Welcome back to school; I miss you while you’re there!

I dislike sending my little guy back to school on the day after Labor Day. In direct contradiction to the nonsense spouted in television commercials, not all parents cheer to have their kids out of the house.

If I were selfish, I would educate both of my children at home, to suit my personality and my interests. I send the younger one to school instead because it suits his.

I miss our long, quiet summer mornings. There’s time for us, then, to sit down together over breakfast. I miss saying yes to late night stargazing and other adventures because there’s no need to worry about a busy schedule.

I miss DS2‘s good company around the house during the day. He’s blessed with great wit and a loving temperament. He’s generous with his hugs.

I am excited to begin the new school session with DS1 here at home. He studies year ’round, but our schedule changes to a different pattern every September, December, January, and June. This choice is energizing, and keeps subjects feeling fresh.

DS1 is a pleasure to keep at home with me. We’re both fairly introverted, so we often work quietly, side by side. Quietly, that is, until one of us gets excited about a project or idea. Continue reading

How to help when there is nothing you can do?

We all face some problems with no real solution. There are periods in every life when trials must be endured, and difficulties faced. This week, I’m struggling with what to do when a loved one is suffering, and there’s nothing I can do.

Yet, doing nothing isn’t an option. I can’t solve the problem, but I can insert my love and affection between a person I care about and her pain.

When there’s nothing else to do, I can help by being available.

I can offer my ears, and listen.

I can offer my heart, and empathize.

I can offer my time, and share it with someone who is feeling unheard, unappreciated, and disenfranchised.

I can’t solve her problem, but I can be present.

It doesn’t feel like enough, but it’s all that I can do.

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My husband shares his beautiful photographs with me

Hand-me-down clothes & the needs of the second son

A package should arrive tomorrow full of new school clothes for my boys.

This is a pretty common purchase in middle class America in August. Back to school shopping is a tradition. Certainly I grew up with a replenished wardrobe every year at this time, ready to show up in a new classroom sporting unblemished shoes and a fresh favorite outfit. My brother also met September with new sneakers and the latest cool t-shirts in his closet. My mother took meticulous care of our appearances.

But I didn’t follow in my mother’s footsteps. I’m no match for her as a housekeeper, and I didn’t take my kids to the mall for the annual sales. I just replaced what was worn out or outgrown. Usually that meant almost every purchase was destined for DS1, who’s older by several years and has been consistently bigger at similar ages.

This year, I’ve done something a little different in my shopping. Ten of the 15 items in the package are for DS2.

Wardrobe for boy

New clothes for DS2 . One pair of jeans came from a local store, hence 11 items.

He’s the second son.

He has grown up wearing his brother’s hand-me-down clothes.

I thought I should offer him more this year, and here’s why. Continue reading

Fly or drive? Mode of travel and its impact on planet, wallet & joy

Are you a road tripper or a frequent flier?

I chose to drive from New England to northern Minnesota last month. Five of us were scheduled to attend summer camp there, so the endpoints were set: home, and Bemidji, MN.

I elected driving over flying for many reasons, but a consideration for my summer vacation’s environmental impact was on the list.

RoadTrip round trip mapYou can read the more conventional road trip story by clicking Part I or Part II if you want to know more about why and how we made this journey. You could also read about my carefully thought out wardrobe for the trip!

I live within reasonable driving distance of a major airport, so convenient flights abound. Minneapolis-Saint Paul (MSP) is four hours south of Bemidji, which also hosts a regional airport of its own (BJI.) The camp offers a fairly priced shuttle from BJI, and a costlier, less convenient bus all the way to MSP.

The particulars of this trip were not decided by availability of choices. We had our pick of several decent options, if we were willing to pay for them.

Environmental impact of flying vs. driving

Here’s an article from Yale Climate Connections that presents a pretty balanced picture of the complex question: is flying or driving better for the planet?

Similar discussions on the New York Times and at ThoughtCo draw similar conclusions: it depends, a lot, on how many bodies are in which type of car.

Calculators like those mentioned in the articles shine some light on how I assessed this aspect of my choice to drive, not fly.

For my van, with four to five average travelers on board, it’s pretty clear even before running the specific numbers that we opted a reasonably environmentally friendly mode of transport.

Passenger count varied from five (5) during the home to camp phase; four to six (4-6) headed from Minnesota to Ohio; and just my two kids and myself (3) for the final 750 miles from Ohio to New England.

Using the BeFrugal Fly or Drive Calculator for the first, best documented leg of my trip, I can estimate that I saved 4318 lbs of CO2, or, stated differently, that I generated only about 25% as much CO2.

A difference that great is likely to hold up in spite of the controversy about how some of the underlying statistics are generated.

Financial cost to drive vs. fly

As for cost in the traditional sense (dollars and cents!), it also appears probable that I made a better financial choice. That scenario could be very different for a trip involving only major airports where competition keeps prices down.

Bemidji (BJI) is by far the most convenient option when this camp is in session, especially for flights arriving the day of, or the day before, camp sessions begin. Availability is also quite limited for those popular flights.

I used airline miles to buy a rewards ticket the last time I visited Bemidji. The cash price was not one I would willingly pay to suffer in economy class.

The same BeFrugal calculations I showed above reflect as many of my actual costs as I could input into the tool—like actual airfare to BJI researched months ago during the planning process and my preference for a higher class of hotel than the calculator assumes—though some numbers were not user adjustable.

Once again, I’m confident that my actual cost savings were at least as good as the tool predicted. We made a few more frugal choices:

Coffee cup travel mug - 1

  • We carried healthy food with us and avoided overpriced “convenience” snacks.
  • We refilled our reusable water bottles (and my coffee cup!) at the hotel each morning.
  • Aside from one nice steak dinner, the kids actually voted for affordable stops like Subway for sandwiches.
  • I used Gas Buddy to plan fuel stops in the less expensive state when there was a choice, and I knew what a ballpark “good” price was for a given area.

Minivan as economical people mover

I checked the average MPG (as calculated by the van itself) after each of the three major stages of the trip. We averaged 26 MPG from New England to Bemidji, 28 MPG from Bemidji to Ohio, and 27 MPG from Ohio back home.

That’s spot on with published numbers for my van, and really admirable performance for a large vehicle that comfortably seats a crowd.

My typical MPG around town in the van is 18-19, but that’s driving in crowded suburb of a major city.

We needed to stop for gas about 1.5 times per day with that fuel economy. The human passengers required vastly more frequent stops to empty their “tanks” than the minivan required filling up with gasoline.

Gas prices ranged from a low of $1.98 per gallon to a high of around $2.50 per gallon at a toll road service plaza.

I didn’t leave my planned route to seek out the cheapest gas, but I did stop at Costco stations whenever they were well located. I prioritized convenient stops over price, but didn’t find any prices particularly onerous. They almost all hovered just above the $2 mark.

But, have I mentioned comfort?

Minivans are more comfortable than modern planes

We carried a full load of luggage in the back (up to the headrests, which you can read more about here), and each of us had at least a mid-sized “carry on” up front. We had a small cooler stocked with cold drinks and produce and a dry snack bag of equivalent size.

The kids were annoyed by my insistence that all electronics be invisibly stowed for every (shockingly frequent) rest break, but they didn’t have to struggle to climb out of the van due to cargo in the passenger area. Space in the vehicle was well utilized, not overstuffed.

No passenger was forced to sit with his body touching anyone else. Leg room could have been an issue with a similar load of tall adults, but it wasn’t a problem for a group composed of children and young teens.

Being kids, they often did touch each other, or sit with heads together, but that was voluntary.

All of this descriptive information is provided to make clear: all of us were seated more comfortably than we would be in a modern, coach class airline seat. Most of us had significantly more legroom and personal space than one gets in a domestic first class seat.

Convenience is another factor

I don’t want to give the impression that this was my only consideration when planning this trip. Modern life is complicated, and we all make trade offs between convenience, cost, and conscience.

In my case, every point I’ve made in this post up to now has been predicated on one simple reality: I had time to take this trip.

My primary work these days is caring for and educating my children. That means most of my time can be planned according to my own wants, needs, and preferences. Most of what I do, I can choose where I want to do it.

Even so, time was our biggest constraint for this road trip.

We couldn’t leave any earlier due to school schedules for some of the participants. We had to arrive at camp by the scheduled date and time. Without another driver in our crew, my health risked becoming a factor by limiting the number of hours in the day that could safely be spent on the road.

Family fun factor & reasons for sharing

Every time I write a post on Really Wonderful Things describing how I did something, it’s because I hope that information proves useful for a reader somewhere.

If I made a mistake, perhaps you can learn from it. If I came up with a clever idea, I hope it works for you, too.

This post is my attempt to break down how I decided to drive instead of fly to Minnesota with a group of four kids destined for summer camp. It also details why I think this was a good choice, environmentally, and economically.

The trip was also a lot of fun, almost all of the time, which is something about which I haven’t written much yet. That’s a factor—the family fun factor!—that really matters to me.

My kids are going to remember this trip. My temporary charges are now much better friends of mine as well as to my boys. We worked together and accomplished a goal. All of us learned something. We saw corners of America that were new to each and every one of us.

It’s hard to run the calculations for the value of the fun factor, but let’s just agree that it’s high.

Vacations can be the “busy season” at work for Mom

I love to travel. I also revel in the fine detail work of crafting intricate itineraries. Planning a trip brings me as much joy—maybe more!—as setting out on the adventure itself.

That said, for a stay at home parent like me, taking a vacation is often the greatest challenge of my “job.”Welcome Signs montage

I create opportunities for my working spouse to relax

After all, if my husband is coming along, he’s taking rare time off from his demanding career. One of the divisions of labor that we’ve agreed to, in our partnership, is my assumption of responsibilities for vacation planning.

Also, DH is a homebody, so most trips are my idea. If his role isn’t a relaxing one, he won’t want to travel the next time. My family would lose out if my husband just stayed home.

I believe studies that suggest there are health benefits to travel, especially when a trip is well planned.

The kids need to see their dad with fewer distractions, stepping outside his comfort zone, and with more time than usual to spend with them. DH benefits by seeing the kids blossom in a new environment.

Plus, I miss him like crazy when we leave him home alone.

I want to give my overworked husband a relaxing break from his daily stresses. That’s a loving gesture on my part because I like doing nice things for the man I love.

It’s also good sense for a spouse who doesn’t generate income. I am protecting our financial future by allowing the partner who brings home the paycheck to unwind a little.

My husband’s success is due largely to his creative mind.  He should also get credit for his hard work and specialized skills, but many people can and do work hard and complete advanced degrees. Few of them manage to push scientific boundaries in new directions as he does. A refreshed intellect generates better ideas.

OH hill - 1

View from the highest hill in Ohio within city limits

Parenting work is complex away from home…

Some vacations offer reduced efforts in the realms of housework and feeding the family. My favorite thing about staying in a hotel is walking into an immaculate room with nothing on the floor!

And eating in restaurants? It’s hard to say how much I enjoy dodging the washing of dishes and the wiping of sticky counters. My admiration for those who work in food service borders on love and devotion. I hate most of these tasks, and I’m so grateful to those who are willing to do them for me.food - 1

But, though these jobs take up plenty of time at home, they don’t comprise the bulk of my effortful work as a parent. They are necessary, but not particularly complex or demanding. Even at home, when I want a break, I can hire a house cleaner or take the kids out to eat.

The really challenging requirements of parenting relate to its most vital goal: raising small people into fully-formed adults.

A few examples:

  • Assisting a unique individual to maximize his own potential
  • Negotiating the complexities of relationships between growing personalities
  • Helping them—but not too much!
  • Guiding them—but encouraging them to seek their own paths
  • Keeping them safe—but allowing them to take enough risks to fail, to learn, to try again

Most of these tasks get harder on vacation!

With all the predictable routines of daily life gone, we experience the thrill of something new. This has a cost of anxiety about the unknown. Using myself as an example, I know that I lose my cool more rapidly when I feel anxious. I don’t blame the kids for doing the same.

My job is to keep my own composure, and offer enough strength of will to help the boys do the same. Or throw an upset child a lifeline that he can use to drag himself back to equanimity.

We grow when we are challenged. Changes—even positive ones—create challenges. Travel promotes growth, but it is rife with challenges, small and large.

gazebo - 1Preparing my family for a trip is part of my “job description” as a stay at home mom. It’s a task I enjoy, and one I do pretty well. It’s not a burden.

…and it remains complex upon our return

That said, when we return from a really great vacation, I’m typically exhausted. Sometimes I even fall prey to “leisure sickness” (or something like it), succumbing to a cold as soon as the work of vacation preparations is complete.

Last month, for example, after a whirlwind road trip with a van full of boys and a week of family camp supervising the full crew, I “enjoyed” ten days of respiratory illness and coughing of the oh-my-aching-stomach-muscles variety.

It hit me the day after I returned the borrowed children to their parents and got my oldest settled for a week of sleepaway summer camp. This was the week that I was scheduled to enjoy some down time with my own mom while the men (and DS2) went fishing. And God said, “Ha!”

Beyond the physical, returning home after weeks away comes with an emotional let down, too.

“The trip I planned for months is over?”

And then there’s the housework

I will have mounds of laundry to wash, snack foods to re-shelve in the pantry, suitcases to search for stray socks and hitchhiking bedbugs, mail to peruse and respond to…

In other words, life goes on, and so does my work. I’ve even made more of it by going away.

But, I have learned to plan for at least one quiet day upon our return. When asked, I give the date we’ll be home as a day later than my plan. That final “vacation day” gives me a chance to nudge our life back into order.

I don’t schedule early appointments for a few days after a trip. I plan to sleep my fill until my body’s ready to resume the usual routine.

I’ll order groceries from Amazon Fresh or a similar delivery service if possible. There’s usually a pizza night right after a trip.

I do what I can to ease the transition. I accept what I can’t change as a cost of the new experiences gained. I let the post-vacation let down run its course and give myself permission to have mixed emotions.

I help the kids process their own transitions, too, from jet lag to lost toys to keeping in touch with new friends in faraway places.

“Mom, what time is it in Minnesota?”

And, in the middle of all this, I usually spend at least a few minutes daydreaming about what might be our next big adventure—between loads of laundry, that is.laundry.jpg

Summer morning snapshot: mother saying goodbye from a fishing cabin

Just before 6am, chilly in an unfamiliar bed in a rustic fishing cabin, I try to burrow deeper under a strange, thin blanket, and I listen as my little guy leaves the house with the men.

He’s small for his age, barely the size of an eight year old, though he’s actually nearing the end of his elementary school years. How does he qualify for manhood?

Answered easily enough: by waking at dawn without complaint, and by catching more than his fair share of last night’s dinner. So far, he has out-fished Grandpa, 15 fish to Grandpa’s ten.

With my older child gone away to camp and the younger snapping on a life jacket and struggling valiantly to lift–by himself–the smallest Igloo cooler, there are no small bodies left to join me for a morning snuggle. To warm the child, of course, but also very much to warm my heart.

There are no softly snoring or sleepy heads peeping out of heaped blankets that I can kiss on my way to put the kettle on.

I tried to go back to sleep, but there’s nothing that can fill the vacant space where my babies should be except writing this down, letting it out, making room for them to grow… and, eventually, to go.

There’s the heartbreak of a mother’s job well done.

Posting schedule: summer vacation is for blogging moms, too

I’ve been posting almost daily since April, when I started in earnest to write Really Wonderful Things. I hope that all of this hard work has built up a nice portfolio on a variety of topics, and that my archives now have lots to offer for new readers who stop by.

Starting immediately, my summer schedule will be a post on Tuesdays and Saturdays.

PEI beachSummer vacation, for us, means travel, family activities, and time away from our desks. Wifi isn’t readily available—nor would I want it there!—in the wilderness.*

I’m not neglecting those of you who do me the honor of following RWT. I’m unplugging. It’s supposed to be good for you.

And I’m really only unplugging a little bit.

If I have access to Wifi, I will still read and answer comments every day.

Contact phoneI expect I will continue reading most, if not all, of the blogs I follow, too. Following a blog can feel like making a friend. I want to find out what happens next.

I reserve the right to write extra posts at any time. I may not be able to help sharing Really Wonderful Things that I learn, see, or do this summer. I’m an enthusiastic over-sharer. It’s who I am.

Here’s wishing every reader** a summer season abundant in everything really wonderful to you.OR Florence - 2011

*Maybe wilderness can be defined here as the local park, or a campground with hot showers, but the point remains.

**I know I have some followers from the Southern Hemisphere. You are headed into winter. Perhaps my summer posts can help warm your cold days.

Summer vacation isn’t the enemy of modern parents, but it reveals social boundaries

Last week, I saw an ad predicated upon the idea that summer vacation is a nightmare for parents. It wasn’t even Memorial Day yet, and, already, they’d infected the airwaves.

Do parents really bemoan summer break?

I despise commercials that attempt to advertise products based upon the perverse notion that I loathe spending time with my children.

The Back to School ads are even worse than the End of the School Year set. Parents dance in the streets because they are unable to contain their joy at giving up the burden of spending entire days in the company of their own kids.

Are these the same kids Americans were so desperate to have that more than 10% of US women of childbearing age have used infertility services? Bah, humbug!

My kids are cool, and I enjoy their company. Summer means no alarm clocks and more opportunities to say yes to their (admittedly, sometimes goofy) requests. Summertime equates to free time.

Or are parents with limited resources desperate for better solutions?

I’m crying foul. I think this is primarily a lame advertising trope.

But, of course, there is added stress for families where all available caregivers work outside the home. Finding appropriate summer camps or childcare is a pain. That’s true 365 days a year in America for kids too young for public school.

This isn’t a summer problem, or a parenting problem. It’s a political problem, and an economic one. This is not proof that parents want their kids to stay locked up indoors year ’round.

Instead, we see a sign of a childcare problem in a society expecting high rates of worker participation from able bodied adults. (Those would be the same adults who most frequently produce offspring!)

Really, how many of us resent watching the kids pour out of the schools and into the home, onto the beaches, and into the parks?

Most parents work their butts off attempting to earn the best for their kids, and that includes fresh air, exercise, and time and space to dream the biggest dreams. That’s where summer vacation can really shine, but only for those with the time and resources to let it happen.

My family’s summers include travel, museums, hours poring over books of our own choosing, and lots of time with extended family. I don’t even have to question whether or not this is a good use of my kids’ time. Of course it is!

I can barely express how grateful I am for this privilege.

We supplement our lazy summer days with hours of Khan Academy and specialty family camps, not because we feel compelled to keep up, but because learning new things is awesome and we want to share the joy with our kids.

I don’t believe for one minute that there are legions of caring parents in America who want more testing, more trivial comparisons, and more common core for their beloved children.

Parents want their kids to have access to opportunities. Parents want their kids to learn useful stuff. Parents want their kids to grow up well and be successful and happy.

I can’t even say how much I wish summer vacation was an equal opportunity benefit for all children.

Who really hates summer break?

Parents today—like most people today—struggle under a burden of technology and schedules seemingly designed to detract from a fulfilling life.

Theoretically, we live in an era of reduced physical effort and greater access to information, leading inexorably to an easier life. In practice, maybe not so much.

These commercials are lazy work on the part of advertisers, but they do reveal a modern day American tragedy.

Some of us have to get a little desperate when school lets out for summer.

Some of us get to enjoy our kids’ company in the same situation.

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