Quiz and Other Diversions: Because Sometimes the Road is Long

Traveling with a family of any size has its pros and cons, and hitting the road with an only child has its unique quirks. In the pro column, we can list: lower cost, less stuff, fewer opinions, smaller number of needs to be met. The con column pretty much amounts to one thing: singleton’s constant and insatiable need for a playmate. A kid does need social interaction and, oftentimes, parents are the only option.

Now, before you shed a tear for our daughter’s pitiful little lonely only child heart, bear in mind that she is pretty good at entertaining herself, and my husband and I are masters of the diversion. Though I can only pretend to be a puppy for so long without becoming completely catatonic, I happily sing songs, play hide-and-seek, read stories, color and engage in many other kid-centric activities that make it much easier for her to keep plugging along, and much easier for us to stave off whining.

More importantly, we want our daughter to WANT to go on trips with us–from now until we’re too old and decrepit to go anywhere other than the sunroom down the hall. The “family that plays together stays together,” right? That’s a pretty cool thing, and something we try to do while out and about as well as at home.

Quiz Show

While playgrounds are the very best diversion, Quiz is a pretty close second, especially in transit. We “discovered” this guessing game on a recent visit to Sicily, where lines can be long and travel times unpredictable. As you might surmise, Quiz is pretty much like Twenty Questions without the limit. The five-year-old version of it goes something like this:

“I’m thinking of a person {or movie or song or place or flower or animal…}.”

“Is it a friend or family member?”

“Family member.”

“Is it a Coody or Smits?”

“Smits.”

“Boy or girl?”

“Girl.”

“Is it Omi?”

“Yes!”

“Your turn.”

I am not exaggerating when I say Quiz can provide hours of preschooler fun in even the dullest situations, like this car rental line at the Palermo airport. Not a single soul was smiling in this teeming, uncomfortable and interminable place where the toilets were goopy and snack machines empty. No one, that is, except our girl, who was perfectly content running up the ramp in between rounds of Quiz.
Nor was she unhappy five hours later in Milazzo, where another mass of people stood in another interminable line to buy ferry tickets. I’m telling you, Quiz (and pizza) can turn even a stinky sidewalk into a party.
Now, nine hours of flights, car rides, lines and waiting later, you might think that a child would have had it. Not our girl–she kept her spirits up even through the 3.5-hour ferry ride that was supposed to be 1.5 hours. By this point, I will admit that we were all pretty much Quizzed out, and it was The Backpack that saved us (a diversion previously discussed here).
After a “live and learn” kind of 13-hour day, we finally arrived on the worth-the-effort island of Salina at the lovely and amazing Hotel Ravesi, where lines, rental cars, ferry rides and bus trips were quickly washed away by this incredible view.
[QUIZ: What volcano is that in the distance? {Hint: It’s a tasty food as well as the location of an Ingrid Bergman movie Woody Guthrie wrote about in this rather tawdry song put to music and performed by Wilco and Billy Bragg on the fabulous album Mermaid Avenue: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o76IoHCxfxw}]

The Ants Go Hiking

Motivating a kid to hike, bike and sightsee at a pace that is enjoyable for all is a post for another day, but I will say that oldie but goodie “The Ants Go Marching” (and plenty of snack and water breaks) got us all from this view of the Santuario Della Madonna Del Terzito:
to this one
with only a few draggy moments in between. Of course, it might have been the view, as much as the song that kept her motivated.
Or maybe it was the promise of a beach stop afterward. Ah, Italy. Where the place itself is the diversion to top all diversions. We were a trio of lucky, lucky ducks.

I am Jillicus

Considered a woman of “advanced maternal age” when I became pregnant, you might think I’d be at a disadvantage when it comes to keeping up with an active child. You might think that my daughter will one day view me as her geezery old “hag mom” who can’t remember what it’s like to hop a rock or even break a sweat. (I actually have a friend who referred to her older mom by that name. I weep for her.)

Well, I am fighting Hag Momdom with everything I’ve got, and that includes being fit enough to do all the fun things kids want to do in daily life and on vacation. But I know that skiing, hiking, biking, scootering, climbing, camping and swimming take a certain level of fitness, and I’ve been doing a boot camp for the past few years in an effort to achieve it. This essay is about that very humbling experience. It’s a little hokey and, hopefully, a little funny and maybe even a little inspiring. Here’s to fending off Hag Mom status, and to keeping up with our rock hoppers.

I could live with the fact that I was not Spartacus.

After all, most of us lack the skill, strength, endurance and intensity to wrestle wild beasts and lead a Roman uprising. But I did mind lacking what it took to keep up with my fellow boot campers sprinting, shuffling, push-upping and lunging around an inner-city park version of the Coliseum.

It was my first Camp Gladiator session, and I knew I was in trouble after 15 minutes when the trainer encouragingly barked that the warm-up was almost over. I actually almost cried. That gigantic, painful bundle of squats, high knees, butt kicks and a quarter mile run was the warm-up? I thought a warm-up was supposed to dangle gently on the front end of a workout, stretching and easing you languidly into the more strenuous activity to come.

Which, inevitably, it did.

The actual workout consisted of numerous exercises I’d never heard of, interspersed with sprint shuttle runs just to keep things completely demoralizing.  Mountain climbers, star jumps, spiders, bear crawls… who the heck makes up this stuff? Whoever did had a cruel streak, for the child-friendly names are designed to fool the uninitiated into thinking, “I can do anything for an hour.”

Well, I’m here to tell you there are things you can’t do for 45 seconds, and at the end of that longest hour of my athletic life, I lay prone on the grass, sucking wind and plotting a slanderous campaign against the jerk who invented the burpee. As I ruefully surveyed the pride left scattered around that grassy playing field of despair, I thought to myself, “This is not what I signed up for!”

I joined the one-month camp thinking it would be a fun way to tone up quickly and give me the strappy sandaled foot to the backside I needed to invigorate my fitness routine. It’s not that I was completely out of shape—I’d done several mini triathlons and one very, very slow half marathon for Pete’s sake. But I’d let it slide the past few years, running (okay—usually walking fast) a few times a week and hitting the occasional Pilates class.

As a result of my half-hearted exercise regimen and “Don’t mind if I do” attitude toward cake balls and triple cream Brie, I’d morphed into a thirty-something cliché. It was time to admit I could no longer blame my new curves on the birth of my no-longer-a-toddler daughter, and I figured with a little extra effort three times a week, the boot camp would help me shave off the unwanted pudge.

It was a grand delusion, of course, believing 12 workouts would have me looking much different than I did four weeks earlier. And while it was definitely a misnomer to call it “fun,” it was the mindset that got me out the door. Now, a year into this gladiatorial madness, I’ve seen glimpses of the Spartacus in myself, and can hardly imagine life without this love/hate relationship. My fickle feelings go something like this:

Hate: The third set of cross body chops, reverse crunches and side-to-side sit-ups followed by a three-minute plank hold (attempt).

Love: Being confident enough to wear a bikini, even if it’s only in my back yard.

Hate: Removing my booty from the seat warmer in my car in order to join the group gathering on the frosty grass.

Love: Putting my nearly-muffintopless booty back on the seat warmer knowing I don’t have to remove it again for this purpose for approximately 47 hours.

Hate: Feeling guilty when I skip a workout.

Love: Having a new group of friends who notice when I don’t show up and motivate me to get back on track.

Hate: Being the “rabbit” in a chase game—which means I’m the slowest in the group that day and everyone else’s target to pass.

Love: Being the “rabbit” in a chase game, and not getting caught. Ah, the sweetness of small victories.

Hate: Towing a sled of weights across a sun-scorched field knowing the boot camper at Station Three can’t stop doing tuck jumps until I finish my lap.

Love:  Being able to tow my child several miles on a sled while snowshoeing to a yurt in the mountains.

Truly, the loves far outweigh the hates in this unfolding epic drama of my physical health. And while I may never be Spartacus, I am Jillicus—a gladiatrix in training and leader of my own fitness rebellion!

As for the guy who invented the burpee, no one can say for sure who gets the credit. But it’s pretty certain that his last name actually was Burpee, which at least partially explains the legacy of torment he left to his fellow man. -30-

I dare you: www.campgladiator.com

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The Quickie: Car Camping with Your Faves

The Quickie: Car Camping With Your Faves

Not every family vacation can be to Paris, or even Mexico. But there’s plenty of fun to be had on trips far less grand and much closer to home, including the classic family camping trip. Though I didn’t grow up camping, my own little family was destined to seek the thrill of sleeping under the stars and eating cold beans straight from a can. My husband and I met in a youth hostel, but pitched a tent regularly once we started traveling together. It was cheap and efficient…and what 22-year-old girl wouldn’t want to sleep in a tent on Kangaroo Island with this guy?

Even if you’ve never been camping, if you have kids you probably know they love the idea of it. Pitch a tent anywhere from the living room to the backyard and it’s an instant party. And while I was lucky enough to get hooked on camping in Australia, any nearby state park will do for starting a family tradition. We took our first family camping trip last spring when our daughter was four, along with our fun friends, who also happen to be the parents of our daughter’s best friend. While it doesn’t boast koalas or 50 foot waterfalls, Tyler State Park does have beautiful pine trees, lovely hiking and biking trails and a small but picturesque lake. As an extra selling point, it’s an easy 1.5 hour drive straight up the interstate from our house.

If you go camping with two four-year-old girls and a one-year-old boy:

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*Many, many thanks to Jessie and James Greene for the majority of these photos!

It’s So Fly Flying With Kids

It may be an understatement to say flying has never been my greatest joy. At one point in my life I even sought therapy, which is kind of funny since my husband is from another continent AND an anxiety researcher. For the most part, I’ve always flown despite my fear, but my travels were tainted by a lack of anticipatory excitement as well as return flight dread that set in pretty much the moment the outbound flight touched down.

You may well ask what “anticipatory excitement” is. Basically, it’s planning a trip based on the assumption that you will not arrive alive at your intended destination. Try taking a honeymoon without making a single hotel reservation and you’ll get a taste of my very special kind of crazy–a crazy you do not want your daughter to inherit.

Luckily, my daughter is a very happy little traveler so far. She looks forward to every trip and gets a little out of sorts if my husband or I get to fly somewhere without her. But even excited children can prove difficult to keep happy and comfortable when trapped in a cramped and stagnant tube where the crabby, hungry, bored and often sick masses are pressed together in an annoying heap of humanity.

Each age has its own challenges, which means we parents must remain vigilant; juking and jiving through childhood to keep our offspring, fellow passengers, and ourselves sane and law-abiding while en route.

I hope my experiences are enlightening to a few of you, but I should disclose up front that the following observations are completely anecdotal and have no basis in scientific evidence. So pay attention.

Baby’s First Year


As seen in the photo above, infancy is THE time to fly with children. Tickets are free, and you get those adorable little bassinet things in the bulkhead seat. No one wants to sit next to you, which means you can spread out, leisurely watch movies and drink free beer to your heart’s content while your nine-month-old snoozes her way across the Atlantic.

Seriously, on this flight to Holland, we took a late afternoon flight, fed her when the seat belt sign went off, tucked her in within an hour and a half of take-off, and had to wake her up when it was time to land. Since babies sleep so much anyway, there was very little adjustment with the seven hour time difference so jet lag was no problem at all. Awesome.

One to Two Years Old

My daughter is almost two in this photo. She’s sitting on a beautiful beach in the south of France doing her best Hervé Villechaize impression of “Da plane! Da plane!” Cute, right? Don’t let her fool you. I think she’s excited about a plane flying overhead because she’s gleefully remembering the hell she put us through on the flight over, and plotting her shenanigans for the return home.

In her entire childhood to date, the frustration I felt trying to get her to sleep on those two flights was matched only by the post-diaper, pre-poop-in-the-potty days. She slept for about three hours on the outbound flight, and not a single wink on the return. Ten hours is a long time to entertain a toddler who is not yet interested in television and incapable of sitting quietly. A really long time. The only positive thing I can say about traveling with a child this age is the ticket is free. The good news is, when you look back on the trip, you’ll mostly remember the fun time you had, and the whole flight fiasco will be a funny story you tell parents of toddlers.

Two to Three Years Old

Kids this age are beginning to be rational beings. They can be reasoned with, bribed, tricked and otherwise manipulated. Snacks, new toys (like creepy baby dolls), snacks, explorations of the tiny bathroom, snacks…these are the parent’s friend in flight. While we did not fly overseas with our daughter at this age, we took several trips in the three-four hour range. She was excited about going somewhere in general, and enjoyed the novelty of all the goings-on within the plane.

This is a tricky age for some, depending on when potty training occurs. Our daughter was in the midst of potty training on this flight, but I took the easy way out and put her in a diaper rather than going to the grosser-by-the minute toilet fifteen times. It worked for us, but I’m sure some would criticize. To them I would say: my five year old daughter hasn’t wet her pants in more than two years. Except for that week or two a few months back when she became transfixed by things like soccer and Legos. So there.

Three to Four Years Old

The most obvious thing you need in order to have an enjoyable family trip is excited (or at least resigned) kids. Our daughter gets super jazzed about going pretty much anywhere when I tell her it’s time to get her backpack ready to go. It’s small enough that it can’t get too heavy, but large enough that she can cram in the stuffed animals, books and art supplies that are most important to her at that moment. As an added bonus, I’ve never heard her complain about not having a particular prized possession.

As seen above, that whole backpack thing will be completely forgotten when your four year old discovers she has her very own television and access to literally hours of movies and shows. When it comes to lengthy flights, I’m all for ignoring the rules. If that means Peter Pan, followed by The Incredibles, followed by chicken strips, followed by Sponge Bob Squarepants, so be it. Judge if you will. My kid looks forward to 10-12 flights, and it’s the boob tube that makes that possible.

Five Years Old

Five years old is really not so different from four in terms of making it through a long-haul flight. Snacks, books, movies and games got us through most of our most recent vacation. My daughter didn’t sleep nearly enough on either leg of our last trip. It’s tough to try and squeeze in any healthy amount of rest between the coughs, conversation, meals, turbulence, toilet flushes and bangs on the seat. Still, she was a trooper on the plane, but five minutes after landing…just long enough for everyone to move into the aisle and block our path to the bathroom…my poor little peanut hurled all over a poor teenager’s cute carry-on bag.

I’m not sure who I felt sorrier for, but as you’ll see in this photo taken about 30 minutes after “the incident,” my girl was pretty darn pitiful.

A note on jet lag: kids this age are very resilient. Our entire family had an afternoon nap upon arrival and slept like babies the first night. On nights two and three, we had a party from about 1:30 to 3:30 a.m. and then got right on track.

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Resorting to a Resort

I’ve never really been a “resort person,” preferring to stay where real people live and do their thing. You get a stronger taste of a culture and atmosphere that way, and it’s fun to be reminded that the world is full of food, music, experiences and people you’ve never encountered. Stepping out of ordinary life for a while makes going back home that much more enjoyable.

I do, however, understand the appeal of an all inclusive kind of place if your main vacation goal is simply to get away from everyday drudgeries and relax. There’s nothing like a gnarly pile of dishes or standing in a long line for mass transit to remind you of the real world, and there’s something to be said for whiling away the hours, sunning yourself with a glass of wine and page-turner in hand.

It was in that spirit that we decided to go to Mexico for a four-day weekend when our daughter was two. You can read more about that “controversial” decision here, but we were primarily after some gadget-free family togetherness somewhere we’d never been. Since we didn’t have enough time to travel far or decipher the logistics of an unfamiliar place, we decided to keep it simple by staying at a resort. I did a little research and chose the Yucatan resort closest to Tulum, thinking we’d be able to slip into the real world easily if we tired of all the free food, swim-up bars and bachelorette parties.

As it turned out, the decision to stay in an all-inclusive place was good and bad. It served its purpose as an easy getaway with a toddler, and we spent a lot of time enjoying each other without everyday responsibilities and distractions. But we definitely missed out on having an authentic experience, and when we eventually go back to Mexico, I don’t think we’ll do it the same way, especially now that our daughter is older.

If you resort to a Mexico resort vacation with a two year old:

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Puffers in Paris: The Association Game

Puffers in Love

Every vacation has its own “thing” that unintentionally becomes a memorable part of the whole experience. It can be a song, catchphrase, food, recurring pitfall…anything that just sticks with you.

For example, on my post-college Clark W. Griswold tour through Europe, friends nicknamed me “Jill of Many Things” because of the accumulation of souvenirs, bath towels, books etc. that dangled inefficiently from my backpack. My friend Tom, who couldn’t resist drooling over the cookies, tartlets and pastries found on every European corner, will always be “Dessert Man” to me. And I still get nostalgic for youthful misadventures when I hear Sting’s “Fields of Gold” because its ubiquitous play on Euro radio became the soundtrack to our lives that summer.

It’s no different with family trips, and there are many things we will always associate with our recent trip to Paris. For one, our daughter hummed the Pink Panther theme over and over and over. And over and over and over. Also, I’m pretty sure we’ll always think of Paris if “Puss in Boots” is mentioned because of the repetitive “Le Chat Potté” Metro ads that became the object of an almost daily “I Spy…” game. On that 1993 trip to Europe with friends, the Metro hard sell was focused on Bridget Fonda’s “The Assassin,” a Hollywood remake of a 1990 French movie called “La Femme Nikita.” If I was a Parisian movie buff, I would at least call that redundant, and may even go as far as cheeky.

We will also forever link Paris with the puffer jacket. I like puffer jackets as much as the next person, but when I say puffers were prevalent in Paris, it’s an understatement. As you’ll see in this silly little photo album, puffers abounded in all shapes and sizes, and my husband and I had fun pretending to be Bill Cunningham. Only these photos will never run in the New York Times, or have any kind of impact. Other than that, we felt very much like Bill Cunningham.

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Bad Parents Risk Toddler’s Life for Beach Vacation

Until recently, I’d lived most of my life in Texas but never been to Mexico. Given the proximity, that’s no easy trick. Most people I know rave about Cuerna Vaca, tell tales of their college semester in Oaxaca, or at least vaguely remember crossing the border into Matamoros during a debaucherous Padre Island spring break. But not me. A few years ago, we decided it was time to break that seal, and planned a trip to the Yucatan. Not long after booking our trip, swine flu broke out and we faced a dilemma about whether or not to follow through on our plans. The essay below details our unpopular decision to take our daughter to Tulum, and the ramifications of that choice. For a hint on how things turn out, see the photo of our family in fear below.

In case it entices you to read…this essay has NEVER BEEN SEEN IN PRINT BEFORE (meaning it got turned down by several magazines). I’m curious to know whether others would have made the same decision. If you’d like to see a slideshow of our trip, take a look at Resorting to a Resort.

Destination Danger Zone
Passports, bathing suits and sunscreen? Check.

Facemask, flu medication and bulletproof vest? Check.

We were packing for our family trip to Mexico, despite the double whammy pummeling the country’s tourist industry: swine flu and drug-related violence. After all, my husband and I reasoned, the flu had reached pandemic proportions and could be contracted almost anywhere in the world; the violence referenced in the U.S. government’s travel advisory seemed far-removed from the quiet Yucatan beach town we were planning to visit.

Some friends and family disagreed, believing the potential risks were too great. In their minds, the slim chance of catching and dying from a brand new killer virus or getting kidnapped by drug lords far outweighed beautiful sea views, ancient ruins and no cell phone service on the list of pros and cons. Some even suggested we were being frivolous with our daughter’s health and safety for a few days on the beach, and encouraged us to cancel our trip in favor of a backyard staycation.

Though I was intensely irritated by the criticism, it did cause me to consider our motives and decision-making process. My daughter was only two, and many toddlers manage to become productive human adults without a preschool field trip to the Caribbean. Did we really need to hit the Yucatan playa at this particular time in our lives, and at this particular juncture in world history? Upon reflection, I concluded that, in fact, now was the perfect time for this particular vacation, and I was largely unconcerned that current events unfolding in Mexico would impact the health and safety of my family.

When swine flu first brought Mexico to a screeching halt, we were prepared to cancel our plans if the global cataclysm predicted on the evening news came to fruition. But in early May, Mexico lowered the flu alert and the U.S. government followed suit, lifting its recommendation to avoid nonessential travel to the country on May 15.

At about the same time, swine flu was hitting our hometown, and a large area school district shut down for two weeks because of a few affected students. There is still great debate over whether that move was prudent or hysterical, but it bolstered my own decision. If swine flu was a deal breaker, I wondered, why weren’t people fleeing our city? Heck, given its northward trajectory, maybe we’d actually be safer from the flu in Mexico.

The threat of violence was of even less concern. Living in Texas, I am well aware of drug-related problems in Mexican border towns, and would think at least twice before going on holiday to Juarez. But we were going to Tulum, a touristy town 90 miles south of Cancun. I had read nothing that led me to believe it would be any more dangerous than my own urban neighborhood, where a woman was recently carjacked with her children onboard.

Even the advisory on the US Department of State web site gave me some comfort about traveling to Mexico. Though it goes into greater detail about particular regions of the country, the following paragraph sums up the general situation:

While millions of U.S. citizens safely visit Mexico each year (including tens of thousands who cross the land border every day for study, tourism or business), violence in the country has increased. It is imperative that travelers understand the risks of travel to Mexico, how best to avoid dangerous situations, and who to contact if one becomes a crime victim. Common-sense precautions such as visiting only legitimate business and tourist areas during daylight hours, and avoiding areas where prostitution and drug dealing might occur, can help ensure that travel to Mexico is safe and enjoyable.”

I find this to be excellent advice, and wholeheartedly commit to following it – in any locale I may find myself. Common sense, in general, is a useful tool to employ when making decisions. For example, I would use common sense if contemplating a family vacation to any of the following destinations currently saddled with government-issued advisories:

  • Honduras (unstable political and security situation)
  • China (unsavory swine flu quarantine measures)
  • Gabon (dead president/pending elections/risk of violent uprising)
  • Argentina (swine flu outbreak)
  • “Hurricane Season” (bad weather could result in an unpleasant vacation…or worse)

My carefully considered reaction regarding travel to these other scarlet A-lerted destinations is a mixed bag. At the risk of sounding provincial, I admit I have never researched China or Gabon as a potential vacation spot, though perhaps I will do so in the future. I know many families who have traveled to Honduras, but concede it may be best to wait out the coup before towing your toddler to Tegucigalpa. Similarly, I will do everything within my power to avoid vacationing in the midst of a hurricane.

Argentina is a different story. If we are to be discouraged from traveling to a country simply because flu season is upon it, we should all pack our bags now. On Aug. 24, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology reported that swine flu could cause 90,000 US deaths this fall. If avoidance is the key to survival, maybe the answer is emigration to a country with no confirmed swine flu deaths. Bermuda, for example, may be a prime location to expatriate – if not for the unfortunate problem of “Hurricane Season.”

And so, selfishly, irresponsibly and with great excitement we flew to Mexico in June, straight into the epicenter of danger and disease – Cancun International Airport. After enduring a cursory cough check and lengthy customs line, we emerged into the sunny sea air and shuttled ourselves down the Yucatan Peninsula, through Playa del Carmen and into Tulum. As we marveled at the amazingly blue Caribbean, we managed not to worry about the drug deals and shoot outs that may or may not have been taking place along a different stretch of highway in some other part of the world.

For the next five cell phone- and e-mail-free days, we splashed in the surf, built sand castles and gave our daughter hours of pool time to reinforce her recently acquired swimming skills. We ate together, played together, left routine behind together and immersed ourselves in the culture together. Toddlers, perhaps more than anyone, can appreciate an impressive pile of blocks, and with her first glimpse of the Mayan ruins our awestruck daughter said, “Look, Mommy, somebody build that.”

There is a fine line between parenting responsibly and parenting fearfully. Unfortunately, we are so often bombarded by frightening news and information that we over predict the real threat of a situation and fail to make rational decisions. I am not suggesting it’s wise to wander through parenthood wearing a Pollyanna pantsuit, but neither should unfounded fears cause knee-jerk decisions that make life less rewarding.

In the end, my daughter’s fall out of bed was the worst thing that happened on our family vacation to Mexico. Of all the things that might have gone wrong, I’m afraid it was the one thing I had not even considered.

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