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

Multi-generational co-housing: sharing a home with my in-laws

A few years ago, we made the choice to move, together with my husband’s parents, into one large, shared house.

We sold a three bedroom, one bath home; my in-laws sold their own similarly sized three bedroom house.

They contributed to the down payment on the new place and paid to remodel their portion. This included adding interior walls and a second kitchen for their exclusive use to create a true in-law apartment. They have an exterior door that leads from the driveway to their space, three bedrooms, a living room, and two bathrooms, all their own.

We share a short hallway from the garage, basement and garage space, and the yard itself, though we agreed upon one patio area for their outdoor furniture and primary use. Our main entrance is the original front door, so none of our guests pass through the other’s private spaces.

It’s not a rentable second residence (we share utilities, for example), but we don’t have to share cooking space, bathrooms, or exterior entryways. We can open interior doors to see each other, but we can also close them for privacy.

We took on a mortgage of a similar size to what we would have spent moving alone into a larger home. Sharing a 35 sq ft (a little over 3 m2) bathroom—with a bad layout, asbestos panel walls requiring professional abatement, degraded brass plumbing, and a cast iron tub in dire need of refinishing or replacement—with three males had become a daily nuisance, and I was demanding an upgrade one way or another.

I’ve had people commend me for being “willing to allow” my husband’s parents to move in with us, but it was actually my idea. DH is very close to his parents. He took virtually no convincing, though he was concerned about how I would respond to living together. My rationale for entering into this arrangement—unconventional in 21st century Western society, but “traditional” when considering human history—was multi-faceted.

First, my husband is an only child, and care of his parents is his sole responsibility. If or when, in the future, they need more assistance, he is duty-bound to provide it, and I wouldn’t wish for him to behave any differently. My hope was to create a comfortable home in which we could all co-exist peacefully before circumstances forced the issue.

How much better is it to move joyfully forward into a great new house we’ve picked out together than to cram an ailing or recently widowed elder into a house that’s ill suited for aging in place? We were barely squeezing our family of four into our old place. Any sudden addition to the household would have been difficult, maybe impossible, if infirmity had been the motivation for the change!

I grew up with my maternal grandfather sharing our home. He joined our household when I was a preschooler, after he had been a widower for a few years. I’m sure my decision to expand our household beyond our nuclear family was made easier by the experience growing up with Grandpa just another familiar daily presence. He had health issues and spent most of his time in his room listening to classical music, but he was there, and he was just part of the family.

Besides these more emotional reasons for expanding the scope of our family home, I must admit that I also believe in the sensibility, and sustainability, of the modern co-housing movement. There are economies to be gained by living in groups, even small ones.

I loved the idea of buying a unit in a co-housing community, but had never made headway convincing DH it was a good idea. Sharing a household with my in-laws does put some of my environmental principles into action.

For example, a periodic energy usage report from the local utility says we use 25% more energy than neighboring households. That bothered me until I remembered that our one home replaced two. Also, three members of our six person combined family are home (consuming power and keeping the heat or air conditioning at comfortable levels) for most of every day. A mere 25% above average is actually an energy savings win.

It was hardest to coax my father-in-law (FIL) into the arrangement. DH’s mother (MIL) would have moved into our old (detached, unheated) garage without complaint if she thought it would serve the family. She’s also generationally and culturally inculcated to go along with her husband’s financial decisions. Aside from making clear that she didn’t want to live in a basement, MIL was on board with the co-housing idea from the moment she heard it.

FIL felt differently. He still works, and he’s fit and active. The first time we broached the subject, it was pretty clear that he didn’t want to be assumed as our “responsibility.” I think he appreciated the fact that we were expressing care and concern for their future, but he was not ready to “move into his son’s house.”

An alarming health scare a couple of years later, which, happily, turned out to be a false alarm, brought FIL around to our plan. I believe he acted then out of concern for his wife. What if something had happened to him? What would happen to MIL? As soon as FIL expressed a tentative interest in the idea of moving in together, I called a realtor and began readying our place for sale.

We were able to buy a much larger home in an ideal neighborhood by combining the value of two properties. Neither household was compromising or downgrading comfort, space, or property values in the move. We have enough room that no one is on top of each another. We had plenty of options at this higher end of the market to find houses that were easily adapted to multi-generational living.

Another really important point to my story is that FIL and MIL really weren’t “giving up” on independence and “moving in with” their son. We gain at least as much by having them living downstairs as they get from us!

MIL is the traditional Jewish grandmother in one obvious way: she always wants to feed her loved ones. If you’ve read some of my other posts, you may recall that I’m a reluctant cook. The boys get nutritious, home cooked dinners four nights a week with their grandparents. I get to skip cooking four nights every week during the time of day that my energy is lowest. I’m very content to dine alone on leftovers while the boys enjoy vegetable soup and котлеты and lots of doting attention.

Also, I get an hour to myself to recharge my (introverted) emotional batteries after spending all day with DS1, who learns at home. My husband deserves to be greeted, after a long day at work, by my best self, and he’s more likely to get her if I’ve had a chance to take a break. I’d like to be an eternally happy housewife, but I’m simply not without regular intervals of peace and quiet.

And speaking of the home school scholar (DS1), FIL is a great help with that process. He is not just willing, but eager, to tutor his grandson in math, history, computer science, and the Russian language. MIL, who was a concert pianist, accompanies DS1 while he practices his violin. Their experience and wisdom definitely enhances DS1’s education.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning the social consequences of the in-laws moving in with the “kids.” I think FIL was a little worried that their friends would judge them for making this change. After supporting himself and his family for decades, would it seem like they were financially needy, even derelict? Instead, attitudes seem to be quite the opposite. If little birds can be believed, many friends feel rather jealous.

“Your daughter-in-law asked you to move in with them?!?”

What better proof that you are valued, loved, and that your presence is appreciated?

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.

Are land line phones as archaic as the nuclear family?

My husband and I have a long-running joke that goes back, I think, to our first experience traveling together. Our shorthand for this very long discussion is:

“It’s all about the sharing, and the commitment.”

It began with a difference of opinion (ongoing!) about combining both of our belongings, intermixed, into two shared suitcases vs. packing individual bags. I prefer the former; he prefers the latter.

DH believes this is an entirely biological imperative: I am the female who needs full relationship participation from my mate and maximal expression thereof so I can ensure the successful maturation of our offspring. I’m putting my eggs (wardrobe) in his nest (suitcase), so to speak.

My argument on the subject is that suitcases are regularly lost, and the distribution of at least one full outfit per person in the other bag means less chance of radical inconvenience if a bag goes missing. It is also nice for my loving feelings that we are sharing, which corroborates the commitment.

I’m right about this, of course*, and I follow the same strategy when traveling with my children, so it isn’t all about co-opting DH’s suitcase real estate, but that’s not my main point today.

Moving beyond the travel example, this sort of discussion arises over other daily actions like asking for a bite of his meal (the sharing), or asking him to weigh in on a household decision he might not really care about (the commitment.)

Sharing and commitment are the very nexus of healthy relationships. It’s hard to imagine a family thriving without them.

So what does any of this have to do with the great 19th century innovation of the land line telephone?

For the first time since phones became ubiquitous in the USA, cellular only households now outnumber those with a traditional land line. This is hardly surprising, and there are a number of downsides to this trend that have been covered by major news outlets. The most obvious relate to dispatching emergency services, power outages, and rural or elderly populations who depend heavily on wired phone lines.

Nowhere have I seen mentioned what I’ve found the most personally disruptive feature of a cell phone only culture: it is no longer possible to call a family as a unit. I have to choose an individual to contact, even when my business is with the whole group.

Sometimes, that’s inconvenient: “Hello, neighbors, your garage door is open and the sun’s going down,” or, “I’m driving by and want to drop something off to whomever is at home.”

No, it’s not the end of the world to spray a series of texts or voicemail messages, but it fundamentally ignores the shared nature of a household and its tangible collective purpose.

Sometimes, that’s kind of sad.

Is a family home anything like a collaboration of tenants in common? Should it be?

For individuals who choose co-housing for financial or other reasons, the personal cell phone is a great innovation. Anyone who’s lived in a dorm or otherwise shared a public hall phone knows the benefits of a private device. But is there any advantage gained by a family in the same scenario?

It’s positively quaint to watch an old TV show set at home and see teens racing to answer the communal family phone, or demanding that a sibling conclude a conversation quickly lest an important incoming call be missed. I showed my kids Family Ties last summer, and I marveled at the repetition of that once common scene—now inconceivable—every time.

I don’t mean to romanticize the inconveniences of sharing, but I do question what role the act of frequent sharing has on members of a family. Might these regular points of casual contact mean a more regular chance to check in? I’d guess that it would act in much the same way that sharing any habitual activity leads to better communication between teens and parents simply by providing a low stress opportunity for it to happen.

And then there’s the effect of sharing itself. Parents spend an awful lot of time and energy teaching this vital skill to their young children. Why? Because we want them to grow up into caring adults who treat others well. Participating in a shared family mode of communication means taking part in the functioning of the family itself.

To be clear, I wouldn’t advocate spending twice to have both a cell phone and land line in a scenario where every penny counts. If you have to choose between buying vegetables and having two phones, I vote for the healthy green stuff. If only one phone is in the budget, a mobile phone provides the most flexibility and would be my choice, too.

But for families more like mine—having the privilege to elect music lessons and summer camp, organic food and restaurant meals—the move away from a family phone seems short-sighted. We are constantly bemoaning how hard it is to communicate with our kids while literally cutting the copper lines we used to share.

Shifting more and more experiences from public to private space—personal iPad viewing vs. negotiating the channel of the family room TV, meals on the run vs. around the family table, and, yes, a social life conducted primarily through a tiny handheld computer instead of in the yard or the living room, or even at the mall or the movie theater—every one of these is a vote, intentional or not, for the primacy of the individual experience over a commitment to the family.

These are choices, conscious or not. They are every individual family’s to make, and I don’t presume to know what’s best for yours.

I do, however, hope that I’ve made my point that these are choices best made based upon one’s values, and not by default. It is easy to convince oneself that a situation is made by circumstances and not by choice. Sometimes, its harder to live with the consequences.

 

*This is a joke. I respect my husband’s opinions as he respects mine. We both think we’re right, obviously. But, probably, I am, which is a joke that’s become recursive…

Mother’s Day is the gift: one perspective to consider when shopping for Mom

Speaking for myself, and my kids have heard some of this before…

I don’t need a Hallmark card on Mother’s Day.

I don’t need a mug that says “Mother.” I don’t need any thing at all. You don’t even have to buy me flowers.Mother's Day flowers

On Mother’s Day, I’d like your time, your love, and your cheerful participation.

I’d like to sleep in

I’d like to sleep in, on Mother’s Day, until I wake up with a yawn and a smile and no alarm clock—digital or demanding human—in sight.

Then, when you’ve heard sounds of my stirring, I’d like my two favorite kids in the history of the universe to come joyfully in and jump in my bed with hugs and kisses like I got when you were toddlers and I was the center of your world.

No one’s too old to kiss his mom on Mother’s Day.

I’d like someone else to cook & clean

I’d like someone else to cook breakfast, but I don’t care if its fancy. I want the dirty dishes to disappear without my saying a word. In fact, I’d like to find the kitchen clean at the end of the day, even especially if I never set foot in the room.breakfast skillet

A running dishwasher without prompting is like a love song to me on Mother’s Day.

I’d like to spend time with you

On Mother’s Day, I propose we build a jigsaw puzzle with nary an eye roll and no suggestion that a video game would be more fun. I like playing Ages of Empires with you, or The Sims, but I enjoy building things more.

If you bought me a gift over my protestations, I hope its a 1000+ piece puzzle with an image you like, too. Or maybe a Lego City set—one of the modular town buildings that I love. We could spend a whole day assembling and playing with that.

If there’s a gift, I hope you bought it with the intention that we would enjoy it together.

Show me your best self

Order takeout or pizza for dinner, if you don’t want to cook again. I don’t mind; I just like to be fed.

Show me your consideration by remembering what I like, or use that excellent brain to observe that I’ve marked up all the menus with everyone’s usual order. That’s how I make sure your favorite dish is never forgotten.pizza

If you looked, you’d find my cookbooks full of similar notes, too. Who likes what? How must I challenge Betty Crocker so you like a recipe better? Have you ever noticed that this is just another little way that I take care of you every day?

Serve the food on plates, not from the boxes. Remember to put napkins on the table without being reminded that we’re civilized. Ask me if I’d like a glass of water instead of asking me to get one for you. Bring silverware for everyone, even your brother.

Use your very best, cruise ship manners.

Tell me, show me, acknowledge me

Tell me you love me. Show me you love me. Today is the day to acknowledge my boundless love for you.

That’s what I’d like for Mother’s Day.Mom hug

How will you celebrate Mom on Sunday, May 14?

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.

Hand-embroidered linens: a celebration of the unique gifts of mothers

I’ve got something you don’t have!

I say this gleefully, hand to mouth to hide my smile. But my treasure isn’t valuable in a monetary sense. Instead, I’m celebrating the absolutely unique nature of a collection of linens—primarily kitchen and tea towels—that my mother just sent. Most of them were hand-embroidered by the grandmother I never knew.

 

Linen hand towel wreath

Genuine linen. Not even ironed! In the guest bath!

My maternal grandmother died when I was a baby. I met her, but I was too young to be aware of it. I’ve always hoped that she was glad to meet me—her first grandchild—before she passed away.

My mother has pack-rat tendencies, though her house is immaculate and very well organized. She has more bedding than she could wear out in a lifetime. She keeps everything, just in case she needs it someday. While her attempts, thus far, at “down sizing” strike me as beginning the process of moving a mountain by picking up a pair of tweezers, she is taking steps to clarify things family members might want “someday” and she has gone so far as to gift items even she admits she’s unlikely to use. Grandmother’s linens fall into this category and arrived UPS in a medium size box.

Mom’s perfectionism meant a certain lack of freedom of expression during my childhood. I was involved in the decision to buy coordinating bedding sets for my bedroom, say, but under no circumstances could I have used pillow covers atop my bed that didn’t match the theme exactly. Some of Mom’s standards are pretty rigid. We did get to enjoy hiding our preferred, sometimes whimsical sheets out of sight beneath the spread. I used a particular set of Sesame Street sheets right up through my college dorm.

Other favorites of mine, once I was old enough to pick them out on sheet-changing day and tall enough to see them tucked away in the least used corner of the linen closet, were an array of delicately embroidered white cotton pillowcases that didn’t have matching sheets. Mom would let me use them with plain white sheets, which were close enough. (Sigh). My grandmother embroidered some of these, and some of them were wedding gifts to my grandmother from women she had known growing up. They were deemed too nice to use, I think, and so they waited in one closet, and then another.

I loved them, and I wheedled, and I used them. My mother didn’t mind too much. She did complain that they required more ironing than her preferred poly-cotton blends, but no bed sheet ever makes it into service without pressing in her house. No-iron means “easier to iron” in Mom’s lexicon. For all her compulsions, my loving mother has always tried to make her children happy, though she might grumble about some of what that takes.

As a teen, I dyed my hair the occasional interesting color, and I wore it black off and on. I ruined my very favorite embroidered pillowcase by sleeping on it one night after a dye job. I was really sad. Mom was somewhat cross. Then, we both got over it. I learned two lessons that day: first, to be more careful with wet hair that’s been dyed black, but, more importantly, that those wonderful things we want to save for a more important day are still better used and enjoyed than kept “safe” in a pristine prison. If we won’t use them, why have them?

Which brings me back to my new, old tea towels. Mom didn’t use those because they didn’t match her kitchen. Mom’s towels always match her kitchen, including the adjusted color schemes of her seasonal décor. Also, some of them have spots. Or stains. They aren’t perfect enough for my mother’s kitchen.

But I think she kept them all these years because they remind her of her mother.

Tea towels days of week

Racist embroidery depicts a stereotypical Chinese servant. It also likely reflects attitudes during my grandmother’s upbringing in early 20th c. California.

They must bring back memories of all the tuna-and-egg salad sandwiches made for a little girl’s lunch by loving hands. Perhaps even the stains convey nostalgia for a woman, my mother tells me, who was not a perfectionist, and shook her head over a little girl growing up already rigidly wedded to the notion of perfect matching sets and an immaculately made bed. I seem to be a little bit more like my grandmother, in this respect.

So I unpacked the box and unfolded towel after towel, napkin after tablecloth. They don’t match my kitchen. Some of them have stains. Their delicate embroidery may not hold up to my take-no-prisoners approach to washing kitchen towels.

I use them every day. I cherish every singular stitch. And every time I dry my hands, I think about the grandmother I never knew, and I’m grateful for the mother that I have.