Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Bite me CNN: 15 Places you can put your list of family vacations

Hey CNN and Budget Travel. Bite me. I just read your article, 15 Places Kids should see by age 15. You forgot the subtitle, if you're really, really rich and have a lot of free time. According to my calculations, you'd need over fifty-thousand dollars, minimum, to get your family of five from Chicago to all those places (see my footnote) for just two nights, and that doesn't even include tickets to a Red Sox game at Fenway.

$1707.25 is the total for the admission fees alone. It would cost $200 for our family of five just to enter the San Diego Zoo. And don't even get me started on Disney World, where staying at a Disney property provides the added benefit of being allowed to wake up extra early on your vacation to get in line before the other guests. Seriously.

I ran a couple of these destinations past my kids, two of whom are fourteen. Oooh. I guess we'd better get going, because they haven't been to any of them. Not one.

"What do you think of a trip to Monticello, Ethan?" He gave me "the look." If you have a teenager, you know the one: it conveys in an instant that any suggestion you could possibly make will be met with scorn and disdain. "Really?" he said. "The place where they keep the replicas of our third president's clothes?" He'd read the article before I did. And, he'd thought it was as stupid as I did. This time (just this once, so don't get any ideas Ethan) I agree with "the look."

"Hey Tanya, what would you say about a trip to Alcatraz?" Since she's from out of town, she hopefully asked if there'd be shopping there, so I had to explain to her it was a prison on an island and they used to jail really, really, bad guys there. "An island? Can we go to the beach?" That's my girl.

"Kyle, how would you like to go to Independence Hall in Pennsylvania?" He replied, "Oh, is that from the CNN article? Yeah, I saw it and I already posted a comment online." He wrote, "15 places that rich white kids can go." I don't know where he gets it.

Okay, all sarcasm aside, there are a few places on the list I think we wouldn't mind seeing, even if there aren't beaches there. The Grand Canyon is number one on our list, too. But as Ethan pointed out, most little kids would be afraid of heights like that, which brings up another issue I have with all this besides the cost. To get to fifteen places in fifteen years, you'd have to go on one vacation every year, (Okay, you could combine the Redwood Forest trip with the Alcatraz trip, and the Monticello trip with the National Mall, etc.) but you'd still have to start early because who but a select few has enough vacation time to go on more than one vacation a year? So probably the best thing would be to bring your baby to the Grand Canyon so he couldn't see how high up he was and your one-year-old to Alcatraz. Or maybe you should bring your baby to Monticello, since, no matter what his age, he's going to sleep through it anyway.

Maybe the 15 Places list just strikes a chord with my nasty-bone because it reminds me we should do more traveling with our children.

We are so fortunate to be able to take a vacation with them each year, but we like beach vacations, hence the reason we haven't been on too many educational or touristy ones. With the economy being what it is, we've been saving our money instead of spending it on travel, but as I asked my husband a couple years ago when we were talking about canceling a vacation altogether, have we ever once uttered a sentence like, "Gee I wish we hadn't taken the kids to the beach in 2003."?

No, we've never once regretted spending money on a vacation, on the privilege of spending uninterrupted time with our kids. I wish we had the time and money to take our kids to all fifteen of those places before the boys turn fifteen later this year.

So, I think what torques me the most about CNN's article from Budget Travel and their little list of "shoulds" is that it makes you feel guilty, like a bad parent, if you haven't taken your children to all these fabulous and educational and fun places and it doesn't address the issue of how an average family of five is supposed to afford to drop all this money and find the time to do so. Their list pretends to be informative, but it's really just elitist. But perhaps even worse, it's advertising/propaganda disguised as news/parenting advice.

(Footnote: I created my rough estimate using Orbitz and based it on travel by air using the lowest fare, this June 4-6, with a two-night stay at a Holiday Inn, including a rental car, for a family of five. Your results may differ!)

The Unexpected Human Voice

"Do we have any blueberry muffins left?"

It seems an innocuous enough question. Mostly harmless. Yet, when I heard it, I let out a yelp and jumped, completely startled. Because the voice came from behind me and it was no longer the voice of my fourteen-year old son, Kyle, but the voice of a strange man who'd just entered my kitchen.

Both of my sons' voices have changed. Are changing. They're getting deeper and deeper by the day. At times I've heard them talking and I've wondered, "Who's here?" or "What's my husband doing home so early?" (This alone would make me yelp and jump, completely startled.) The change has been happening so gradually, you'd think it wouldn't startle me. And I know the theory of "the unexpected human voice" and all, the fight or flight response ingrained in our nature, causing us to start when we think we're alone and suddenly discover we're not. It makes good Darwinian sense, but I'd still rather not encounter this phenomenon when I'm cleaning out my refrigerator.

It made me feel horribly guilty, too, that I didn't even recognize my own son's voice. Like all those times at the playground when I heard some kid scream, "Mom!" and snapped my head to look thinking it was one of mine, then just pretended I'd encountered a flying bug, or forgotten my medication or something.

I suppose I should be grateful the boys aren't going through some horrible voice-cracking rite of puberty passage, the way Peter did in that one Brady Bunch episode with the band. But it seems like their voices keep getting deeper by the day and I fear at some point mere humans will not be able to hear them and our only indication that they're speaking will be when the dog does that weird, I don't get it, head-tilt-thing and all the woodland animals start to flee the forest.

Regardless, the scare was good for my heart. This sidelined runner thinks she probably hit target in about half of a second, which although it's not my preferred method of cardio, was still effective. And it beat the crap out of those dumb elliptical machines. It's just unfortunate how much my own son's voice scared the crap out of me, which is ironic because he's such a nice kid.

But I think I'll be keeping plenty of blueberry muffins around, just in case.

Uncle John's Blam: When there's danger at your door

Sunday morning was picture perfect. My husband woke me up with coffee and the paper, and we sat in bed and read and drank our coffee and surfed the net on our portable electronic devices with the dog sleeping peacefully between us, while all the children were entertaining themselves far, far away downstairs, watching TV and playing video games. It was a rare, blissful and relaxing Sunday morning. Until the dog threw up.

The vomit came with little warning. She let out a small cough, then, BLAM. Right there on the bed. Our little slice of paradise was ruined. Not to mention what she'd done to the comforter. Yuck. The smell was so vile I had dry heaves. Me. The woman who dealt with countless stinky diapers. In stereo. I pride myself on my cast iron stomach.

Before the vomit, I'd been sitting in that idyllic state of coffee and quiet, and I think I had just allowed that little internal voice inside my head to say something along the lines of, Isn't this just perfect? And then that self-congratulatory moment was immediately followed up with a BLAM. How did the Grateful Dead put it? When life looks like easy street, there is danger at your door. I don't think they were referring to vomit, but I guess danger can come in many forms. And I believe one of us, as we fled screaming from the bed, did yell, "Save yourself!"

But life is like this when you have pets. And it's even more like this with kids. How many times have you carved out a pocket of time, secretly setting it aside for a personal, me-time treat of your choice (like a manicure or yoga or a hot cup of tea in complete and total silence) only to have it, after you spent even more time viciously protecting this little pocket against all interlopers (like errands or appointments) go BLAM!, when school calls because someone got hurt or a kid wakes up sick. And then it's gone. Poof. Just like that.

So instead of yoga or a run, you find yourself running to a doctor's office or just sitting in the kitchen playing Uno or Scrabble for hours on end. But when the day is over, you realize you did have a pretty special treat, some one-on-one time with a kid you don't normally get to spend a whole lot of one-on-one time with, at least not without even greater time-carving shenanigans than it takes to get your yoga in.

Sometimes an unexpected BLAM can remind us of what's really important. And it's even better if afterward, you don't have to wash a comforter.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Pizza Pi: For the Value-Driven Engineer

I found this slip of paper on the kitchen counter.

Thinking it was a remnant from one of my sons' geometry problems, I started to throw it away (if you leave your garbage lying on my kitchen counter, you run that risk) but then I had a change of heart.

"Does this belong to either of you guys?"

And the mystery deepened. Because it certainly wasn't mine. And my daughter's not at Thumbnail image for bigpi.jpgr-squared in math yet.

"Jeff? Is this yours?"


I stare at the yellow Post-it, the mystery still squarely in place.

"I was trying to find out which size pizza would be a better value."

That's the beauty of living with an engineer; the potential for comedy is always just a Post-it note away.

Only that kind of mathematical mind would think to use pi on a pie. I wish I'd found the note on pi day (3.14), then I would have had a triple pie, which I think would be something along the lines of a hat trick in the geometry/engineering world.

"So, what did you find out?" I asked him, because I'm a value-minded shopper as well.

Well, it turns out the bargain is the two medium pizzas vs. one large. Who knew? Apparently only engineers who determine the surface areas of a pizzas in the interest of smart consumerism. Or fun. I imagine engineers would do this for fun.

The whole situation reminds me of a YouTube video,

which I think is hilarious. At least I'm hoping they made the video for fun, because I'd hate to think of anyone being truly serious about wanting to know the aspect ratio of a jumping cat. The idea they weren't being facetious brings to mind a caution my father gave me when I headed off to college, "Don't marry an engineer. They're boring." He has an engineering degree, so I suppose he should know, but I think the real caution lies in being cautious in what you caution your children about. Throughout college I almost exclusively dated engineers.

Although, of course, I managed to marry the most interesting of those engineers :-)

Little did I know at the time, how handy it would be to be married to an engineer, as one of their most charming characteristics is to point out the flaw (or flaws) in every plan or idea you ever have, which is useful if your plan or idea is truly flawed. Merely annoying if you still want to go forward anyway.

I suppose now might be a good time to point out, when considering food, that weight or volume would be a more accurate measure than area in determining value, but he would probably come back at me with some noise about how he would assume the volume of the pizza would remain constant across all pizzas for an equal measure of area. See how interesting this is?

At least he's never measured the aspect ratios of our cats. As far as I know.

It's Doctor Season

We've sprung forward, there's a bit less chill in the air and I know that soon I will be spending most all of my valuable free time in waiting rooms reading six-month-old issues of Golf Digest. You see, it's Doctor Season, which is how we refer to the phenomenon that occurs semi-annually when it seems as though every single person in our family is due for a check-up, or dentist visit, or orthodontist appointment or needs to see a doctor for some reason or another, all around the same time. I suppose I should rejoice in my health insurance plan and the availability of excellent medical care, but as anyone who's been to a doctor's office lately surely knows, it 's just way more fun to complain about it.
Every six months I need an FAA medical exam for my job. I also go to my OB-GYN every six months. Same with the dentist. All three children see the dentist every six months and since they all have birthdays in December, they all need their annual check-ups around the same time. This month, all of these appointments fell in March (Yes. It takes three months between the time I actually call and when I get the appointment. [Two-Do List]  Usually, Doctor Season gets spread out over a couple months. Even by combining all three of the kids' wellness checks into one visit this year, we had seven appointments in March. Seven. Do you understand now why I'm cranky?

The voicemail reminders the doctors' offices leave are indeed handy and I imagine they save the doctors a lot of frustration (And although I did received one, I still somehow managed to forget to go to my dentist the next day, but that was in December. Have I mentioned in this paragraph that all three of my children have birthdays in December?) I prefer the automated reminders to the "real" ones, because I'm pretty sure all the nice ladies who leave them took their voice training with the CTA. With the volume up full blast and my calendar in front of me, they still have me questioning the name of the doctor, the time of the appointment, even the names of my own children.

And another thing. They now tell us to arrive fifteen minutes early, "to fill out paperwork" or some such. Do they think they're tricking us? Does this really change the behavior of those people who are always, always late? Those of us who make it a point to be on time to these things are really very annoyed by this type of antic.

To add more insult, now some of the offices are starting to say threatening things in their voicemails, like, if you cancel without giving twenty-four hours notice they're going to charge you fifty-dollars. I would love that opportunity. Along with my remittance, I would send them a bill for every wasted minute I spent in their waiting room.

As we were getting ready to leave for one of our appointments earlier this month, my son Ethan asked, "Why do we have to be there fifteen minutes early?"

"So we can wait forty-five minutes, instead of thirty," came my reply. But what I was really thinking, was "So I'll have the opportunity to get through last October's issue of Men's Health, as well."

Monday, March 14, 2011

Charlie Sheen vs. Soldiers in Afghanistan

When it comes to Charlie Sheen vs. Soldiers in Afghanistan, apparently, there are people out there wondering why Charlie Sheen is winning the media monopoly. Viral Facebook post pits coverage of Sheen, fallen soldiers Well, acitymom thinks she knows why. And it's not pretty.

When we read about soldiers dying in Afghanistan, we feel bad. We feel guilty that we sit here in our nice houses worried about stupid s*&t, like do we have enough toothpaste. Then we drive our large cars to the grocery store where we can buy strawberries in February and we worry about the price of oil and all the while these young men, who look frighteningly similar to every single one of our handsome sons, are giving their lives every single day for our freedoms that we take for granted.

When we read about Charlie Sheen, poor little rich boy gone bad, we feel good. Look at the highest paid TV actor screwing up his life. He has everything: (everything we may not have) looks, legacy, lineage, talent. Look how he throws it away! "More money than sense," as some people might say. People who despise anyone with anything more than they have, anyway.  As my babysitter puts it, "I don't like these kind of stupid people."

Why such hatred toward those who've succeeded? Because when you haven't succeeded yourself, in the same way, or in a way that you've wanted or makes you happy, it's oh so hard to be happy for someone else. So when we see people who seemingly have everything throw it all away, it makes us feel better about ourselves. It gives us uber schadenfreude. I mean, look at them, those celebrities screwing up. They had everything and they f*&^Ed-it up. But wheee! What this means for me is I don't have to feel bad about never having had it at all. Hurray for me.

Everyone is pointing fingers at the media, at the poor coverage of the war. But I think the media is just giving us what we want, even though we may not even realize it consciously. Does anyone remember Chicago's big experiment with Carol Marin's newscast on CBS? When I heard the concept, oh my God, I had so much hope. No more pseudo-journalists adding commentary on stories they were reporting on, or telling me to bring a jacket like they're my mom. Finally, I thought. Nightly news for smart people! But even I didn't like it. I was bored. It made me depressed. Like watching so many anchovies washing up on a California beach.

No, Carol Marin's in-depth news for smart people didn't last very long. And it wasn't because audiences weren't intelligent, it was because sometimes--no, most of the time--the news, the real news, feels bad. And no one wants to feel bad. So when we read about Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, Charlie Sheen, or, you fill in the blank here, we feel better about ourselves and our mundane little middle class lives. Don't blame the media or TV. Blame our own human nature.

Now, acitymom needs to get back to Farmville, while monitoring Twitter, to see when Justin Bieber is going to implode

The Do Gooder Graffiti Artist Strikes Again, and other acitymom loose ends

Sorry Graffiti. It seems my do-gooder graffiti artist [ Do-Gooder Graffiti? ] has struck again, this time with a message of "Sorry." As most everyone over the age of three knows, it's always a good idea to apologize when you've done something wrong. Like spray painting on the side of someone else's building.

Wagnerian Opera, the de-brief: Our marriage was not even remotely challenged by five hours of Lohengrin. In fact, we had so much fun on our night out we debated whether or not we wanted to go back home to all those kids. We are not opera aficionados by any stretch of the imagination, but we've been to the opera often enough to have spotted a few differences between a German opera and, well, all the others. In Wagner's Lohengrin, there wasn't a whole lot of moving around. The performers basically stood in one place, or, maybe moved slowly, a few steps here and there. (Considering the size of the two leads, I doubt very highly that moving quickly was an option. I'm not trying to be mean, just doing my journalistic duty as observant blogger.)

In most operas, especially Italian ones, it seems like everyone's moving and dancing and flitting all about the place. Even the set was staid compared to the other operas we've seen. And I can only remember one part that made us laugh out loud. In others, there usually are several, if not more, funny bits. But as my anomalistically funny German friend Rick Kaempfer says, "Germans are efficient, punctual and practical, but let's face it; they aren't funny."

I'd love to hear some insight on any of our musings from a real opera aficionado!

The box suppers were a huge success, despite the fact it took us half the intermission just to find them. You see, they were available for pick up in the lobby or on the third floor. Since our seats were, um, higher up, we opted to pick them up on the third floor. But that was the trick. Because they don't call it the third floor, and it isn't three flights up. They call it the First Upper Balcony or something like that and on your way up you don't pass floors called "First" and "Second", you pass floors called "Dress Circle" and "Mezzanine," which made it fun, in a weird House of Mirrors kind of way.

However, once we finally had our suppers, we found a nice quiet place to sit and eat them. The stairs. With all the other folks in their fancy clothes. Although I did see, as expected, an unusually large amount of women wearing slacks. Apparently when you're facing down five hours of opera, you leave the ball gown at home.

One final note: Something I've noticed in our years of going to opera at the Lyric, is when it comes to behavior, e.g. waiting in line, general courtesy, etc., I've found people to be much more considerate at Wrigley Field.

r.e. Geezer Parenting: When I read Rick's blog, [Tips for Geezer Parents], it reminded me of Birdie, the game I used to play with my sons when they were little. My husband's take on the game? "Only you could invent a game you play while sitting on the couch." You see, I was the Mama Bird and I had to stay in the nest (the couch.) The baby birds would learn to fly with my encouragement, and when they did, then they were in "training" to go get food. Sometimes, we'd have to fight off evil predators, like an owl perhaps. Regardless, it was alway very important for this geezer parent, er Mama Bird, to stay in the nest.

Although these days, without even realizing it, I've become an even bigger fan of a game Rick recommends; the one called "Hide."

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Lohengrin: Will Five Hours of Wagner Test a Marriage?

I always thought my husband loved me. But now, I'm not so sure. Not because he bought me opera tickets for Christmas, which is sweet. Not because we're going to the Lyric on Saturday night to see a romantic opera, which is, well, romantic. But because he bought me tickets to Lohengrin. Which is Wagner. And it's nearly five hours long.

Mark Twain's famous words on Richard Wagner's music, "It's not as bad as it sounds," have come to mind repeatedly this week. They gives me hope. What takes this hope away is that the Lyric is going to be serving Box Suppers at intermission. Lohengrin starts at six. (This could possibly be the first time we've ever left on a date at four-thirty in the afternoon.) So I supposed the Box Suppers are a good idea, but if they really want to bribe people to sit through the whole thing, I would recommend cash. Although admittedly the Box Suppers sound fun, in that they conjure up the image of elderly women in ball gowns balancing cardboard boxes on their knees.

We've decided we're going to go for the Box Supper program, which costs an additional $15.00 and must be purchased before the performance in the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Grand Foyer. I've never purchased a boxed supper in a Grand Foyer before, at least I don't think so, but at least now I can cross that off the bucket list. And the suppers include one non-alcoholic beverage. My hope is espresso.

Lohengrin itself is supposed to be epic. Great music. Beautiful damsel in distress. Handsome knight in shining armour sailing to her rescue, on a ship pulled by a swan. (Note to US Department of Energy: look into Swan Power.) It has an evil witch who's married to an evil count, a murder mystery and a dove that takes the place of the swan, who turns back into a man and therefore can't keep his job as ship-puller. (Note to US Department of Energy: If the whole swan thing doesn't work out, look into doves.)

I really do love opera and, all kidding aside, I'm very much looking forward to tomorrow night. When it comes to opera, there's nothing quite like a great one. Unfortunately, the inverse is also true. But Lohengrin at the Lyric is getting great reviews, so I'm not worried. And I'll get to spend a night (a long night) out with my husband. I should be thankful I'm married to such a thoughtful man who gets me tickets to the opera because he knows how much I enjoy it.

However, if Wagner's Ring Cycle ever rotates through town again, I may once again find myself questioning his devotion.

What's Wrong with this Picture?

Do you ever look around your house and wonder, when did it come to this? Most every single day, no matter where I look, I find ridiculous things that crack me up and the whole reason is because we have all these kids. Like the other day when I woke up and looked out my window to see, not a beautiful songbird, but a soccer ball in my tree. Funny Family Photos-The Un-Contest
ball in tree.jpg
banana peel.jpg
That very same day I found this: an actual banana peel on the floor of the kitchen. I mean, at what point did my life become a sit-com? Are Larry, Curly and Moe lurking in the dining room, just waiting for their first opportunity at slapstick? And how is it that a child eating a banana doesn't notice an entire peel fall to the floor? You'd think one of the two American Girl dolls who've been sitting at the kitchen island counter for the past week and a half, because someone has ignored us when we asked her to bring them back to her room (A-hem), would have had the common decency to say something to prevent a potential trip to the emergency room.

guitar pick.jpg
And what about the guitar pick in the dish rack? How does a guitar pick end up in a dish rack? A particularly virulent riff? A go at the intro to Rush's Limelight gone bad? Does anyone else's house have flying guitar picks in the kitchen?

I still hadn't even left the kitchen when I noticed this: My cats eating dinner on our Crate and Barrel sushi plates. Perhaps with most of the dishes getting washed in the dishwasher, there was a dearth of plates left in the cupboard. And perhaps there is some sort of degustative symmetry to cats eating their Friskies Classic Pate Salmon Dinner on a plate made for fish, but the sushi plates? Really?
sushi plates.jpg

What I want to know is, am I alone in this insanity? Please tell me there are other moms out there who have the same sort of craziness in their houses. Because, unfortunately for me, I've befriended quite a few moms whose homes are so pristine and seem so un-touched by life, it appears no one lives there at all. I like to imagine living in a house like that. Maybe new construction where everything is perfect and in order and there's no dirt. Anywhere. Sigh. Although I suspect this kind of order and control is its own sort of insanity. And I do eye their drawers and closets with suspicion.

So help acitymom out here. Send me a photo, a sign, a lifeline. (kim(@)kimstrickland.com) Or, if you don't want any photographic evidence out there, then just a short description of something crazy in your house. Anything to let me know I'm not alone here.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Skecher Shape-ups Help My Plantar Fasciitis. Unfortunately.

A runner who can't run is a person whom no one else wants to be around. Take it from me, a recently sidelined runner. It's been 35 days (3 hours and thirteen minutes) since my last run. But my brand new pair of Skecher Shape-ups seems to be changing all that.

I've been diagnosed with plantar fasciitis, an evil debilitating affliction that eats away at the tendons on the bottom of your foot like hydrochloric acid on speed. Okay, I just made that up. But that's what it feels like. And it hurts. A lot. My particular case is strange (natch) in that stretching doesn't make it feel better and the pain gets worse as the day wears on. Of course rest, you know, spending a day with my feet up, is the impossible dream at my house, so I had to find a way to be on my feet. Fortunately, a friend of mine who also has plantar fasciitis told me about the Skecher Shape-ups. "The way the arches are padded," he told me, "you never put much weight on your heels," which is where, for me anyway, my pain is located.

I went out right away and bought a pair. Thankfully, my friend also told me to try DSW, where I found a pair for 70% off. With my ten-dollar savings certificate, that brought the total to $20. Is acitymom a smart shopper, or what? But when I took my first steps in the store, I would have paid any price for them. I almost burst into tears. They were the first pain-free steps I'd taken on my right foot in three weeks.

The thing about these shoes, though. I mean, have you seen them? They're just not that good-looking and acitymom has her standards. My husband hasn't stopped making fun of me when I wear them and then, when my mom told me how much she liked the looks of them, that's when I knew I couldn't be seen in them outside of the house, at least not without my housedress on.

Apparently these shoes are also supposed to, according to their website: 1. Tone your muscles 2. Promote healthy weight loss 3. Make it easy to get in shape!, which would be an added side benefit, right?  But to someone who considers herself an athlete, I find the whole concept of "fitness shoes" ridiculous. After several days of wearing them around (the house. Only the house) my son, Ethan, asked me if I noticed any difference, you know, like the muscle burn you feel after a particularly tough work-out. "No," I told him. "Nothing."

"If you walk thirty miles in our shoes every day," he said, " you'll end up in fantastic shape."

One of my favorite things in all of life is having one of my children say something so viciously dry it gives me a belly laugh.

Between finally being able to walk pain-free in my Skecher Shape-ups, my new orthopedist and the physical therapy I just started, I'm hoping I can get back to my running soon, and therefore have some semblance of a social life again. As I said, I've been a little cranky lately. (A whole lot cranky, says the husband.) When I do become social again, I look forward to showing-off my toned muscles and the healthy weight loss I'll surely have after walking 30 miles every day in my brand-new pair of fitness shoes.