I got down on Friday afternoon, which Jim takes off in the summer, and so I had a pleasant and fashionable ride from O'Hare to their place in Jim's convertible, with the day just warm enough to make that very comfortable and enjoyable. Grace was still at school when I arrived, and so I stowed my things in the guest room in their newly-finished downstairs, which I now saw and admired for the first time, and I joined Sophie and Haley in their new basement arts and crafts room. Both of them instantly went to work, showing me new and challenging works: Sophia is still in her Abstract Scribble Phase and gave me a wide variety of interpretations of her colors and smears. Haley, on the other hand, was in a very definite Subversive Representational stage caught up in portraying the potential for corruption in the world around her, and thus showed me a series of objects identified as "Rotten Stuff," featuring in series: "Rotten Tomato, Rotten Ice Cube, Rotten Potato, Rotten Apple, Rotten Chicken Fry, and a Rotten Piece of Salami." When asked why she was so interested in rotten stuff, she simply burst into laughter and tried to feed me to a plastic killer whale, reactions not uncommon to the artist whose vision is so directly questioned. They later almost managed to show me how to play their Wii system for the first time on the beautiful new basement entertainment system, but Grace and Haley got so competitive over designing my avatar or "Mii," that that whole thing ended in near-disaster with the two girls being banished from the machine.
Over a generous steak dinner that evening, I caught up a bit more with Leslie and Jim directly, hearing a bit of the details of shifting to summer schedules with work and with the girls, while marveling over the girls' overly-focused eating-habits, which, if left to themselves, would seem to have Grace eating only grated cheese on pasta, Haley eating only bread, and two year-old Sophie eating only steak. After dinner, while Jim and Leslie struggled to put Sophie down for the night (beginning what seemed to possibly be a pattern of her not wanting to go down if I was still apparently about and having fun with the others), I took Grace and Haley out to the park for a little impromptu bird-watching and climbing. (We saw a Common Grackle, which the girls were actually unfamiliar with, Haley's fav, the American Robin, and failed to discover the source of another bird who taunted us with its mysterious call.) We spent pretty much the whole walk back on the subject of trees, and how to tell different kinds apart, almost all of which I have forgotten, although my ability to identify several trees simply as "maples" left them inordinately dazzled and excited.
Saturday morning had us up and out quickly for both Grace and Haley's final soccer matches of the spring season. These were, inconveniently enough, on opposite ends of the town, which Grace's starting about 40 minutes earlier, so I went to that one with Leslie and Sophie, while Jim took Haley to hers. This way, I figured, I could see both of them play, as we would catch the end of Haley's as well, and since I figured (rightly) that the 7 year-olds would be more exciting to watch than the 5 year-olds. In fact, it was interesting to see the differences since I had last watched Grace play: now there was more energy, aggressive pursuit and play of the ball, and even the beginnings of teamwork or strategy, although all this was definitely punctuated by periods of zoning-out and slack watching of other teammates doing the work until a player was yelled awake by coach or parent.
I was continuing to experiment with my new camera and finally figured out why many of my shots up until this point were blurring, even with movement that wasn't terribly fast. The Image Stabilization features were new to me and I discovered that, once I switched the option from "Auto" to "High," I began to get the crisp sort of photographs I had been expecting and desiring, which led to shooting a number of fun, sporty, action photographs of Grace on the soccer field. We got to Haley's game in time for the fourth quarter, and so I was able to grab a number of shots of her as well, although the game was definitely much more cutely "beginners" than Grace's game had been. The girls posed with their medals for the season's work (although the best part of those pics are Sophie marching in to be included with her sisters, glowering as she sucked on her juice straw and looking for all the world as though she were possessed by Winston Churchill), and then that was pretty much it for the day, with no more obligations on anyone's part.
It was a gloomier and cooler day, and we hung out and played in the house for the afternoon. Ever interested in birds, Haley wanted to see again my pictures of the Atlantic puffins that I had shot on Skellig Michael. As I started to jump directly to those pictures on the computer, she surprised me by insisting on viewing the whole set and hearing the entire narrative of my pilgrimage to the monastic site, looking intently at the pictures of the ruins and, with Grace, asking lots of questions about the history and geography, particularly for their age. They seemed rather taken aback by the notion of being a monk, and choosing to live in the most inhospitable place imaginable. At some point Jim and Leslie asked if they could take advantage of my presence and head out for dinner and a movie that evening, which I assured them was no problem. They put Sophie down before leaving, which was the main work of the evening, and left me and the two older girls in the backyard, first playing soccer and then spending time tossing a frisbee around. I was a bit surprised at how rough they were at that, especially Haley, and so I got to feel like I was contributing something by slowing down and actually giving a bit of a frisbee-throwing lesson, showing grip, pose, and wrist-snapping to the girls, and watching them get better over the while as we practiced together.
As I brought them in for their bedtimes, disaster. Sophie was downstairs, just walking up to the backdoor as we were coming in, apparently having managed to climb out of her crib (although I found out later that this was not the case and that Leslie had put Sophie to sleep in her and Jim's bed) and had come downstairs to find the house empty, and was sobbing so hard that she was hiccoughing – almost hyperventilating. I got the girls to take care of as much of their own nighttime routine on their own while I tried to calm Sophie down. She's almost as upset as she was when she melted down the last time I babysat her, but this time I've at least got that experience on my side. Still, the other two demand their share of attention, with Haley needing to read a book aloud to me and Grace wanting to be snuggled a bit as she got tucked in, all of which I have to do while holding and rocking a still-sobbing Sophie. So it took me about an hour before I got Sophie to sleep. When Jim and Leslie get in from their movie, they're a bit surprised at hearing how much fuss Sophie had made, and can only hope that her going to sleep two hours late will at least make her late to wake up. Naturally, then, she arose and demanded their attention at 5am....
Sunday was more low-key, and Leslie spent the afternoon out with Haley at a classmate's birthday party. Grace was pushing for me to spend some time in the backyard throwing some more frisbee around, although I thought that the yard might be too wet after the morning showers. But I explained to her that I wanted to see my Mom a bit, too, which she seemed willing to accept, and I spent the afternoon over at Mom's place, and then taking in a dinner alone with her, which we hadn't done since she moved down to Illinois. So that was really enjoyable, whether we were talking news, playing around with a computer hardware issue for her, talking about architecture, books, or the granddaughters, or eyeballing a few spots of family history through Google's satellite photography. I got back after the girls went to bed, though, so I hoped that Grace wasn't mad at me for not getting back in time to throw the frisbee around with her as I thought I would. And I heard that Sophie went down easy without me there, which increased my suspicion that I might be getting her wired just by being around: a horrible price to popularity.
Grace had a last Monday at school, with Leslie attending for part of the end-of-the-school-year festivities and Grandma over to help babysit. Haley and Sophie both utterly repudiated me for the coolness of Grandma, leaving me so bored that I fell asleep on the couch for a while around lunchtime. The later part of the afternoon largely featured riding up and down the sidewalk and then drawing chalk pictures on the sidewalk. Sophie seemed keen for me to wheel her in the opposite direction than they usually took, perhaps for the "forbidden" nature of it, and there we met two tiny dogs being walked, one of which, a chihuahua, licked her arm in greeting to Sophie's delighted laughter. Grace sat for a time off to the side, on a bit of slope in front of a neighbour's yard, talking to me about trees and things, before degenerating into jumping on my shoulders for a ride and trying to stuff maple seeds into my ears. Always over-estimating my strength, Haley had pulled out a plastic sled onto the front yard announced that it was a canoe, and wanted to float up and down the "river" of the front yard, which meant that I should pull her. This was not easy, and was complicated by Sophie insisting on getting in, too. When the other girls tried to pull Sophie on their own, they seemed to be more willing to believe me that pulling them in the thing across the grass was as hard as I said it was.
The afternoon ended with a late-season softball game for Grace, which was also fun to take in and to see some of the improvement in her skills. Again, I went kind of happy with the picture-taking, trying to catch some fun sports shots for her and for Leslie and Jim. She had a good run of positions through the three "everybody-bats" innings, playing first, second, and shortstop. In her three at-bats she got tagged out at third on her first hit, and made it around the bases on her second two. Ending with a treat of popsicles, about which they all enthused to an excessive extent, we returned home, and ate a dinner of chicken before the girls went to bed and Jim took me off to catch the bus back to Milwaukee at O'Hare. A good catch-up, with another visit just down the line at the girl's dual birthday party for family at the end of the month. And oh, crap: I just realized that I forgot to call Grace on her actual birthday, which was yesterday. I was coasting so much on the glow of this visit that I didn't even think about the date. Bad uncle.
Anyway, I made it back to my apartment by 11:40pm, even after discovering at the Amtrak station downtown when I was getting off the bus that my bag had been unloaded at the previous stop. The deeply annoyed driver drove the bus back to look for it (it was his fault for unloading it for no one, after all) and we were all pleased to discover it sitting on a bench outside the unattended bus station on the south side of town near the airport. So that was a flash of good fortune.