Sunday, July 31, 2011

So that's what's happening in our life right now

I've had a number of people ask me lately what our current plans are.  And I realized that the plans are confusing enough that y'all might have no clue where we're at in life.  I'll summarize it here, in case you're trying to piece together our chaos.

Steve is going to graduate school for a year at William and Mary.  Masters in Accounting.  So we're moving an hour to Williamsburg, from Virginia Beach. He's not going to teach math this year; instead he's attending school full time and doing an internship in the spring (location TBD).

Since we were "between houses" (read: homeless, although gleefully and voluntarily), we decided to travel for 2 months this summer.  Steve had only 4 weeks off between teaching and starting summer classes, so he traveled with us until we dropped him off at the Milwaukee airport to head home.

Now, he's living in a motel for a month and we're still on the road.  

I'm heading to Kansas so my children can see my paternal grandparents, and then back up to Minnesota.  Jack has camp for a week at the end of August up in Northern Minnesota, so we might putter around up there. 

Then I'll drive back to Williamsburg with the 3 kiddos and we'll all live someplace together.

"Someplace" is still a hazy entity, since we're clinging to our dream of finding a 3-month lease on an unfurnished home.  We're even nutty enough to still hope for a fenced-in yard on that unfurnished-3-month-home.  Yeah, as you can imagine, we're not getting many bites on that. ;) 

We only have to scrape together 3 months of housing, so we're not concerned.  We'll maybe have to settle for a 3-month lease on an apartment, live in a tent (LOL!), or find someone who wants to take their house off the market for a few months.  

While we probably *should* be concerned, we figure the next few months will be part of the ongoing adventure of our life right now.  

More reflection on the strange life situation in other posts, but that's the gist of our life status. 

Sorry you asked?

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Why did I have kids?

I was putting Simone to sleep tonight, and her eyes had been closed a few minutes.  I thought she might even be asleep.  Suddenly, she opened them a bit and said quietly:  "Why did you have kids?"

"Because I wanted to pass my love on to someone.  Because I wanted to make a family with Daddy."

"Why do some people not have kids?"

"A lot of reasons. Everyone lives their lives differently."

"Hmm."  She nodded.  Put one hand on each side of my face. Then closed her eyes.  

I could name a lot of reasons why it rocks to be a mother to these little ones.  It feels really good to teach them new things...take them new places...the amazing hugs they give...planning themed birthday parties. ;)  And yes...making a family with Steve.  That was (and is) a big one.

But man...I couldn't think of a single one outside of that moment with sweet, pudgy, toddler hands cupping my face.  Her tiny angel breath on my face.  And watching her fall into sleep.  I just wanted to hold on to that moment forever.  

Simone is on the verge of not being a tiny one at all anymore.  Her third birthday is on the horizon. I want to memorize every moment of her toddler ridiculousness, but I am also enamored by watching her become a girl.  Slivers of who she might someday become. 

Any reasons I had for creating children pale in comparison to what it means to me now. 

Monday, July 18, 2011

Travel Notes: Staying in hotels with children

Here is a big steaming pile of disconnected thoughts on staying in hotels with children. 

My most important tip:  Have a Hotel Bag.  I have no interest in dragging in 5 suitcases, one for each member of the family.  So we have a large orange duffel that has clothes for the next day for everyone, bottles of water, apples or cereal bars or other quick breakfast, toiletries bag, overnight diapers, etc. 

If you have the option, the 2-room suites are completely awesome for families.  For quick in-and-out hotel stays, we actually prefer something like the Kamping Kabin at the KOA – as simple and streamlined as possible.  But if you want to relax and re-charge, it’s nice having a separate place for kids to run.  La Quinta, Comfort Suites, and Holiday Inn Express have been good 2-room options for us.  After a long day of driving, the kids usually want to run and The Parents usually want quiet. =)

Make sure to note the Confirmation Number for all your hotels.  I write them in my datebook on the blanks for that day, including price of the room and other details.  I’ve had prices change or rooms “not found” – but the writing in my book made them fix it for us.

The sugar packets for coffee are a great exfoliating scrub if you mix it with your regular face soap.  I put a packet in with a bit of Castile – voila. 

If you have children, unplug the phone immediately when you enter the room. Most people use cell phones anyway, and you can always plug it back in to call the front desk.  This way, they don’t phone the front desk or a neighboring room on accident.

If you’re missing a drain-plug, a small Ziploc can be filled with water and dropped into the drain.  My kids love hotel baths.  Important form of recreation when you’re all stuck in a small room with no backyard.

Ask for a first-floor room with Littles.  That way, they can run laps or jump without disturbing anyone.

None of this is related to one my driving passions in life: Finding offbeat places to stay.  :) Or cheap-but-interesting places.  So if you’d like suggestions on that, just holler.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Travel Notes: National Parks

I’ve never been opposed to national parks, but now I’m contemplating a small-scale obsession with them. Okay, that might be overstating it. Mainly I’m going to reference the map for any national park within a reasonable radius, for all future trips. I lived in Minnesota my first 18 years and never went to Voyageurs National Park? 

My parents’ goal for us was to see all 50 states by the time we graduated high school. We did the Continental ones, something I deeply appreciate about my youth. I have the same goal for my kids, but would also like to hit all 7 continents. After this trip, I’d like to include most of the United States National Parks as well. 

I was surprised by how many foreign languages I heard at the parks. At Yellowstone, there were certain periods where I heard hardly any English. People come from all over the world to see these sights; it seems silly of me not to experience them in my own country.

A few notes I have about visiting National Parks:

1. If you’re going to more than a few parks, there’s an annual pass for $80 that gets you into all parks. I wish I’d done that, although I thought the $25 entrance for Yellowstone/Grand Tetons for an entire week was still a steal. 

2. The moment you pass into a park, find the nearly Visitor’s Center and get their Junior Ranger packet for the kids. You can also pre-print them online for many parks, if you want to get an early start for the parks. You can learn a lot online at home before you go. My kids adored filling in their packets, finding out more information, and taking their oath at the end. And I learned a lot too! Did you know the sap of a Ponderosa Pine smells like butterscotch? Thank you, Jr. Ranger program!

3. Also ask at the Visitor Center about the Explorer Backpacks. Not all parks have them, but many do.

4. Many of the parks have a requirement to see a Ranger Program (free of charge), in order to get the Jr. Ranger badge. The newspaper at the Visitor’s Center has the times/locations for the programs, but you want to check them early to make sure you leave time for them. Even if they weren’t required, we really appreciated the programs. The Rangers are amazingly informed, and I learned a lot from them. 

5. Yellowstone had a Young Scientist program (only at the Old Faithful Visitor Center) for ages 5 and up. You might check at other parks to see if they have similar programs. Eisenhower and Gettysburg, for example, have Junior Secret Service Agents. These vary widely among parks, but the Visitors Center will be able to answer which options there are for your children.

6. We bought the passports at the first national parks, and will use them for all we visit: You can find date cancellations at most parks (we found them near/in the gift shop), and you can buy special cancellation stickers for each park. 

7. Ask the rangers in the first visitor center for suggestions! They can efficiently outline the best places to see wildlife, picnic, let the kids run around, etc. The Rangers were an incredible help for answering questions, and were thrilled to teach the children. I’m a big fan of the Rangers. 

8. We found excellent food options at nearly every National Park we visited. Organic, sustainable, gluten free…the menus were progressive. The deli-style places were typical fare, but the sit-in dining spots were some of the best food options we’ve found on the trip. 

9. Steve’s suggestion: If you see a crowd of people pulled over in the parks where there are animals, make sure to stop too. =) That’s how we got to see one of the less-than-150 moose in Yellowstone. And, we spotted several bears that way too. The crowds never led us astray. 

10. There’s a park finder phone-app called “Oh, Ranger!” that you can download. It finds you parks along your route. 

If you have more hints on the National Parks, please send them my way!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Hug your children

I know I promised people I'd be blogging our trip, and indeed I will.  Massive Yellowstone post to come, as well as a few more.  Possibly even tonight.  But right now, I am sitting in the driver's seat of our parked car in the shade, while my two littlest nap.  We're going to Glessners tonight for dinner and overnight, and I wanted them rested for the big night.  Steve and Jack are fishing with Carrie and Ashton.

I should  be resting or doing something productive, like cleaning out the car - which has been infiltrated by Road Trip Chaos.  But all my mind can think about is an article I saw in The New York Times yesterday, in the restaurant waiting for my food. I saw the headlines and then stood there reading every word until I was done.  Everything around me went silent, and all I could see were the words of the story. 

An 8-year-old Brooklyn boy was dismembered and put in a freezer, killed by a man whom he asked for directions on the 7 block walk home from a day camp.  He'd begged his parents to let him walk home, they did dry runs of the walk, and they made a map for him.  He missed a turn and got lost, then asked a man for help.  The video of that area shows him getting into the car with the man.

You can Google "Brooklyn boy dismembered" and find more information.  I learned about this yesterday and keep coming back to the thought of it, and finally gave in and hunted for more articles.

It's impossible for me to fathom parents going through the pain that life causes some. 

I was thinking after the article about Protecting the Gift, and how the author said to always have your child ask a woman for help if they're lost.  Statistically speaking, a woman will stay with that child until the parents are found, no question.  But even more, the chances of a  woman being a violent offender are next to none - nearly all violence from women are crimes of passion. 

This story is cascading through my brain, nearly every moment today.  I can't turn it off, just thinking about it, processing it.  Thinking about Jack, who's not much younger, and that situation with him. 

Last I read, the parents don't know the boy was dismembered.  It's just heart-wrenching to think about it on any level.  Staying in ignorance...knowing all the details...I can't judge how any parent moves through a situation like this.  If you ever really move through it.

I keep quizzing my children today: "If you're lost, whom do you ask for help?"  To the point of ad nauseum, but hopefully I'm automating it?  Their tiny little voices answer back: "Find a mom!"  It's this false blanket of security, I guess, because getting lost isn't the only way children are harmed. 

I  never want to scare my children about the world around them.  But these situations bring home each new caution that make me want to create some new awareness, new prevention.  When Susanne's baby fell in the pool, I enrolled my children in private swim lessons.  Reading this yesterday reminded me to give my children tools for when they're lost - whom to ask.  To stay in one place. 

Don't have them ask police officers, Protecting the Gift said.  Children too easily mistake security guard uniforms, and the history on them isn't the same as a police officer.  Turns out, the man who killed the Brooklyn boy used to be a security officer. 

I never want to be (and couldn't be) the mother who never lets her child assume risk.  That's not how we operate in this family - fear isn't our foundation.  Steve and I want to give our children a big world with big experiences.  But it's a sobering pause to read these stories and see that there's a REAL family with REAL broken hearts about something so incomprehensible that it should never be a reality. 

My children ask often why people do things - when the idea of stealing or killing or other things come up. They are fascinated by good and evil, especially Andrew.  And our pat answer is that some people didn't get enough love in their childhood.  But we're filling them with love so those things are never an issue.  So that they go out and spread kindness to others, and not bad things.  

It's hard to read that these things exist out there.  That somewhere, there's a broken man who could do something like this to a family - to a little boy.

Give your children an extra hug today.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

When play imitates life

Apparently, my children have fully immersed into road-tripping:

They're pretending the hotel room's closet is a car, and they're packing it up for their "trip" somewhere.  They're also taking a lot of photos of each other with toy cameras.  They turned a postcard into their GPS, are making shopping lists of food they need for the trip, and saying completely adorable things about museums they want to see.

I will take this as validation that they're not sick of being away from home yet.  I hope this joy of being on the road continues.   :)

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Why Mount Rushmore IS better than Machu Picchu. For now.

This time last year, I was making plans for a family trip to Peru.  Even went so far as creating an itinerary with a tour group specializing in family trips to Machu Picchu.  

I was visiting my dad at the time, who is supportive but wiser-than-I-am.  He was even interested in joining us in Peru (I get some solid "adventure" genes from him), but he said to me: "You know... there is a lot of the United States your children haven't seen yet."  He made some disturbingly logical points about maybe waiting a couple of years, so the trip could be more enjoyable and we could do more things.  Blah blah blah. Things a soul-level adventurer doesn't want to hear.  All delivered with that gentle-wisdom that he specializes in, where you know he'll be supportive either way.

And truth be told, there were several things on the Peru itinerary that seemed completely fabulous for an OLDER Simone.  Peruvian traditional dance lessons, for example. White water rafting, for another.  Apparently, it's not wise to bring 2-year-olds white water rafting.

Dad mentioned Yellowstone and Mount Rushmore as one thought, and I agreed that I'd loved them as a child.  

I mulled over it for awhile and then decided that he was right: I *do* want to show my children the world, and that includes the United States.

So I called and cancelled with the Peru trip planners and I started reading through brochures of the new road trip. I went online to make reservations for Old Faithful Inn (a YEAR in advance) as that had been a goal of mine to see.  Turns out, I could get *one* night there.  One!  So that became the tent-pole for the rest of the trip's plans.  Within a week, I  knew where we were staying on which day, during our three-week span between Mitchell, SD and Salt Lake City.

I now shake my head in vaguely-disgusted wonder at Peru-Sarahbeth.  I was completely, utterly, shockingly wrong. 

We did not need Peru to fill our adventure tank.  My kids adored the Corn Palace, we had a blast at Wall Drug, and we were all awe-inspired by Mount Rushmore.  Travel notes to come in a separate post.

Yes, I remembered liking these things before.  There was no ill-will about those places.  But I'd been there, done that.  I thought it would be more fun to take my children to a place I'd never been, so we could all soak in the novelty.

Well.  I was completely, utterly, shockingly wrong.  

South Dakota:  My deepest apologies.  You rock.  

Travel Notes: South Dakota (Mitchell and Rapid City)

When we go to a new city, I write down what we saw, where we stayed, what we missed-but-wish-we'd-seen.  That way, I can do quickie-links to friends when they pass through those same cities.  These might be pretty boring if you aren't going there, so feel free to skip.  :)

I suggest a one-night stay.  You can see the highlights in a 24-hour period.  


We stumbled completely by chance on one of the BEST sleeping arrangements we've ever had. We had a tent-site reserved at a KOA about 3 miles from the Corn Palace, but we weren't sure what time we'd get in - plus, we needed to be on the road the next day early.  So, I called and changed the tent reservation to one of their Kamping Kabins. 

No tent required.  Just bring your sleeping stuff (we used sleeping bags and camping pillows). Queen bed and bunk, and then Simone slept on a cot we brought.  All made out of wood. Quaint!

You park outside of the cabin, and there's mini-golf and a playground literally right outside.  The kids played while we packed and unpacked the car.  

Cabins were air conditioned too, which I wasn't expecting.  Yes, it wasn't the Four Seasons - but it was a completely perfect night's sleep for us.  Clean, efficient, and comfortable.  

We paid about $40 for the Kabin for one night. 

KOA Mitchell's website:


Corn Palace:

I've now been there 3 times - and each time, the ridiculousness of it makes it *so* worth the trip. It's fascinating and impressive and goofy all at once.  Free to see all of it.  Extensive gift shop inside and a concession stand for snacks.

Prehistoric Indian Village:

If we weren't due in Yellowstone on Thursday and needing to scramble, we would have made this work.  I was disappointed to miss it.  It's an active archaeological dig.

Dakota Discovery Center:

This was another I was disappointed to miss, but we were only there on July 4th and it was closed.  There's a kids' section that looked like fun, from the website.  Note: It's on a college campus, so don't be confused when you look for the building.  We were.

EN ROUTE TO RAPID CITY (from Mitchell)
Badlands National Park:

You'll go a bit off I90 to get there.  State Highway 44 provides an alternate, scenic access to the park and intersects Highway 377 in the town of Interior. Follow 377 two miles north to the Interior Entrance gate.

Wall Drug:

You will know about this if you're anywhere in a 500 mile radius of the store.  They are known for their copious billboard-marketing.  My favorite, for its endearing silliness and poor grammar: "Wall Drug s-p-e-l-l-e-d FUN."

I thought it was slightly lame as a kid, but bringing my kids today, it was so much fun!  Maybe they've expanded or maybe my kids have lower standards? ;) Not sure.  We had some great buffalo burgers in their cafe, sampled the ice water they're famous for giving out for free, and spent about 2 hours taking ridiculous photos their "prop garden." 

I enjoyed it even more, actually, because I'd pre-read the history on the internet and had a new appreciation for it. 


Mount Rushmore is in Keystone, and you *can* stay there.  But most opt for Rapid City and do the 20-30 minute drive to/from Mt. Rushmore - as that's along the route towards Yellowstone. That's what we did.

Based on reviews and price-value for a suite, we chose Comfort Suites in Rapid City:

We got a partial-divided room with a microwave, fridge, pull-out sofa and King bed for around $140, including tax (AAA rate). The only thing odd is that there's only one TV in the room.  We usually like the divided room because we can let the kids veg out with a movie and still have our space.  But the partial divider allows the light on in our section even after kids are in bed, which I really appreciate. 


Mount Rushmore: 

Need I say more?  It's completely awesome.  My Facebook review:  "I've been to art museums in 26 different countries, and y'know? In my book, Mount Rushmore beats all but the Pieta in Rome. What an amazing artistic and engineering feat. I liked it as a child, but it's even better now." 

Suggestions for Mount Rushmore:

(1) If you have children, stop at the Information Desk and get the Junior Ranger packets.  They have them divided by age, but each packet is a list of questions and things to research/do in the park.  When done, you come back and get "quizzed" by a Ranger, take an oath to protect and honor the park, and then get a badge.  Here are my cherubs in their fine moment of oath-taking.  Andrew was so moved by the oath that he came out and started picking up litter.  I mentioned that to the ranger, and she came out, shook his hand, and thanked him for his service to Mount Rushmore National Park.  Honestly, I'm not sure I've ever seen him so proud and delighted.

(2) The cafe at the park was great, and included locally raised buffalo (a trend around here that I love!).  Prices were reasonable and there were a lot of delicious food options. 

(3) Plan your visit accordingly if you want to stay for the evening show (9:00) and illumination at 9:30. We came a bit too early, and the kids were wiped-out around 7:30.  No way could we have stayed that extra 2 hours.  If we did it again, I'd have them down for a late nap and then keep them up. 

(4) A friend suggested the passports from the gift shop, where you can stamp all the National Parks you see.  I bought one for each of the kids, and will buy the commemorative stickers and get stamps at each National Park we see. Seems like a nice way to track their travels.  

Jack also likes the hat pins, and he's putting them on his backpack.  

I mentioned in another post about the squashed-penny collections, and we saw ample penny-squishing machines at most of our stops.  We bought the penny-books so they have a place to store the ones they get.

There are other places I would see if we had more time in Rapid City:

Reptile Gardens:

1880 Town:
We're going to Dodge City later in the trip, but this is supposed to be better.  


Tomorrow, we're going to Devil's Tower. If you've never watched Close Encounters of the Third Kind, it's a good thing to watch before you see the Tower.  Freak'n awesome.  We plan to bring picnics and make a hiking day of it. Another fond memory from my childhood travels.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Happy 7th Birthday, Baby Jack

My Jack,

You are the child who began my motherhood.  When I was birthing you, all those hours of knowing that soon I would be holding a child, I had no idea what to expect.  What would it be like to be on *this* side of motherhood?  The one rocking babies and singing off-key lullabies, slicing hot dogs into circles, filling stockings on Christmas eve, and sending letters to you at camp?

Motherhood has been nothing like I expected.  And perhaps that's in large part because YOU are nothing like I expected.  

Primarily, I didn't expect you to come out so fully-formed.  I thought I'd be laying this foundation of brick under you - layer by layer - until at some point, you'd look like a fully-formed, functional human being.  I didn't really know other babies and toddlers.  I had no nieces and nephews, and we were among the first of our friends to marry and have babies.  So much of my wonderings about mothering you were blanketed in complete ignorance.

Now I get it.  Now I understand that when you create life, you're actually just inviting it to join your family.  You're not inventing the person or even really constructing them. You're just the vessel in which this life forms and emerges. 

From you, I have learned that we are who we are.  That whether a person is 2, 22, or 102...there is a very special wiring in every individual that needs to be understood.  Listened to. And celebrated. 

When a 4-year-old falls madly in love with the Russian language after watching a silly library video, as a mom I needed to listen to that because it meant something. I didn't know then...and still don't, for that it's going to play out in your life.  But I am grateful to your 4-year-old self for begging for Googled audio files in Russian for 3 weeks...requesting Russian food for dinner every night...and basically, making darn sure your parents paid attention to who you were telling us you were. 

Because of that experience and so many more from you, I listen differently to everyone I meet.  What are they craving out of life?  I listen more to everyone in the family, including encouraging Dad to go back to school and be who he really wants to be.  I might tease him about being an accountant and an actuary, but I love that he loves his statistics and calculus.  It reminds me that it takes all kinds of minds to make the world work. 

When you were younger, I remember wishing I had the guidebook for how to parent you.  But I'm learning, over and over, that YOU are the guidebook.  You are telling me who you are...what you want...and I just need to tune into that. That's going to create the path for the journey you're supposed to go down.

I have a feeling we're in for a pretty interesting journey with you, kid.