A cold shoulder was my shorthand for “I hate it when you leave”

We all have behaviors that we’ve not so much chosen as assumed. One of mine was pointed out to me years ago by my beloved spouse.

DH observed:

“You always pick a fight with me before I travel.”

He was completely right.

Once this behavior was drawn to my attention, I gained a measure of control over it. Now, on the evening before DH leaves for a business trip, I don’t pick a fight about how one ought to load the dishwasher or the correct position for the lid of a toilet not in use.

Instead, I cling to him almost desperately, and whisper sadly:

“I hate when you go. I want to punch you. I love you.”

Note: These are just words of frustration. Families should not hit each other.*  If your family hits you, please get help. Call the police.

Even wallowing in awareness of my reluctance to part, and fully cognizant of my tendency toward easing the transition through verbal aggression, I still need to express it.

At least now, this expression has joined the ranks of our commonly understood, odd, humor-filled scripted interactions.

“I’ll miss you, too,” DH says. “I wish I didn’t have to go.”

He hugs me tight and gives me the reassurance I’m tacitly requesting.

DH doesn’t always speak my language, but he’s gotten pretty good at interpreting it.

Someday, perhaps I will evolve even further. I may yet grow into a kinder, gentler person who doesn’t feel angry—and find a need to express that anger through nitpicking fights or unpleasant words—when confronted by the temporary loss of my love.

He’s my best friend. I hate it when he goes away for even one night.

That’s probably what I should learn to say instead.

 

 

*There is some physical contact that is perhaps best described as martial arts practice in our family. That requires the explicit, stated participation of all parties, and is only supposed to occur in our exercise room. None of the men in the household seem capable of confining their wrestling to the gym, but it is the rule, for the benefit of the furniture as well as the safety of the combatants.

Mom is my Dungeon Master: D&D role playing games as family hobby

Full-time Mom, new blogger; add Dungeon Master to my illustrious titles

I avoided doing any housework this weekend. I also missed making a daily post to this blog for the first time in nearly two months. Why? I am now the Dungeon Master (DM) for the D&D (Dungeons & Dragons) Starter Set adventureLost Mine of Phandelver.”

Most of my free—and some rather expensive—minutes for a week and a half have been spent on this endeavor. Even with a ready made campaign, being a DM doesn’t come cheap in terms of time. I hadn’t even played a game of D&D since the 1990’s. The learning curve was steep!

Phandelver game DM view of cave Wolf room 3

Spoiler Alert: Don’t look too closely if you’re planning to play Lost Mine of Phandelver as a PC

What’s a Role Playing Game (RPG)?

Not sure what a role playing game (RPG) is, exactly? Wikipedia and others can explain them in greater detail, but start by imagining a shared group storytelling experience that follows a set of rules to impose some structure and some interesting randomness on the proceedings.

The person conducting the story and acting as “referee” is the Dungeon Master (DM); every player contributes to the overall story by describing what their player character (PC) does in the context of that story. The DM can use a “campaign” (story) written by someone else like I did this weekend, or she can create a scenario, world, or universe uniquely her own.

If you are imaginative and enjoy other table games, RPGs could prove a similar source of fun for you and yours. It is time consuming, though. I spent ten hours this weekend around a table—during two evening sessions—with my family and some good friends. That’s in addition to the hours I spent preparing earlier in the week.

Everyone was fully engaged and having fun, including a pair of middle school aged kids playing with their parents. That’s a coup according to this mom. Aside from getting to bed late on a school night (oops!), this first family foray into RPGs proved a great success.

I can’t really take the credit for initiating the game, though. I do, however, emphatically accept the kudos for working my butt off to give everyone a good time.

Read on to find out what got us started. Continue reading

Mending: sustainability, minimalism, and one likely repercussion

Recently, I’ve been enjoying a few interesting blogs, including one by a young woman who writes primarily about minimalism in her wardrobe, and another that tends to focus more on sustainability in overall lifestyle and particularly her finances (though she blogs on many topics.)

I found myself musing about a less than obvious relationship between these two sets of writing as I was ensconced on the couch the past few evenings working on a necessary repair project. If your lifestyle and values dictate buying fewer items of better quality, you are going to have to learn how to mend (or employ someone to do it for you.)

linen-duvet-mending-1.jpg

Linen is strong, but brittle when dry. Here’s what can happen in the dryer when someone else launders the bedding and doesn’t know when to be extra careful with the linen duvet. Linen sheets can easily outlast cotton ones, but they require proper care.

Mending is a skill that was once ubiquitous. Before the Industrial Revolution, things (man-made objects) were quite costly and labor—especially that of women in the home—tended to be cheap. Even after the advent of affordable and readily available machine-sewn, purchased clothing, many people retained the sewing skills to make repairs and simple alterations.

Today, a t-shirt is so cheap, we treat it as disposable. We don’t own just a few outfits; even the poor in a developed country can own a wardrobe rich in variety. When we stain a garment, or it rips, it “costs less” to buy a new one than to spend time remedying the problem.

Yes, we launder our clothing, but often with little care, because individual garments have very little intrinsic value.

This ceases to be true when one invests in sustainable products. Organic, locally-sourced, fair trade, and high quality typically equate to expensive. If I’m willing to pay someone of my social class in my rich nation to produce my clothing or housewares, I’m going to pay more than I would for equivalent items made by impoverished factory workers under exploitative conditions.

I’m going to have to do some work to make these products last longer, because I can’t afford to replace them frequently.

My values also dictate that I shouldn’t be replacing, I should be repairing, re-purposing, and, at the very least, recycling my no-longer-useful-to-me discards.

Fortunately, an artisan-made product is likely to be better constructed of higher quality materials than the mass market equivalent. Sturdy trousers in a sensible fabric with a full lining will neither wear out nor require cleaning as often as thin, cheap cotton pants. Worn or soiled linings are quickly replaced. Good construction techniques mean the possibility to let out or take in a waistband that no longer fits.

Unfortunately, the world at large doesn’t always make it easy to act anachronistically. I am the only person in my household who understands the details, and importance, of my rather sophisticated laundry sorting process. When someone helps with the laundry, invariably, a delicate (expensive!) item ends up going through the “wrong” wash.

There have been tragic losses: a darling pair of organic wool overalls that went from size 6 to a toddler 2/3 after a trip through the dryer. Sigh. Luckily, we had a young friend who got to enjoy those for another year.

There have also been signs of remarkable resilience. I don’t recommend repeating this test, but, if your child throws his good trousers in the big hamper of regular wash and dry laundry, they might come out of the dryer just fine. These wool blend dress pants from Nordstrom held up to a full cycle of warm water wash and hot dry. They didn’t even shrink! The child was allowed to live.

The example I opened with is my Linoto linen comforter cover  (a.k.a., duvet.) If you want gorgeous, 100% flax linen bedding made in the USA by people who will go above and beyond to make you happy, I recommend Jason at Linoto as your source.

I also own flax linen bedding sold by Coyuchi and cotton/flax blends and hemp linen sheets from Rawganique in Canada. I’ve even sewn some specialty sized linen pillowcases myself using fabric purchased here or here.

If you follow the care instructions, you probably won’t need to do the kind of repair I’m undertaking right now.

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Linoto duvets (two twins) with Coyuchi linen sham and skirt

Then again, if you live in a busy household with a family that is sincerely helpful but not particularly educated or enthusiastic about specialized laundering, I can also reassure you that your expensive linen sheets will still survive for years, and probably not tear like mine, if you just keep them out of the dryer, especially with other, heavy linens.

Mine were in constant use for five years before tearing. Here’s what happened:

If you’ve ever had a load of sheets in the dryer with a comforter cover, you’ve probably experienced the “giant wad of linens balled up inside the duvet” phenomenon. I can’t explain the physics, but it always seems to occur. Maybe its related to the knotting of agitated strings.

When I’m feeling well and managing the laundry myself, I carefully redistribute the linens midway through the drying cycle to separate these and the pillowcases that get wedged inside the elastic corners of fitted sheets. If I’m feeling really well, I hang up my linen items after a few minutes in the dryer to soften them up.*

None of my helpers remember—or bother—to do either of these additional steps.

More than once, a heavy ball of wet cotton has been caught inside my delicate when dry linen cover. More than once, someone has helped me empty the dryer and yanked on this heavy mass without supporting the linen piece from the strain. Eventually, the fabric wore near the top seam that always caught this weight.

Instead of fixing it immediately when I saw the signs of wear, I put off reinforcing this area… and, recently, that’s where the fabric tore.

I am not at all expert in mending, but I do have rudimentary sewing skills. I have needles and thread in the house, and I’m not afraid to use them. My cover won’t look perfect when its repaired, but the tearing and fraying will stop, and it will still be usable as bedding. Luckily, a duvet has two sides, so I’ll put it on the bed mended side down.

Minimizing your possessions to just what you need and buying sustainable, ethically sourced goods are great ideas, but you may have to adjust your lifestyle to fit. If you can’t get every household member on board with these adjustments, prepare to learn some new skills.

Today, mending! Tomorrow… darning socks?

Good thing I know someone who knows how to darn. Maybe she’ll teach me.

This is how we all take part to make the world a little better than we found it.

 

*My husband dislikes the texture of line dried laundry, so, when it comes to longevity vs. softness, I’m going to choose marital accord over more sustainable laundry practices. Personally, I love the crisp, dry hand of air dried linen.

What I eat affects how I feel: consider an elimination diet for chronic pain

The Internet is full of dietary advice, much of which has as much basis in opinion as fact. I won’t try to define for you what constitutes healthy eating, but I can share an effective strategy for testing your own diet that could potentially improve your health and well-being.

You could feel healthier within weeks, and it is free

Twice in my life, I have undertaken “elimination diets.” I credit this process with measurably reducing symptoms that were severely impacting my quality of life. In my case, I was able to reduce migraine headache symptoms from daily to just a few episodes per year. More recently, I shifted constant, debilitating joint pain and fatigue associated with autoimmune disease to a still regular, but less incapacitating, condition.

In both cases, I was able to stop taking some preventative prescription drugs and take fewer pain relieving drugs (an objective and measurable result.) I also made myself feel better (a subjective improvement in my well-being.)

You don’t need to spend an extra penny to try it, and you should know within a month if it is going to work for you.

What is an elimination diet?

An elimination diet is not designed to eliminate weight and/or fat. This isn’t a weight loss diet. I think of it as a health gain diet; you could also consider it a symptom loss diet. I prefer to focus on the positive.

Reduce foods you eat to a “safe” list

Put simply, an elimination diet involves first reducing your diet to a limited list of foods known to be inoffensive. By inoffensive, I mean foods that are not commonly allergenic or irritating to the system. At this stage, you would eliminate any food you think might be triggering your own symptoms.

Re-introduce different foods one at a time

After a period (typically around three weeks) on the very restrictive diet, you re-introduce new foods one at a time into your meals and see if symptoms recur or increase. If you feel worse, you remove the offensive (or “trigger”) food again and go on to the next test food. Ideally, you wait a day or two after being “triggered”/negatively affected so your body can return to a neutral state.

Continue this process until you have tested the foods you prefer

You continue this process until your diet includes everything you prefer to eat (excluding trigger foods!) Speaking again from my own experience, it took me a few months to recover from almost daily migraines; I experienced profound relief on day four of my elimination diet for autoimmune disease symptoms.

Elimination Diet food picture - 1

I began with a low-fat, vegan diet of exclusively cooked foods, mostly vegetables. Olive oil was my only fat. I included rice, quinoa, and black beans. I avoided foods that I previously ate the most frequently.

What foods are safe to start an elimination diet?

The first time I did an elimination diet, my primary care doctor gave me a “migraine diet” that I used as a starting point. On my second go ’round, I consulted with a nutritionist recommended by my regular physician to compile a food list for myself based upon a website and a book I regarded as trustworthy.

I used the book, The Elimination Diet by Segersten and Malterre. I borrowed it from my library and read the whole thing, but you don’t need the book to try this technique. This couple does offer many useful resources as free printables on their website, however, and they do a nice job providing a thorough blueprint for those who don’t want to do a lot of planning for themselves.

The point of this intervention is to find out, for yourself, how specific foods affect you.

If you don’t know which foods to start with, begin with a recommended diet from a professional—either your own health provider, or a list from a book or website whose credentials you trust.

An elimination diet is a short-term experiment

Perhaps the most vital thing to know about this diet is that it is never meant to be permanent. I hate the experience of working through an elimination diet, especially those early, very limited weeks, but I like the results enough to commit to a few weeks of deprivation to feel much better.

If you undertake this process and finish up with a long list of foods you plan to permanently eliminate, I strongly encourage you to consult a dietician or doctor to ensure your nutritional needs will be met. In my case, only a few key foods seem to be responsible for a majority of my current symptoms.

Look beyond the usual suspects

Perhaps the most interesting thing I learned in my most recent elimination diet phase was that two common foods I’d barely suspected give me the most trouble. I won’t name them because it’s easy to label foods as “bad” and then proselytize for others to avoid them.

Please do your own experiment and find your own best diet. My two “bad foods” are not any of the foods so popularly demonized these days. (Hint: neither of them is a grain or gluten!)

Your long term diet should be healthy and sustainable

I’ve learned that other foods—some of which are commonly listed as likely triggers—affect my symptoms, too, but they do so in a more gradual, symptoms-building-up sort of way.

For example, I can include some dairy and some organic wheat in my diet and live pretty comfortably. I don’t eat freely of these foods, limiting them to special occasions, but I enjoy life a lot more. Allowing these, in moderation, means more excitement and variety in my meals, which is another factor in long term, emotional well-being.

The myth of “the” healthy diet

My two dietary interventions happened about 20 years apart and resulted in the adoption of somewhat different “ideal diets” each time. The biggest similarity between the two situations was the process.

Did I misinterpret my results the first time I did an elimination diet? Have my needs changed? Has food itself changed? All of these are possible.

It is really difficult to do great studies on human nutrition. To put it very simply, this is because:

  1. There’s no expensive product to market afterwards, so no one wants to pay for long term, well controlled studies of large groups, and
  2. People have really complex lives so it’s hard to design great studies that give straightforward results.

For this reason, I take every bit of nutrition advice with a grain of salt, and I try to stay very open-minded as new research is published. I think it is likely that different people have unique dietary needs based upon lifestyle and genetics, the same way we are susceptible to different injuries and diseases. I think we probably need different nutritional inputs at different stages of life.

I also believe that the adoption of modern, processed foods has likely affected human health in currently unknowable ways. After all, “traditional diets” sustained us for thousands of years, and they differed around the world. What are the odds that one very specific diet could optimize health for all individual human beings?

In the USA, our doctors typically receive little to no training in nutrition. They can advise us when we need to lose weight, or tell us to “eat a healthy diet,” but they aren’t necessarily in a better position than we are ourselves to create a specific blueprint for what we should feed ourselves.

I advocate this particular approach to health through nutrition experimentation because I have personally experienced success with it, twice. It is also free, costing more in time and commitment than financial outlay. You will have to do some planning to successfully undertake an elimination diet.

I don’t believe that we are responsible for every ailment that befalls us. Sometimes, we get hit with an unlucky break, in health as with the rest of life. But here is an opportunity to shift the odds back in our favor by putting in a bit of effort.

If you are suffering, consider trying an elimination diet. The most you have to lose is a little time—and the enjoyment of a few favorite meals—over a few weeks. What you stand to gain is good health.

Have you tried, or considered, an elimination diet? What were your results?

An introvert cruises with Carnival & finds room for everyone’s idea of a good time

Carnival: fun for all, all for fun?

I knew going in that I was not a good fit for the typical Carnival Cruise Line demographic. Carnival bills itself as sailing “the fun ships.” Frankly, I’m not sure I’m an easy match for any commercial demographic slot, but easygoing party animal perhaps least of all.

I am an unabashed introvert. I don’t like crowds, and I don’t like noisy environments. I don’t listen to popular music, I hardly watch TV, and I’m not “fun” in an obvious way. I don’t participate in most of the activities I see online listed as features of Carnival itineraries.

So I came to my first cruise, aboard the Carnival Glory, fully aware of all this, but willing, for several reasons, to go along for the ride.

Childhood fantasy of The Love Boat

First and foremost, I’ve wanted to experience an ocean cruise since I was a very young child watching The Love Boat with my mother. I yearned to travel even then.

Oh, how romantic cruising seemed, hearkening back to the halcyon days of ocean liners plying the seven seas. Glamorous evening wear? Officers in uniform? Exotic ports? Yes, please! Thirty years later, I finally made it to sea with my own little one in tow.2012-carnival-cruise-saint-john-nb-canada-1.jpg

Low prices and good value

Another simple reason I opted for a Carnival cruise, in spite of reading descriptions that made it sound like the least appropriate line for me, was simple economics. Carnival Cruise Lines sells a mass market product at a value price.

After taxes, I paid $83 per person per night, and that was for an ocean view stateroom, not the cheapest inside cabin. This departure left from a city near my home, making it all of $3.50 in tolls to get us to the port, plus 10 miles’ worth of gas, wear, and tear on the car. A four night voyage from my home port was a very inexpensive way to try cruising.

Testing the waters

Finally, I wanted to take a short, inexpensive voyage with my youngest son because I have big plans for grand, trans-Atlantic adventures… but my little guy has been known to get motion sick.

My husband suffers greatly from seasickness, and I feared our son would follow in his vomitorious footsteps. This was an ideal way to test the waters, so to speak. We actually stayed close enough to home that I could have gotten him home via land if he had been constantly and/or violently ill. Thankfully, that didn’t prove necessary.

2012 Carnival cruise Saint John NB Canada - 2

Good times were enjoyed by all

I realized something interesting on this brief journey.

For all my disinterest in the contents of the daily Fun Times newsletter, I found myself more open to appreciating the enjoyment of others than I thought I might be. The overall vibe of the ship was happy and positive, and the revelers were generally inoffensive, even to my different and rather delicate sensibilities.

It was good for me to sail in this particular environment; it expanded my tolerance for living and letting live. It wasn’t even painful.

Early morning solitude

As an example, I am an early riser. It was patently obvious that most aboard the ship stayed up late, and the itinerary reflected that. I enjoyed the quiet and solitude of the early morning upper decks. I found the normally roisterous Lido cafe practically empty when I went searching for my first cup of tea of the day.

The gym didn’t even open until 7 am on our first day at sea. I exercised while it was sparsely populated, taking care of my physical needs and simultaneously recharging my emotional batteries, which are depleted by casual socializing.

The flip side to this was hearing some hallway noise at night, long after I’d retired for the evening. I was wise enough to bring earplugs, however, mitigating the intrusion. I also noticed that, while noisy, the tone of the late night noise remained happy, playful, and relaxed.2012 Carnival cruise Saint John NB Canada - 3

Family friendly atmosphere

These were not the boisterous drunks I feared, at least on 2-aft, even-side, this particular voyage. I never heard angry or raised voices on the trip. I never found myself uncomfortably surrounded by people who seemed out of control, which was my major concern before setting sail.

Aside from a few minutes waiting in line to re-board the Glory after our port day in Saint John, NB, Canada, I heard less crude language and profanity than I have on the MBTA (subway) in Boston. People seemed to enjoy their good times in an overtly inoffensive, family-friendly way.

I’m not a heavy drinker, and it was obvious that there was some serious social drinking going on around us. In spite of that, I didn’t need to shield my young son from much of anything—again, excepting the drunk young men re-boarding in Canada. Beer, it appears, is no good for washing out a potty mouth.

Discovering new interests

I took my little guy to All Ages Karaoke and discovered that he loves to dance. He developed his now signature break dancing inspired style by imitating an enthusiastic young man on this trip.

We sat together in a lounge next to a crowd of happy, celebratory, middle-aged ladies with a table full of empty glasses, and everyone smiled at her neighbor, enjoyed herself, and kept up the friendly vibe so we could all enjoy the space together.

I learned a lot about my youngest son on this trip. He was born the most gregarious member of our family, but, until I saw him blossom in Glory‘s atmosphere of non-stop conviviality, I didn’t fully appreciate that his need for socializing was at least as great as my need for solitude. It was a teachable moment for me.

This itinerary on the Glory was a nice cultural melting pot as well. I think my child saw more racial mixing—at dining tables, in the pools, in the bars—than he normally does in our predominantly white neighborhood and school. On this trip, he played simultaneously with children from multiple countries. That was great, and not something I’d expected.

More cruising in my future

I hope to do more cruising in the future, and I suspect I will end up preferring a different cruise line. I’m looking forward to trying a smaller ship with a quieter, more traditional vibe. But, I would no longer automatically discount Carnival as “the least attractive” option for my family.2012 Carnival cruise Saint John NB Canada - 4

If I sail Carnival again, I’ll book a larger suite or a pair of staterooms for my family. Three of the four of us would be inclined to spend a fairly high proportion of our time in the privacy of the cabin. We simply need more “peace and quiet” than the Glory’s public spaces provide. I think we could afford to do so on this line, because the prices are relatively low.

If I ever convince my husband to try cruising, it could be aboard a Carnival ship, and I wouldn’t consider it “settling” if it was. I also believe that an inexpensive Carnival sailing can make a good test voyage for novice cruise vacationers who are considering a more expensive trip but reluctant to commit for fear of seasickness or claustrophobia.

You may find, as I did, that you are pleasantly surprised by Carnival Cruise Line.

Adapted and updated from a post I originally wrote on Cruise Critic forums

Cruise report: HAL Maasdam from Montreal to Boston with elementary school aged kids

Our party of three—one adult with two elementary school aged kids—traveled from Montreal to Boston on the Holland America Line (HAL) Maasdam during the last week of August 2012.NS Sydney port

Family travel, cross country, without cars or planes

I opted to make our usual New England to Pacific Northwest summer visit without flying on any airplanes in the summer of 2012. I accomplished this by booking the train across the USA westbound (Amtrak), then a combination of train (Via Rail) and this cruise to complete our voyage home via Canada.

As in the USA, there are vast, gorgeous swaths of undeveloped country in Canada that are simply inaccessible by road. The train travels through some of them. Others are better reached by water.

A traveler who goes by ship, not a dedicated cruiser

I am a traveler who sometimes goes by ship, not an inveterate cruiser. I love the convenience of unpacking once, then seeing many ports. I can sit by a window and stare at the open sea for hours, so I like to travel by ship. The ship’s amenities are less exciting to me than the voyage itself.

If I do book a cruise, the features I find most appealing have to do with smaller crowds, shorter lines, and better access to ports rather than luxurious finishes or extravagant meals. I’d love to find myself surrounded by fascinating companions, but I’m very capable of entertaining myself if I can find a quiet corner in which to do so.

A mom and two boys embark in Montreal

We’d had the pleasure of my husband’s company during the first leg of our Canadian voyage, so, rather than hassle with child safety seats in a taxi, my husband took a cab and drove with our luggage to the embarkation port in Montreal.

Having left home in mid-June with a return to Boston on September 1st, we traveled with more luggage than we could carry. We checked six checked bags at debarkation, but I blame much of this bulk on the cruise’s mandatory formal nights.

I walked with the children from our Vieux Montréal hotel—the spacious, lovely, and very conveniently located Marriott SpringHill Suites—to the port.

Montreal cruise terminal

The port of Montreal was slightly different than our home port of Boston with a security checkpoint at the exterior gate as well as the screening I expected inside the terminal building. That meant I had to show our passports as we walked up, and I was worried that my husband’s cab would be turned away since he had no ticket or other proof of his need to come onto the pier.

It was actually no problem at all! He passed through in the cab and was waiting for us when we made our way up to the second-story passenger entrance. Cars dropping passengers off drive up to the departure level on a ramp, just like many airports.

Arrival by automobile is no doubt much more common than walk on passengers, perhaps explaining the greater scrutiny the boys and I received at the gate from the street. We said goodbye to DH at the curb, and he resumed his taxi for the airport and his own, much quicker, trip home.

Port staff in Montreal were pleasant and efficient, and I had no trouble with any part of the embarkation process though I speak no French. I found the overall embarkation process easier in Montreal than I had on a previous cruise from Boston.

Vieux Montréal

The location of this port is so wonderful for a tourist. It was easy for us to visit a museum festival on the morning of our departure as it was literally across the street from (and in sight of!) the docked Maasdam. If one stays in the old part of town (Vieux Montréal), there is no need for any transport except healthy feet to get from hotel to ship, luggage-depending, of course. To me, this was ideal.

Checking in baggage was done right at the curb, so no need for a porter to move our many heavy bags after we said goodbye to my husband. We arrived exactly at our suggested boarding time of 1 pm, and there was a wait of perhaps one or two other passengers before we were checking in with an agent.  We proceeded up the gangway and onto the ship, and were aboard within minutes.

Welcome aboard

I was taken a bit aback upon boarding that we were given no indication of which way we should go. As a lady coming aboard with two distracting little people and several bulky carry on bags, I expected to be offered directions if not help with the luggage, especially as there seemed to be no queue placing demands on the staff. Since this was the only service issue we encountered during the rest of our week, I mention it only so the reader might be expecting it; I had no significant problems with HAL’s overall level of service on the Maasdam.

We found a deck plan by the elevators and were easily able to make our way to our stateroom after that. I’d booked a reasonably priced inside cabin—Main deck 576—and we were quite satisfied with the size and layout. With three of us sharing a room, our sofa was made up as a bed, and we did not have a coffee table in the middle of the room. I was happy with that since it would’ve been in the way, not helpful.

We went for lunch right away so we wouldn’t miss it, and then visited the Club HAL facility up above the Lido restaurant. While my kindergartener had been too intimidated to spend any time in Carnival’s children’s facility two months earlier, he and his brother were very excited to check out Club HAL. They both ended up begging to spend every possible minute there.

Club HAL

Since HAL is not primarily a “family oriented” line, I’ll speak to Club HAL at some length. I didn’t ask how many children were on our voyage, but it was obvious to an observer that the number wasn’t large. We arrived in Boston four days before our first day of school, and many districts would have already begun, so the timing of this voyage didn’t invite school-age families. For my kids, that turned out to be great.

There were just enough kids that there always seemed to be at least one other person to play with at the Club, but the room was never full. I think the most I saw attending at once was 12 kids. I felt very confident that the counselors could keep all well in hand.

There were three youth staff crew members—Jacob, Alyssa, and… the nice girl whose name my kids never learned! All of them were friendly to me upon drop-off/pick-up, and my kids liked them all quite well.

Maasdam’s Club HAL has XBOX 360 with Kinect for video games. (My sons felt this very important to include in the review.) I was happy that the games available for the pre-teen group—ages 3-12 combined for our cruise—were rated E10 or younger. When I inquired, I was reassured by the staff that kids are not allowed to play video games at all times, but that they have structured activities interspersed with free time when the kids may choose video entertainment.

Club HAL hours were 8am-4pm for port days and 9 – 11:30 am/1 – 4 pm during our one sea day. Evening hours were always 7 – 10pm. I brought my kids into the ports with me and found it hard to imagine leaving them aboard the ship while I walked around town, but that was an option.

The staff orders up lunch if you do leave your kids all day, but, for logistical purposes, they have to be signed in by 11am to have lunch at noon. The staff did a good job remembering my kids’ special—but not extraordinary or life-threatening—dietary needs, though their paperwork seemed less thorough than what I’d filled out on Carnival previously. I wondered if this was because the scale of the program was so much smaller, giving staff more bandwidth to query individual children about their needs.

My kids felt really special when they were each given a Club HAL backpack and souvenirs at the farewell party on their final night. Really, everything about this low-key program was perfect for my kids. If you are introverted or quieter people, a less family-oriented cruise can be a really good fit. Sometimes, it seems like the travel industry definition of “family” is “boisterous.”

Acceptance of kids by other, child-free passengers

I was worried about getting nasty looks or other flak from older or child-free passengers on a HAL cruise. I’ve read comments online from people who don’t think kids belong on “their” ships at all. In spite of that, every word of feedback I heard about my children aboard the Maasdam was positive.

I’m sure it helps that I am a strict parent with high expectations. My kids were never unsupervised. I travel with my children to share experiences with them—I’m rarely looking to send them off to babysitting so I can do my own thing.

What I did hear from about a dozen different guests were compliments on my well-behaved children. That was personally gratifying, but, more importantly, shows that not every “typical HAL cruiser” will be negatively inclined toward a family with reasonably mannerly children.

We did strictly follow the dress code every day, including neckties on formal night, and I’d say we were more dressed up than the average passenger.

Entertainment options: Explorations Cafe by day

As I share my thoughts on HAL’s entertainment options, keep in mind that I am not a party person. Maasdam was more my speed than my previous experience on the exuberantly upbeat Carnival Glory, though I liked the happy atmosphere on the Glory more than I ever expected I would.

I enjoyed a short talk on the geology of the region we traversed, but not quite enough to attend the subsequent port lectures which seemed to feature an emphasis on shopping. I would prefer much more in depth lectures about the history, culture, and geography of every port of call, especially if they went beyond the obvious tourist highlights I’ve probably already read about while planning the trip.HAL puzzle

The Explorations Cafe was by far my favorite spot, and I spent most of our time at sea there doing jigsaw puzzles. My younger son observed that the Maasdam actually had books in its library, unlike the really poorly named “library” on the Carnival Glory with approximately four linear feet of books on a wall of otherwise empty shelves.

I loved having the espresso bar right next to the library and paid the extra fee for one specialty coffee each day. I found the caffè mocha here overly sweet, but my favorite barista (the only male barista I saw on the ship) could make a decent latte.

Entertainment options: disappointing by night

In spite of my low-key nature, evenings were probably the low point of the voyage for me. I am in my 30’s, and my kids wanted to spend their evenings at Club HAL without me. After dinner, I would take the kids to the Club, go back to my room and put on comfortable shoes, then take a walk around the open deck if it wasn’t too windy outside.

HAL eveningSome evenings, I worked on the jigsaw puzzles again, but the light wasn’t as good and it wasn’t as fun in evening clothes with darkness obscuring the magnificence of the sea.

I attended one show, but I prefer serious theater to song-and-dance stuff, so it wasn’t to my liking.

By the end of the week, I was accustomed to carrying my notebook around with my evening bag. I would sit somewhere dim enough that I could see the moonlit waves outside, nurse one drink, and write in my journal until it was time to pick up the kids.

This quiet activity isn’t very different from my typical, and preferred, vacation style, but there was something about being aboard a ship that gave it a melancholy tinge. Alone, watching the moon over the ocean, I missed my husband terribly.

I went to the “Disco Inferno” evening in the Crow’s Nest hoping to relive my youth and dance a little. I never get to dance at home unless you count rocking out with a kindergartener. But the dance floor was literally empty for the hour of my attendance. Too bad!

This assessment is probably most relevant to solo parent travelers, most of whom already know that cruises are designed to cater to couples. I didn’t take advantage of any “singles” oriented options from the cruise line because I wasn’t really traveling alone (I had two little dinner companions), and I definitely wasn’t looking for a Love Boat style singles experience!

Stateroom design

The stateroom was exactly what I expected and fully met my expectations. I will echo every modern cruiser and reiterate the wish for more electrical outlets in convenient places. A clock with iPhone dock would also make my life better; hotels are catching on, so why not ships?

The Maasdam inside stateroom layout was almost identical to my Carnival Glory outside stateroom experience, minus one helpful shallow cupboard and the porthole, of course. It was fine. Even with six suitcases plus three carry on bags, we had no trouble putting away all of our clothing for the trip and tucking every suitcase away out of sight. Our very large bag fit under the bed, which I’d worried about.

For a couple of adults to share a room, more desk or table space would be nice, but, really, the room was exactly as described and held us comfortably. The exception, perhaps, was when we were all dressing for dinner in the narrow standing space between desk and beds.

Sharing with another adult or a teenager who fusses about primping would be radically different, and probably miserable. I’ve heard that some cruisers resort to dressing in the gym locker room when quarters get too tight, and it sounds like a brilliant idea.

Everything in the bathroom was fine, though I’d vote for shelves on both sides of the mirror (not just one.) Putting the Kleenex dispenser on the side of the sink near the door instead of way back by the toilet would make it easier to grab one without going all the way into the bathroom.

Dining

Dining experiences were all pretty good. I prefer the dining room and table service, but my boys love a buffet. In the end, we ate most of our breakfasts in our room via room service for convenience. How I love those cards on the doorknobs that make breakfast appear at just the right time! This is what I miss most when I return home from a cruise.

Breakfast always arrived promptly—even a few minutes early—which is a tiny bit of an oops when I’m still in a towel fresh from the shower. Lunch was usually spent at the Lido buffet, and almost always consisted of sandwiches made by the very kind Apri.

We were assigned “any time dining” because that’s all that was available when we booked our cruise. After we ate at 5:30 pm the first two evenings, the dining room reservations fellow asked if we’d like to take the same reservation and table for the rest of the trip, to which we happily agreed.

We really liked Herdi, our server, who talked to the boys about his own childhood in Indonesia and listened patiently to long explanations of their pocketed toys and daily activities. We loved our table near the aft windows, and the inexplicable sticker on the mirror glass of the server’s station next to us. It said, “You are beautiful.”

I kept wondering if that sticker was meant to be there to perk up single cruisers or overworked staff, or if someone had “defaced” the mirror for reasons of his own. It was one of those tiny delights life sometimes surprises us with, and it made me smile every night.

The food was all cooked properly and to a good standard, though the desserts tended to look better than they tasted. My lactose-intolerant boys were so happy that non-dairy sorbet was typically on the dessert menu. My little son did miss the “disco dancing dinner” as he called Carnival’s nightly dancing waiter show, but he seemed, overall, to like this experience even better than the one aboard the Glory.

Summing up the family experience on HAL

All in all, the quieter ambiance puts HAL above Carnival in my personal cruise rankings—after all of two trips—but I think I am still looking for my ideal cruise line.

The most useful piece of advice I think I have to offer families is to take the label of a “family friendly” cruise line with a grain of salt.

According to conventional wisdom, I should have taken my kids on a Disney or Royal Caribbean cruise because they “cater” to kids, but I doubt that my little family would have had a better time on one of those lines. A smaller ship with a calmer, less crowded atmosphere was a better fit for us, even if we gave up on features like video arcades and water slides that do carry some appeal for my kids.

I’ve heard that the “right” cruise specialist travel agent can really help with sorting out the myriad options of cruise lines, itineraries, ships, and cabins, but I have yet to make contact with an agent of such quality.

I did extensive research on Cruise Critic and other websites to help me find a good fit for my family, and that’s the main reason I wrote this Cruise Report. Perhaps another mom, hoping to plan a great family vacation, will find some of this information helpful in determining if the Maasdam would suit her family’s needs.

St. Lawrence Seaway ports of call, reviewed

Every port on this itinerary met my primary desideration: I love to step off a ship and be immediately somewhere worth walking around, making shore excursions or public transit an option, not a necessity. The cruise ports of Maritime Canada are very welcoming to self directed visitors who like to walk.

Because I had my kids with me and didn’t want to install child safety seats in taxis, we opted for several of the ship’s shore excursions. All of these were fine, though only in Sydney would I pay to do a ship’s excursion again. Having experienced these ports, next time, I’ll just get around on my own.

Quebec City

In Quebec City, the European vibe of the city was a feature in and of itself. Even my pair of disinterested history students noticed how different it was from the modern American cities with which they were familiar. We admired Quebec primarily by walking through it and enjoying the beautiful day outdoors.

Within blocks of the ship, we discovered a little playground with a pirate ship theme and passed almost an hour letting off steam with the place to ourselves. When we were done there, we rode the Old Quebec Funicular from the lower to the upper town. It’s well worth the fare to avoid walking up that hill!

Quebec City has the only extant fortified city walls in the USA or Canada, and the similarity to a medieval castle made them appealing for an active visit by a pair of boys. We saw the Citadelle military installation and lots of intriguing public art as we meandered back down the hill to our ship.

Prince Edward Island

Prince Edward Island was an enjoyable stop for me, but less exciting for the kids. I was happy to see the Anne of Green Gables house in person; the book was unfamiliar to my young boys. I think the bright red soil at the beach struck them the most notable feature of PEI. On a beautiful, sunny day, it wasn’t a bad holiday spot for our family. We enjoyed the natural setting and lots of tromping around outdoors.

Unfortunately, this is also where we discovered that bus tours make my younger son carsick. Moving to the front seat helped, but every time we climbed back into the bus, he and I were both stressed about whether or not he was going to vomit. Thank God, he didn’t, but he looked green and felt bad.

I would suggest a rental car to view the sites of Prince Edward Island if there are sensitive tummies in your party. The rural nature of the small island made the driving look pretty manageable, and I would normally rather ride than drive.

Sydney, Nova Scotia

In Sydney, though it required another bus ride, the Fortress of Louisbourg was by far my favorite experience on this trip. I think it is, in fact, my favorite living history museum in the world, and I’m a huge fan of these historical re-creations.

The Fortress of Louisbourg 8:15am excursion had massive value added because we were allowed entry into the park before it opened for the day. I relished getting photos of everything without any modern tourists spoiling the historical effect.

This was my first major, in person exposure to the French influence on the settlement of the New World, and I was fascinated by how different it was compared with, say, the British colonial reenactment at Plimoth Plantation. It wasn’t just the obviously different needs of a religious colony vs. a military fortress, but the cultural impulses that dictated what was built, and how.

I intend to bring my husband and come back to Nova Scotia for an extended vacation in the future, I liked it so much. I could easily spend a week just exploring this one attraction. Having an historical gem right in the middle of a gorgeous natural setting was icing on the cake.

Halifax, Nova Scotia

Halifax was probably the most industrial and least obviously tourist friendly port, but it was still an easy walk to the part of the city most people would want to see. There was a nice oceanfront boardwalk that seemed to lead directly downtown from the cruise port welcome center.

I had booked another bus tour for this stop, but the HAL Shore Excursions desk wisely allowed us to swap the winding road to Peggy’s Cove for a shorter ride around town in an open air,  horse drawn carriage when I explained the carsickness discovery from the two days before.

We could have skipped the tour and seen the same sights on our own, which is my recommendation for younger families. We’d read about the 1917 Halifax Explosion in a fun series of novels by Cathy Beveridge about time traveling Canadian kids, and it was easy to picture how that event devastated the compact, ocean-front city that hugs its harbor with a natural amphitheater.

Bar Harbor, Maine USA

Here’s a dirty little secret: we skipped going ashore in Bar Harbor.

Living in New England, we’ve been to Maine many times, and we can return whenever we want with a short drive north. When I saw that Bar Harbor was a tender port, where, to get ashore, passengers climb into a small boat to be ferried into port in batches, I gave in to the kids’ begging to spend their last cruise day on the ship at Club HAL.

I was somewhat intimidated by the idea of watching my little guy barf his way into Bar Harbor. That would necessitate either an immediate return trip, probably with more barfing, or spending the day in vomit-stained clothes. That was a good enough reason to relax and enjoy the quiet atmosphere of a ship who’s disgorged the bulk of her passengers in port.

After all, though I love to travel and see new places, a family vacation is about more than ticking off locations from a list. There isn’t really any justification required for taking a day to enjoy life wherever you are, and aboard the Maasdam was a fine location for lollygagging.

 

This is an updated and expanded upon version of a Trip Report that I posted on Cruise Critic in 2012.

6 more German pop songs for learning Deutsches Vokabular und Grammatik

Because my children haven’t been embarrassed enough by my enthusiastic sing-alongs, here are six more pop songs that I’m using to improve my German language skills.

Added to my playlist, Deutsche Popmusik:

I found lyrics for all of these songs online in the original Deutsch and in English translation. Try MetroLyrics.

1) Leider Geil

By Deichkind; I had to pay $12 from Amazon USA for the CD as it wasn’t on iTunes, but you can easily find and view the video online to check it out for free.

Possibly explicit. Anyone fluent in German care to enlighten me about this song’s degree of rudeness? Please share in the comments if you know.

If you’ve ever seen America’s Funniest Home Videos, you’re well on your way to imagining the music video for Leider Geil. Familiarity with the “watching people do moronic stuff” genre will also help you understand why my young teen son found this song so appealing. This is the only foreign language track he asks to hear.

This song definitely has some mature content (coarse language and references to a one night stand), but, if my translation is accurate, I would allow my teen to listen to an equivalent track in English after some commentary from me about content.

Leider geil translates as “unfortunately awesome,” but geil also means “horny.” My German isn’t good enough to know just how risqué the language is, but it’s awfully catchy. It has a modern, slacker-esque, rhythmic edge that reminds me of the relationship between the Beastie Boys and pop music back when I was a teen. As far as I can tell, the wordplay seems clever in translation.

Are these guys cool? Are they male chauvinists? I have no idea, but I’m enjoying the tune.

I won’t ever forget how to say “unfortunately awesome” now that this song is in my head. I might accidentally deploy the phrase in polite company and embarrass myself. Oops! Leider geil!

2) Männer

From iTunes, I bought a cover version by “Partysingers” of this Herbert Grönemeyer hit.

Here’s an anthem for the men’s movement. Musically, this song is so retro 1980’s, which makes sense since it came out in 1984. It isn’t my favorite track in the playlist, but it’s a good resource for opposite adjectives with lyrics like:

Men have it hard, take it easy,
Outwardly hard, but inside all soft…

3) Tage wie diese

Available on iTunes, by Die Toten Hosen (yup, that means The Dead Pants.)

4) Wir trafen uns in einem Garten

Available on iTunes, by 2raunwohnung.

I’m listing these two songs together because both fall under the umbrella of “songs that sound like the kind of music I might listen to casually in my own language.” Neither has an unforgettable hook of the sort I can’t get out of my mind. Both fit reasonably well into my music library of alternative music, most of it from the late 1990’s and early aughts.

With lyrics in hand, a language learner can easily follow along with the words. The trick, for me at least, is to keep concentrating on them for the purpose of studying; I tend to get distracted by other things because these songs are a little too easy for my mind to transform into background music.

Comfort and familiarity may not be such a good thing when trying to pay close attention and learn.

5) Die Gedanken Sind Frei

Available on iTunes, by the Brazilian Girls.

The Brazilian Girls are apparently not Brazilian, and there’s only one female member in the band. She’s the one singing this pop interpretation of a classic German folk song that translates as Thoughts are Free.

And I am locked in a dark dungeon
I scorn the pain and human works
For my thoughts break the bounds and the walls,
Thoughts are free!

I learned of these lyrics from the lovely children’s book, From Anna, which I’ve previously reviewed. Searching for the full text—which brought me to tears reading the excerpt in the novel—led me to this quirky modern interpretation. I quite like its combination of funky rhythm, lightly overlaid electronics, a pretty, feminine vocal sound, and the traditional protest/progressive lyrics.

6) Da Da Da

As with 99 Luftballons in my first post about catchy German pop songs, this one was already in my music library. Unlike Nena’s really obvious hit, I had forgotten completely that there were German lyrics in Da Da Da. After all, da is the Russian word for yes.

You might remember this song from an old Volkswagen commercial (circa 1997.) If you do recall it, you might hate it. It’s a fairly goofy, very repetitive song with minimal lyrics, but some of them are in German. If you like this kind of electronic sound, you can learn to say “I do not love you, you do not love me” auf Deutsch. I hope that doesn’t come in handy!

If you enjoy Da Da Da, you’ll definitely want to check out Eisbär from my earlier German song post.

Happy listening!

Play your way to foreign language learning with puzzles and games

Even the most dedicated autodidact has an off day when she doesn’t feel like cracking a book or applying herself to her chosen course of study. These are days for a more creative approach. Consider it stealth education; it’s the scholarly equivalent of hiding puréed vegetables in the kids’ pasta sauce.

Equate it those school days when your teacher played a film instead of giving a lecture. You probably enjoyed the change of pace as much as he did.

To this day, when I hear the word superlative, my mind snaps right to The Superlative Horse. My class watched this movie in elementary school. I think it was based upon this book. I can’t recall the storyline, or whether we even read the book, but my memory clings fast to this particular title. I’ve relished the artful deployment of the vocabulary word ever since!

On a grumpy day—maybe due to too little sleep, aching joints, or a general case of the blahs—I could skip my scheduled 30 minutes of language practice. Sometimes, to be honest, I do. But, like most good habits, the trick is commitment, and the solution to malaise can be a lightening of the load without a free pass.

I’ve already posted about adding foreign language pop songs to my study routine. Typically, I read along with the lyrics while I listen to the songs. I sing along, too.

Is it a hardcore intellectual workout? No!

Is this a task I can fit into the busiest day, or prod myself into undertaking at my laziest? Yes!

Along similar lines, consider adding puzzles and games to your own self-guided study routine. It matters less what kind of material you introduce and more that you are tempted by the format.

I’m a fan of jigsaw puzzles. The trick is to find one that has legible text in your target language. A world map puzzle was a good choice to meet this condition, and also provided an introduction to vocabulary (country names) I might otherwise not see in German.

German world puzzle deutsch

I found this Schmidt Spiele jigsaw puzzle for $10 on Amazon

It helps that, culturally speaking, Germany is a country known for high quality games and puzzles. They are exported worldwide, and brands like Ravensburger are readily available in many countries and languages, including English for the US market.

The trickiest part, when choosing games, is finding one that uses enough of the target language to be a challenge, but not so much that there’s no fun in the playing. The difficulty of picking a suitable game increases exponentially when you introduce more players with differing levels of language acquisition.

For example, German Scrabble requires significantly more language skill than German Monopoly. In the former, you’re forced to dredge up and correctly spell words from memory. Allowing free access to a target language dictionary can bring the level of difficulty back to manageable for beginners.

As a parent educating my child at home, I go out of my way to provide varied learning resources for my son. Enjoyable activities that complement or duplicate subject matter increase the odds that knowledge will be retained. It seems obvious that, by reinforcing a subject through different media, the learning will also be deeper as we experience it through more of our senses and engage different parts of the brain.

Why not provide myself with the same advantages?

It’s easy for geographically isolated Americans to forget that there’s more to learning a foreign language than books and instructional CDs, videos and lessons. The reality of language acquisition is that it must reflect multiplicities of experience to be meaningful.

What else is our language ability for, if not for use as a tool in living a full life?

Have you used any less-conventional tools for learning a language? Please share in the comments.

Suburban food storage: no apocalypse required to stock your own stores

Shall we talk about what’s in my basement?

Basement food storageNo, it doesn’t compare with an episode of Criminal Minds, but the supply of food in my basement could feed my family for a couple of months. To someone who hasn’t seriously considered putting food aside for a rainy day, that can be pretty shocking.

You don’t have to be religious or paranoid to store food

  • 2012: “Superstorm” Sandy affects 24 states, including the whole eastern seaboard.
  • 2005: Hurricane Katrina and the levee and floodwall failures in New Orleans.
  • 2001: 9-11
  • 1994: Northridge earthquake in California’s San Fernando Valley
  • Flu pandemics several times every century

Disasters sometimes come with a little warning (hurricanes, winter storms) but they sometimes strike out of the blue (earthquakes, terrorism.) You can’t plan for every individual disaster. Storing food is the only solution I know of to provide insurance against hunger for your family should the unexpected occurs.

It’s true that you may never confront one of those sudden, one-off emergencies. I sincerely hope that you never do!

Dried food

Ever had to run to the store or switch recipes in the hour before dinner because you were out of one key ingredient? Dehydrated and freeze-dried veggies work great in many recipes.

But what about more predictable events? Anyone who lives in a region prone to intense weather is familiar with the crowds and long lines at every store when a major storm is forecast. Avoiding those lines is a good enough reason for me to store food, because I value my time very highly.

I never have an immediate need to go to the grocery store to feed my family.

No hyperbole this time. With total sincerity, I can state that, no matter what happens in the outside world, I can confidently meet my family’s immediate needs with what I have stored at home.

Can you say the same?

Milk

Milk doesn’t have to say, “Moo.” Every one of these is good for baking.

Keeping staples like dried eggs and powdered milk on hand—plus a few simple recipes that make them palatable!—makes us self-sufficient for the duration of a major storm and its aftermath.

I don’t bake traditional yeast bread completely by hand anymore (kneading + arthritis = misery), but I have a bread machine and several tasty quick bread recipes that can see my family through a crisis.

Eggs, bread, milk, bottled water, batteries

Eggs, bread, milk—these are the staples for which most people wait in long lines the evening before a storm. When a hurricane is due, add plywood and batteries to the list, but you could—perhaps should—plan ahead for those, too.

batteries

Eneloop batteries are the best; I buy them at Costco. Amazon Basics are another great option for rechargeables.

Your “probable” emergency needs will vary based upon your location, but your family needs to eat no matter where you live. Storing a three day supply of fresh water and a little extra food could mean the difference between comfort and crisis during an “extreme event.”

Our own government recommends basics actions for preparedness to every family. You’ll notice that food and water are the first items on the CDC list. Of course, they also have a page about the zombie apocalypse, but I’m pretty sure that one is tongue in cheek.

I’m going to go with the CDC on this question; whatever gets you thinking about taking care of your family is a good prompt to action. Hurricanes, snow storms, earthquakes, or zombies: are you prepared for an emergency that disrupts the food supply?

I love Lego, and I built a platform on an IKEA base to host a city where I can play with my growing kids

I love Lego

True confession time: I love Lego.

I don’t just mean love in that generic, parental, “I love to buy Lego for my kids so they will grow up to be engineers and support me in my old age” way. No, I love Lego in an “I won’t share my bricks with my kids” way.

Lego is one medium with which I still know how to play.

I had a few bricks as a child, but I really started collecting Lego sets when I  was a young professional. Living alone and working long hours as a software quality engineer, I sought a relaxing pastime to keep myself off the computer for a few hours a day. It started when I discovered ancient Egyptian themed Lego sets during a spontaneous trip to Toys “R” Us one evening after work…

I won’t share my Lego with my kids

I hoard my Lego bricks, and I store them separately from the children’s toys. They don’t sort their bricks properly the way I prefer. Also, I like to keep the parts for my favorite sets together, though I don’t keep the boxes or treat them as collectibles. I just enjoy the option of re-building without too much digging for specific pieces.

Family Lego city display MOC in progress

My modern office building MOC in progress. I need over $100 worth of grey and clear bricks to turn my vision into a reality, so it’s on hold. A construction site is a fun spot for creative play in Bricklyn

My spoiled little darlings own enough Lego to stock a store, but I could fill a large Rubbermaid tub with my own bricks. Actually, maybe two tubs. And, realistically, I wouldn’t desecrate my greatest builds by stuffing them unceremoniously into a bin.

I guess I’m a little spoiled, too.

I love model cities

I’m geeky enough to admire model train sets. I grew up thinking how cool it would be to build such a thing in my future home. I’d love to have a toy train running from room to room on a suspended track like I saw once in a small town Maine restaurant.

I love Lego builds on a grand scale, too. I not-so-secretly identify, just a little, with the dad (spoiler alert: a.k.a., Lord Business) in The Lego Movie. I would never glue my bricks together, but I would expect a cohesive vision to be respected by my family as a labor of love, at least for a while.

family-lego-city-display-front-e1493311369289.jpg

“Bricklyn” main street; battle carnage courtesy of DS2

I absolutely adore the modular Lego City Creator sets. They have an early 20th century downtown vibe that’s aesthetically pleasing to these adult eyes. I own a few now. I enjoyed building them, and I really wanted to display them instead of putting them away.

I’ve found that kids are drawn to the finished buildings in an adult space. They just cry out to be played with, but I didn’t want to be constantly policing children or tempting them with untouchable objects on a coffee table. That’s just mean.

Here’s how I found a way to keep my sets intact, for my own enjoyment, while also creating a fun, inter-generational play space for my family and friends.

I built an “open source” Lego “platform” for family sharing

We set up a fairly large (48″ x 66″), counter height surface on the library side of our great room. I assembled four IKEA kitchen cabinets for a base, then used a sheet of plywood for a level platform. It isn’t beautiful, but it is tolerable in a space that also functions as our “formal” living room. Obviously, our lifestyle isn’t really very formal!

IKEA Lego display platform cabinets

I have the veneer to finish the ends of the cabinets to match, but that’s also waiting for “someday.” I’d rather play with my Lego sets than finish my home improvement projects…

Someday, I’ll get a proper counter top to replace the plywood we edged with packing tape to reduce splinters. Most of the surface is covered with base plates anyway, or will be when we’ve added a few more buildings. A simple edge treatment would improve the looks of this project more than anything else.

The IKEA cabinets below “Bricklyn”, as DS2 dubbed our little town, created storage space for all of our board games. Two cabinets each at 24″ x 30″ and 24″ x 36″ hold a lot of family clutter. I opted to use drawers on one side, and cupboards with doors on the other. The drawers are easier to keep organized, but much harder to assemble if you’re an IKEA novice.

To add stability and prevent dangerous tipping over of the heavy cabinets, we fastened the same-width units back-to-back. We also keep heavy objects on the lower shelves and in the bottom drawers so the unit isn’t top heavy. The plywood top extends across multiple cabinets to further cement the units together. Even with every drawer open on the back side, the unit doesn’t budge.

Three rules keep the peace during playtime

There are just three rules for our play table, and even visiting children have been willing to abide by them.

  1. Each family member “owns” some of the baseplate “lots” that cover the table; we each get to define our part of the neighborhood. We can build anything that fits the confines of our plate. Roads are public and may be used by everyone.
  2. Whoever built a structure or vehicle controls the rights to modify that structure or vehicle.
  3. Anyone may move vehicles and minifigs within the cityscape without fear of reprisal, but no one may remove vehicles or minifigs from the display unless s/he put them there.

It helps that my kids are old and mature enough to have some respect for private property. Each has a smaller table in his room set aside for personal building that is sacrosanct. Bringing something to Bricklyn is an agreement to share.

It also helps that the cabinets keep Bricklyn about 40 inches off the ground; our rare infant or toddler visitor can’t reach what s/he shouldn’t take! We keep a step stool handy for our small friends (usually around kindergarten age) to see the display and join in the play. So far, our youngest participants have shown a sort of reverential respect for what we’ve built, and they’ve played by the rules.

Mother’s Day is coming up, which is one of those holidays when I just might be lucky enough to receive a new Lego City building. If I do, I’ll build it in Bricklyn.