"The most wasted of all days is one without laughter." ~e e cummings

Thursday, October 11, 2018


A few months ago, Max started creating a card game based on the Warriors book series. Similar to Pokemon or, if you're lucky enough to know about it, the Harry Potter card game, the game Max is working on consists of Warrior Cat cards, which players can collect, in addition to "power," "element," and "adventure" cards that you use in playing the game. The goal is for your Warrior Clan (which consists of the cats you have collected) to gain superiority over the rival Clans. 

It's pretty brilliant and he's making all the cards by hand, which is impressive. Dozens of cards and the rule book, which make up the game-in-progress at the moment, live in a well-organized folder under Max's desk. 

Next to it is a well-organized collection of recipe cards, cook books, and pages ripped from food magazines because, in addition to the Warriors Project, Max is also working on his Baking Project.

On a shelf across the room is a binder with tabs separating the information Max has accumulated and the knowledge he has acquired in the fields of Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Astronomy, and Geology. Because Max is also working on a Learning About Science Project. 

Then there are the Geography and Cultures folders that Max is using the teach Molly World Studies in his School Project. I won't even mention the various works of art and "creations" that live at the Art Table in the basement.

The other night, as I was tucking him in bed, in his room littered with the folders and binders and boxes of his works-in-progress, Max said to me, "You know what, Mommy? I think I need a project."

I took a deep breath before reminding him of ALL the projects he's currently working on...It's not that he doesn't finish what he starts, although that is sometimes the case, it's that he is constantly seeking his next big obsession. When Max dives in to something, it's with everything he has.....until something new catches his attention. He'll go back to previous projects, though, so we must save everything. Everything. All of it. All the time.

He went on to tell me that having a project calms his mind. I SO get that. The over-thinkers of the world will agree: having something creative and concrete to let your mind play with keeps it from ruminating on the worries and the anxieties that sit beyond our realms of control. We need projects to keep our minds settled....I just wish Max's didn't leave a literal trail of project mess destruction in his wake.

I try so hard to honor his creative process and let him do his thing, but the papers and the supplies and the piles Drive. Me. Crazy. I wish I could lighten up. I wish I could let it go. Maybe that's MY new project.


Nine years old.

This kid is as spunky and sassy as ever.

But there's a maturity that's growing.

And with it, an awareness of this world that I have mixed feelings about. On the one hand, because of the time and place into which he was born, Max has a healthy awareness of who he is and how he identifies. He has role models who are out and proud (BIG thanks to the Queer Eye guys...JVN, in particular) and friends and a community who accept and love him completely. 

On the other hand... a third grader shouldn't worry about bad people bringing guns to the Pride celebration we attended last month. Max did. A little kid, who identifies as gender-fluid, shouldn't know that the LGBTQ community, his community, is sometimes targeted and discriminated against by hateful individuals and even our own political leaders. Max does. A nine-year old shouldn't know that Nazis came to our city...the same Nazis who hate people "like him" just because of how he feels comfortable dressing. Max does.

He's growing up so fast and, sometimes, I just wish we could live in that blissful little bubble of innocence and youth forever. But we can't. And growing up is hard.

I'm constantly impressed by how gracefully and confidently Max is doing it. 

Fashion Glasses. No prescription, just style.

Max has been in a bit of a worst-case scenario spiral lately. After the concerns about gunmen at Pride, we dealt with a hurricane in our local forecast. Though we were spared the worst of the weather, the anticipation of the potentially dangerous storm shook Max to his core. Then, on Tuesday, as we were leaving his fiddle lesson, his teacher said, "See you next week, Max!" Max replied with a sigh, "I sure hope so." When I asked what he meant by it, he responded, "Well, we'll probably be here, but maybe not! Literally ANYthing can happen between now and then! You just never know..."

I think it's developmental. I think this worst-case scenario-ing is the result of a highly sensitive child processing deeply emotional what-ifs. It's his new, expanding worldview impacting his still undeveloped emotional brain. He's a work in progress, that Max.

But he's not all doom and gloom. 

He is, after all, sugar and spice. Max's small business brainchild, Sprinkles on Top, has finally come to fruition...years after he coined the name. Thanks to a willing friend (who's mom has agreed to split the kitchen time!), Max's bakery has had two after school pop-up shops, with more in the works.

He's also rhythm and melody. This kid can sing. Play some Taylor Swift and pretend you're not listening to him and he'll belt it. My favorite time with Max is during our weekly drive to fiddle lessons. He plays DJ while I navigate the downtown, rush hour traffic. We blast Taylor and Lady Gaga and Pink and he knows EVERY word (even the lyrics that make me cringe to hear him sing...ooooh, boy....growing up is hard AND educational). 

We've mentioned voice lessons or joining a choir, but he's a sing in the shower kind of kid...if he's going to be on stage, it'll be with a fiddle under his chin. Bluegrass Queen.

I was so thrilled by his decision to start up with the fiddle once again after taking a break for the summer...and not just because it is not, now, just another one of Max's started-then-neglected projects. Watching him learn something new...something challenging that he doesn't pick up instantly and effortlessly...is such a joy. Growing up is hard...but it's beautiful, too.

Lesson Learned:

I wish I could shield him from the big fears and worries he's been processing lately. I wish I could keep him wrapped in the cocoon of safety and security and the complete freedom of self-expression that we lived so comfortably in when he was little. I can't take away the worries, but I can support the projects that keep his mind busy and calm. I can ignore the mess and the clutter and embrace the creativity. 

I can't keep the dark parts of this world from him, but knowledge is power and Max will do great things with all that he'll learn and experience. His patience and compassion are endless. His ability to see the best in someone, anyone!, puts me to shame (I still firmly believe that people are just the worst). Max is kind and thoughtful and so exceptionally bright. Max is a good egg.

The world is yours, babe. I can't wait to see what you make of it.

It's going to be FABULOUS.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

The Nursery Chair

There is no part of my identity that I feel more strongly than that of Mom. I'm a thousand facets of a human being but the mom/mommy/ma-MA in me is whom I feel most viscerally. I would survive if I could never write again. I'll never not be a mom.

I feel like a mom when I do the grown-up things associated with taking care of another person: scheduling vaccinations and preparing healthy dinners, for example, or reminding little ones to brush their teeth and not-so-little ones to wear deodorant.

I feel like a mom when I kiss boo-boos and when I accompany an over-tired kiddo to bed for the third time in one night. Driving kids to school, scheduling play dates, fretting over my harshly spoken word or my overreaction to spilled milk. Folding laundry every night and wiping bathroom counters every morning, taking the kids back-to-school shopping and debating when is the "right" age to let my oldest get a cell phone. Worrying about school shootings and the fate of our health insurance. Worrying about mean kids. Teaching my kids about kindness, where babies come from, and why it's so important to vote...listening as they tattle on one another one minute and giggle together the next...standing by them as they navigate their social circles and cheering them on when they, at long last, decide to go out for a team.

I feel like a mom nearly every moment of every day, but I never felt more like a Mother than when I sat with my tiny babes in their Nursery Chair. The Nursery Chair is breastfeeding, reading bedtime stories, singing lullabies, reassuring against nightmares, cooling raging fevers, and rocking--at last--to sleep.

This chair, to me, IS motherhood.

As eager and expectant First Time Parents, Sam and I bought the Nursery Chair about six months into my pregnancy with Evan. We picked a fully-upholstered pale yellow swivel glider because I wasn't sure if my baby would more enjoy rocking back and forth or swaying side to side. (These were the things I had the luxury of thinking about then...as a pre-first time mom.) I sat in the chair in the middle of the Baby Super Center showroom and rubbed my tummy, imagining rocking a sweet, angelic newborn as he peacefully drifted off to sleep in my arms.

We brought the chair home and naively placed it in the baby's room, down the hall from ours. Little did we know that it would be ten long and sleepless months before our high-needs firstborn would spend even a naptime in that room.

By the end of our first week at home with our darling newborn, we smartly moved the chair into our bedroom, where all the action was. Although I had been given excellent nursing support in the hospital by a lactation consultant, we didn't really get the hang of nursing until we got home. I remember the moment, sitting in that yellow chair when, for the first time, the latch happened smoothly and immediately. I cried because, for once, my baby wasn't.

When Evan was two weeks old, it became clear, in one terrible night, that our sleepy newborn had awoken and he was NOT happy. We wouldn't find out until much later that he was uncomfortable because of his multiple food allergies, his tummy upset by nearly everything I ate.

I sat in the yellow chair, facing the window through which I could see my neighbors going about their day as if all was right in the world, while I rocked, swayed, bounced, and tried desperately to soothe my poor, miserable baby. I called Sam at work, by this time nearly as hysterical as Evan. "I can't do this!" I wailed. "Something is wrong and I don't know how to fix it!" I felt unfit and unqualified to continue in this role I had so desperately wanted to assume.

I don't know if Sam said anything other than "I'm on my way home," before I threw the phone down and drew my sobbing baby closer to me. I leaned my head against the back of the chair, my tears streaming down my face, soaking into the pale yellow upholstery.

With time and probiotics, my happy (though still sleepless) baby boy returned. Because he seemed only to be able to sleep when our skin was touching, we spent hours together in that chair. It was in this chair that I made the realization that, despite the fact that I already had 26 5-year olds assigned to be in my kindergarten class, there was no way in hell that I'd be able to return to work. Who, if not me, would stroke this baby's forehead, just so, to soothe him into slumber?

Sitting in that chair, watching the world outside the window continue to spin, I called Sam at work once again.

"We'll sell a car! Hell, sell the house if we need to! We need to find a way for me to stay home with this baby." I was near tears (did I exist solely in that state in those days?) but tears of relief, when Sam agreed that this was what was best for our family. "I'll work on some numbers...I don't think we need to sell a car. Or the house."

My next phone call was to my Principal, who wasn't surprised in the least that I had made the decision I did. "I already have someone in mind to take your place," she said kindly, absolving me of the guilt I felt at having left her in the position of needing to hire a kindergarten teacher just weeks before the first day of school.

By the time Evan was four-months old, I had worn a Mother-shaped indentation in the seat of the Nursery Chair. I had found the exact right position to cradle my nursing babe with one arm, with one of my legs thrown over the arm of the chair, allowing me to recline into the corner of the chair and close my eyes for a few minutes of peace.

I nursed Evan for 14 months, weaning mostly because we were trying for Baby #2 and not having as much success as we did the first time around. As Evan grew into toddlerhood and, at last, my belly began to swell with a second pregnancy, we used the Nursery Chair almost as often as we had in the baby days. Evan was a quiet, introspective toddler who would happily sit with me in that chair and read books together for hours at a time. Big enough for him to squeeze in next to me when my lap became too small to hold him, that chair was where I still rocked him before bed and naptime, where I still sang to him our bedtime songs, and where I kissed the curls on top of his head, quietly terrified that I could never love a second baby as much as I loved this child.

Baby Max was born and, as it does, my heart found plenty of room for both of my boys. The chair, unfortunately, was not so expansive. Instead of spending hours rocking and nursing Baby #2 in the Nursery Chair as I did with Evan, I, more often than not, nursed Baby Max on the couch with Evan and a pile of picture books beside me, or as I sat on the floor in the living room playing trucks with my big boy, trying desperately to prove to him that he hadn't been replaced by this new, needy creature in our home.

Nighttime was when Max and I would melt into the chair. Alone with my newborn at last, I was able to stare at him, tracing every outline of his face with my fingertip as I nursed him in the middle of the night. I'd rock in that chair marveling at the fact that my two boys, born of the same two parents, just two and a half years apart, could be so different in every way. A happy, relaxed baby, Max took to nursing, and every other aspect of babyhood, right away. The chair, with this baby, was not a place of anxiousness and tears, but a place of peace and contentment. Rocking my newborn in that chair, I no longer felt unfit. I no longer had to make desperate, pleading phone calls to my husband. Motherhood felt good.

Time passed quickly with two and, before we knew it, we were ready for Baby #3. For the first time, it occurred to me that this might be our last baby. Our number had always been "3 or 4" but as the baby in my belly and the two boys in our home grew bigger, I started to feel more and more confident that this baby would be the one to complete us.

I was in labor with Molly, moments from meeting her, when that confidence solidified into Knowing. Our last baby. Our family, Complete.

Molly's infancy was different from those of her brothers. Not quite as colicky as Evan, but not quite as relaxed as Max, Molly benefitted from the calm brought forth by my experience as a Mother, and I benefitted from the peace-giving knowledge that This, Too, Shall Pass. With her brothers happily occupying each other's attentions while I nursed Molly, I was able to fully recognize and appreciate the fact that this was the last baby I would ever breastfeed. It was an emotional realization, so I savored her infancy.

For the first time, we weren't in a rush with Molly. We didn't even set up a nursery for her! In part, the decision was made because we knew we were going to be moving to a new town just a few months after her birth, but mostly, we recognized that babies (in our house, anyway) don't need their own room until at least halfway through their first year.

The Nursery Chair was moved back into our bedroom, in the same corner in which it sat for our other two Newborns, by now slightly worn on the seat and arms, but still sturdy as the day we bought it.

We moved when Molly was four months old. When Molly's nursery in the new house was decorated in shades of pale pink (like delicate tulip petals) and brown (like strong coffee with just a splash of cream), the yellow chair certainly didn't go. But it did belong. We placed it next to her small dresser, the drawers of which were filled with impossibly tiny onesies and socks, the last of the baby clothes that would occupy space in our home.

By now my middle-of-the-night brain could only hold on to the lyrics of three songs, which I sang over and over (and over) to Molly as I rocked her in that chair and nursed her around the clock. More often than not, she'd end up in our bed for the night anyway, but I always rocked her in that chair, optimistic that maybe tonight would be the night she would sleep on her own.

For more than 18 months I nursed my last baby. I was in no hurry to wean but she began to show more interest in books and snuggle buddies at nap and bedtime, so I gradually and naturally ended my days as a nursing mother, a role I had held for a total of almost four years.

I wasn't ready to give up the Nursery Chair, though. It stayed in Molly's room (no longer a nursery once she transitioned to her Big Girl Bed well ahead of schedule) and was used daily as we read books and sang those same three songs.

As she grew, she needed more space in her room to hold her things. We replaced the small dresser with bookcases to hold her expanding library. Her floor became littered with the stuffed animals she collected with near-obsession. Her room was becoming cramped. The chair had to go.

There was no way I was getting rid of it, though. I planned to keep that chair forever, someday using it to rock my time-weary Grandma bones between visits from my grown children. Sell the Nursery Chair? No way! Instead, I rearranged our bedroom and made space for it in a corner, right next to a window. No longer needed to nurse a newborn in or to soothe a toddler to sleep in, I sat in that chair All. By. Myself.

I sat in it while I folded laundry or brushed my kids' hair after their showers. I would steal away to that chair, desperate for alone time and to satisfy my need to get some of these words out of my head and into the world. I was in that chair when I wrote many of the words on this blog.

I sat in it while I talked on the phone sometimes, when I needed to have a conversation behind a closed door, away from little ears.

I sat in it the night we made our kids' worlds when we told them we were getting a dog.

 Evan sat in it the night we told him that he had Crohn's disease. I'll never forget his face as he asked, "I'll have it forever?" and we had to say "Yes." He was gently rocking in that yellow chair, back and forth.

And still, after all these years, we sat in it while we read books. Sometimes one of us at a time, sometimes more than one of us piled together, one or two kids balanced on the arms, me, as always, filling that Mother-shaped indentation in the seat cushion.

This summer, we moved the Nursery Chair again, into our new house. For the first time in eleven and a half years, it's clear to me that we don't really need a Nursery Chair anymore. The kids read in their own beds or in the hammocks now. I write (when I can) at the kitchen counter or, like I am right now, on the porch. When my kids need comforting in the middle of the night, I don't hold them and rock them back to sleep anymore. A snuggle and back-tickle is all it takes these days.

More importantly, we don't have space for that chair anymore. I reluctantly agreed with Sam that it might be time for the chair to find a new home, so we listed it for sale on our neighborhood yard sale site. There was some interest in it from several potential buyers, but for one reason or another, we weren't able to complete a sale. Sam suggested that we lower the price to try to get a new buyer interested. That didn't feel right to me, though. I didn't want to sell it for the sake of selling it....as silly as it sounds, I didn't want to sell the chair at all...I wanted to "re-home" the chair.

Sam came up with the brilliant idea to donate the chair to an organization that supports pregnant women and mothers. I did a quick search online and found the perfect place. There is a nonprofit organization in our city that provides in-home support to new mothers. Specially trained doulas come into the home as often as the new mother needs and wants to support her in everything from lactation consultations/bottle-feeding assistance and newborn care to providing cooking, cleaning, or sibling-care services for the family. The organization happens to be the brain- and heart-child of a woman I know, the mother of one of my very first students from my first year of teaching. It felt serendipitous.

I contacted my friend to see if she could use this beloved and love-worn chair.

"We'd love to have your much loved rocker for a family in our program!" she wrote back. The mother is a refugee from Rwanda. She is soon to deliver her baby. This feels just right. Our chair, re-homed. My friend is picking up the chair this afternoon. I could almost cry....happy tears.

Lesson Learned:
I pride myself on the fact that I don't carry sentimental attachments to material things. I can throw my kids' artwork away, donate their baby clothes, or sell a piece of furniture that once belonged to my grandmother without a second thought. I can move out of the home in which my kids were born or learned to walk happily anticipating new memories made in a new place. That pride was shaken when it became clear that giving this chair away is difficult for me.

I don't think I've ever encountered a thing that held so much depth and emotion as this chair did for me. I think that's the Motherhood effect. This chair was my Velveteen Rabbit. I experienced each and every emotional extreme that shaped the mother I am today in this chair. It's very strange: I can look at this chair and say, with my rational mind, "It's just a chair." There's a tiny voice in the corner of my mind, though, that whispers, "But it's not."

I will pass this chair on to a new mom today and, with it, wishes for the same peace, contentment, support, and confidence (and a few quiet moments with closed eyes) that I found in it. Strength and happiness to you, Mama.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

We Survived 2 Weeks in an RV and You Can, Too! -- Part 2

If you have not yet read about the first half of our 2-week RV adventure, you may want to start here.


And now, for the dramatic conclusion of our story.

After three and a half days in Austin, Texas, where we enjoyed real beds and showers, in addition to being able to do laundry and not being within arm's reach of one another 24/7, we got back into our RV and headed north.

When the idea for this vacation was floated (by me, oddly enough) last fall, Sam's eyes lit up. Mapping out a rough route to Austin, he realized we would be close enough to Arkansas that it would be silly NOT to make it a stop along our journey.

Arkansas? You may be wondering. Yes. Arkansas. But not just any old place in Arkansas. Not Little Rock or....um, well, I can't think of any other city in Arkansas off the top of my head, but I'm sure parts of the state are lovely. No, Sam wanted to go to a very specific state park in the southwest corner of the state: Crater of Diamonds State Park, in Murfreesboro, Arkansas.

I'm pretty sure our neighbor, Adam, first alerted Sam to the existence of this place.
Thanks, Adam. Thanks a lot.

At this historical site, you can pay to sift through dirt in a vast, sun-scorched field in search of diamonds and other precious gems. Sam, ever the optimist, was convinced we'd come home with our pockets filled with jewels...or at least one really cool find. I, the realist, instead imagined lots of whining and kids covered head to toe in dirt. I'm not here to say, "I told you so," but....

Does this say "Vacation!" or what?!

To increase our odds of happy attitudes among the troops, we arrived at the dirt field right when it opened at 8am. It was still cool and there was plenty of shade to be found. We brought our plastic beach sifters and shovels, but decided to rent some "real" equipment, as well. You know, to increase the odds of finding The Big One.

The kids were content to dig and sift for about 20 minutes. Sam, on the other hand, would have been content to stay all day.

At the first hint of "This is boooooorrrrrinnngg...." I told the kids that this was literally the part of the trip that Daddy was most looking forward to...a once in a lifetime experience! (Because...does anyone willingly go back a second time?) I told the kids to take their whining to another section of the dirt field and, on their way, to keep their eyes peeled for sparkles. ("Most diamonds are found right there on the surface, you know!" We must have heard a dozen times from a dozen different people...none of whom had actually found a diamond.)

While we didn't dig up any diamonds, we did dig deep enough to discover that we could keep ourselves more or less pleasantly entertained in a field of dirt for over three hours. Success!

And then...we went to the water park.

Then back to the RV for some well-deserved screen time.

And all was right in the world.

Overall, I'm glad we included Arkansas on our journey. It was definitely a part of the trip the kids won't soon forget. They'll probably even tell their kids about it some day! ("Oh, yeah? Well when I was a kid my parents made me dig in the dirt for three hours on OUR vacation. They even had to PAY to do it!")

Plus, the s'mores were extra tasty that night.

From Arkansas, we headed east to Tennessee, crossing the Mississippi once more (Max slept through it again), then dipping down south just a bit to reach my sister's lake house in northern Alabama. A few days prior to heading to her remote house, way down a rural, gravel road, it occurred to me that we were driving a monster of a vehicle (which didn't belong to us, by the way) that may not be able to handle narrow, windy roads. I called my sister with my concerns and we devised a perfect plan: Instead of driving directly to their house, we would instead drive to the public marina where they keep their boat over the winter. We could park the RV there for a small nightly fee and my brother-in-law would pick us (and all of our stuff) up in the boat! Perfect!

Except that I'm not a boat person. I'm especially not a boat person when there are thunderstorms looming in the distance in the direction we need to travel.

But I put on a brave face because, while I'm not a boat person, I'm even less a Lose the $1,000 Security Deposit person and I really didn't want to risk damage to Ralph's RV. We made it to the lake house (and cousins!) without incident and settled in for the last big stop of our trip.

My sister and brother-in-law's house is located on Smith Lake. The water is clear, not murky or fishy like most lakes I've been to outside of Montana, and is incredibly deep right off their dock. I would throw out an estimate...20 feet? 60? But I won't because I don't know. We definitely talked about it a lot but I wasn't really paying attention. Most of the times we talked about water depth was while we were on the boat, so I was mostly paying attention to not hyperventilating.

Anyway. At Smith Lake, there is no wading in through sludgy sand, no slimy plants rubbing against your legs as you swim.  If I'm going to swim in a lake, this is the kind of lake I need. 

You had no idea how big a prima donna I am, did you?
You probably did.

We spent most of our time on the dock, jumping in and out of the water, playing with our cousins' fantastic water toys...

...and hanging out in comfy dock hammocks....

But we did have some boat time, too. 

I was so brave as I watched my kids fearlessly hop in the tube for a ride....

And even learned that, when the dads took all the kids out one afternoon, Evan rode the Zup Board! He stood up on his very first attempt! This is, I hear, incredibly impressive! 

But the best part of the Lake House was cousin time.

These kids really love each other.

On the final night of our stay, we went out for one last boat ride...a sunset cruise. As an added bonus, my sister's neighbor was taking their plane out for a little joy ride at the same time! We got to witness a water take-off...

...a little air show...

...and a water landing. All in front of the most beautiful backdrop...

It was the perfect end to the perfect visit. 

And then....all hell broke loose.

When I say that the last 30 hours of the RV trip were the worst 30 hours of my life, I am, of course, being overly dramatic. The last 30 hours of the trip didn't require the physical and mental strength that was required of me during the three unmedicated births of my children, for example. Nor did it cause the raw emotional devastation as a loss or the receiving of terrible news. My children weren't in pain (though they may have been in danger) and they were within my arm's reach at all times.

It wasn't Election Night 2016 Bad. 

But it was bad.

We had just concluded our wonderful stay at Smith Lake. My brother-in-law and the cousins accompanied us back to the marina where we would move back in to the RV for one last overnight before handing the keys back over to Ralph. 

The kids were so excited to show their cousins their home away from home for the past two weeks, so they all jumped in the coach to begin the tour. "And this is where I slept sometimes if I wasn't sleeping over there," Molly began. "Oh! And there's an ant!"

Hmm. I thought. That's probably not good. Where there's an ant, there are usually a billion ants... but a cursory visual sweep of the inside of the RV suggested I had nothing to worry about. We said our goodbyes to the cousins and started loading our suitcases and bags of toys, books, and food back into the coach (because, like all good RVers, we emptied the vehicle of all food before we left it...you know, to AVOID GETTING ANTS). As we did, it became a chorus of sorts...

"Here's an ant!"
"Ant over here!"
"I just squished three of them!"
"There's one down here!"

I started to panic a bit as the space around me came into greater focus...and I could see tiny movements EVERYWHERE. I grabbed a canister of Clorox wipes and directed the troops.


Evan and Max were hysterical. "Mom!" Evan laughed, "I've never heard you sound so...ruthless!"
Molly was hysterical, too...but in tears. "They're on my carseat! They're ON ME!"

We spent the next twenty-five minutes cloroxing every square inch of that RV's interior. 

Finally, I felt like we were in good enough shape to buckle up and start driving. By that point, I figured, they were just coming in from the grassy lot we had parked in. Our best bet would be to leave that damn lot.

We started to drive, with occasional updates from the back.

"I just crushed one on the wall!"
"I smashed two on the table!"
"One just crawled across my leg and now I can't find it!"

I stood up to grab a granola bar for Max and spotted The Line. A thick black line of ants running, floor to ceiling, along the wall beside the exterior door in the coach.

"STOP THE RV!" I yelled to Sam. "IT'S NOT OVER!"

Sam pulled over while I grabbed the only thing I could think to use: the organic, essential-oil based bug spray I had bought at Costco before the trip. I wiped the spray all over the interior of the door frame and prayed that the scent would repel the ants as well as it had worked against mosquitoes all week. While I cleaned up the thousands of ant carcasses from the floor and wall, Sam grabbed the can of Off! Deep Woods that Ralph had left in the RV for us. He sprayed around the outside of the door and we crossed our fingers.

For the next five hours the boys killed the ants they could reach from their belted positions at the table, I killed ants everywhere else, and Molly whimpered. 

Finally, FINALLY, we arrived at our destination. 

This was a last-minute-decision kind of destination. We hadn't booked a place for our last night on the road ahead of time like we did with the Jellystones and KOA. We weren't looking for amenities beyond hook-up facilities, so we figured we could find just any old RV park about halfway along our drive from Alabama back to Ralph's gravel lot. Besides, by that point, we were RV hook-up pros. It's not like we needed concierge service or someone to hold our hand while we leveled like we did that first night. (We were so adorable back then!)

We arrived at the campsite around 7pm. The woman who checked us in was lovely and the park was quiet and pretty clean. Most of the other campers looked like they'd been there for awhile. (There were a few decks. Like...wooden decks constructed outside the RVs.) When I stepped out of the RV to help with parking, I noticed something strange about the paint near the door of the coach. 

"Has this been like this the whole time?" I asked, pointing to the golden swoosh that now had two perfect drip marks cutting right through it.

It hit us both at the same time. The Off! Deep Woods that we had sprayed around the door had EATEN THROUGH THE PAINT!! And we're supposed to put that shit on our skin?! No thank you. 

We debated for less than half a second about what we should do before realizing that the only right answer was to text a picture of the damaged paint to Ralph to let him know what had happened. At the same time, we'd need to let him know about the ants. He might need to fumigate the damn truck for all we know. The least we could do was to give him a head's up. Bye-bye, security deposit.

Ralph was incredibly gracious. He told us he'd take a look at it when we got back, but not to stress about it. He thanked us for our honesty. We made a BIG deal about it to the kids. "See, guys. It's like we always say, Honesty is the Best Policy." But I don't think they were listening because Ant Patrol was still in high gear.

We killed about 1,000 more ants, ate a quick sandwich, and got the kids ready for bed. For the first time in about 8 hours, I didn't see a single ant crawling up the wall beside me, so I laid down on the fold-down couch and breathed deeply. It was about 10pm. Opening my book, I said to Sam, "Well. We did it. It's almost over."

"You know what we need?" he asked, still focused on the Ant Issue. "We could really use a good rain to wash any remaining ants off the outside of the RV."

[Pro tip: When you're in an RV, don't say "We could really use a good rain."]

He looked at his weather radar app to see if any rain was in the forecast and saw that WE WERE UNDER A TORNADO WATCH. It was clear and calm at the moment but, apparently, in eastern Tennessee, severe weather can blow up out of nowhere. 

"Oh, shit." I said, slowly, quietly.

There was a low, ominous rumble of thunder.

Things happened all at once...Sam was checking radar and for local severe weather alerts, I was Googling "At what point do you need to evacuate an RV during a tornado watch?" (as soon as they upgrade the Watch to a Warning) and "Is it safe to park under an overpass during a tornado?" (no, it's not), my sister was texting me to make sure I knew about the storms, and I was having another mini-panic attack.

I actually love a good thunderstorm. I love the energy and the drama. I love the palpable shift in the air pressure just before and just after a storm. I love nature's light show. I don't even hate losing power (so long as it doesn't last too long and it's not too hot or too cold and I don't need to cook anything...). I love a thunderstorm when it's convenient and I'M IN A SOUND STRUCTURE.

I was in an RV with my THREE BABIES and we ALL know what happens to motorhomes in tornadoes.

My mini-panic attack started to mature into a real-live WE HAVE TO DO SOMETHING OR I WILL LITERALLY FORGET HOW TO BREATHE moment. I made Sam call the front desk to ask what their Severe Weather Action Plan was. There was no answer. So I called. Interestingly, there was still no answer. I made Sam walk to the office. (It wasn't raining yet and the thunder was still distant.)

While he was gone, I packed our Go Bags. At the very moment that our Tornado Watch turned into a Tornado Warning, we could grab our kids and our bags and head to our Safe Space. 

Sam wasn't back yet and our IDs, cash, and keys, along with Evan's meds, and a change of clothes and toothbrushes for everyone were packed and ready to grab at a moment's notice. So I neatly laid our shoes by the door. He still wasn't back. I checked the radar and huge bands of storms were inching closer. The meteorologists on the local news I was streaming were loving every goddamn minute of this. They knew they had our complete and undivided attention.

Finally, Sam came back. The office was closed, locked, empty. Apparently, unlike at the other RV parks we went to, there wasn't a 24-hour staff in the event of emergency. A guy Sam ran into a few campers down (who had been at this particular park for a month) said that we could always go to Jane's basement if the weather got really bad. Jane is the owner of the park and lives on the property in, presumably, a sound structure. 

I wasn't sure how this "emergency action plan" would work. Would we just knock on her door if they change the Watch to a Warning? Even at, like, 3am? We didn't have a phone number for her. Would we knock on the front door or the basement door? Can I go knock on the door now, just to make sure she's watching the news and is aware of what we're in for? In that case, can I just bring my babies to her safe and sound basement right now? And if we do end up in the basement...will we ALL be in the basement together? We're in an RV park in the middle of nowhere eastern Tennessee....will I feel MORE safe with my babies in a random lady's basement with random RV park strangers?

My mind was going to dark places.

Can we unhook right now and just drive? CAN WE OUTRUN THIS THING?

No. We couldn't. The rain had started and the red on the radar was bleeding into our county. It would be directly over us within 15 minutes. Several counties around us had their Watches upgraded to Warnings. Every single county was under a Severe Thunderstorm Warning. People were losing power by the hundreds. The risk of localized flooding was great. There were reports of hail and downed trees. The lightning tracker map was indecipherable there were so many strikes. How long was this going to go on? It was nearly midnight.

I zoomed out on the radar map and almost started to cry. This was just the beginning. After this small band of storms passed, there was another, much larger, band of storms directly behind it. We were under a Tornado Watch until 4am. I knew I wasn't going to sleep a wink that night.

I found our registration forms and hoped to find more details about Jane's basement. Instead, I found codes to the bath house. Now, at least, I had a plan. A cinderblock building, fortified with plumbing, was definitely a better bet than an RV in the event of a tornado. I committed the codes to memory, stuck the forms in the Go Bag (because who can remember 4-digit codes in an emergency?) and settled in for a long night of staring at a radar map, listening to a local meteorologist Live His Best Life, and willing the storm to go easy on Athens, Tennessee.

Maybe it was because we went to church less than two weeks before, just a few hours' drive from where we were. Maybe it was the good karma we earned by telling Ralph the truth about his paint. Maybe it was because nature can be fickle and unfair and completely impossible to predict...

Maybe we just got So. Freaking. Lucky....

The rain was heavy and constant. The thunder rumbled and roared all night long. The lightning was like a strobe light through our windows. But there was no wind. None. The leaves on the trees right beside our RV barely fluttered. We didn't need our Go Bag. We didn't need the bath house code. We didn't need to evacuate. 

And the kids slept through the whole damn night. 

Not me. I slept from about 5am until six at which point I sat up, looked at Sam, and said, "We need to get the hell out of here," as I squished another ant.

Lessons Learned from the second half of the trip:

  • Ralph was so kind and understanding about the paint and the ants. "These things happen!" he said with a smile, as he refunded 100% of our security deposit.
  • My kids are "outdoorsy" in the sense that they don't mind being outside while they read.

  • Always find out your campground's emergency weather plan (evacuation plan, etc.) BEFORE the office closes for the night.
  • Always, ALWAYS pack ant spray.
  • I'm so glad we embarked on this adventure with the kids. It's a trip I think they'll remember forever, which is great because I'm never going to do it again.
  • But really, it was so worth it...you should definitely plan an RV trip! I know a great guy with a great ant-free RV for you to rent...

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

We Survived 2 Weeks in an RV and You Can, Too! -- Part 1

It was the kind of trip that, if I had given it a single thought beyond the thinking and planning that was absolutely required, I would have found a reason to cancel before we even set out.

In an RV? For two weeks? Across TrumpLand, USA?

No, thank you.

But overthink, I did not, for once in my life. Survival of the Vacation, or something similarly evolutionary. We set out on an early July morning, bound for a gravel lot in the middle of rural Virginia. We were meeting the owner of an RV, Ralph, with whom we had become acquainted via RVshare.com, the VRBO of motorhomes.

We pulled into the gravel lot, drove down the specified row of big rigs, and saw the RV that would be ours for the next two weeks. It seemed to me to be the biggest of the rigs in the row, a trait which I did not consider to be complimentary.

I mean, is that thing even street legal?! It is. Don't we need a special permit to operate a vehicle of that magnitude?! No, we don't. Do we at least get to sit through a 6-week Driver's Ed course to ensure our safety and highway competence? Nope. Just a 20-minute orientation from Ralph on the ins and outs of black tank dumping and the importance of having an "out-of-the-coach" back-up assistant.

Before I knew what was happening, or had the presence of mind to abort mission, we were packed and loaded, strapped into carseats, which would later double as our dining room and/or bed, with Ralph's keys in hand, headed out on the open road.

That's when I had my first mini-panic attack.

When I say that Sam came in dead last in the Wife as Backseat Driver competition, it's not an overstatement. I was white-knuckling the dashboard while hurling negative commentary on his every acceleration, deceleration, or lane shift. Poor Sam. As a passenger, I would have been content to cruise at a comfortable 50 miles per hour in the right lane forever but, as Sam helpfully pointed out, our destination was Texas, and that's one hell of a long way away at 50 mph.

Somehow we made it to the end of our first 5-hour stretch of highway without me passing out, freaking out, or jumping out and pulled into the Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg KOA. It was the perfect first stop. The lady at the registration desk was very kind and didn't even bat a heavily-mascara-ed eye when I confessed, "We literally just laid our eyes on this RV for the very first time five hours ago. Is there someone here who will be able to accompany us to our site and assist with hook-up?" (I felt my confidence begin to swell as I pronounced these RV words to her: "site!" "hook-up!") She kindly offered Roy, who patiently filled in the knowledge gaps that Ralph had left in his casual attempt to educate us on all things RV.

When we were parked and level (yes, "leveling the RV" is a thing you have to do, which I now know), connected to water, sewer, and electric, and sitting on solid ground...I first started to relax a bit. "We're actually doing this!" we said as Sam and I clinked beer bottles. "We're RVing!"

We had picked this particular RV park for it's proximity (and direct trolley ride!) to Dollywood: our first excursion on our whirlwind tour of the American South. Bright and early the next morning, we locked up our house on wheels and headed to the trolley stop to await our transportation to the theme park, but not before fretting for 15 minutes over whether or not we could leave the RV's AC running while we were gone. "We're plugged in, let it run!" "But what if the unit freezes up?" "The chocolate for the s'mores will melt!" "Put the chocolate in the fridge, which can run even if we turn off the AC!"

And that was just me! While I played my own devil's advocate, Sam was calmly texting Ralph for the definitive answer. I'm telling you, I am TONS of fun on an Out of My Comfort Zone Vacation. We turned off the AC (risk of overworking the unit), stuck the chocolate in the fridge, and hopped on the trolley.

Dollywood was a blast.

The kids rode a ton of rides...Molly's first "fast" coaster, Max's first completely legit coaster, Evan did just about everything...

...ate a ton of junky park food (everyone's first cotton candy!)...

...and even got a little sampling of Jesus.

We accidentally went to church at Dollywood, while looking for a cool, dark place in which we could enjoy our frozen lemonades and Dippin' Dots. The Kingdom Heirs are a gospel/hymn quartet who have been performing in the park three times a day, five days a week, nine months a year, for 33 years. I guess we should have known?

Anyway, while I rolled my eyes SO HARD at the very thinly-veiled support of their dear leader and the conservative values he is, "Praise God," bringing back to this country that was preached to us between songs, all three kids took naps in the air-conditioned auditorium (on cushioned pews, no less, which made this reformed Catholic roll her eyes even harder. I bet these guys don't even genuflect, the precious snowflakes).

The show ended with a moving rendition (I suppose, for some) of the National Anthem, for which we were all asked to stand. I did so, grudgingly, only because my kids would have been so disappointed if we had gotten kicked out of the park before we had a chance to ride the train. The anthem led directly into the quartet taking a bow and walking off stage, which means The Kingdom Heirs finagled the cheapest standing ovation in the history of live music. But whatever. The kids were well-rested and we had a fantastic day, overall, at Dollywood.

From Pigeon Forge, we headed southwest, to Pelahatchie, Mississippi for an overnight at Jellystone.

Pit stop at Cracker Barrel!
It was a really nice place to stay for a night, with beautiful lake views and a quiet, safe park for the kids to explore.

We had a blast at the water park in the morning...

...then packed up, unhooked (we were really getting the hang of it!) and hit the road. I was so excited, about an hour into our trip, to cross the Mississippi River.

I turned to let the kids know about this geographical milestone and all three were asleep, which must have been an RV miracle as our kids do not, as a rule, sleep in the car. Not even at 3am on our 16-hour through-the-night drive to Florida seven years ago did the boys sleep. Instead, we put Toy Story on the DVD player and willed the sun to just rise already.

That evening, after driving clear across the shin of the Louisiana boot, we wound up in Tyler, Texas, at another (decidedly less scenic) Jellystone.

We opted for RV parks with names we recognized for the majority of our stops (KOA, Jellystone) because, as an RV novice planning this trip, I found some comfort in the standards that franchises must uphold. It wasn't a bad game plan. Though we didn't stay long at either park, both Jellystones were clean, quiet, safe, and easy to navigate. Definite plusses for a first-timer or an experienced RVer.

On Wednesday afternoon, Day #5 on the road, after hour upon hour upon hour of driving through east Texas, we arrived at our Reason For The Trip Destination: Austin, Texas. Sam's sister and her family live in Austin and it's been years since we visited. It was time for us to make the trip...doing it in RV-style was just frosting.

We had such a great time in this great city with the whole fam. Sam's parents flew in for the occasion as well, so it really was the whole gang. We spent most of the time on, in, or near the water, but managed to squeeze in great food out and about and family time wherever we went.

The weirdest, most wonderful thing happened though, a week before our trip. I found out that my BFF from middle school, with whom I'd stayed in touch over the years but hadn't really kept up with in the past nine months or so, had moved from Boston to Austin DAYS before we got there! I hadn't seen her in SEVENTEEN YEARS and here she was, just down the road from my sister-in-law. It was such a sweet, surreal treat to give her a hug and squeeze her kids, who I obviously feel like I know but who looked at me like, "Oh, hey, rando huggy lady." It was the best bonus of the trip by far.

Lessons Learned from the first half of the trip:
  • I can't sleep in the car while we're driving. I hadn't considered that the same would be true for a parked RV. It was. It was a nervous, restless, fitful sleep I chased each night. No bueno.
  • Connecting and disconnecting the RV from campsite hook-ups is really not that bad/hard/gross....
    • Step 1: Stand there recalling Ralph's instructions to Sam, who's already starting to do things. 
    • Step 2: See that Sam has it pretty much figured out and it's probably a one person job anyway, right? 
    • Step 3: Go "check on the kids" in the coach. 
    • Step 4: Look surprised when Sam comes in to say we're ready to go. "Oh! I was just coming out to give you a hand!"
  • For Type-As like me, driving the RV is SO MUCH BETTER than riding as passenger. Hop behind that wheel, plug in your Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness podcast, and just drive, baby. It's waaaaaaaayyy less bumpy in the driver's seat and, with the volume turned up just enough, you can't even hear the dishes and appliances rattling in their cupboards. 
Perfectly parked by me.
  • Wanting to make friends with the truck drivers on the road around you must be a guy thing.
  • The kids were AMAZING RV passengers. Having a table on which to play, draw, eat, etc. while riding is a total road trip game changer. So is an onboard bathroom.
  • Were all highways constructed on purpose to erase the beauty from this country? We'd occasionally pass a cute little town or scenic overlook, but by and large, meh. There's not a whole lot going on along Interstate 20. Well, except for LPS for miles...

This concludes the recap of the first week of our two-week adventure. 
Stay tuned for Part 2...including the point at which I vowed I would never RV ever again.