the hat… as though it were talking.

It was kind of insane. And also kind of epic.HPparty22
Fingers crossed for Gryffindor (she was a Hufflepuff instead)…

Once everyone was sorted, the activities could officially begin! First up: attending a History of Magic review/study session, which took place in the Gryffindor common room. Naturally, they had to give the portrait of the Fat Lady the password to enter…
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Ella designed the study/review game herself. Step one: close your eyes and reach into a bowl containing strips of paper, on which were the names of different Harry Potter characters. Step two: lick (!) and adhere the paper to your forehead. Step three: face the other kiddos and, based on their clues, guess the character attached to your forehead.

I created the paper strips so Ella could play, too.
The game itself? Pretty freakin’ hilarious.HPparty23
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Trying to get J to guess that he was the Fat Lady had everyone in hysterics.

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No term at Hogwarts would be complete without a Quidditch match! After much consideration on how to tackle this imaginary sport, we went for simple: if the Snitch (aka gold-painted golfball) made it through all three hoops and landed in a cup without knocking it over, your team got a point.HPparty26HPparty27

Turns out, landing a (heavy) golfball into a (light) Solo cup is actually kind of challenging, which made it more fun. The kids played House against House, round robin-style, until we had a winner. HPparty28

Score!

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By this point, the party was only halfway over.
There was still Potions…HPparty40HPparty44

… Defense Against the Dark Arts…HPparty46

… the end-of-term feast…HPparty48a

… and a trip to Honeydukes…HPparty53

… but that will have to wait until the next chapter.

(CLIFFHANGER, I know.)

 

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I found several of the party signs here and here.

We saw the Quidditch idea here.

 

 

 

The New Thirty (But Even Better)

So. I’m 40 now.

As I’ve said before, I like celebrating my birthday. While I know that some people would rather ignore that date on the calendar, I’m solidly in the IT’S MY BIRTHDAY SO EVERYBODY CELEBRATE camp.

There had, of course, been our trip to Mexico this summer. I also wanted to get away with Nick so that we could commemorate the occasion, just the two of us… And so, two weeks ago, we headed to Florida for one glorious day at the Epcot Food and Wine Festival.

I’m basically still full, which doesn’t bode so well for Thanksgiving.
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Yep. I bought this ridiculous, ridiculously overpriced photo. It was worth it.

Given that I’d already gilded my lily not once but twice, I decided that I didn’t really want to do anything major on my actual birthday (this past Sunday). One of my BFFs, Sarah, and I are So You Think You Can Dance devotees; we always try to see the tour together. As luck would have it, the SYTYCD tour was coming to Buffalo on Friday night, meaning Sarah could fly up, we could catch the show, and then spend my birfday weekend in Rochester.

Ella, Annie, and I met Sarah and her son, J, at the airport, took in the show (awesome!), then drove back home — where Nick and the rest of Sarah’s family (her husband and son, Z) were waiting. We spent the next 36 hours hanging out, throwing a freakin’ awesome party for Ella (more on that later), laughing, opening the 40 presents Sarah had wrapped for me (omg), eating like foraging animals, and generally reveling in one another’s company.

After Sarah and Co. left on Sunday afternoon, the girls began begging me to open my other birthday gifts. While Nick and I sorted through everything (we’d had souvenirs and Christmas gifts sent back from Epcot, so there were a whole bunch of boxes), I noticed that there was nothing from my dad and stepmom, Meg.

This seemed really bizarre — my own dad hadn’t recognized my birthday, not even with a trinket? I tried to reason with myself that it didn’t matter – he and Meg had mailed a card and we’d FaceTimed that morning. I didn’t need things. It was just a birthday. No big deal.

HOLD THE PHONE THOUGH. ‘Cause it was a big deal. Not the presents, but the very idea that they’d essentially treated my FORTIETH(!!) BIRTHDAY like any other day was really starting to bum me out. Nick and I made our way back upstairs, boxes (but none from my very own father, thank you very much) in hand, and turned the corner to where the girls were waiting for us in the living room…

Except it wasn’t just the girls.
Seated between them on the couch were my dad and Meg.

They’d flown up from Long Island to surprise me.
Because 40? 40 is important.

I almost had a heart attack.

As I’ve watched my fellow 1975ers hit this milestone, I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on what turning forty means and why it mattered so much to me. I distinctly remember my parents turning 40. For years, my childhood home held a framed copy of the invitation announcing my dad’s big day: “Lordy, Lordy, Look Who’s 40!” There were also the photographs of my mom attending “Over The Hill” birthday parties; she and her friends powdered their hair to look gray, donned old lady sweaters, and rented walkers and canes.

Forty was something. Forty was momentous.
And, to my twelve year-old brain, 40 was OLD.

Forty doesn’t seem even remotely old to me now. If anything, forty is young, maybe because it happened so freakin’ fast. In my mind’s eye, college – even high school – are just a blink away. The memories are so bright, the smells so strong, the sounds so clear, it amazes me that those days were (quite literally) more than half a lifetime ago.

I don’t miss those days, though; I rather prefer it here. Having more living beneath my feet gives me firmer ground to stand on. It’s not that I’ve left behind the person I was in my 20s and early 30s, but rather that I’ve brought her with me; together, we have worked damned hard to become who I am today.

I like me today.

At forty, the fragility and uncertainty of life are simultaneously disconcerting and empowering. I’ve had friends lose their parents, their spouses, and their children; I’ve had friends who, themselves, did not live to see 40. It’s no longer a given that tomorrow will come. But that doesn’t scare me. If anything, it’s a reminder of how important it is to make sure that the life I am living is the one I want.

By the same token, I’ve also seen people of a far more, ahem, advanced age make mind-boggling life changes. Attending college in their 80s. Riding a scooter at 94. Switching careers at 65. Getting married at 50. Finding love again after decades of thinking it was lost. Life is what we make of it; change is always possible; nothing is set in stone.

At forty, my convictions are so much stronger than before, but with one very important caveat: they can evolve at any time as soon as I gain more knowledge or see things from a new perspective. Learning is more critical to me than ever before; how else can I figure out where I stand and where I’m going if I don’t even know where I am?

At forty, I’ve finally figured out why I’m on this planet, what my mission is (not in the espionage way, although that would be really cool). The vague outline of the idea hit me out of the blue this summer and I’ve been honing in on it ever since.

I’m here to make connections.

Connections between facts and fictions. Connections between them and us, whoever that is. Connections between here and there. Connections between thoughts and actions.  Connections, most of all, between people. We are not in this alone, this whole life thing; we are meant to do it together.

It’s not easy – being honest, reaching out. It scares the heck out of me. But every time I do it – every single damn time – it feels amazing. It is the right thing to do. It’s why I’m here.

In honor of my birthday, I decided that I would do 40 random acts of kindness – one per day – leading up to Sunday. They ran the gamut, from paying for a stranger’s groceries to letting people merge ahead of me in traffic, putting “Safe Travels” notes on airplanes to donating to charities, placing flowers on windshields to leaving positive comments at the grocery store or the Y.
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There’s a pack of Extra gum beneath the little card…
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Attached to an airplane tray table…

40 for 40 dollar store
Left in the dollar store.

Sometimes, the RAOKs were entirely anonymous. Other times, they were anonymous but accompanied by a card (see above) identifying what was going on (while searching the internet for RAOK ideas, I came across several research articles detailing how people are more likely to spread kindness when they hear people talking about performing acts of kindness; connections, people!). And other times, I decided against using the little identification cards but looked people straight in the eye as I handed over a Starbucks gift certificate – because, every now and again, no matter how difficult or awkward it feels, that whole connecting thing is the most important and powerful part of all.

I loved the RAOKS so much, I’m kinda gonna keep doing them. Because is there ever too much kindness? No, there is not.

A couple of weeks ago, a friend shared this on Facebook:
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It got me thinking. A lot.
Is this where I want to be? If my life were the same, would I be happy? If not, then what?

I like my life now. Scratch that: I love my life now. It is a good, true, purposeful, fulfilling, enriching, invigorating, exciting, simple, joyful life. I am absurdly fortunate. For that – and for my loyal and hilarious and intelligent and good-hearted friends, for my family, for my health, for a job that challenges and strengthens me, for growing faith, for a neighborhood I’ve always dreamed of, for Nick and the girls (who make all of this, all of everything, worthwhile) – I am so tremendously grateful.

This is the life I’ve worked for. It hasn’t been easy getting here, but it’s exactly the life I want. Yeah, I’d like to lose five pounds. I still want to learn the cello. I plan to visit more of Europe and drink Sauvignon Blanc in New Zealand. And, by God, I need to get myself to bed earlier.

But, in ten years, if my life looked like it does today?
I’d be thrilled. And damned lucky.

I don’t know if this is what I thought forty would be, but I’m so very glad that it is.

I am 40. FORTY!!!! And it is good.
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It’s not CAN’T-cún… It’s CANcún*

This – 2015 – is a fairly big year for Nick and me: it’s the year we both turn forty. Upon realizing this several years back (yes, we had to realize it; getting older is rough, y’all), we decided that our upcoming forty-ness would be the perfect excuse to embark on an adults-only vacation – ideally with a bunch of other friends who were also 1975ers (or close enough).

After nearly four years of planning, in mid-July we found ourselves at an all-inclusive resort north of Cancún*, a spot chosen both for its geographic middle-ness (for friends from both coasts) and its ability to serve our needs perfectly.

* the joke in the title was made by one of my BFF’s husbands. It is awesome.

Want to just lounge by the pools and beach all day, every day? That was do-able.
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 The pool area was pretty much fabulous.  IMG_3961
Those chairs? Yup. IN the water.

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And beyond the infinity pool… the ocean. Not too shabby.

We – eleven of us in total, some of our closest friends and some delightful friends of friends who became our buddies, too – all spent ample time by both of these bodies of water. Yes, they were bath-water warm… but the air temperature hovered over 100* (without accounting for humidity), so they were still refreshing.

Want to relax in your hotel room in air-conditioned splendor and take in the view? We could accommodate that.
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The rooms were really quite lovely. And air-conditioned. Very, very air-conditioned.
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The ocean was SO RIDICULOUSLY TURQUOISE BLUE.IMG_3979
Hazy morning shortly after sunrise… It was already at least 93*.

Want to trek 2.5 hours inland through the jungle (no, I mean that literally; except for the developed areas, which are not large, the Yucatán Peninsula is essentially all jungle, with vegetation so thick and lush, you’d be hard pressed to physically fit between the trees) and visit one of the most incredible archeological, astronomical, and architectural displays imaginable? We could make that happen.
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This is what we saw as we crossed from the Gulf of Mexico over onto the Yucatán Peninsula, on which Cancún is located. That green stuff? JUNGLE. Real, live jungle.
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Helllooooo, Chichen Itza. 
In other news, the Mayan people were SERIOUSLY BADASS and WICKED SMART, yo.IMG_1475
Very sadly, you are no longer allowed to hike up the steps to the top.
So we posed (with Ryan, one of our best buds from college) in front instead.IMG_3890
Also? The Mayan people were serious about their ballgames.
As seen in this etching/carving (found on the side walls of the “ball court”), the warrior/player has a blade in one hand and the DECAPITATED HEAD of the captain of the WINNING TEAM in his other hand.IMG_3892a
Why, you ask, did the VICTORIOUS captain lose his head (as depicted above – look closely and you’ll see the kneeling warrior [one knee on the ground, the other bent] with his  missing head)? Because such an “honor,” after playing so well on the field, resulted in his immediately becoming a god and joining the other Mayan gods before him. Immortality and eternal praise? Not a bad prize, eh?!

Want to cool off after trudging around historic Mayan sites in the 105* Mexican sun by jumping into a cavernous sinkhole that’s more than 150′ deep? That could be arranged.
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This is the Ik-Kil cenote. It is crazy cool, both literally and figuratively.IMG_1515
I was too chicken to jump from the raised platform (up the stairs to the right; Ryan and my friend, Sarah, took that plunge), but I did jump in from the lower platform. After wandering around in the blazing jungle sun, it felt positively heavenly.

Want to take in some local sites and cuisine? That was do-able.
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Purchased at a roadside taco stand on the way to our resort.
When I say that I want to eat like the locals, I mean it.
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A gloriously colorful side street just off the main drag on Isla Mujeres, an island just across from Cancún.
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On the ferry to Isla Mujeres…

Want to just relax and never leave the resort, preferring instead to savor the all-you-can-eat food and endless alcoholic beverages? That was very, very do-able. IMG_1516
The ocean was very, very warm.IMG_1687
There are iguanas EVERYWHERE.IMG_3936
The pool complex at our hotel was right perty at night.IMG_1573
My mom sent me with these napkins to share with everyone. They were awesome.
CELEBRATE TURNING 40, DAMN IT!

Want to just soak in the splendor of the local colors, all of which are, somehow, more vibrant and vivid and awe-inspiring that anywhere else I’ve seen? We had that COVERED.IMG_1569
Do you SEE how insanely turquoise this water is??
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Regular old Cancún sunset, nbd.
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Purple and pink palm trees during the same sunset. Again, no biggie. They’re used to it.

Want to get a special little souvenir for your children and take photos of it all over the island? Have at it.
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 This is Itza, taking a dip in the ocean.IMG_1554
 She also enjoyed being poolside.IMG_1553
An evening sunset wasn’t so bad, either.

Most importantly, want the opportunity to get together with friends – some of whom you were meeting for the first time, some you hadn’t seen in years, and two of whom included some of your very best, closest friends on the planet… but who had never met one another before? And then maybe revel in the true deliciousness of having days and DAYS to hang out together and eat together and drink together and lounge together and talk together and drink together and sing together (karaoke, poolside guitar, and a cappella; we took the resort by storm, y’all) and relax together and drink together? (Yes, I know I said that three times. I do try for accuracy.) 

That was the most do-able — and the very best — thing of all.

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Nine of the eleven of us, post cenote-jumping and Chichen Itza exploring. We were very, very hot and very, very ready for a beverage (or several) back at the hotel, but also very, very excited to have seen such an incredible historical site. Plus also the van was air-conditioned.

I think this turning-forty thing may not be so bad. I’ve got several more months to go, but in the meantime, we are already on our way to forming the oldest group in the next Pitch Perfect movie. And I have some delicious Mexican chocolates to keep me company until then, too.IMG_1657
With two of my very bestest friends, Sarah and Kiki – who had never met one another before this trip – and their excellent, harmonic husbands.

 

The Big Four-Oh

If you’re a 39 year-old heterosexual American male considering how to ring in your 40th birthday, doing so aboard a Disney Cruise probably isn’t at the top of your list. But that’s exactly where Nick found himself after we booked our cruise and then realized that his big day fell smack dab in the middle of the trip.

Given that our choices were to embrace it or ignore it, we chose to go with the former – and by “embrace it” I mean that Nick worked on not being bummed that he would turn forty while trapped with surrounded by gazillions of screaming, hyped-up children and adults either taking advantage of the poolside bar by 10 a.m. or dressed in life-size princess and pirate costumes. Meanwhile, the girls and I worked on coming up with as many ways as possible to draw attention to Nick and let everyone within a five mile radius know that it was his birthday.

We’re sweet like that.
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Nick had refused to open any birthday-related paraphernalia prior to his actual birth date, citing bad luck (umm, okay?), so we knew we’d either have to wait until we returned to give him his “real” birthday presents or we’d have to bring them with us. Given that we were already lugging several suitcases, that we planned to purchase more than a few souvenirs and gifts for family and friends, and that our stateroom – while lovely – wasn’t exactly palatial, we decided to give him the bulk of his presents back home… but that just meant we could go overboard* with the “fun” (read: embarrassing) stuff on the cruise.

* see what I did there?

The preparations began weeks before our sail date. I thought it might be neat to surprise Nick with some snacks, beverages, etc., in our stateroom, but I didn’t want to haul all of that stuff with me. I’d read about an awesome company that crafts custom-made gift baskets for folks in the Port Canaveral area; it seemed perfect, but unfortunately, Disney no longer allows off-site companies to deliver directly to their ships. Long story short (you’re welcome), after several weeks of phone calls and emails between that company, our taxi company, and myself — all without Nick’s knowledge — the gift basket lady met us at the entrance to the cruise terminal parking lot, our driver slyly pulled over and took the “delivery” into the front seat, and the porters quietly loaded the basket in with all of our other luggage, to be hidden away until the next morning. THAT’S what I’m talking about!

Nick’s sister, Emi, and her husband, Matt, had also sent a surprise wine and cheese platter to our room – but because of the whole “bad luck” thing, I knew I’d need to keep the goods out of sight until the following day. It was easy enough for me to enter our stateroom before anyone else (Nick was busy waiting in the interminable line to get a ticket so that Annie could meet Anna and Elsa), and it was easy enough to stash the wine and wine glasses in a cupboard… But the cheese plate a) would not fit in our tiny fridge and b) was super fresh and would have been, um, poisonous inedible if I’d tucked it away in a drawer or something… So, after conferring with Annie and Ella, we all dug right into lovely cheese plate that had been given to us by Disney as a way of thanking us for being repeat cruisers. (This was slightly less far-fetched than it sounds because there actually was a thank-you-for-going-on-your-second-cruise tote bag from Disney awaiting us on the bed.) Nick was skeptical (“They do this for everyone? Fresh cheese? Isn’t that kind of expensive?”), but with no one to say any differently, he had no choice but to buy into it.

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Not a bad way to start the trip!

When Nick awoke the next morning (aka HIS BIRTHDAY), we presented him with our contraband gift basket, Emi and Matt’s bottle of wine, and the real story behind why “Disney” had given us a lovely cheese platter. The basket was a huge hit – Nick and the girls had Milano cookies right there at 7:30 a.m. – but we were just getting started.
disney51 Also inside: the beach toys Ella used during our “adventure” on Castaway Cay.

First, I presented Nick with… the shirts (found here; Etsy is a mystical place, you guys). There were four matching ones for Annie, Ella, GranMary, and me, but Nick had his own… special… version.
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In case you can’t see them, our shirts say “This Girl Loves The Disney Dream” and Nick’s says “This Guy Turns 40 Today!”. VERY CLASSY.
Also, I’m just noticing now that Annie’s blue ears look like… my boobs. Very, VERY classy.

After putting them on, we headed up to breakfast — but not before stopping to admire our stateroom door, which looked slightly different than it had when I’d snuck out the night before to decorate it. (The doors are metal, meaning you can stick magnets on them. Many cruisers go all out with door decorations; it’s like an informal competition or a strange, impromptu art show.) The custom magnet (found here) was awesome, but even more fun was the white board – because as the day went on, fellow passengers left Nick birthday messages.
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This is the “after” shot, taken upon returning to our room at bedtime…

As we arrived at breakfast, I pulled out our next birthday treat… our Mickey ears. Nick had known that I’d purchased ears while we were in Epcot — it had been his suggestion, actually, to get some embroidered so that GranMary could have her own, personalized pair — but he didn’t know that I’d snuck in a different order for his ears.
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GranMary… Emily… Annie… Ella… 40 and Awesome!

Our big plans for the day began shortly after breakfast: while researching things to do in Nassau, we had decided upon a “dolphin excursion,” something that’s been on Nick’s bucket list for as long as he could remember. We were excited, but didn’t really know what to expect; the thirty minute boat ride over to Blue Lagoon was beautiful, but the girls were growing restless and Nick and I shot one another This Had Better Be Worth It looks.
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Upon our arrival, we sat through a brief – and interesting – information session about dolphins, dolphin conservation, etc. Following the session, we were split into groups and sent out onto the docks to meet with our instructor/trainer and the dolphins. Our small group consisted of us and another family; they went first, allowing us to see just what we were getting into.

There was no doubt about it: this was going to be incredible.

When it was our turn, we could hardly wait to scramble down the ladder and onto the submerged platform where we’d hang out with the dolphins. The first group had warned us that the water was cold; still, we were unprepared for just how chilly it would be. There was no time to ease in, however, because “our” dolphin – Missy – was being instructed to pose for a photo with us… so we gathered our courage, bent our knees, held our breaths, and smiled.
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Notice how the girls’ shoulders are up to their ears because there was no way they were ready to get that wet yet…

Missy – short for Miss Merlin – was fifteen years old, a nursing mama, blind in one eye, and just the absolute coolest, most fascinating animal I’ve ever had the privilege of meeting. The trainer working with her was sarcastic and bold and more than willing to embarrass us in order to get a laugh; we liked her immediately.

I don’t quite know how to describe the excursion. I could tell you what it entailed: we – each of us, one at a time – got to hug Missy, dance with her (holding onto her front flippers and bobbing around together), run our hands along her back and head and belly (dolphins are unbelievably soft – there is little to compare her to that would make any sense because it’s a wholly unique feeling), kiss her (which may sound weird but which was SO VERY COOL), feed her (Nick was cajoled into feeding her by dangling a dead fish from his teeth – for real, yo), and sing with her (“Happy Birthday,” of course). We watched as she leapt into the air, doused us with water (at the trainer’s mischievous instruction), disappeared for a moment or two to check on her baby (who was hanging out in a separate, protected area so Missy could visit), scooted backward along the top of the water using only her flukes, blew bubbles under the surface, and made myriad crazy and amusing (to us humans) noises.
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What I can’t put into words is the sheer joy, awe, and delight that coursed through all of us during the 15 minutes we spent with Missy. It was something that transcended happy and blissful and slid into a kind of euphoria – but contained, special, magic. We felt it; it was almost an out of body experience, except we were so incredibly present.

Near the end of our visit, the trainer told us to wait a moment – and, at her hidden command, the dolphin swam out of sight. The trainer explained to Nick that Missy would be bringing him something to commemorate his big day, and when she returned he had to take it – but if it was alive (!!), he’d need to put it back. A moment later, Missy resurfaced and swam to Nick holding something in her teeth. Stunned, Nick giddily took it from her; it was a rock (which, thank God, is not alive), collected from the bottom of the lagoon.

To put it another way, a dolphin specifically selected a gift for Nick and then gave it to him. NICK GOT A 40th BIRTHDAY PRESENT FROM A DOLPHIN.
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When we returned home, he ordered a plastic box from Amazon in which to store/display his gift. I am not even kidding.

There was lots of other stuff to do at Blue Lagoon – sea lion greeting, dolphin watching, a gorgeous Bahamian beach with inflatables on the water – but, agreeing that our experience with Missy couldn’t possibly be topped, we chose to simply head back to the ship.

It felt as though we didn’t touch the ground for hours. We ate lunch and got ice cream; the girls swam and rode the water slide; Ella got her hair braided all fancy-like; Nick and I relaxed and enjoyed the Drink of the Day. He was on such a high, he even proudly posed with the girls’ and my last gift of the day: a towel that my aunt had embroidered for him, loudly declaring his age. (The rest of his presents awaited him at home.)
disney94This is maybe the softest towel in existence. I’ve totally stolen it for myself even though I AM NOWHERE NEAR 40, ahem.

I’d been informed that, at dinner, our waitstaff would present Nick with some kind of birthday treat; since he doesn’t really like dessert (or any sweets, for that matter; I KNOW), I decided not to order him a cake (see also: fridge too small to store leftover cake). It turned out perfectly.

Disney is nothing if not enthusiastic, especially when it comes to celebrations, and birthdays are certainly something to be celebrated. As such, when I stopped by the front desk the night before, the concierge eagerly forked over “I’m Celebrating” buttons for GranMary, the girls, and me as well as an “It’s My Birthday!” button for Nick. Those drew us some attention, but it was really the shirt that turned people’s heads. Nick insisted on wearing it all day (until dinner), explaining that it was the only day he could get away with it. I’d chuckled when I found it online, giggled when it arrived in the mail, laughed out loud when he actually put it on… but seeing other guests and cast members take notice of it, do a double take, and then stop to say, “Happy Birthday, man!” all day long was pretty much the most amusing best thing ever.

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Speaking of cool things…

After dinner, GranMary presented Nick with his final gift: a clever and funny reworking of The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” (complete with mouse ears and dancing grandchildren); it was a delightful capper on a pretty damned terrific day. When we got back to the room, we discovered that our attendant had folded our bath towels in the shape of a birthday cake.
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Do you think they keep the ribbon on hand, just in case?

If you’d asked Nick what he envisioned doing on the day he turned 40, I doubt that he’d have described the day that he wound up having. Still, he was a tremendously good sport about everything – and, by the end, even he had to admit that as far as birthdays go, it wasn’t really so bad… In fact, it was pretty freakin’ great. We were in the Bahamas. It was a perfect, sunny day. He got some dorky fun swag, including a present from a dolphin.

He even got to check an item off his bucket list.
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This photo makes me ridiculously happy.

At the very least, I hope there’s no doubt in his mind that he is pretty freakin’ adored by the rest of us. (Adored… and seen as fodder for embarrassment.)

But hey – you only turn 40 once. Might as well kick back with a Yellow Bird, soak in the sun, kiss a dolphin, and look out onto the incredible horizon stretching before you – in every possible way.
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Awesome, indeed.