Friday, June 30, 2017

Into the Woods

After probably years of talking about it, we actually did it. We took our first camping trip as a family.

It will not surprise anyone to know that Jon is an expert camper. He went on lots of camping trips as a kid, and obviously his Army training has equipped him well to fend for himself in the woods. That said, he had never been responsible for our entire crew in a tent, so he was anxious to give it a go. For whatever reason, he has persisted in his assumption that I don't like camping. Not true. I just haven't done it as much. (He must have forgotten all about the stories of an epic camping trip in Prince Edward Island, Canada with my college roommate.) I was and am totally on board with camping, although I am very glad that we did a "practice run" by sleeping in a tent in our backyard.

We decided to camp for two nights over Memorial Day weekend at the urging of some friends who also were ready to try camping with two small children. We arrived at Fort Pillow State Park, about an hour and a half northeast of Memphis, on Friday afternoon. We set up camp--and by "we," I mean Jon, as I mostly baby wrangled during this time--and had dinner. Jon was certainly in his element with all his cooking over fire, fancy knot-tying, canoe packing, and general camping expertise. I think our friends were impressed...and grateful for his knowledge.

Our home away from home
After the requisite s'mores for dessert, everyone settled in for the night. The next day began fairly early, but it was not because of our human alarm clocks. In fact, Elsa slept nearly an hour after everyone was up and stirring. I didn't realize it then, but I think that extra sleeping time is when the assault happened. Elsa is our mosquito magnet. She is so sweet that mosquitoes love her. I'm guessing that we must have let some in the tent when we got up, and since she was the only target, she had the battle scars to prove it. The poor child had bites on top of bites. Her hands and ankles--the parts not covered by her pajamas--looked so painful.

Luckily, the distraction of fun activities kept the itching at bay. After breakfast, we headed out for a "hike." I use the term loosely because there's just as much whining as there is walking with little ones. At any rate, we walked through the woods for a bit. Elsa was jazzed to try out her new "bee-noculars," and we got to see some cool caterpillars, too.

Nothing could possibly go wrong in this scenario
Next it was time for the dads and big kids to take the canoe out on the lake. There were attempts at fishing, but it is admittedly tough for three- and four-year-olds to have the patience necessary to catch a fish.

Once the moms and little ones returned from the playground to pick up the boaters, it was time to head back to camp for a dinner of delicious shish kabobs. The kids continued playing at and around the campsite. Who knew that gravel and cooking utensils could provide so much entertainment?

After dinner, Jon took Elsa back to the lake for the ranger-planned sunset canoe ride. While it ended up being less organized than expected, it was a special time for dad and daughter.

Check out the cool lantern set-up
Jon immediately jumped into storm preparations when he and Elsa got back to the campsite. We knew we were going to get a storm, but I don't think we were aware what we were in for. It couldn't possibly have been as bad as in Memphis--where the storm resulted in the third largest power outage in city history--but it was still scary. Miraculously, the girls slept through the entire thing. We stayed nice and dry in our tent, and it didn't blow away, so we are extremely thankful to have weathered the storm as it were.

It was certainly wet on Sunday morning, but it didn't rain any more, so we had a leisurely breakfast and took our time packing up. Overall, the trip was a success, and I foresee more camping trips in our future... fact, last weekend, we camped out again, this time via bike.

A local bike shop organized the trip as part of a larger adventure promoted by a bicycle bag company out of Seattle. Jon was interested right away, but it took us a while to figure out the logistics and keep our fingers crossed that the weather would hold (we were not interested in a repeat storm story). We finally decided that Elsa would ride on the back of Jon's bike, and Lena and I would drive, meeting the group at the campground. According to Jon, Elsa did great the nearly two-hour ride to Shelby Forest.

And they're off!
We had a fun time camping with a rather eclectic group, most of whom we'd never met before that day. I'm sure some of them thought we were crazy for bringing kids, but Jon thinks that we just proved that you can still do cool things with little ones in tow. As a bonus, some friends who live nearby met us on Sunday, so Elsa and Lena got to play with another kid after all.

While we may not be touring western Europe or basking in Norway's midnight sun these days, we're still having adventures, and we wouldn't have it any other way.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Elsa is FOUR!

Gone is our "threenager," and in her place is our dear, little "fournado."

You would not believe all the things one can do now that she is four and no longer three. It may seem as though most things are the same, but to Elsa, it's a whole other world of possibilities. Speaking of possibilities, Elsa's imagination has exploded this year. Sometimes it's a challenge to remember everyone's alter egos as they change on an almost daily basis. We discovered Star Wars this year, so at least when we play that, we have a fighting chance of guessing who everyone is. (For the record, Elsa is nearly always Princess Leia while Lena is R2D2, which makes sense because they're both little and make funny sounds.)

These games of pretend are also popular with her friends at school, so most accounts of her day included who was Mom or Dad (or Sister or Brother, etc.) Elsa continued attending preschool three days a week, but instead of going to Kindermusik (now Lena gets to go), she began taking ballet. This girl loves to dance, and we could not be happier with her wonderful ballet studio. In fact, the end of the year performance took place on her birthday, which was the perfect way to cap off her special day.

Elsa has understood and been excited about her birthday for a while, but this year, she was full of anticipation for months. Nearly every day, she asked whose birthday it was. I happen to have a pretty good memory of people's birthdays (and Facebook for the ones I forget), so I was often able to answer the question.

As usual, we stretched out the celebration for a bit. Jon was at Army training on her actual birthday, but we were so fortunate to have Grandma in town. The birthday girl was delighted to wake up to balloons and streamers and her favorite breakfast of scrambled eggs. Since it was a school day, Elsa got to share ballet-shaped cookies with her friends...that were delivered by that day's "Mystery Reader." Elsa was so surprised to see her grandma walk into her classroom to read that day's story--it was a special time for everyone.

After school, we took the birthday girl out for lunch at the "tractor restaurant" (Memphians will recognize this as Belly Acres) where she had ample time to drive the tractor before we ate some pretty tasty burgers. All the excitement must have tired her out because she actually took a nap when we got home--a birthday miracle!

I'm so glad she did, though, because that night was the aforementioned ballet recital held at the Levitt Shell, an outdoor amphitheater located at a nearby park. Elsa, of course, stole the show--not that I'm biased--but the sweet girl cried afterward because she only got to dance one time. Fortunately for her, she got to dance some more down in front of the stage along with many of the other little dancers.

Getting sassy with the sheep
I'm also glad we had the foresight to take the infamous sheep pictures beforehand because once we got home from the recital, it was all we could do to keep the girl of honor awake long enough to sing the birthday song and eat strawberry shortcake (this year's cake request).

We held off on Elsa's birthday party until Jon returned and celebrated at the park with "Sundaes on Sunday." It was a beautiful day, and everyone seemed to have a great time swinging, running around, flying kites, and of course, eating ice cream sundaes.

I just asked Elsa what she would like to say about her birthday, and she said, "I had a fun party after my birthday. That's what I would like to say about it." Couldn't have put it better myself.

Lena is ONE!

Please forgive me, Lena. As the second child myself, I know what it's like to feel forgotten and left out (teasing, Mom). It was not until I started to write Elsa's birthday post--late, of course--that I realized I never posted yours. I wrote it (still late, but back in *February at least), but for whatever reason, never published it on the blog. At least you're too little to mind too much...right? 

She did the #1 finger all by herself, I promise

In the blink of an eye, an entire year has passed and Lena is one. How did that happen?

And since her birthday, just a few short weeks ago*, it seems as though she has grown leaps and bounds. Perhaps not physically--since we grow our babies on the petite size around here--but in many other ways. It has been a great joy to watch Miss Lena's spunky personality start to emerge, and there is no doubt that she is going to be able to hold her own with Elsa. An early walker, she has already proven that she intends to keep up with her big sister. Lena is getting better and better at communicating in her own way, and I can't wait for all the words she will quickly learn to articulate. So far, we're enchanted with "da" (dog) and "uh-oh."

As I recall (through rose-colored glasses perhaps), the year between one and two was kind of a sweet spot. Old enough to do more things and be more interactive, yet still young enough to be relatively easy-going. Hopefully this will hold true for Lena as well.

For being only one-year-old, she really does seem to understand what is going on. I know she doesn't completely get birthdays the way she soon will in this family, but it was as though she recognized that January 19th was--and forever will be--a special day.

Lena's big day began with a birthday march (Elsa recently learned about marches in conjunction with MLK Day) and the first of several renditions of "Happy Birthday." We had a breakfast of little-people-sized pancakes before changing out of birthday pajamas into a new birthday outfit.

Since Lena's birthday fell on "Adventure Day" (which are Thursdays, when we have nothing scheduled), we went downtown to watch the duck march at the Peabody Hotel before meeting Jon for lunch. If you ever find yourself in Memphis, I highly recommend seeing the ducks on a rainy winter weekday. The girls were pretty much the only kids there and got a front row seat along the red carpet. I think many of the other guests were watching them more than the ducks.

Then we walked over to meet Jon at The Little Tea Shop. Another Memphis plug: you must eat at this restaurant, if only for the cornbread sticks. Even though we don't go there often, the owner and staff still remembered us and made us all feel special. In addition, Lena inhaled everything we put in front of her, so I think we made the right choice.

In the evening, Lena got to open gifts (thanks, family!) and enjoy a special birthday cookie...and of course, another singing of "Happy Birthday." We wanted to save the requisite messy cake and icing for her birthday party in a few days, but the birthday girls seemed satisfied with the cookie. All in all, everyone had a wonderful time celebrating the glorious occasion of Lena's birth.

We hosted a small party the following Saturday, serving chili and cupcakes. You know, appropriate food for a one-year-old. I feel like I sabotaged her a bit, by interrupting her lunch for the big blowing-out-the-candles production, so I wasn't entirely surprised when she cried and raised her arms up to be taken out of her high chair. The attention, the singing, the birthday hat, the candle--it's all very overwhelming.

Lena didn't really touch her "smash cake," so we tried again in a more low-key setting the next day. There was no crowd, no candle, no additional distractions. Full of anticipation, we set the cake in front of her...and she cried again. I think the child is afraid of pink frosting. So, not the reaction we had hoped for, but this was not the first--and certainly not the last--time Lena has defied expectations.

Happy Birthday, Little One! We can't wait to see where the next year takes you!

Monday, February 13, 2017

Vacation at a Cabinet

We used to be such good travelers. As often as we could, we would take off on an adventure somewhere far away or even sneak in a quick weekend getaway. But then kids came along and different job responsibilities, and the opportunity just hasn't presented itself like it used to. I won't use the girls as an excuse for why we don't travel as much anymore, but I will blame our lack of exotic adventures for why I don't keep this blog updated as often.

We still find ourselves out of town with some regularity, but with family far away, the bulk of our travel is devoted to spending time with loved ones in Washington, Kansas City, and Nebraska. These visits are great, and we always have a good time...but they're not exactly vacations. For that reason, we took some time after our Christmas visit to the Midwest for a family vacation to Mountain View, Arkansas.

When we decided we needed a vacation--since we couldn't remember the last time we'd taken one--we'd originally planned to go somewhere that a) had snow for skiing and outdoor activities and b) would allow us to unplug. We'd initially thought Wisconsin would be a good choice, but then we actually looked at a map and realized it was much farther than we wanted to go, particularly after our Thanksgiving roadtrip to Washington DC (written about here). So then we thought Iowa would be a good option. We'd still have snow, but it was much closer to Nebraska, where we'd spent Christmas. But, alas, our plan was thwarted by Mother Nature. The only snow we saw was at the beginning of our trip (that forced us to drive all night to Kansas City). Elsa made the best of it, though:

She's already a better skier than I am

Fortunately, we're flexible because Option C proved to be an excellent decision. On our way back to Memphis from Kansas City, we stopped in Mountain View, Arkansas, a small town near the Ozark National Forest, and stayed in a "cabinet" (what Elsa mistakenly called our cabin, and the name stuck) for several days. I could feel myself relaxing as soon as the trip began; it was just what we needed.

Arkansas Traveler, our home away from home

We ventured into town for breakfast the morning after we arrived. It was a quaint downtown, and now that I think about it, a lot like Kirksville. We found a small cafe and had a delicious meal made even better by the fact that an anonymous stranger picked up the tab. Talk about hospitality! We browsed in a few shops before the day's big adventure: Blanchard Springs Cavern.

It was my first trip to a cave, and it did not disappoint. (Lena, however, was not impressed and slept in the carrier most of the time...although to be fair, it was close to naptime.) The man who designed the lighting did a tremendous job because all of the rock formations were so striking.

"Soda straws"

The tour was really informative, and we learned a lot. It may sound obvious--or not--but I hadn't really considered the fact that caves are living entities that are constantly changing. Very cool.

After our time underground, we had to check out the Blanchard Springs, as well.

The only way to guarantee they'd stay still for a picture

That was enough activity for the day, so after dinner at the cabinet, we were in for the night. The next day we decided to return to the forest for a short hike. I'm not quite sure what happened on the drive over, but when we arrived at the trailhead, we had one sleeping baby and one pouty preschooler. Elsa and I began the hike, but had to stop numerous times throughout. At least the scenery was beautiful. Before we finished the short loop, Jon and Lena joined us so we could all finish together.

"Take a picture when I point this stick at you"

A snack seemed to perk Elsa up, but she still requested to go back and take a nap--she must have been really tired from our travels--so that is what we did. Jon and I took advantage of the opportunity to do a tag-team run (one ran while the other stayed with the girls, and then we traded) around town and through the woods. Once everyone rested as long as they needed to, we set off on a quest for fish for dinner. Unfortunately for us--but fortunately for them--all of the local restaurants advertising fish from the river were closed during the offseason. We had to settle on a Mexican restaurant instead.

The next morning was a flurry of activity as we (and by that, I mean Jon) packed up the car for the seventeenth time during the break. It was a short drive back to Memphis, and we returned home rested and rejuvenated, ready to begin a new year.

DC or Bust!

No, this isn't a political post. Rather, it's a long overdue account of our Thanksgiving trip to visit friends in the greater DC-area. (I am consciously abstaining from discussing politics on this blog--which isn't terribly hard to do since I don't post very often.)

Growing up, both Jon and I were blessed to have wonderful "framily" nearby. [Side note: I borrowed from a cell phone commercial for this term because it is less wordy--and funnier to Elsa--than "family as close as friends."] We continue to be blessed with great friends here in Memphis, but those we consider "framily" are alas, not geographically close. So, when we realized we could take nearly an entire week to celebrate Thanksgiving, we knew we had to visit some of these folks.

The last time we visited this family (written about here), we were able to get an affordable direct flight. However, since weather is always a potential factor in late-November and since nobody wants to fly over Thanksgiving, we chose to drive. Our friends had done it last New Year's when they had visited us, so surely we could do it, too.

We have done a number of roadtrips with two kids--I have even done several by myself--so we weren't worried about how the girls would do. This would be the longest, by far, however. In order to maximize our time, we left on a Monday night after I had finished teaching my class. After our customary roadtrip stop at Chick-fil-A, we were on our way. As expected, Lena fell asleep pretty quickly, and Elsa followed, once she was full of chicken nuggets, of course. So then it was up to Jon and I with regards to how far we could go until we needed to stop for the night.

We made it past Nashville, which was our goal--this knocked several hours off the entire 13 (if we were to drive straight, without kids). Even with this headstart, though, we were still in for a full day of driving. Nothing particularly eventful happened (fortunately), but now Elsa thinks that every long trip is a special occasion that warrants ice cream since we stopped for lunch at the Dairy Queen attached to the gas station where we filled up.

It was definitely bedtime when we rolled into the driveway in Maryland, so we whisked the girls upstairs before getting to visit for a few minutes. In the morning, it only took Elsa a few minutes to assimilate into the tribe of kids, which was heartwarming. Lena also joined in the ruckus as best she could. After rounding everyone up, we headed into the city to visit one of the Smithsonian museums, the Museum of American History. They have a really cool interactive area for kids, which is where we spent the bulk of our time. Both of these girls are a work of art.

It was definitely nap/rest time when we got back to the house, and then the rest of the afternoon/evening was spent according to the comforting rhythm and routine of family life. After getting the kids in bed--which, with five little people ranging from 6 1/2 to 10 months, was quite the undertaking--we proceeded to do what we would do for the next several nights: play board games and drink adult beverages.

We didn't stay up too late because Day #2 was also Thanksgiving, and we had a Turkey Trot to attend. The 6 1/2-year-old participated in a fitness group at school, and their culminating activity was a 1K fun run. Not to be left out, Elsa and the 4 1/2-year-old ran, too. Each was awarded a medal and a cupcake for their efforts. 

Elsa with her celebratory cupcake and Lena with her celebratory...rock?

Our return to the house commenced in a flurry of Thanksgiving prep activities. I somehow wound up watching all the kids while the others cooked and cleaned...which was great because I also got to watch the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. Just doing my part, you know. Our friends had invited some of their neighbors to join us for dinner, which increased our kid total to 8. In a small world connection usually reserved for Memphis, one of these families had ties to Bamberg as well. And then, a friend from our time in Bamberg came over too. It was a typical Thanksgiving meal, with too much food, lovely conversation, and small children running amok. Pretty much awesome.

Lena's first Thanksgiving

Elsa and all four kinds of pie
We never quite figured out how to spend our final full day in Maryland, but with the previous two days' excitement, staying at the house proved to be an excellent decision. I even snuck out early for a run, and I've got to say that Maryland is much hillier than Memphis--the difficulty of the run couldn't possibly have been because I am out of shape. At any rate, after breakfast, we played in the backyard on the swing set and in the leaves and just generally enjoyed each others' company. If all of this sounds Norman Rockwell-esque, that is because it was (albeit peppered with inside jokes and bitmoji avatars).

And then it was time to say good-bye. We gamely attempted to make the entire drive back to Memphis in one day, but with a late start and some longer-than-planned stops, we decided to call it a night just past Knoxville. Fortunately we still had Sunday before having to get back to our regular schedule, so we got a good night of sleep and hit the road again. Yes, we may have spent 3 days driving for a 3-day visit, but getting to spend time with our "framily" was totally worth it. Although now it's their turn to visit us...