Grumpy about the vacation: unpacking

We’re home! That means we have to unpack three weeks’ worth of gear, which we packed to cover beach camping, beach house, and mountain camping.

This part of traveling sucks.

How much stuff do you think we can pack into an Outback and Yakima cargo box?


Here’s almost the answer:


Here’s another angle on all that shit:


This collection doesn’t include our camping food (all scraps of which we threw away yesterday as we left our campsite) or whatever fell out of the passenger space, i.e., a bag of books, a box of learning stuff (untouched, I’m pleased to say), a box of art supplies, 3 iPads, 2 portable DVD players, a large carrier of DVDs, Nick’s 7 stuffed animals, a bag of dragons, a box of kleenex, and 420 pounds of human. Also the travel accordion folder, which contained important itinerary information and the laminated diagrams (drawn by me 2 years ago) of exactly how all this shit will fit in the car.

I can’t exaggerate how critical these diagrams are. Two summers ago, when we went on our first month-long camping trip, I spent about 3 days figuring out how everything would fit. There is no wiggle room, right down to which way to orient the camp chairs in the cargo box (fat end to the front or back?). So I drew pictures to remember. I have to rely on them every time I pack the car.

There’s always the open question of whether we could fit a little more stuff in the air space at the back:


But we haven’t figured out yet how to get the hatch down before whatever is sitting there falls down. Maybe we could rig up some kind of webbing. Tempting.

There’s also the question of whether we could fit some more stuff right behind and over the kids’ heads:


But since bags sometimes fall on their heads already, we haven’t gone there. Also I wonder if there’s some safety regulation we’d be violating and then someone might call child protective services on us for endangering Nick and Jesse. Never mind that we’re en route from taking them on terrifying hikes where not much of a mis-step would have sent them plummeting to their deaths.

But they didn’t plummet. They thrived and grew up a bit, as they do on all of these trips. It almost makes the unpacking worth it.







Grumpy about a heart attack (a sibling tale)

I learned yesterday that my brother Mark was taken to the hospital the night before. He had a heart attack. He seems fine, but it’s early in the evaluative process. So far all indicators are that my family is still completely ridiculous.

I heard the news after we finished a pretty strenuous 4+ mile hike with the kids in the Shenandoahs. We’re still on our 3-week vacation. There’s very little cell coverage in this part of the Blue Ridge Mountains, but the hike ended at an overlook where we had a few bars of coverage. So on a whim I unlocked my phone. I was greeted by a text from my brother Eric, filling me in briefly on Mark’s attack. It was a terrible emotional jolt, and I blurted out an exclamation.

My bad. I got about .4 seconds to process the news before Jesse stepped into the fray. “WHAT?? What’s wrong??” She’s already been in full-throttle jackass mode for a couple days, so this came easy to her.

Uncle Mark seems to have had a heart attack, I answered.

“What does that mean??” She yodeled. “WHAT’S A HEART ATTACK??”

Deep cleansing breaths as we looked for kind ways to tell her to shut up.

Standing on the overlook, I called Eric. He was at the hospital. He started to answer my questions but there was noise in the background, and in exasperation he said, “here, I’ll just let him tell you himself.”

Mark got on the phone. He spoke in a gravelly, sickened whisper. “Hey Carla, thanks for calling…” Then he started cracking up and spoke in his normal gravelly voice. “I’m just kidding, sis!” Sooo funny.

I hit back. “What happened, Mark?? I got Eric’s message and almost had a heart attack!!”

He answered with more. “Hey don’t worry, sis. You know most FATAL heart attacks happen in women. So I’m fine.”

There’s nothing like stupid joking around to mask deep, painful feelings of love and fear.

Here are the essentials of what I understand happened, based on what Mark and Eric told me:

For two days, Mark experienced pain in his left shoulder and severe heartburn. Also he couldn’t stop sweating. Finally Mark called Eric, who lives about 3 hours away, and asked him to get on the internet and look up the symptoms of a heart attack. Bingo. Eric also called a doctor friend, who suggested Mark take an aspirin and get help. Now. Eric passed this along.

Meanwhile, at my mom’s home (where Mark was hanging out)…

Mom’s husband John also called a doctor for advice. He called Dr. Kim, who’s something of a family doctor. For the dogs. He’s a vet.

Mark realized he didn’t want Mom or John to drive him to the hospital. Mom doesn’t drive since her stroke. John’s driving would have just given Mark another heart attack and finished him off.

John promptly pulled out the yellow pages. He was going to find an ambulance company, presumably under “A”. Mom decided this wasn’t the right approach. She called 911. But her English has gotten so bad since her stroke that she couldn’t articulate the situation to the operator. Also she gave the address of one of her rental properties, not her house. Mark, recognizing that all of this was problematic, took the phone from her and cleared things up.

Mark made it to the hospital in one piece, they did something with a stent, and he’s alive.

I learned most of these details from Eric, who shared them with me in a tired, wry voice that told me he had moved past anger straight on to humor as he tried to manage the situation and keep me and our brother Ted (currently in Malaysia) in the loop.

Some time after I spoke to Eric at the hospital, I called Mom’s home number, hoping to find her there. A male voice answered in Korean. “Yoh boh seh yoh?”

“Hi John, it’s Carla.”

There was a brief silence, and then, “Helloo?” piped the voice in a Korean accent.

I was irritated immediately. I didn’t need this shit right now. I spoke very slowly and carefully, as I’ve done many times before. “John. It is me, Carla.” I prepared myself for more confusion.

The voice started laughing. “Carla, it’s Eric. I’m just messing with you.”

Sigh. We both made fun of me for getting grumpy so quick. We chatted about Mark, Mom, John. Without my asking, Eric gave me the data points he knows I need. BP, O2 sats, heart rate, status. We told stupid jokes, made loose fun of the situation without really meaning it, gave each other a few laughs.

As my brothers and I held each others’ emotional hands, my heart broke and healed and broke and healed. If I’m the princess of grumpy, then Mark and Eric are the crown princes. We grew up under the same duress, grumbling and yelling our way through the days. But in a time of crisis and fear, Mark and Eric are both coming through, as I hope I’m doing, turning that grumpiness from ugliness into a head- shaking acceptance of the comedy that shapes our world. If Ted weren’t in Malaysia, I know he’d join us in this essential, life-affirming self-mockery.

I’d probably break if it weren’t for the laughs. Mark is an anchor in my life. He keeps me grounded when I get uppity; he picks me up when I’m down on myself; he face palms me when I get too grumpy. I can’t imagine this world without him. So I’m afraid right now.

But good news: Eric just told me that Mark has now achieved full volume and grumpiness, and he should be going home soon. Mom and John are going to visit Mark at the hospital today anyway. He isn’t all that thrilled. “They’re just going to stand there and stare at me.”

Yeah I know. It’s annoying. But it’s probably what I would do too if I could be next to Mark right now instead of 3000 miles away, because I’m so grateful that he’s still alive.

Grumpy about the vacation: Adam Levine got married

One of the perks of being on a traveling vacation is that I get to watch normal TV when we stay at hotels. At home we have the Roku thingy and stream shows on demand. We also have a digital antennae thingy so we can watch network stuff, but I almost never do. I hate ads and I don’t have a life that allows much of anything to happen on someone else’s schedule. I learn about world events in quick bursts of time on the web, relying on my go-to news trio — NY Times, Facebook and the Onion.

Needless to say (but I will anyway), I’m culturally out of touch. Once in a while it bothers me so I read People or Us, or I browse Yahoo, and I marvel for a few moments at the world of Celebrity swirling around my void.

This morning I turned on the TV in our hotel room and Today was on. It’s one of those morning network talk shows. But you probably already know that. It was superficial, jangly and jarring, with bright colors and smiling faces, except when they put on their serious faces. It made me feel anxious and vapid.

As I pottered about, I learned from Today that the POTUS had a state dinner for kids who submitted recipes. The Dutch are angry about how their compatriots’ remains are being handled in the Ukraine. There is weather all over the country. A ball girl at a Sox game snagged a fair ball. Kate Hudson has a new movie out.

We didn’t recognize Kate. With her extreme-straightened hair and extreme-smoothed forehead and extreme-coverage makeup, she looked just like everyone else I see in the mags now. Anthony commented dryly, “She’s done something to her face.” We speculated about Botox.

As I hustled Nick out the door for a delicious continental breakfast in the hotel lobby, Today posted up a snapshot of some people with this caption underneath: “Adam Levine weds model in Mexico.”

Oddly enough, I know who Levine is and I know that he was dating a Victoria’s Secrets model. I know she hawks panties and bras and sells her made-up face and primped body for pictures. Still, the caption bothered me. Some Today execs or writers sat around deciding on what to say. They chose not to use the bride’s name or a word that ordinarily describes a human being in a relationship. They could have referred to her as a partner, girlfriend, fiancé, lover, friend. Instead the caption objectifies her utterly, completely. She could be a person or a train set or a blow-up doll. I wondered if she’s okay with being pegged that way.

And this is one reason why we got rid of normal TV. Why should I be wasting my time worrying after the feelings of Adam Levine’s model? Yeesh. It’s a good thing we’re heading to the mountains for a few more days of camping. Continue reading

Grumpy about the vacation: Richmond hotel

We just left a week of decadence in Corolla, North Carolina, on the Outer Banks. We stayed in a beach house populated by 30 people, 24 cell phones, 15 televisions, 12 iPads or similar devices, 18 DVD players, 9 laptops, 8 electric and acoustic guitars, 48 board games, 2 hot tubs, 3 tons of stray sand, and 300 empty beer bottles and cans. I was so busy having fun and being grumpy in turn that I never bothered to write anything, so that story will have to wait for another day.

Right now we’re relaxing at a Holiday Inn Express in the Richmond, Virginia metro area. We get one easy night’s rest before we hit the Shenandoah mountains for 3 nights of camping.

It’s been so long since I’ve spent any time in the south. I got sucked into the arctic vortex of Wisconsin 8 years ago, and I forgot all about the delights of southern life. Friendly, warm people; more diversity; good food. We stopped by the Richmond Whole Foods and found amazing southern eats at the hot bar — several kinds of pulled meats and barbecue, amazing sauces, mac and cheese, and so on. I was really happy.

Then I got on the hotel elevator and saw this sign glaring at me.

I thought to myself, is this a joke? Is it some sort of post-modern, absurdist segregation? Is it a sardonic riff, a subtle mockery of the history of apartheid in the south?

(Hold on. Nick just told me he needs me to hang out with him while he poops. Excuse me while I go live the good life for a moment.)

Right. So while I wiped Nick’s little ass, my racing thoughts spun out of hand. Why do Coke people get the snacks and Pepsi people get the laundry? What was it about my family that made them place us on the Pepsi floor? Don’t we deserve snacks too? What happens if I vend a Coke and bring it to my room on the Pepsi floor? Will one of those completely insane Virginia highway patrol guys on a motorcycle come do horrible things to me and my kin?

I’ve been partying too much. I need more sleep.

Grumpy about the vacation: Assateague

We’ve finished up our camping interlude, with 3 nights at Assateague and 1 quick night at Kiptopeke State Park in lieu of a hotel.

We got dirty and had fun in the ocean and bay, except for times when we were dirty and didn’t have fun. That’s how it goes when you travel with two little kids and a grumpy mom.

The first tent night was tough. Jesse had a hard time settling down, and there was much moaning and groaning. We fixed the problem for the other nights via extreme bribery, 5 entire bucks if you can be quiet for the night. It seemed wrong somehow to be barking at my child at 2 am, “remember the 5 dollars? Be quiet right now if you want them!” But it was effective, so I was satisfied.

There were wild ponies right in our campsite!


Down side: steaming piles of horse shit right in our campsite.


We had loads of fun on the beautiful beaches. The surf was mellow and we lucked out with low tides, so the kids were able to enjoy pretty calm seas on the first ocean trip of their young lives. We built a sand fort and populated it with little mole crabs we captured in our digs. We eventually set the crabs free in the surf and mocked the passing lady who was grossed out that they were STILL ALIVE.

Nick didn’t act like a kid who’s afraid of water as he waded out into the frothing surf and vanquished waves with his imaginary powers. Jesse swam in and rode waves on her boogie board, overcoming anxiety and outright fear. She was tiny and lithe and spectacular. There were pelicans, herons and egrets, gulls, wading birds, horseshoe and normal crabs, dolphins, and a huge school of fish the dolphins had herded to the surf. Magical.

Down side: sand. We discovered that Nick is OCD about sand between his toes, requiring surgical precision in the removal of each grain when we leave the beach. Jesse is OCD at-large, so at random moments she just freaks out for a while about sand on different parts of her body. All we can really do is grit our teeth and wait until she works through it.

I have no beach photos to share. I didn’t take any because I was playing. Sometimes I like not having pictures; they have a tendency to replace broad deep memories with a limited, one-dimensional idealization.

But also sometimes I wish I was a pro so I could capture an image that was the event unto itself. One evening we saw the full moon rise before night fell. The sky was red and purple from the setting sun, and the moon shimmered through a mist of clouds. It lasted all of 20 seconds before the clouds covered it up, and it took my breath away. Unfortunately, this is the image my iPhone captured:

Yeah. That little dot in the sky is the big beautiful moon. The real thing was much more impressive. I wish you had seen it with me.

Fecal Friday (a day late): smell my fart. It’s good for you

Who knew that farting on my kids was good for them? Apparently I did. Sometimes you have to trust your parenting instincts:

I don’t usually like to give parenting advice, but come on people. Give your gene pool a leg up on cancer: go fart on your kids.

Grumpy about the vacation: time to camp

We’re now in the first camping interlude of our vacation. We’re at the Assateague Island National Seashore. We drove from Big Grandma’s home and arrived in the early afternoon. It was scorching hot in the campgrounds. We pitched the tent, Nick got sunburned, Jesse had a tantrum, and we all got dehydrated. We went to the beach. It’s the kids’ first ocean experience. We warned them that it might first seem like Lake Michigan or Superior, but it’s not. Salt. Real waves. More tow. They came over the rise of the dunes and first remarked on how dark the water is. They got down to the water and exploded in excitement over the water’s energy. Nick spent an hour attacking the waves with imaginary weapons and declaring them vanquished whenever they failed to reach him. Jesse watched the surfers in jealous awe and made daddy take her into the rather tough, tow-bedeviled surf. It was great.

We got back to camp in the evening. It was cooler but rain threatened. We managed to get a fast dinner (hot dogs and a salad) and quick showers before the rain came. We all jumped in the tent and got snippy with each other as we tried to set the tent innards straight. Then there was a massive thunderstorm and a ton of rain. Jesse freaked out a bit but now everyone’s asleep. It’s still raining. The tent is sweltering hot because we had to close the fly for the rain. I can smell my feet. I have to pee. I don’t think there are enough Kegels in me to get me through the next 8 hours. Inside the tent is a desperate need to pee. Outside is rain and bugs. Lots of biting bugs.

I love camping.

Grumpy about the vacation: birthday at Big Grandma’s house

I’ve been at my in-laws’ house since noon yesterday. 34 hours. 12 more hours to go.

Today is Nick’s birthday. He’s five. But yesterday was the day Anthony’s brother and family could come around, so we celebrated then, which mostly means I baked a cake and made frosting (can’t buy it because of Jesse’s egg allergy). There was a singing of happy birthday. Nick got a couple gifts – a little construction truck, a Spider-man figurine. A rubber water vest. He’s such a good little guy. He was totally satisfied by this modest hurrah to the day of his birth.

Nick’s never been to Big Grandma’s house, for reasons that can’t be discussed here. Yesterday was the first time he met Anthony’s brother and sister-in-law, and his nephew. His life hasn’t really encompassed this paternal cohort. I’m glad he got to meet them all, but I’m also a bit bummed out that we had to celebrate his birthday here.

I could whine about what a struggle it is for me to be here. I could make fun of myself, grumble about the stupid things getting under my skin. I could get bitter about the edges that won’t dull. I could express pride in myself for not doing anything that I’m angry with myself about — though I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve offended other members of Anthony’s family, as inevitably seems to be the case. I could make noise about why so many families waste energy blaming in-laws for dysfunctions that are obviously indigenous to the genetically-connected family.

But I shouldn’t do any of that on my son’s birthday. I know I know, I’ve passive-aggressively gone ahead and done it. Don’t be difficult and call me on it, dear reader. I’m trying to get through 12 more hours here.

Instead of moaning and groaning tonight, let me leave it at this: I have an awesome five-year-old son. He’s the sunshine to offset my daughter’s moonshine. He lifts my spirits again and again. He’s cheerful, kind, decent, inclusive. I watched him kiss his grandparents goodnight this evening, unbidden, so sweet and guileless and wise. He wants everyone to love everyone. I want to make his dreams come true. So I’ll keep working on it. Happy birthday, my beautiful Nicholas Lee.






Grumpy about the vacation: my college town is a dump

We drove a few miles off course yesterday on our way to New Jersey, so that we could visit Oberlin College. I remember it as an idyllic little college in the middle of an idyllic little town, in the middle of a forty-mile-radius cornfield.

The campus has a lot of beautiful old stone buildings and beautiful grounds. But I remember a lot of dumpy flat fields too. They’re still there. They look just like I remember.


I also remember a kind of dumpy little town. Still dumpy in 2014.


We had this idea that the kids would enjoy seeing where their parents met. But Jesse got very upset when we said that THIS (wide sweep of arms encompassing entire campus and surrounding terrain) was where we met. “What does that MEAN???” She snarled. “People don’t meet all over the place! That doesn’t make ANY sense!! People can’t MEET for the first time in more than one place!!”

Uh, okay. So we walked over to Burton Hall, the dorm where we were housed our sophomore year. It was locked up, but we pointed out the windows of the specific room where we actually met for the first time. The building looked kind of dumpy. Jesse was underwhelmed. We made the kids pose for a shot next to the corner of Burton where our rooms were. They displayed their enthusiasm.


We drove past the house we shared senior year with a bunch of friends, in four separate apartments. We remember a lot of good times there. It’s a dump.


Nick pondered why we had brought him to this strange place, and why we seemed so happy to be here.


And I realized I don’t have an answer that’ll make much sense to a little kid. A great college experience is one of those definitional things, forming and informing a person’s beliefs and social values for the rest of her life. Plus I just had so much fun in my four years at Oberlin. And Anthony happened to me there. The seeds of our long journey together were planted in our imaginations in that beautiful, dumpy place.

Look! There we are, just a few paces from where we first laid eyes on each other almost 29 years ago.


Something’s changed… A few more pounds (okay, more than a few on me). Grays and wrinkles. And what’s that on my leg? Oh. Spawn. Who could have imagined? Not me while I was at Oberlin. But it was a school that taught us to re-imagine ourselves again and again while holding on to our moral centers. I hope I’ve done that.

I know the years have left me kind of dumpy, but I hope it’s the same kind of dumpiness that I saw at Oberlin – superficial, a mask over something more magical and robust. I was happy to introduce Oberlin to Jesse and Nick, even if they were bored and annoyed. I think someday they’ll pass through Oberlin — maybe even as students — and they’ll understand why Anthony and I were content after we wandered the streets of our alma mater.



Grumpy about the vacation: still 21 days left

I made a day-counting error about this extended vacation we just started. More accurately, I misled myself by saying repeatedly that we’d be gone “for three weeks,” and technically that’s 21 days. In fact, we’ll be together as one united happy family for twenty-TWO days.

But who’s counting.

Today we continued our drive eastward. We went a few miles out of our way to visit our roots in Oberlin College, where Anthony and I met and fell in love, formed our core moral and political views, learned about critical thinking, made many of our lifelong best friends. We graduated in 1988, so a surprising amount has changed on the campus and in town, but an even more surprising amount is just the same as we remember. I felt some nervous anticipation as we drove into town, but I quickly rediscovered a basic truth about myself, which is that I don’t really get very busy with nostalgia. Life is too rich to waste much of it looking backwards ruefully.

I was going to write tonight about our Oberlin stop-off and load up some photos, after the kids fell asleep in this hotel room somewhere in Pennsylvania. Maybe I’ll tell you all about it tomorrow, because Anthony and I pulled out our emergency bottle of quality bourbon instead and drank too much out of small plastic cups as we reminisced. It’s too late for Oberlin tales now; I spent my available time having a delightful, relaxing conversation with my mate. Also I’m loopy from the bourbon so I can’t do anything complicated right now.

Tomorrow, we hit New Jersey and my in-laws’ home. (Insert sound clip of melodramatic Wagnerian opera music, such as is used in movies to introduce fatal and tragic battle scenes.) I hope to be as vacant, silent, and polite as is humanly possible around people who don’t like or understand me all that much. Also I hope to be sober by then. Good night.