The Summer Fun Machine.

For every summer since first grade (except for 2020 … which as an aside, the phrase “except for 2020” should be a given addendum to nearly any sentence about anything), Noah has attended two weeks of day camp at our church, Camp Adventure.

It is the most exciting, fun, delightful 70 hours of Noah’s entire year.

Camp Adventure regularly wins “Best Summer Camp” ratings in Birmingham because of the incredible amount of work and creativity put into it to make it the dreamy camp that it is. Every week has a different theme such as Spy Camp, Creative Camp, Build Camp and more, each having its own unique set of applicable contests, celebrations, and activities.

This year, Noah got to attend three weeks. One Hundred and Five Hours of Bliss, which included moments like these,


Photo by Camp Adventure


Photo by Camp Adventure

and a brief moment of Noah-Celebrity (and, incidentally, me-celebrity-by-proxy), when he got to take part in Bread Day:

(Bread Day apparently has a long and winding inside joke of a story that is now camp legend. I was happy to contribute when Noah begged me to let him take a bag of rolls to camp. I was not expecting those rolls to turn my son into a rock star.)

So. Camp is fantastic. Camp is wonderful.

Camp even inspires such purchases as Fish Flops in order to increase ones Camp Clout.

(Okay we could have done without that.)

But the real problem is that camp does not last forever.

And since Ali was volunteering at camp for the second year, she was camp-busy for more of the summer than Noah.

And so, after the extra five minutes it took to sleep off the camp exhaustion,

Noah was sad-bored and dreaming of happier camp days.

Because real life cannot possibly compete with camp.

And one can only stack chair on top of unstable chair to amuse oneself for so long.

And furthermore, mothers seem to have zero compassion and understanding of this concept of Camp Hangover.

So Noah channeled his Father’s engineer-problem-solving mindset and set to work on solving his camp hangover boredom. He asked me if he could have a couple of boxes and disappeared into his room for many hours.

That afternoon, he invited me up to check on his progress.

It was, he explained, The Summer Fun Machine.

In retrospect, I have to admire his vision and his belief in the continuing design.

Because although I was impressed with his construction, all that I saw in Version 1.0 of The Summer Fun Machine was a hilarious irony that he took a Nintendo Switch, a video game system that prides itself in its portability and removal from the need for a stationary television, and made it stationary and unportable.

But….it has pockets!

The storage compartments held the switch components and various games, along with his iPad, to play music while he gamed.

But he knew he could do better.

The next day, the first step of SFM Version 1.1 was to work on aesthetics. So he covered the box logos with paper, with his own hand-drawn logos, and with screenshots of the games that one could play on the SFM.

He also added a top hatch at this point for the iPad to make it more accessible, and put a bluetooth speaker in the hidden compartment to project the tunes. Also, if The Summer Fun Machine was going to reach its full potential, it was officially time to pull out the All-Purpose Tool Box.

Version 2.0 began branching out in its consideration of consumer needs. For instance, one cannot truly enjoy Summer Fun without refreshment, so a candy dispenser was added to the back

(Old hotel keys are perfect flaps to allow only small amounts of candy out at a time.)

And one cannot enjoy candy responsibly unless one has a) a trash can, and b) hand sanitizer, to remove the sticky from one’s hands before touching the video game components. (I’m not sure that is an actual task that hand sanitizer is meant to accomplish, but a mother should not question the schematics of an SFM.)

He took a moment away from the project to regroup and plan, setting some goals and drawing some schematics, this time with the help of his father (lest you think Noah’s handwriting is as passable as the handwriting on the left side of the page.)

They managed to scrounge some unused LED lights to add a serious pizazz to Version 3.0.

Now the SFM now had STYLE.

 


The final step, which took quite a bit of work and a couple of failed attempts, was to add a fan. Because a SFM User should not get overheated.

And the addition of a velcro dock for the lighting remote control.




Because did I mention that the lighting is music-syncopated?

Yup. It’s time to see The SFM in Action.

So, you ask, were his weeks at home as much fun as his weeks at camp?

Heck no are you crazy?

Finding Millie: The Diary Project.

Chris’ Grandmother, Millie, was a tiny precious woman that I met when she was already quite advanced in age. She was always kind to me, and I liked her very much. I think she liked me, too, as I provided her, at 90 years old, with her first great-grandchild. She met Ali just a couple of times before she passed away 15 years ago. One of my favorite pictures is from her 90th birthday, the first time she got to meet Ali.



I heard a couple of stories here and there about Millie’s early years, and particularly the incredibly romantic and farfetched way she’d met her husband Roy, Chris’ granddad, but my true knowledge of who Millie was – before she was the old lady I knew – was fairly limited.

Until three summers ago, when Chris’ Aunt Kitty gave me Millie’s diaries.

Kitty and I had just spent three days and nights giving end-of-life care to Uncle Leo. We were looking for anything to distract us from our thoughts, our sadness, our trauma, and our lack of sleep.

She handed me the diaries, two five-year journals spanning the years 1937-1946, and said that her mother had given them to her before she had died, and upon giving them to her, Millie had said “I hope you don’t hate me when you read these.”

Kitty was confused by the sentiment and did read them, but didn’t understand why her mother would say that. Sure, her mom had a LOT of boyfriends, but she figured that would be true. But when Kitty read them, she read the diaries down the page – January 1, 1937, January 1, 1938, January 1, 1939, January 1, 1940, January 1, 1941, then on to January 2. So instead of reading them in a narrative, following all of the various storylines, Kitty read them more as standalone diary entries.

As I began reading them in chronological order, I realized that I was the first person in history to read this document, aside from the woman who wrote it. I quickly realized how incredible it was. It was an epic journey through a decade in the life of an independent woman well ahead of her time. There were so many stories hidden inside, so many questions that would stay unanswered, and SO MANY delightful mysteries and people for me to stalk down and learn about.

The diaries begin in 1937 when Millie is 20 years old and living in a boarding house in Minnesota – she had left home at 15, escaping a tiny farm in far north Minnesota where her parents never quite got along.


The narrative follows her as she moves to Washington DC to be near a boy that she knew from Minnesota, sings in the choir of President Roosevelt’s Church, and in general lives a life in DC that could never happen in present day.

The original boyfriend, Bill Souder, photographed by Millie in 1938. He was nearly two years younger than her, so he was still a teenager when she moved from Minnesota to DC to be able to date him.



“Lovely day. President Roosevelt was at church. First time I have seen him. Went to Y.W. Fellowship meeting.”


“Still cold. Gordon called. Later a bunch of 13 of us from the house went to the President’s Birthday Ball at the Mayflower. Saw 14 movie stars. All very interesting, but what a mob of people! Kay Kayser played. Strange – but I was lonely even among all these people.”

She has a few more boyfriends (several overlapping) and records the drama along with it, all while including sidebar comments about her worries about the war in Europe.


“Germany has invaded Poland!! This awful business of war seems to be here. Called up Stenotype school about fall classes. Washed my summer dresses.”

(…because one must still wash their summer dresses, even if war has arrived.)


One of the more dramatic boyfriends, Ruh. Are those sandals that all our Grandmothers wore when we were kids? Did they get them from their old boyfriends? Were those sandals the hoodies of the thirties?

In 1941, Millie moved across the country from DC to Portland, Oregon to escape the above boyfriend (for different reasons than she had told all of us – a fascinating drama that I had to read between the lines and research to understand – and that may be one of the reasons she feared Kitty’s judgement.) The war came to her, as she records amidst her daily doings Japan declaring war on the US, the bombing of the west coast, and the requirements of blackouts in Portland and the fear of more bombings to come. More boyfriends and an engagement (which was quickly broken off) follow. She finds out about The Bolton Act in July of 1943, which offers to pay for nursing school for women agreeing to join the war, and in two months, she moves from Portland back to Minnesota to begin school.

On the train between Portland and Minneapolis, she meets a soldier named Roy Callahan from Birmingham, Alabama who was traveling between army bases.


“Rode all through Montana all day. Had a most enjoyable time on the train. Met Roy Callahan from Camp Adair. His home is Birmingham, Ala. but he was going to Columbus, Ga.”

Roy and Millie have two days on the train together, then she goes on to the University of Minneapolis, and he goes to Columbus Georgia, and then eventually to the European Front.


Within ten days of exchanging letters, they are declaring their intense love for each other. For the next one and a half years, they correspond, seeing each other briefly at various intervals, having many declarations of love, “graphic letters”, and nasty fights in the interim.

Roy came back from the war in 1945, and she assumed that meant they were getting married right away. But when she visited him and his family in Birmingham, Alabama, having already bought and brought her “wedding things”, she found him in a state of extreme “nervousness” from the war – he was not ready to be a husband. Nearly another year passes of ups and downs, fights and pleadings and so very much drama before they finally marry – but after the honeymoon, he makes her go back to Minneapolis and finish her nursing degree before she can finally move to Birmingham with him. The diaries end two months after she begins her life as a married newly-southerner.

The absolute improbability of her meeting and marrying that man, who she would have never met if she hadn’t been on the right train at the right time, astounds me. It seems to me that many of us had multiple opportunities to meet our spouses – we grew up in the same city, went to the same church or school, or ran in the same circles. But Millie and Roy had that one train ride – sitting in the same train car – hundreds or thousands of miles from where either of them originated. Other than that, they would have never crossed paths. The fact that my husband and my children exist rest entirely on Millie making that specific travel decision and being in that specific train car, besides the need for her not to marry one of the many men before him (including not one, but TWO other Roys – she had so many boyfriends that I had to create a spreadsheet to keep up with them.) The entire time I read the diaries, I sensed my husband, and therefore my children, fading like a photograph in Back to the Future.

Besides the diaries themselves, she left photographs, many of which she faithfully documented on the back the dates and people’s names and circumstances surrounding them. She also left documents that corroborate different parts of her story and give a fantastic flair of the 30s and 40s to the story, such as her including her height and weight on her resume.


I read the diaries for the first time three years ago and was immediately drawn into the arc of the story, as well as the mundane parts of her life. I was left to ponder things such as the poor quality of shoes in the 1940s, causing young women to have to get corns “excavated” from their feet with regularity; and the difference between hosiery that one had to mend constantly and the new and exciting nylons that were expensive and easy to melt on the stove.

I was also intrigued by the overarching view of her life – taking in a year of her life in an hour of reading, I was able to see how she changed her personality over time and with various boyfriends. There was the opera and theatre boyfriend, the hiking boyfriend (whom I believe is responsible for her lifelong love of nature and being a founding member of Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve here in Birmingham), and the worst most horrible boyfriend who used her for compassion and mercy (and paying his car payment) while he was cheating on her. When reading about him, I found myself screaming at the diary how much I hated him, wondering why I could see so clearly (from her own words!) what she could not see for many more months of mistreatment at his hand. I feel like I know all of these men intimately, have totally stalked them on Ancestry and found a few of their living relatives, and have also found documents, articles, and histories about them as well.

Last year, I typed the diaries in their entirety (with some assistance from Ali) for the family and a few friends to read. While doing so, I also inserted the photographs and documents into the story, as well as adding newspaper articles, historical images from Library of Congress and other sources, and Ancestry research on her many boyfriends. It was an overwhelming project, but it was an intensely beautiful way to dive deeper into her story and get to know her and all of the various characters better. Figuring out exactly where one of her photographs fit into the diary gave me that exultant feeling of fitting a hard-searched-for puzzle piece in its exact place. It’s an extremely large project – just over 100,000 words – but the short snippet of each diary entry makes it easy to read “just one more month” without getting overwhelmed.

When Chris read it, it was like discovering an entirely different person. He knew his grandmother as an old, sweet, grandmotherly woman who took him to Toys R’ Us and served him cantaloupe that he never ate.

We have talked about the potential for publishing Millie’s diaries, and are open to the idea. They would most likely have to be somewhat abridged, although I have had trouble doing so myself because so many of the entries have place, movie, book, or other historical references in them that I personally find interesting.

“Talked to Betty for a brief minute. Finished “Gone With the Wind”. It’s odd how I love all the others and pity Ashley. And I do hope Scarlett and Rhett find happiness. How hard it is to love and not be loved in turn. Melanie was truly “A very Great Woman” as Rhett said.”

The document needs to be both shortened and lengthened, taking the repetitive entries out, and fleshing out parts of the story that we know, but perhaps she didn’t at the time of writing. I’ve taken a year break from the project because of various life distractions and due to the fact that I’m not sure where to go from here – found the story fascinating, as did some of my friends, but would strangers find it so interesting? I also realize it needs an editor, and an outside opinion. I’ve considered sharing it (or parts of it) on the blog, but I love it as a standalone epic so much that I don’t want to break it up.

While we ponder the future of Millie’s story, what do you think?
Do you have any detailed descriptions of your ancestors lives?
Would you want to read ten years of short diary entries from an independent woman in the 1930’s and 1940’s?
Do you happen to know an editor/publisher of this kind of literature?

The Great Husband Match.

The thing is, I’ve always been mostly against matching.

I have written about it here. Multiple times. Sure, Ali and her best friend had matching pjs when they were toddlers – but match my husband and my son? Never would I ever. My family knows this. My family has watched me agonize over wardrobes for family photos – my circular thoughts spinning out on “how can we NOT clash, coordinate-but-not-cheesily, but DEFINITELY NOT MATCH?”

I have lived my life by these principles.

So they should have suspected something when I got Chris and Noah matching shirts for Easter.

They should have known.

But apparently I’m just so endearing, so trustworthy, so innocent, that they never suspected a thing.

I thought they’d KNOW ME WELL ENOUGH to be suspicious, so I tiptoed nervously through the process. With Noah, I just told him – “Here’s your shirt to wear for Easter Sunday. You can’t wear joggers with it. Try on your blue jeans or dress pants.”

(Yes, it’s been so long since the kid wore a real waistband that a trying on was necessary.)

But with Chris…I didn’t know how to broach the subject. I was sure he’d sniff me out.

So I hung his shirt in my closet door to wait until I figured out how to innocently tell him.

It had been there for a couple of weeks. Finally, he was really relaxed and cozy one night so I said “By the way…I got you an Easter shirt.”

He mumbled, “The one hanging in your closet?”

“Yes.”

“Okay. Did I see you got Noah one too?”

“Yup.”

“Okay. Thanks.”

And that was that.

No follow up questions.

No “But you’ve never bought me an Easter shirt before…”

No nothing.

He just….ACCEPTED this as a normal thing that his wife might do.

So when we arrived at Church on Easter morning, he was innocently tickled to see that he matched the guy walking into church in front of us. His first assumption was that I had seen a good deal on a dress shirt, and apparently so had that guy’s wife. They even posed for a picture, it was so funny.

It took the process of walking downstairs, into the fellowship hall for breakfast, and seeing literally dozens of grown men matching him to realized that he’d been had.

It was perfection.

Noah, however, was just so confused by it all.

He wandered off with his friends, still more confused than I realized.

It took an hour and a half for him to realize that maybe this was planned. After breakfast, when we were getting our family photo, he asked me suspiciously, “Wait. Did you KNOW this was going to happen??”

“Seriously, kid? How did you think that more than 50 men were wearing the same shirt, if the wives didn’t plan it??”

“I don’t know – I guess I thought it was a big coincidence or something.”

Clearly I’ve let him read too many books that overuse coincidence to progress the plot.

The effect of seeing 50+ grown men wearing the same shirt was incredible.

We ladies giggled all day at the obvious dominion over all things.

It was a plan masterminded by our pastor’s daughter, Sarah, who ended up on the local news about it all:

She suggested it in our all-women’s Facebook group a few weeks ago, showing a video of another church that had done it on a smaller scale and picking out a shirt for us all to order. I immediately loved the idea but watched to see if it would catch on. Within a few hours, women were commenting. “I’ve ordered one!” “Me too!” – so I quickly ordered Chris and Noah one. I hoped at least 20 men matched them. The precious matching men exceeded my wildest dreams.

I counted 54 men – but I’m sure I missed some. Those men included the Pastor, the Worship Minister, and the Children’s Pastor. And none of them had any idea until they got to church that they’d find it necessary to take an adorable matching photo with half the church.

Are the men plotting their revenge?

Of course they are, bless their hearts.

Will they succeed?

Highly doubtful.

Because girls rule the world. And we have proven it.

An Unexpected Detour To The Grand Canyon.

My plan was always to save the Grand Canyon for an epic trip – when I had time to plan it, time to fully process and prepare to hike down in it, or take a helicopter ride above it, or all of the above.

But once we realized that it was more or less in the direction in which we would have to travel to make our way through our unexpected road trip, the die was cast. How could we not go?

In fairness, I clearly hadn’t fully done my research before the trip – if I had realized how perfectly situated Flagstaff was between The Grand Canyon and The Petrified Forest, I would have always planned that city to have been our launching point for this trip. But in my mind, made up of memories left over from childhood road trips, nothing is near The Grand Canyon. In a memory that is most likely horrifically unfair to my parents, I remember driving 4 hours to see the Grand Canyon, looking over the edge for half a minute, eating a meal, and then driving 4 hours back.

(In reality, we apparently went to The Grand Canyon twice, but I definitely only remember one visit. The North Rim is in the middle of nowhere, but the South Rim is not. I think their visit to The South Rim must have been with their secret other children – there is no other explanation.)

So after driving north through Arizona after our trip to Saguaro, we decamped in Flagstaff for two nights – we’d spend a day at The Grand Canyon, then another night in Flagstaff, then head east to The Petrified Forest.

The drive to The Grand Canyon from Flagstaff is only 1 1/2 hours, so we arrived when the chill had not yet left the day. After all, it was the tail end of a freak winter event, and if there were ever a ledge for wind to travel up, it’s The Grand Canyon.

But that did not detract from our awe and joy at seeing it.

We slowly walked two miles around the rim, and were astounded at the lack of guardrails or signage telling people not to be stupid.

We also were amazed at the people we saw being stupid. Especially considering the slippery ground, thanks to icy snow.Pictured: Bird not being stupid. If only humans had wings like birds, they could also not be stupid around The Grand Canyon. 

Although I adore heights, watching other people (especially children) near the edge of cliffs usually makes me nervous. But Chris was the surprising parent on this trip: he became Safety Dad, reminding the kids not to get too close, asking everyone to back up a bit, testing the integrity of the barriers, and having that constant slightly queasy feeling in his stomach from the sheer depth of the canyon…and meanwhile I was pretty okay. With our own people being careful, that is. With regards to other stupid people – I just had to not watch.

The rim walk is just incredible, watching the scenery change as you walk around bends and next to new parts of the canyon. Also cool was watching the canyon change throughout the day as the sun was overhead and there were no shadows, to deepening shadows, giving the canyon more depth, back to no shadows as the sun set.


We ate a lovely lunch at the restaurant facing the canyon, having the place nearly to ourselves, which is how the entire day had been. February at The Grand Canyon is an introvert’s miracle – there were long stretches of our walk where we saw zero other people. I’m pretty sure that if we tried to go back at a more accommodating time weather-wise, we’d be immediately claustrophobic from the crowds – we definitely prefer to have our canyons to ourselves.

Other than the rim trail, we did not actually hike – although we did go to the entrance of The Bright Angel Trail and stare at the icy, slippery, barrier-less cliffside trail in shock and horror, very happy with our decision to leave no time for hiking. But we got our picture in front of that treacherous trail, at least.

We did enjoy watching other people walk back up the trail, though, and I was especially fascinated by this natural archway they got to travel through.
I bought a book at the gift shop, Ranger Confidential, which I just finished reading recently. The book is basically a former park ranger processing her grief at all of the deaths, dismemberments, and criminals she dealt with while working at The Grand Canyon. Now that I understand exactly how easy (and common) it is to die at The Grand Canyon, I can definitively say that I have no regrets at not hiking down that trail in the ice.

Maybe one day, in better weather, but maybe not. I’m cool seeing it all from the top as well.


Our day spent alone with the canyon was incredible, and it singlehandedly made that chaotic day spent rearranging our trip in the Houston airport totally worthwhile.


Saguaro National Park.

Saguaro National Park.

It’s a tiny little spit of land – or actually two spits – one hugging each side of Tucson like strangers in the airport that insist on sitting right next to you, despite the luggage barrier you tried to create.

We’d not planned on going to it, as aforementioned, but when one finds themselves unexpectedly in a city squeezed betwixt two halves of a National Park, and one is on a mission to go to as many national parks as possible, one absolutely goes to Saguaro National Park.

We chose the western Saguaro, in the Rincon Mountains, which was fun for me because I run in Hoka Rincon shoes, and Hoka picks the most random things to name their shoes after – to the point you don’t even realize they’re named after anything – and did I know my shoes were named after a mountain range in far south Arizona? I did not. But now I do.

There is an eight mile one-way loop road that traverses through the ups and downs of the mountains (which are really more like hills, or what we call mountains in Alabama, compared to the mountains in northern Arizona, but if we can call them mountains, Rincon can call them mountains), with multiple pull-offs and hiking trails going through the desert.

This was our first stop, enjoying the long view of the more mountainous mountains in the background and the saguaros in the foreground.

Before we get too far into this post, I am certain that my very exacting 11 year old son would like for me to point out that Saguaro is pronounced sah-WAHR-o. The g is very, very silent – and if Noah hears even a hint of a g, he WILL correct you with a huff.

Poor Chris.

Or maybe Chris just likes getting indignant sighs from his son.

One or the other.

Saguaros are incredible.

They can live for 200 years and grow up to 80 feet tall. They deserve the right to create amusing shapes to entertain themselves and their fellow Saguarans as they lope through the centuries.

Wait. He deserves a closer look.

I would very much like to know if they can be classified as a vegetable because if so, that guy totally deserves his own VeggieTales movie. Maybe a story about appreciating personal space and being a bit prickly to those who do not?

We drove incredibly slowly through the park, enjoying each pull-off with its varying views, and taking a couple of breaks for hiking. We continued to marvel at how much nicer this weather was than the zero degree weather we could have been enjoying in New Mexico.

One of the creepier sights we saw along our walks were Saguaro Skeletons.

If they can live to 200, how old is that corpse?

The last pull-off we found had some fantastic rock formations with even more fantastic views.

The kids are always up for a climb, so though they look like tiny specks in the distance, they enjoyed figuring out how to scale the massive rocks and peek in their caves. Sadly, being February and all, no creatures were found.



We spent several hours in Saguaro, just doing the 8 mile drive and a couple of trails and climbs, but all of us adored it. The Saguaros are so unique and fascinating, and we all enjoyed finding the next weird one. Besides the Saguaros, there were dozens of other bizarre cacti just waiting to attack our pants legs or our shoes – at one point I had to turn my leggings inside out to remove a rogue spine that somehow traveled through the fabric and up my leg.


When we left Saguaro, we drove 4 hours north (passing by miles of the Airplane Boneyard as we headed out of Tucson) to our next newly-scheduled stop: Flagstaff, Arizona. Not that we ever explored any of Flagstaff itself (aside from some seriously good Fish and Chips when we arrived). Flagstaff was just the next home base for our next day’s adventure: The Grand Canyon.

To Be Continued… 

Making Travel Lemonade on the Fly.

We’ve had a solid run of unsurprising air travel. On time flights. Made connections. Baggage arriving with us. Nobody in the family has used an air sickness bag. Yet.

But we pushed our luck a little too far scheduling a trip to the high desert in peak winter.

In our defense, we thought it was a solid plan. We had a few days in February that we had set aside for travel. A few months ago we asked ourselves “where can we go in February that will not be cold?”

“The desert!” – it seemed like a logical conclusion.

I’d been wanting particularly to take the kids to see the Painted Desert, one of my favorite memories from childhood travel, so I checked the average temps of that area, and it seemed like a solid choice. We planned our trip, flying into Albuquerque, and staying in Gallup, NM. Our chief aim would be spending one or two days in the Petrified Forest National Park and the Painted Desert, and then we had a list of other less well-known options nearby to fill our remaining couple of days.

We did not, however, have any way of knowing that there would be a freak winter storm with blizzard levels of snow and wind headed straight for New Mexico, and beginning just before we were to land, thereby giving us the opportunity of driving through the desert blizzard, and of experiencing below zero temperatures for the first time in our lives.

As the trip got closer and the forecast grew whiter, we were not amused. This is not the desert we had envisioned.

But we had the tickets and we were going to try and make this work. We got up in the 3am hour and headed to the Birmingham airport to forge ahead.

Perhaps the Flight Attendant’s little friend should have been our first clue that the day wasn’t going to go exactly as planned.

He kept showing up during our first flight in weird places, like chilling outside the bathroom door,

or strapped into an empty seat, or standing on top of the last seat on the plane when it was time to land.

Did I think Chuckie was going to somersault into me as we hit the ground? Yes. Did this make me giggle? Also yes.

He was a special friend. And, when inquired as to their relationship, the flight attendant explained that Chuckie was his “Emotional Support Doll.”

I felt supported.

But it was that flight with Chuckie that was ultimately our downfall – it was delayed an hour from taking off due to fog in Houston.

Not snow,

not a blizzard,

not ice –

stinking fog changed the trajectory of our week.

Because that delay led to us having to move our next flight from Houston to Albuquerque back one flight. And although the original flight to Albuquerque made it to the destination just before the snow started, the second flight was not so lucky…

When our Chuckified Flight landed in Houston, we began checking the weather. It was definitely now snowing in Albuquerque, but airlines knew how to handle this sort of contingency, right? Our next flight still showed “on time”, so we got our lunch and BELIEVED as hard as we could that we would be in New Mexico in just a couple of hours.

(Chris might or might not have been also envisioning getting stuck on the highway in one of those 24 hour blockades of cars stuck in snow and ice, but he chose not to share those worst case scenarios with the family.)

The Houston airport was chaos. People sprinting here and there as gates got shuffled, people wailing in terror as flights got cancelled – both due to the weather blanketing the midwestern quarter of the country and due to staffing shortages.

But our flight still held.

Until it didn’t.

Ten minutes – TEN MINUTES before boarding, the sign above the gate changed from “On Time” to “Canceled.” Just like that. No delayed. No yellow light in between the green and red. Just…canceled.


The snow had gotten too bad, the visibility was gone, and Albuquerque was not going to happen.

So now it was game time.

We had never experienced this particular travel situation before. How would Callahans react? Would they give up and find a flight home? Would they stay in Houston and make the best of it? Or would they try to find some way out of this airport and fly to somewhere halfway interesting?

(Sorry, Houston. But I have issues with Texas. Too many day-long drives through the emptylands of your state to ever want to visit again.)

I began looking around the terminal in which we were now stranded, checking to see what other destinations were available.

Phoenix – but that flight wasn’t leaving for several hours, and the employee I roped into helping me also added that it was full.

Tucson. Could Tucson work? It was much further south than we planned on going, but the upside of that would be a definite lack of snow and below zero temperatures. And also, it got us out of the Houston airport, which was growing more hysterical by the moment.

There were two flights headed to Tucson, both currently delayed due to staffing shortages. They could transfer us to one of those flights, but it took over an hour and five customer service phone calls to make the transfer without any charge. Meanwhile, we canceled our hotel and rental car in Albuquerque, rebooked a hotel in Tucson for one night (until we figured out what we were doing) and booked a one-way rental car from Tucson to the currently-supposed eventual destination of our return flight from Albuquerque.

A couple of hours later and about five more reasons given for delays, we were headed to Tucson, Arizona – home of Saguaro National Park and 55 degree weather. And approximately six hours later than we’d intended to arrive at a hotel, we checked into Tucson, having driven on no snowy roads nor gotten stuck in any icy embankments. As opposed to the current state of the state of New Mexico.

The uncertainty and the airport and the waking up well before sunrise had definitely left us all exhausted, so we ordered room service, laid out a map of Arizona, did some travel time figuring, and had a family strategy meeting, then a vote.

This was my original plan’s notes, the entire right page now being moot.

And these were my new groggy attempts at re-planning, trying to figure out what the priorities were, how far it would take to get places, and what we were going to do with ourselves for the next four days.

Should we stay in Tucson and enjoy where we serendipitously ended up?

Or should we turn this into a road trip – something I’d always avoided because it felt exhausting – and, due to the direction we’d have to travel to eventually end up in Albuquerque, see three national parks instead of the intended number of one?

We gave everyone a secret ballot to rate their priorities and desires, and there were understandably mixed feelings due to exhaustion and uncertainty, so we left the final vote until morning after a good night’s sleep for everyone.

The next morning, after we ate a fancy breakfast looking out on half a dozen heated pools and lovely mountains,

then went out back and touched our first cactus – because that’s what you do in Tucson.



Then we decided: though we would earmark Tucson for a return visit (because this hotel would be awesome in slightly warmer weather), we would do it: we would road trip.

We would see Saguaro National Park, we would eventually see Petrified Forest National Park, and in between the two, we would go to the Ultimate: The Grand Canyon.

So from our completely upended travel day, we learned important lessons.

…Change is inevitable. Often unavoidable. Frequently disconcerting.

…Fog can be a dark horse gamechanger.

…If you ever get on a flight with Chuckie, know it’s going to be an interesting day.

…If the desert is too blizzardy, go to a more deserty desert.

And we now have a new family saying:

If Albuquerque cancels, let’s try for Tucson.

To Be Continued…

On Getting COVID at the Beginning of its Junior Year.

I had become convinced that the Callahans had superpower genes.

None of us, and only a mere single one of our extended relations on either side of our family, had contracted Covid. This felt very promising that we were part of The Chosen Remnant of people that simply seemed not able to catch this world-rocking disease.

This belief did not keep us from getting vaccinated, wearing masks when appropriate, and doing all the things we were supposed to with the vigor of the people-pleasing-rule-followers that we all are. We just felt like, underneath it all, that we were Special. With a Capital S.

Until The Dawn of Omicron.

Omicron does not care if you are Special with a Capital S.

Omicron does not care if you are masked.

Omicron does not care if you live in a cave, isolated from other human beings by a considerable amount of mileage and wilderness.

Omicron will find you. Omicron will infect you. Omicron will be there to infuse itself into your being.

It was I who fell to Omicron. On the last day of 2021, I began to feel sick. I went on a run, hoping to flush whatever was bugging me out of my system, but felt even sicker after my run. I took a test – negative.

Well, I thought, I may have a cold, but at least my superhuman power of avoiding Covid is sticking. I still chose to avoid people for the rest of my sickness, and spent the first weekend of the New Year at home.

As the weekend progressed and my burning skin, low-grade fever, and my aches and snottiness and coughing continued, I began to get suspicious. When I began getting weird and specific head pressure and headaches every time I moved my head, I became downright convinced. How could this not be Covid? I have never had movement-sensitive headaches in my life. This was weird. I felt invaded. And I didn’t like it.

On Tuesday, after feeling especially worse, I took another test. It was immediately, darkly, mercilessly positive.

So. Very. Positive.

Immediately I felt distraught and emotional. I knew logically that, being vaccinated, and being that Omicron was supposed to be the lighter version of this virus, I would be fine. But the impact of my body being invaded by something that has been pervasive in all thoughts and life and actions and avoidance for nearly two years was gross and icky and disturbing.

I.
Did.
Not.
Like.
It.

Within two hours of my positive test, I had gifts of sorbet, chocolate cookies, and quiche on my doorstep from two different friends and my mother. This care helped my levels of frustration greatly – especially the chocolate. Chocolate helps everything.

But, for fear of becoming quite dull and a bit melancholy in writing a narrative of my full two weeks of Covidial experience, I thought instead I’d write a couple of lists.

Weirdest Covid Symptoms:

  1. I did, and continue to, sleep more than I’ve slept in my adult life. I went from averaging 6 1/2 hours of sleep at night to averaging nearly 8 hours of sleep a night – and over the weekend after I was mostly over Covid, was sleepy enough two days in a row to NAP. I DO NOT NAP. I have mixed feelings about this sleep development – but mostly good ones.
  2. Although I had nearly no hunger during the most concentrated days of Covid and only ate one meal a day, I had very specific cravings throughout and that continue afterward.
    1. Hungarian Chicken Paprikash – I wanted it the entire time I was sick. The day I finally felt better, I went grocery shopping and I made it. It was so good.
    2. Sunkist Fruit Gems. I haven’t had these in literally years and they don’t exactly sell them in stores around here. I wanted them so badly that I looked them up on Amazon, but wasn’t willing to buy 1 to 5 pounds of them, which seemed excessive, especially since I remember them as being way too sweet of a candy to actually want. I substituted a bag of Spice Drops from the grocery store – much less sweet, but same consistency. It worked. Kinda. But I still want a Fruit Gem.
    3. Dream Cake. This one doesn’t even exist, but I had a vivid dream several days after recovering fully from COVID wherein I added sour cream to the cake and icing recipe of our family’s much beloved multi-generational chocolate cake recipe. I woke up thinking about it, couldn’t quit thinking about it, and totally made the cake, substituting the milk in the recipe for sour cream. It was incredible. Though perhaps less noticeable a difference than I expected.

 

Best Recommendations for Covid:

  1. Get a steroid early and often. I got one, on symptom day 13, and went from being totally panicked that I was still very sick on day 12 to running 8.3 miles and cooking Hungarian Chicken Paprikash on day 14. I’m now somewhere in the day late-20s, still not 100% right, and I still kinda want a daily steroid shot.
  2. Don’t feel guilty about laying around, binging shows, and reading all the books, but also have some point in every day where you get active. I needed a quarantine – a quiet time for laziness. But my lungs needed me to keep moving. So I did both.
  3. Make iPhone Stickers of one of your children. I worked on this project for 3 days straight and cannot be happier with my 65 sticker collection of Noah:

And, for the record, Noah does use his own stickers. With liberality. Because they’re amazing.

In conclusion, no Callahans are Special. The other three got it as well, though thankfully much, much milder versions than I received. So now we’re in our reboot mode – we are all safe from the ravages of Covid until whenever Omicron antibodies wear off.

Or until an even more menacing Greek Letter shows up that doesn’t care that I just had Omicron.

How about you? Are there any of you left that are Special with a capital S?

The Curse of the Learner’s Permit.

When I turned 15, I went to the DMV on my birthday, my anticipation too high to wait another day for the pleasure of being a licensed (learning) driver.

But I failed the written test on my first try.

I was mortified. Embarrassed. Humiliated. I made my mom swear not to tell my older brother, whom I was sure had passed his test with no problem.

(Although who knows – perhaps he’d likewise made my mom swear not to tell me that he failed it four times in a row. One can never tell.)

I was by far the more studious of the two of us, but I had assumed (poorly) that the test would be common sense, so didn’t exactly study the boring, small-print manual.

It was not common sense.

I will never forget this one question in particular that enflamed my fifteen-year-old sense of justice…

“When should you switch on your turn signal?

a. 50 feet before the turn
b. 100 feet before the turn
c. 150 feet before the turn
d. 200 feet before the turn.”

First of all I couldn’t figure for the life of me how I, a 15 year old, should be able to gauge with my eyeballs the difference between those distances.

I actually still don’t, as a 40 year old.

Second of all, I assumed the longer the distance the better, so I chose the longest.

The correct answer was not, after all, the longest.

I was so very indignant over that dumb dumb dumb question.

They let me repeat the test the same day, and I passed – just barely. But it was good enough for me.

So as Ali approached the age of 15, I was not going to let my daughter repeat my embarrassments. I got her a driver’s manual months ago, downloaded the test practice app for her, and stressed to her my lingering abject humiliation at my own failures.

And to supplement the book learning, we’d been going to the parking lot of our local mega-church to practice driving with regularity, thereby making my daughter immediately look half a decade older.

I already felt badly that her birthday fell on a Saturday, and thus she could not get her permit on her birthday (and I felt doubly bad that this means that her 16th will fall on a Sunday so she’ll have to go an entire 24 hours at the age of 16 without being able to drive independently.)

So I scheduled her an appointment for the next week.

But alas. My curse followed her.

I was not aware of the difficulty, the challenge, the absolute QUEST that it is to obtain a learner’s permit in the state of Alabama. And my brain had been rather scrambled for the two weeks prior, thanks to my finally falling to Covid.

…The state does not put the document requirements on the same website as the test appointments.

…The state does not provide a handy list of documents required in the appointment confirmation email.

…The state says, in fact, zero about anything with regards to documents needed in the second email, the appointment reminder email.

This is, in fact, a disaster waiting to happen to those recently scrambled by Covid.

So I, in my leftover fog, foolishly thought I simply should be prepared to prove her age, and so I was rather proud of myself for my forethought, taking her birth certificate with us to our appointment.

Although I’d been “cleared” from quarantine for several days, this was my first actual outing after being ailing and indoors for two weeks.

I do not recommend the Department of Transportation as your first outing after an especially ferocious bout with Covid.

We arrived, and there was a rather formidable Department of Transportation Enforcer of Documentation at the door, checking documents before allowing people into the building.

The gentleman in front of us had an entire portfolio that he had to go through with her, piece by piece, as we fidgeted and froze behind him. I began to get worried, but not entirely, because he was not a citizen, so she was checking all sorts of immigration and visa and N-394y7t50 forms and so on.

Surely she’s just going to wave us in after seeing we have a birth certificate…..right?

No. She actually spent about five seconds determining that we were entirely unfit for entrance, and rattled off the list of things we needed in order to come back if we wished to be found not lacking in her presence.

  • A birth certificate,
  • A social security card,
  • A particular form signed by a school official proving enrollment
  • And, she didn’t even tell us there was another requirement that we found once we dug around and found the requirements – two proofs of residence.

We left panicked and filled with a familiar humiliation (or at least I did.)

I had passed down my curse to my daughter.

Ali, however, was very upbeat and understanding, and even tried to take the blame upon herself, as she was sure those requirements were listed at the beginning of her driver’s manual – a list she assumed applied to an actual license, not a learner’s permit.

I spent the afternoon gathering documents, gaining advice from friends, and researching the best place to go to attempt our license attainment without an appointment, as at this point there were no appointments available for weeks. We would have to attempt The Dreaded Walk-In.

The next morning, we set off to a different office in a different county that was considered superior based on the survey of friends who had already suffered The Humiliations of the DOT.

We arrived 8 minutes before they opened, and joined the line of those waiting for bureaucratic slaughter. We gauged our chances of success. There were approximately 15 people in line in front of us, and two appeared to be 15 years old. We felt our chances of success were good – surely we would not be turned away to come back another day and/or commanded to procure an appointment.

When we were allowed inside, they immediately separated us, told me to give Ali all of her documents, and led her back to the a holding pen. I was left to wait and pray that I’d achieved optimal documentation.

Our friends were right – this was the correct location to visit. Other than two nervous escapes from her confinement to seek me out for money – $5 to take the test and $36.25 to pay for her license after she passed it (with a much higher grade than her mother) – everything went smoothly and we left the building, license in hand, 50 minutes after we had arrived.

At Chris’ suggestion, I drove us to Oak Mountain State Park for her to take her first legal-on-real-roads drive. It’s the perfect road for it – low speed limit, 9ish miles long, little traffic, few intersections. We pulled into the petting farm parking lot shortly after the entrance and swapped seats.

She adjusted her chair, fastened her seatbelt, took a deep sigh.

And she started her driving career with the word “crap.”

(Which feels like it should be the first sentence of a book.)

The gravity of the moment and her age and the fact that she was about to be driving on a real road with other real cars was an overwhelming moment.

She drove around the parking lot a few times, then pulled up to to the actual road, ready to turn left.

And said “Crappity crap.”

I couldn’t help understand her sentiments 100% and agree in my own feelings a tiny bit.

But she went forth. And she drove. And the Curse of the Learner’s Permit was broken.


The Colorado-on-the-Cheap Experiment.


Our trip to Colorado was an experiment on two fronts.

  1. I used all of my strategies in making it the least expensive trip possible.
  2. It was just myself and the kids – no husband or friend to be the backup adult-in-charge or to give me an adult to talk to.

Regarding cost, the children and I flew to Denver (a nonstop, 2.5 hour flight), rented an SUV, and stayed in a hotel – in two adjoining rooms – for a grand total travel cost of $647.

Let me clarify that we still spent money on food and activities while we were there, and that is not included in the $647. That figure is for our three flights, our rental car, and our two hotel rooms for four nights.

Here’s how I did it:

  1. We went to Colorado because there was a great flight deal, and because Rocky Mountain National Park was on my list of field trips that we want to accomplish in the next four years. I knew about the great flight deal because I subscribe to Scott’s Cheap Flights, which sends me email alerts about great deals from my airport. The Denver flights, at $150 each, were labeled an “epic deal” and the lowest price they’d been in 3 years.
  2. When I booked my flight, straight through the airline’s website, they offered me a $300 statement credit if I opened a credit card. An important feature of using an airline’s credit card to book flights: not only did opening a credit card save me $300 on our flights (bringing our grand total for three flights down to $170), but it also gave us free checked bags for two people*, therefore saving us $120 ($30 each, each way.)* Our Colorado flights were through American Air; United Airline’s credit card gets you free checked bags for more than two people – I don’t know exactly how many, but I did this same credit card deal with United when we went to Montana, and got four people’s checked bags for free, saving $240 on baggage fees.
    Another note – these immediate cash off offers seem to only come up when you’re in the process of booking a flight – not by searching for them beforehand.
  3. For all of our normal purchases, both business and home, we use a credit card** that earns Marriott points. I discovered a decade ago that Marriott has the best perks for credit card points of any hotel line, and immediately dove into the deep end of maximizing them. Because of simply using credit cards well (i.e. I never allow a balance to carry forward and therefore never pay interest for the “privilege” of using the credit card), I am Titanium Elite status with Marriott, get guaranteed 4pm checkout, have more free nights than I can use, always get free breakfast, and many other perks each year. So our two adjoining hotel rooms for four nights were on points and completely free.
    This year in total, I have redeemed 17 nights of free stays (many at seriously nice hotels and resorts), and have already booked 17 more nights so far for next year, and still have six free unused nights in my account plus a good number of points.
    **The best Marriott point earning system is on the Amex Business Card (this referral link gets you the best welcome bonus I can find). We also use the Amex personal card (there’s not a good intro bonus on the one with a low annual fee right now) and the Chase personal card
  4. I don’t have any great money-saving strategies for rental cars (or at least not yet – feel free to pass any on), so our car was our highest travel expense, coming in at $477.

I know that some people don’t feel comfortable opening multiple credit cards and I totally get that. However, I have found that with careful organization and planning, it can be very beneficial for zero or minimal cost. If a credit card has an annual fee and I don’t plan on using it again, I close it. If it doesn’t have an annual fee, I usually leave it open, because somehow, it actually increases my credit score to have multiple open accounts. I have found that when I close a credit card account, my credit score goes down. (Along the same nonsensical line, when I paid off Chris’ car loan early, his credit score went down by 30 points.) So don’t use the credit card strategy if it isn’t safe for you. But if you can do it without ever paying interest, the credit card points game is an incredible way to get free travel, perks, and other benefits.

As for the other experiment, traveling on a vacation with one adult and two kids, it was a winning (and for a minute, losing,) experiment.

When the kids were little, it would not have been fun for me, at all in any way, to travel alone with them without another adult to adult with. However, they’re 10 and 14 now, and it’s like traveling with two near-adults that I enjoy.

(It might not have been quite as relaxing if I hadn’t had my own hotel room to introvert in at the end of the day, but it was great.)

(Except for the fact that within two hours of landing in Denver, I had my first ever anaphylactic reaction and ended up in the ER unable to swallow.)

(That’s when I was like “Okay maybe another adult along would have been a good idea.”)

(Ali felt the same.)

But it prompted a great conversation on “what to do if you find yourself in an emergency situation with an incapacitated grownup and how it will all be okay and you will never be an orphan forever in Colorado.”

But other than that, it was great. Highly recommended. Just, you know. Have meds on hand.