Knocking Down Hurdles

In a matter of minutes, all hell broke loose.

We’d just returned from Minnesota – 12 lovely, fun-filled, family-rich days. It was a great trip, especially watching Ella and Annie enjoy the heck out of their cousins. Still, 12 days is a long time (for us; okay, for me), and – creature of habit and structure that I am – I was looking forward to being home.

The Re-Entry Itinerary contained some standard hurdles to leap (or, in my case, to knock over; according to the Olympics, basically anything goes with regard to hurdles, right?). Dirty clothes, empty fridge, unpacking. The grass was at least 8″ tall and we had the usual back-to-school litany: teacher meetings, orientations, sports, shopping.

All perfectly do-able — but, still, a rather jam-packed couple of days that would require me to turn off my Summer Brain and dial back into something vaguely resembling Competent School Year Brain. I just needed to keep my old, uninvited visitor, Anxiety, in check, and all would be well.

I’ve done pretty well making Anxiety talk to the hand this summer. I mean, summer and I will never be BFFs, but I’ve learned how to acknowledge Anxiety’s presence while not allowing her in.

Although the flight home was uneventful, traveling is always a bit exhausting, and I was doing that self-talk thing that we who struggle with anxiety know all too well: It’s all good, just keep going, I’ve got this. Not ten minutes after walking in the house, we discovered that Langston had a double ear infection. An Urgent Vet Visit had not been in the Re-Entry Itinerary. But, in between the grocery store and mowing and swim practice, I could slip in a trip to the dog doctor. Deep breaths. Hurdle added. I’ve got this.
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Pitiful vet-visit face.

Since, in that moment, I couldn’t help poor Lang out, I decided I might as well accomplish something and took the first load of Minnesota Trip laundry down to the basement. There, in front of the washer, lay a strip of dried-up blue duct tape – the “fix” I’d applied to the tear in the rubber seal to prevent it from leaking. Anxiety raised her hand, contemplating knocking, but I told her to back off – then took another deep breath, gave myself another pep talk, applied another strip of tape, stuffed a towel at the base of the machine, and hoped that it would hold.

It wasn’t until I turned around to go upstairs that I scanned the room and saw, clear as day, at least an inch of standing water covering the far side of the basement. A further scan revealed a wide-open window (screen still attached), the cinder block wall damp beneath it.

Hurdle. Added.

(Our best guess was that a huge rainstorm must’ve overloaded the window well, causing the window to burst open from the pressure. GOOD TIMES.)

A review of the damage revealed that my teaching boxes, stacked under the window, were soaked, their cardboard frames flimsy and soft. Nick’s music equipment – guitar pedals, sound-effect-thingies (that’s the technical name), microphones, speakers – sat on the floor, surrounded by water. Without thinking, I grabbed a towel (not the one protecting the washing machine, thank you very much) and threw it into the lagoon; instantaneously, it sank to the bottom, useless and drenched.

My old, uninvited visitor was now persistently banging on the door. I could feel warmth rising in my chest; my pulse began to throb in my ears. When you regularly deal with anxiety, you learn which “helpful” strategies work for you and which make you want to punch someone. For me, mindful, slow, feel-like-an-ass-but-it’s-actually-calming breathing is my go-to. Deep breaths. Come on. Innnn two-three-four… Out two-three-four…

Surveying the mess, I understood this was not something I could tackle on my own. I don’t have this. Not right now.

I went to get Nick.

Together, we got the music stuff out of harm’s way, closed the window, picked up the sopping wet rugs and dragged them outside, rearranged the furniture so it was no longer in the lagoon, gathered enough towels to actually absorb the water, and made sure the dehumidifier and a fan were running. The non-stop action enabled me to momentarily suppress the panic that was waiting impatiently on the doorstep.

Hurdles: not gracefully leapt, but definitely knocked down.

The dog to the vet. The soaking wet basement. The potentially ruined items. The discarded rugs and the water they tracked through the house. The towels that now needed washing – in addition to our Minnesota Trip clothes. The faulty window. The mold that appeared to be growing on the basement wall.  It was a lot to process, and my processing skills – exhausted from the deep breathing and Anxiety-fighting pep talks – were zilch.

When everything goes wrong at once, it’s probably a lot for anyone to handle, but for those of us who battle anxiety, it can seem temporarily insurmountable. Anxiety is a real bitch. She whispers in our ears that we do not, in fact, have this. She reminds us of all that can go wrong – and then, when we attempt to counter her, counters us right back.

This is a disaster.

If I take it step by step, it’ll seem more manageable.

Maybe someone snuck in through the broken window. It might not be safe here.

The screen is still intact and the petsitter would have noticed.

If the infection has been there for a while, Langston’s hearing could be affected.

I’m sure he’ll be okay. I’ll bring him in tomorrow.

What if that’s not enough? What if you aren’t enough?

I’m trying. I’ve got this.

Do you, though? I bet other people don’t feel this way. You’re obviously broken.

That’s the real kicker. In addition to causing you to feel nervous and unsettled over even minor things, to making you go down every absurd rabbit hole and through all the obscure What Ifs, anxiety makes you question yourself. Can I really handle this? Why don’t other people do this? What’s wrong with me?

It was now well past 6:00 and the girls were starving, so I ordered dinner. I’d planned to cook but I – mercifully – decided to give myself a pass. It’s most important that they eat. It’s okay. Give yourself a break.

IMG_8422August sunset on Long Island.

While waiting for the order to be ready, I ventured back to the basement to change the laundry… and found, yet again, a puddle in front of the washer. The duct tape hadn’t held. We needed a repair person ASAP.
More hurdles. The course was getting long.

Anxiety, impatient, began to open the door.

Before returning upstairs, I stopped to check on the drying-out process – and was stunned to discover another big ol’ pile of water in the middle of the concrete. Assuming there was some scientific explanation (the water was sucked back to the surface through blah blah, science-y words), I knelt down with yet another towel to sop things up… and heard the dripping.

The air conditioner unit was leaking. A lot.

Somehow, not only had the window burst open in a torrent – flooding the basement – but the A/C was also hemorrhaging water onto the floor. How this twofer managed to occur at the exact same time is clearly the work of the devil.

Anxiety stepped in and closed the door behind her.

The sides of my vision began to darken. The warmth in my chest turned to heat. My stomach began to knot. In addition to my heartbeat flooding my ears, there was also this rush of nothing – like white noise – that grew ever louder. My hands started to shake.

Innnn two-three-four… Out two-three-four…

I debated getting some medication – the kind specifically prescribed for times like this – but heard Anxiety telling me it was a stupid idea. “Other people don’t need that. Don’t be weak. Shouldn’t you be able to manage on your own?”
Another ironic kicker: that anxiety can make us too nervous to take our anxiety medication.

Nick found me in the kitchen standing at the counter and immediately knew something was up.

“I’m having a panic attack.”

Rather than running, rather than ignoring, he came closer. Putting down what he was holding, he took me by the shoulders and told me, measured and calm, “Okay. Let’s do this. We can figure it out.”

Yes, we can. I can. Breathe, breathe, breathe.

I told him about the air conditioner (we added more towels). He hugged me; tight, long.

“I’m sorry that I’m sort of broken.”

“No. This situation just really sucks.”

I’ve had panic attacks before and know their paralyzing horribleness. I also know, every time, I’ve gotten through them. I know that they end. I know, if I’m persistent, I can shove Anxiety back out the door. But I still need to remind myself each time it happens.

Between Nick’s reassurance, my breathing, the eventual return of my self-belief, and deciding that taking Xanax was actually the smart, strong way to go, things got better. My heartbeat returned to normal. My vision cleared. My stomach relaxed.

By the time dinner was ready, I was back to myself. The girls never even knew what happened – which was both reassuring (I wouldn’t want to worry them) and disquieting… because I want them to know that this is nothing to be afraid or ashamed of. In fact, my hearing Anxiety’s self-doubt-filled warnings, flipping her off, and doing whatever it took to kick her out are not only not shame-worthy; they’re powerful and awesome.

We, as a nation, do such a poor job handling things like anxiety and depression. Their taboo nature makes difficult situations even more difficult. I want to show the girls that, despite my own statements to the contrary, I’m not broken. I’m me – strong, smart, kind, Starbucks-loving, kickass me – and just because Anxiety has barged in, those things don’t change.

Also? I’ve got her number.

Less than 24 hours after the panic attack, the A/C guy had come (sweet fancy Moses), the groceries were purchased, Langston got to the vet, the floor was dry, and I’d made appointments with the washing machine and mold folks. I also mowed the lawn – where, mid-backyard, the mower cord snapped and I sprained my toe. Two more hurdles. But this time, instead of panicking, I boldly kicked them aside.

I wrote about the whole shebang on Facebook, treating it more like a joke. 24 hours later, it was a joke –  but that was only part of the story, and I know that so many other people have similar stories… but we rarely share them. That’s why I decided to write about it: so that all of us who struggle with anxiety – or who recognize ourselves in this scenario – might feel a little less alone. Only by talking about it can we de-stigmatize it. So here I am, talking about it.

If you, too, battle anxiety, know that you’re not alone. You can do it – maybe on your own, maybe with the help of friends and family, maybe with the help of medication – but you can, and all of that is okay.

The hurdles will always appear… but remember that you don’t have to clear them. You just have to knock them down and keep going.

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The girls having a blast at the Minnesota State Fair.
They keep me going.
Them… and caramel macchiatos. And Xanax. Amen.

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It’s not CAN’T-cún… It’s CANcún*

This – 2015 – is a fairly big year for Nick and me: it’s the year we both turn forty. Upon realizing this several years back (yes, we had to realize it; getting older is rough, y’all), we decided that our upcoming forty-ness would be the perfect excuse to embark on an adults-only vacation – ideally with a bunch of other friends who were also 1975ers (or close enough).

After nearly four years of planning, in mid-July we found ourselves at an all-inclusive resort north of Cancún*, a spot chosen both for its geographic middle-ness (for friends from both coasts) and its ability to serve our needs perfectly.

* the joke in the title was made by one of my BFF’s husbands. It is awesome.

Want to just lounge by the pools and beach all day, every day? That was do-able.
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 The pool area was pretty much fabulous.  IMG_3961
Those chairs? Yup. IN the water.

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And beyond the infinity pool… the ocean. Not too shabby.

We – eleven of us in total, some of our closest friends and some delightful friends of friends who became our buddies, too – all spent ample time by both of these bodies of water. Yes, they were bath-water warm… but the air temperature hovered over 100* (without accounting for humidity), so they were still refreshing.

Want to relax in your hotel room in air-conditioned splendor and take in the view? We could accommodate that.
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The rooms were really quite lovely. And air-conditioned. Very, very air-conditioned.
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The ocean was SO RIDICULOUSLY TURQUOISE BLUE.IMG_3979
Hazy morning shortly after sunrise… It was already at least 93*.

Want to trek 2.5 hours inland through the jungle (no, I mean that literally; except for the developed areas, which are not large, the Yucatán Peninsula is essentially all jungle, with vegetation so thick and lush, you’d be hard pressed to physically fit between the trees) and visit one of the most incredible archeological, astronomical, and architectural displays imaginable? We could make that happen.
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This is what we saw as we crossed from the Gulf of Mexico over onto the Yucatán Peninsula, on which Cancún is located. That green stuff? JUNGLE. Real, live jungle.
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Helllooooo, Chichen Itza. 
In other news, the Mayan people were SERIOUSLY BADASS and WICKED SMART, yo.IMG_1475
Very sadly, you are no longer allowed to hike up the steps to the top.
So we posed (with Ryan, one of our best buds from college) in front instead.IMG_3890
Also? The Mayan people were serious about their ballgames.
As seen in this etching/carving (found on the side walls of the “ball court”), the warrior/player has a blade in one hand and the DECAPITATED HEAD of the captain of the WINNING TEAM in his other hand.IMG_3892a
Why, you ask, did the VICTORIOUS captain lose his head (as depicted above – look closely and you’ll see the kneeling warrior [one knee on the ground, the other bent] with his  missing head)? Because such an “honor,” after playing so well on the field, resulted in his immediately becoming a god and joining the other Mayan gods before him. Immortality and eternal praise? Not a bad prize, eh?!

Want to cool off after trudging around historic Mayan sites in the 105* Mexican sun by jumping into a cavernous sinkhole that’s more than 150′ deep? That could be arranged.
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This is the Ik-Kil cenote. It is crazy cool, both literally and figuratively.IMG_1515
I was too chicken to jump from the raised platform (up the stairs to the right; Ryan and my friend, Sarah, took that plunge), but I did jump in from the lower platform. After wandering around in the blazing jungle sun, it felt positively heavenly.

Want to take in some local sites and cuisine? That was do-able.
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Purchased at a roadside taco stand on the way to our resort.
When I say that I want to eat like the locals, I mean it.
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A gloriously colorful side street just off the main drag on Isla Mujeres, an island just across from Cancún.
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On the ferry to Isla Mujeres…

Want to just relax and never leave the resort, preferring instead to savor the all-you-can-eat food and endless alcoholic beverages? That was very, very do-able. IMG_1516
The ocean was very, very warm.IMG_1687
There are iguanas EVERYWHERE.IMG_3936
The pool complex at our hotel was right perty at night.IMG_1573
My mom sent me with these napkins to share with everyone. They were awesome.
CELEBRATE TURNING 40, DAMN IT!

Want to just soak in the splendor of the local colors, all of which are, somehow, more vibrant and vivid and awe-inspiring that anywhere else I’ve seen? We had that COVERED.IMG_1569
Do you SEE how insanely turquoise this water is??
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Regular old Cancún sunset, nbd.
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Purple and pink palm trees during the same sunset. Again, no biggie. They’re used to it.

Want to get a special little souvenir for your children and take photos of it all over the island? Have at it.
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 This is Itza, taking a dip in the ocean.IMG_1554
 She also enjoyed being poolside.IMG_1553
An evening sunset wasn’t so bad, either.

Most importantly, want the opportunity to get together with friends – some of whom you were meeting for the first time, some you hadn’t seen in years, and two of whom included some of your very best, closest friends on the planet… but who had never met one another before? And then maybe revel in the true deliciousness of having days and DAYS to hang out together and eat together and drink together and lounge together and talk together and drink together and sing together (karaoke, poolside guitar, and a cappella; we took the resort by storm, y’all) and relax together and drink together? (Yes, I know I said that three times. I do try for accuracy.) 

That was the most do-able — and the very best — thing of all.

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Nine of the eleven of us, post cenote-jumping and Chichen Itza exploring. We were very, very hot and very, very ready for a beverage (or several) back at the hotel, but also very, very excited to have seen such an incredible historical site. Plus also the van was air-conditioned.

I think this turning-forty thing may not be so bad. I’ve got several more months to go, but in the meantime, we are already on our way to forming the oldest group in the next Pitch Perfect movie. And I have some delicious Mexican chocolates to keep me company until then, too.IMG_1657
With two of my very bestest friends, Sarah and Kiki – who had never met one another before this trip – and their excellent, harmonic husbands.

 

The Big Four-Oh

If you’re a 39 year-old heterosexual American male considering how to ring in your 40th birthday, doing so aboard a Disney Cruise probably isn’t at the top of your list. But that’s exactly where Nick found himself after we booked our cruise and then realized that his big day fell smack dab in the middle of the trip.

Given that our choices were to embrace it or ignore it, we chose to go with the former – and by “embrace it” I mean that Nick worked on not being bummed that he would turn forty while trapped with surrounded by gazillions of screaming, hyped-up children and adults either taking advantage of the poolside bar by 10 a.m. or dressed in life-size princess and pirate costumes. Meanwhile, the girls and I worked on coming up with as many ways as possible to draw attention to Nick and let everyone within a five mile radius know that it was his birthday.

We’re sweet like that.
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Nick had refused to open any birthday-related paraphernalia prior to his actual birth date, citing bad luck (umm, okay?), so we knew we’d either have to wait until we returned to give him his “real” birthday presents or we’d have to bring them with us. Given that we were already lugging several suitcases, that we planned to purchase more than a few souvenirs and gifts for family and friends, and that our stateroom – while lovely – wasn’t exactly palatial, we decided to give him the bulk of his presents back home… but that just meant we could go overboard* with the “fun” (read: embarrassing) stuff on the cruise.

* see what I did there?

The preparations began weeks before our sail date. I thought it might be neat to surprise Nick with some snacks, beverages, etc., in our stateroom, but I didn’t want to haul all of that stuff with me. I’d read about an awesome company that crafts custom-made gift baskets for folks in the Port Canaveral area; it seemed perfect, but unfortunately, Disney no longer allows off-site companies to deliver directly to their ships. Long story short (you’re welcome), after several weeks of phone calls and emails between that company, our taxi company, and myself — all without Nick’s knowledge — the gift basket lady met us at the entrance to the cruise terminal parking lot, our driver slyly pulled over and took the “delivery” into the front seat, and the porters quietly loaded the basket in with all of our other luggage, to be hidden away until the next morning. THAT’S what I’m talking about!

Nick’s sister, Emi, and her husband, Matt, had also sent a surprise wine and cheese platter to our room – but because of the whole “bad luck” thing, I knew I’d need to keep the goods out of sight until the following day. It was easy enough for me to enter our stateroom before anyone else (Nick was busy waiting in the interminable line to get a ticket so that Annie could meet Anna and Elsa), and it was easy enough to stash the wine and wine glasses in a cupboard… But the cheese plate a) would not fit in our tiny fridge and b) was super fresh and would have been, um, poisonous inedible if I’d tucked it away in a drawer or something… So, after conferring with Annie and Ella, we all dug right into lovely cheese plate that had been given to us by Disney as a way of thanking us for being repeat cruisers. (This was slightly less far-fetched than it sounds because there actually was a thank-you-for-going-on-your-second-cruise tote bag from Disney awaiting us on the bed.) Nick was skeptical (“They do this for everyone? Fresh cheese? Isn’t that kind of expensive?”), but with no one to say any differently, he had no choice but to buy into it.

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Not a bad way to start the trip!

When Nick awoke the next morning (aka HIS BIRTHDAY), we presented him with our contraband gift basket, Emi and Matt’s bottle of wine, and the real story behind why “Disney” had given us a lovely cheese platter. The basket was a huge hit – Nick and the girls had Milano cookies right there at 7:30 a.m. – but we were just getting started.
disney51 Also inside: the beach toys Ella used during our “adventure” on Castaway Cay.

First, I presented Nick with… the shirts (found here; Etsy is a mystical place, you guys). There were four matching ones for Annie, Ella, GranMary, and me, but Nick had his own… special… version.
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In case you can’t see them, our shirts say “This Girl Loves The Disney Dream” and Nick’s says “This Guy Turns 40 Today!”. VERY CLASSY.
Also, I’m just noticing now that Annie’s blue ears look like… my boobs. Very, VERY classy.

After putting them on, we headed up to breakfast — but not before stopping to admire our stateroom door, which looked slightly different than it had when I’d snuck out the night before to decorate it. (The doors are metal, meaning you can stick magnets on them. Many cruisers go all out with door decorations; it’s like an informal competition or a strange, impromptu art show.) The custom magnet (found here) was awesome, but even more fun was the white board – because as the day went on, fellow passengers left Nick birthday messages.
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This is the “after” shot, taken upon returning to our room at bedtime…

As we arrived at breakfast, I pulled out our next birthday treat… our Mickey ears. Nick had known that I’d purchased ears while we were in Epcot — it had been his suggestion, actually, to get some embroidered so that GranMary could have her own, personalized pair — but he didn’t know that I’d snuck in a different order for his ears.
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GranMary… Emily… Annie… Ella… 40 and Awesome!

Our big plans for the day began shortly after breakfast: while researching things to do in Nassau, we had decided upon a “dolphin excursion,” something that’s been on Nick’s bucket list for as long as he could remember. We were excited, but didn’t really know what to expect; the thirty minute boat ride over to Blue Lagoon was beautiful, but the girls were growing restless and Nick and I shot one another This Had Better Be Worth It looks.
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Upon our arrival, we sat through a brief – and interesting – information session about dolphins, dolphin conservation, etc. Following the session, we were split into groups and sent out onto the docks to meet with our instructor/trainer and the dolphins. Our small group consisted of us and another family; they went first, allowing us to see just what we were getting into.

There was no doubt about it: this was going to be incredible.

When it was our turn, we could hardly wait to scramble down the ladder and onto the submerged platform where we’d hang out with the dolphins. The first group had warned us that the water was cold; still, we were unprepared for just how chilly it would be. There was no time to ease in, however, because “our” dolphin – Missy – was being instructed to pose for a photo with us… so we gathered our courage, bent our knees, held our breaths, and smiled.
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Notice how the girls’ shoulders are up to their ears because there was no way they were ready to get that wet yet…

Missy – short for Miss Merlin – was fifteen years old, a nursing mama, blind in one eye, and just the absolute coolest, most fascinating animal I’ve ever had the privilege of meeting. The trainer working with her was sarcastic and bold and more than willing to embarrass us in order to get a laugh; we liked her immediately.

I don’t quite know how to describe the excursion. I could tell you what it entailed: we – each of us, one at a time – got to hug Missy, dance with her (holding onto her front flippers and bobbing around together), run our hands along her back and head and belly (dolphins are unbelievably soft – there is little to compare her to that would make any sense because it’s a wholly unique feeling), kiss her (which may sound weird but which was SO VERY COOL), feed her (Nick was cajoled into feeding her by dangling a dead fish from his teeth – for real, yo), and sing with her (“Happy Birthday,” of course). We watched as she leapt into the air, doused us with water (at the trainer’s mischievous instruction), disappeared for a moment or two to check on her baby (who was hanging out in a separate, protected area so Missy could visit), scooted backward along the top of the water using only her flukes, blew bubbles under the surface, and made myriad crazy and amusing (to us humans) noises.
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What I can’t put into words is the sheer joy, awe, and delight that coursed through all of us during the 15 minutes we spent with Missy. It was something that transcended happy and blissful and slid into a kind of euphoria – but contained, special, magic. We felt it; it was almost an out of body experience, except we were so incredibly present.

Near the end of our visit, the trainer told us to wait a moment – and, at her hidden command, the dolphin swam out of sight. The trainer explained to Nick that Missy would be bringing him something to commemorate his big day, and when she returned he had to take it – but if it was alive (!!), he’d need to put it back. A moment later, Missy resurfaced and swam to Nick holding something in her teeth. Stunned, Nick giddily took it from her; it was a rock (which, thank God, is not alive), collected from the bottom of the lagoon.

To put it another way, a dolphin specifically selected a gift for Nick and then gave it to him. NICK GOT A 40th BIRTHDAY PRESENT FROM A DOLPHIN.
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When we returned home, he ordered a plastic box from Amazon in which to store/display his gift. I am not even kidding.

There was lots of other stuff to do at Blue Lagoon – sea lion greeting, dolphin watching, a gorgeous Bahamian beach with inflatables on the water – but, agreeing that our experience with Missy couldn’t possibly be topped, we chose to simply head back to the ship.

It felt as though we didn’t touch the ground for hours. We ate lunch and got ice cream; the girls swam and rode the water slide; Ella got her hair braided all fancy-like; Nick and I relaxed and enjoyed the Drink of the Day. He was on such a high, he even proudly posed with the girls’ and my last gift of the day: a towel that my aunt had embroidered for him, loudly declaring his age. (The rest of his presents awaited him at home.)
disney94This is maybe the softest towel in existence. I’ve totally stolen it for myself even though I AM NOWHERE NEAR 40, ahem.

I’d been informed that, at dinner, our waitstaff would present Nick with some kind of birthday treat; since he doesn’t really like dessert (or any sweets, for that matter; I KNOW), I decided not to order him a cake (see also: fridge too small to store leftover cake). It turned out perfectly.

Disney is nothing if not enthusiastic, especially when it comes to celebrations, and birthdays are certainly something to be celebrated. As such, when I stopped by the front desk the night before, the concierge eagerly forked over “I’m Celebrating” buttons for GranMary, the girls, and me as well as an “It’s My Birthday!” button for Nick. Those drew us some attention, but it was really the shirt that turned people’s heads. Nick insisted on wearing it all day (until dinner), explaining that it was the only day he could get away with it. I’d chuckled when I found it online, giggled when it arrived in the mail, laughed out loud when he actually put it on… but seeing other guests and cast members take notice of it, do a double take, and then stop to say, “Happy Birthday, man!” all day long was pretty much the most amusing best thing ever.

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Speaking of cool things…

After dinner, GranMary presented Nick with his final gift: a clever and funny reworking of The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” (complete with mouse ears and dancing grandchildren); it was a delightful capper on a pretty damned terrific day. When we got back to the room, we discovered that our attendant had folded our bath towels in the shape of a birthday cake.
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Do you think they keep the ribbon on hand, just in case?

If you’d asked Nick what he envisioned doing on the day he turned 40, I doubt that he’d have described the day that he wound up having. Still, he was a tremendously good sport about everything – and, by the end, even he had to admit that as far as birthdays go, it wasn’t really so bad… In fact, it was pretty freakin’ great. We were in the Bahamas. It was a perfect, sunny day. He got some dorky fun swag, including a present from a dolphin.

He even got to check an item off his bucket list.
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This photo makes me ridiculously happy.

At the very least, I hope there’s no doubt in his mind that he is pretty freakin’ adored by the rest of us. (Adored… and seen as fodder for embarrassment.)

But hey – you only turn 40 once. Might as well kick back with a Yellow Bird, soak in the sun, kiss a dolphin, and look out onto the incredible horizon stretching before you – in every possible way.
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Awesome, indeed.

 

 

 

 

This house is clean

(Please tell me I’m not the only one who totally hears that woman’s creepy voice from Poltergeist when you read those words.
Also, the house isn’t clean yet. DON’T BE RIDICULOUS.)

When I say that we go all out for the holidays, I mean it in every way possible, especially with food. And drinks. And more food. I’d love to say that I’m one of those people who is able to effectively moderate exactly what goes in my mouth between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, but with honesty being the best policy and all, I can’t.

Usually, I don’t mind. Without getting into the gory (or, more specifically, boring) details, I will say that I’m generally a pretty healthy person. I’m mindful of my diet but I don’t actually diet and I am strong and (more or less) fit. Because of this, I don’t normally sweat what I eat in December ’cause I know it will balance itself out in the end.

This year, it did balance itself out… but it balanced out on my end. Throughout autumn, I’d noticed that my pants were getting tighter – nothing monumental, but a little more snug. I told myself that, once the holidays were over and I was eating my usual fare and exercising my usual amount, everything would be good again. But when the waistband of my pants actually began to hurt, I knew that just “going back to normal” might not be enough. The pounds had packed on so slowly, a subtle adjustment was unlikely to make much of a difference.

Simply put, I felt gross. I was uncomfortable. Yes, I want to make long-term lifestyle changes to what I’m eating, but I also wanted to jumpstart the year with a more radical change so that I could, quite literally, be happy in my own skin again.

Nick, too, was feeling pretty blech after the holidays, so we decided to do something together to kick ourselves into gear. Having completed the disastrous juice cleanse last year that left us both feeling like angry, starving lunatics, we knew that pure juicing was out of the question… but we liked the idea of a strict eating regimen aimed at removing the extra crap from our systems and putting in only good stuff. Just without the rage. And all the juice.

Long story short, after some research, we decided to go for a ten day cleanse that combined aspects of the Reboot Lite plan (I appreciate how it tries to let us off the hook by saying that this reboot is good for people for whom straight-up juicing isn’t right, “maybe due to health issues or a rigorous workout routine”… or maybe because JUICING MADE ME A BITTER, MURDEROUS HAG) and the 21-day cleanse that is outlined in Kris Carr’s Crazy Sexy Diet book (we condensed it into ten days and didn’t fast at all, but whatever).

More specifically: fresh fruit and vegetable juices, smoothies, veggies, fruits, nuts, beans, and certain grains (quinoa, brown and wild rice, lentils) were in. Dairy, meats, sugar, breads, carbs, anything processed, any beverages other than water and herbal tea, and basically all other foods were out.

PARTY ON, AMIRIGHT??

I’m sure, to many, this sounds like pure torture. Before the juice cleanse, I probably would have said the same – but after that week from hell, even Nick agreed that this looked like a veritable smorgasbord. We also knew that we really wanted this; we wanted to feel better. We wanted to stop craving foods we knew weren’t good for us, to stop eating so much, to get a head start on a healthier lifestyle, so we felt pretty darned motivated to see this through.

And you know what? It really wasn’t bad at all. We were “allowed” to eat plenty of food, so we never really felt hungry. Just as importantly, the food tasted really good and completely filled us up — and not merely acceptable-for-a-cleanse food, either, but recipes that we’ll happily turn to again now that the ten days are up.

(For the record: I have discovered that I can’t get enough avocado or quinoa. I could eat them both every single day maybe for the rest of my life. Sweet potatoes and kale, on the other hand, start off well but don’t feel as good by day ten.)

Best of all, the cleanse did what we’d hoped it would. We became full much faster, meaning that we were no longer consuming too-big portions. I “reset” my sweet tooth so that almonds and dried cherries satisfied my desire for something to chew after dinner, rather than a handful of chocolate chips. I lost around five pounds and, even better, my pants finally fit comfortably again.

To be fair, this cleanse thing wasn’t without its drawbacks. Planning for it – what meals we’d eat and when, making the grocery list, making sure we had the necessary tools – took hours upon hours because I refused to have us consume the same thing day in and day out. Groceries were monstrously expensive because purchasing enough fruits and veggies to juice and to eat costs an arm and a leg. Also, when you’re consuming heaps of fresh produce, it runs out fairly quickly, so I made four trips to the grocery store in ten measly days.

Hardest of all, the girls weren’t participating in the cleanse but they still needed to, you know, eat, so I wound up preparing three separate breakfasts and lunches (one for Nick and me and one each for Annie and Ella because do you think they could possibly agree on a single breakfast or lunch choice? OF COURSE NOT) and two different dinners every single day. Nick helped as often as he could, but I was still in the kitchen – chopping and dicing and peeling, juicing, blending, cooking, cleaning, dismantling, doling out into containers, washing Tupperware, etc. – for two-and-a-half to three hours every day.

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Just *some* of the dishes, pots, bowls, etc., required to do all of the peeling, juicing, blending, cooking, cleaning, dismantling, and doling out into containers. Every night, for ten nights. Not pictured: the freakin’ juicer.

Three hours in the kitchen is way too long to not come away with at least one batch of brownies or a glass of wine, y’all.

So, it wasn’t really the most practical of “diets” because I absolutely cannot devote that much time to food prep day in and day out. For ten days, though? It was doable.

I’d planned to come off of the cleanse very gradually, easing back into some of the foods we’d been avoiding (hello, Starbucks)… but, as luck would have it, the culinary arts center that’s only 30 minutes from our house was offering a gluten free baking class on the ninth day of the cleanse, and I had a gift certificate to the center that was begging to be used, and Nick could stay home with the girls because it was a Sunday so…

Really, there was no other choice. I was practically obligated to attend.

The baking was a blast and the recipes were spot-on, but – to both my delight and my frustration – I quickly learned that I was not able to consume the fabulous goodies that we’d prepared in class. I don’t mean that I didn’t want to (oh, I wanted to!), but that I couldn’t: after eating just two bites of the quiche and one bite of pizza, I was so stuffed, I felt sick to my stomach. Over the course of the week, the girls and I slowly made our way through the bounty and all was well, but it definitely felt strange to become so full after eating just one baked good.

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A small portion of the delectable spread that awaited us after class…
From left: pizza, quiche Lorraine, pumpkin whoopee pies (OMG SO GOOD), chocolate-covered macaroons, and flourless chocolate chip cookies.

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Additionally, in back: double chocolate brownie, lemon poppyseed muffin, English muffin.

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I had so many leftovers from the baking class, I needed four to-go containers.

This past weekend was our ultimate test when we went away for two nights with some of our best friends and their children. Although, by that time, Nick and I had introduced meat and dairy back into our diets, we’d kept our portion sizes reasonable and snacking to a minimum. By contrast, each night that we were away, we deliberately chose to throw caution to the wind and eat whatever we damn well pleased – pasta and burgers and cheese and wine and beer and dessert. We did become full more quickly than we would have, say, a month ago so we didn’t really eat all that much, but still – it was more than we had been eating, and it was certainly food that would be considered “unhealthy.”

The good and the bad news is that it caught up with us big time, sending both of our stomachs into knots, causing tremendous pain and discomfort, and costing us a lot of time in, um, the bathroom. Apparently, we did such a good job shocking our systems back into order that, upon being fed the “wrong” food, they revolted. Which is neat, in that the cleanse obviously worked and now it’s pretty clear what constitutes “good” food — but which also sucks because if I want to eat a piece of cake, damn it, I’m a grown-up and I don’t need my body giving me hell for it. (Likewise, darling offspring, I do not need to be accused of “using drugs” each time I pour a glass of pinot . Thanks, D.A.R.E.)

So, here we are – post-cleanse, feeling better, knowing that eating poorly will result in feeling poorly, but also seeing that the level of diligence (and amount of produce) we’d been maintaining isn’t possible long-term. Hence, we’ve decided to compromise and… wait for it… eat better. Crazy, I know. But, now that we’ve gotten started, it seems much more reasonable – even enjoyable. More veggies and salads. Less dairy and meat. More “clean” snacks that don’t come out of a package or a box. (Much) less processed food. More tea. Less “low fat” food. More real food, full fat and all. Less sugar. Fewer carbs. More water. Less soda. Lots of quinoa and avocados.

And, of course, some bacon and chocolate and wine and Starbucks thrown in there, too – just maybe not in the same night. Except for birthdays and weekends with friends and evenings when the girls are in bed and asleep before 9:00 and there’s no hockey on and a fire in the fireplace; then, all bets are off.

 

Lucky Thirteen

Thirteen years ago today, Nick and I were married and – if I may be so bold – our wedding was pretty freakin’ awesome. I’ve already written here several times about what it means to be married, about how our relationships has grown and changed over the years, about Nick himself and who he is. So today, as promised, I want to talk about our wedding itself and why it still makes me smile after all these years.

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I have no idea why we’re laughing, but it pretty accurately sums up the tenor of the evening.

If I got married today, I’d be all over Pinterest – Ooooh, let’s serve those at the reception! These are fabulous invitations! Who knew you could do that with a ball of twine and some feathers?!  When Nick and I were planning our wedding, there was no Pinterest. The internet, although definitely part of our lives, was not the place to go to get information and ideas about your upcoming nuptials. The sources that were available – gen-you-wine old-fashioned books and magazines – provided us with bunch of ideas, a few of which we adapted, but mostly we were on our own.

Which suited us fine, because we knew only three things for sure about our wedding: we really wanted to get married to one another, so that was, you know, kind of the focal point; we wanted our guests to have a kick-ass good time; and we wanted the wedding to really represent who we were. Meaning it would be musical, fun, geeky, loud, joy-filled, a little different, and enormous portions of delicious food would be plentiful.

Knowing that the musical aspects of the wedding were really important to us, we got started early by arranging two songs to be sung a cappella (see: geeky), recording the different parts and burning them onto CDs (again, not so easy to just email the files; and also again: geeky), and mailing the CDs to our extremely good-natured and supportive friends – members of the a cappella groups Nick and I had been part of in college – who’d agreed to sing with us over the course of the weekend. To their credit, every single one of ’em learned those parts; when we got together to rehearse for the first time (less than an hour before performing), it was like turning on a stereo.us wedding11
I Can’t Get Enough of You Baby” by Smash Mouth, what else?

For the rehearsal dinner itself, which was hosted by Nick’s family, we decided to bring a little Minnesota flare into our New York festivities. Nick’s mom and aunts hand-dyed the tablecloths and created the table centerpieces themselves, using preserved local Minnesota flowers and cattails and then shipping the whole kit ‘n’ caboodle all the way out to the Big Apple. It felt homey and warm and special and I was so grateful to them for putting so much effort and love into every detail. Nick’s dad created a slideshow of photos of Nick growing up, while my mom created a video of photos of me growing up, and the whole night felt like the perfect combination of his family and mine.

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That there would be the hand-dyed tablecloth and really cool Minnesota flowers.

Naturally, there was singing. We sang a cappella with our friends – a mix of old songs (including an old-school ditty called “Daddy” whose lyrics begin, “Daddy, let me stay up late… for tomorrow is my wedding date…” I know!) and the ones that Nick and I had arranged. Nick performed on his guitar, I sang with my forever BFF, Kiki, and Nick and I did a few songs together, welcoming everyone into this crazy world of ours.

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The morning of big day dawned cloudy and rainy, but the skies had cleared by the time the festivities began. I’d asked my singing pals to join me and my bridal party just prior to entering the church so that we could sing “Going to the Chapel” (in harmony, duh).

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Going to the chapel… literally.

The wedding ceremony itself was lovely and vibrant, nodding to tradition while turning things on their ends. Although we got married in a church, I refused to walk down the aisle to the organ because I think organs sound like something out of a horror movie (and yes, I was a music major and studied Bach and all that jazz [pun intended!] and I still can’t stand the organ; hey, you like what you like), instead choosing Offenbach’s “Barcarolle” from The Tales of Hoffman (after falling in love with it in the movie Life is Beautiful) for the processional and Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” (yes, the march, like you’d hear on the Fourth of July) for the recessional.

At the reception, we wanted everyone to have an absolute blast, to dance and eat themselves silly and enjoy the hell out of the whole affair (in part because, c’mon, how often are we going to do this? and in part because of the timing of the event). To begin, we had our first dance; nowadays, I’d be scouring YouTube for fun and charming First Dance Videos, but then, YouTube wasn’t even a blink in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye (I know he didn’t invent YouTube – Google tells me that it was created by three former PayPal employees – but it’s the first name I came up with, so there) – so it was just up to us to come up with something a little unusual. Ultimately, we decided to add a bit of whimsy to the dance (“The Way You Look Tonight”, a longtime favorite of ours) and incorporate a “choreographed” section complete with pat-a-cake clapping and doing “the swim”; it was very dignified.

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What? You didn’t rock ’50s and ’60s hand motions during your first dance? Pity.

Since this was, we figured, our one shot at sharing a bit of ourselves with this collection of charming guests who made their way across the country to join us, we wanted to include some of our favorite family traditions – including Christmas crackers (you know, the kind with exploding snaps at each end that are filled with a paper crown, a small slip of paper containing a joke or bit of trivia, and an itty bitty toy), which my family has opened at special dinners since I was a kid. Except that any old Christmas crackers wouldn’t do, so we – along with my mom – spent hours upon hours filling empty crackers with music-themed items: piano erasers, quarter note pins, and the like.

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The crackers, ready to go at at the tables…

us wedding3 Naturally, we put the crowns on as soon as we opened the crackers. Duh.

Our love of music was woven into all areas of the reception. Our band had told us they’d learn one song of our choosing – and so we chose a relative unknown, “Oh Babe, What Would You Say?” by Hurricane Smith, because it was one of my grandfather’s favorite songs and we used to listen to it while roasting marshmallows at the bonfires along the lake; we invited our entire families to join us for the dance. Our seating cards were written on music staves, sending people to a table not named by number but by a place that was important to Nick and me (Denver, Disney World, Canandaigua…).

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My cousin, looking to figure out which table he was at. (Hint: he was with us.)

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Dramatic reenactment; you get the idea.

Our a cappella friends joined us once more for a performance. Our wedding favors were CDs featuring our favorite songs. And, of course, there was the whole sing-a-song-with-the-word-‘love’-in-it thing, which turned out to be one of the best aspects of the entire day.

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We oh-so-cleverly did a mashup of Lyle Lovett’s “She’s No Lady (She’s My Wife)” and the George Gershwin classic, “Boy! What Love Has Done To Me!” (as sung by the incomparable Ella Fitzgerald). #MusicGeeks
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Yep, our buddy B is still wearing his crown. Because he rocks.

In short, everything was just as we’d hoped it would be; we had the perfect wedding (for us). I realize that not everyone can say that their wedding was everything they wanted, and that ours was makes me tremendously grateful. (Grateful, as well, to my – and Nick’s – parents, who never played the role of overbearing in-laws, instead deferring all important decisions to us so that the day could go exactly as we’d imagined.)

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The first few shots were staged – no actual plunging – but then we really did jump in at the end, which scared the heck out of my stepdad, who was taking the photos.

We wanted the food and drinks to be abundant and delicious; it was. We wanted the band to play songs that everyone would get up and dance to; they did. We wanted people to come together to sing and be silly; they did. We wanted autumn to be fully incorporated into the wedding – the decor, the food, the colors, the flowers (I believe that I’d asked for the reception locale to be “dripping with flowers,” a statement that, in hindsight, might have been just a bit overboard – but, gee, they sure were pretty!); it was.

We wanted to share our love of our home states with our guests; we did. We hoped they would join us in celebrating some of our families’ most cherished traditions; they did. We tried to ensure that music, and its importance to us, was felt at every turn; I believe that it was. We wanted everyone to feel welcome and happy, to be able to relax and just kick back and enjoy themselves, to know how grateful we were that they were there; I think they did.

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Laughing about something different this time; yes, Nick is wearing his crown, and yes, I’ve got a yellow plastic treble clef pinned to my wedding dress.

Even now, thirteen years later, people who attended our wedding tell us that it was one of the best weddings they’ve ever been to. Although that’s certainly a kind and flattering sentiment, I believe that it wasn’t so much the wedding itself that was memorable; it was that, for one day, we put ourselves wholly out there: this is who we are. We love music. We love our families. We adore our friends. We live for good food and laughter. Traditions matter. Levity is a must. Humor is essential. Laughter is the best. We really, really dig one another’s company. We believe in fun. And we are so, so glad that you’re joining us.

Our wedding wasn’t a one-off celebration that marked a complete departure from our personalities; it well and truly started our lives together because it was a representation of who we are as individuals and as a couple. Today, we’re still living by those values, right down to the geeky a cappella love and the continued use of Christmas crackers.

I feel so thankful – and lucky – that our marriage started off the way it did, with a wedding that was everything we’d dreamed of. I’m even more thankful – and feel even luckier – that our marriage itself is only somewhat like what I’d imagined; actually, it’s better.

Happy baker’s dozen anniversary, Nick! Here’s to dozens more – and to more laughter, more singing, and more cake and wine.

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Good For Us

“I don’t really care about any of this anymore. I think I just want to give up and go back.”

We’d been driving for nearly two hours to reach a restaurant that was supposedly 90 minutes from our hotel – a restaurant that we were only headed toward because I’d read that it had a fantastic gluten-free menu. It didn’t have an official webpage; I’d gleaned everything I could about it from reviews I’d read on TripAdvisor and Facebook, and I was essentially operating on faith.

Still, it was in Isabela, which was in the direction we already wanted to head that day – west, then south, toward Rincón – so I figured that we could find it easily and simply be on our way. At worst, we could just check our phones and use one of our navigation apps and BAM!, we’d be there in no time.

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Because Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory and uses the American dollar as currency, delegates English as a second official language, and seems, in so many ways, to simply be an exotic 51st state, we had naively assumed that our cell phones would work just as they had on the mainland. Turns out your phone won’t just magically function and we actually had needed to configure things before we left, because although we could make (expensive) calls, we had no internet or email access unless we could make a wifi connection.

At first, I thought that my mad map-reading skillz would save us (not to brag, but I’m basically like Magellan with maps), but – hey! Whaddya know! – the roads in Puerto Rico aren’t so well marked. You don’t rely on signage as much as intuition to determine when to make a turn or if you’ve long since passed your destination or even which town you’re in. Likewise, assuming that a numbered street – Route 451 or whatever – will be larger or more important than their non-numbered counterparts (as they are back in the States) is an enormous mistake. Route 724 may sound important, and it could be a well-marked four lane highway… but it also could be a partially paved street with absolutely no painted lines whatsoever that technically is designated as two lanes but which is actually barely wide enough for a Radio Flyer.

Additionally, given that we were app-less and had to rely solely on tangible, old-school, omg how the hell do you fold this thing up? maps, we really needed the ones we had to be super-clear, up-to-date, and detailed. Naturally, the maps we did possess were either entirely missing the streets that our directions called for or wildly inaccurate, indicating that roads began and ended when they absolutely did not (as we discovered more than once when we were certain we’d be coming to an intersection only to find ourselves at a dead end). This made driving exciting and certainly kept us on our toes, but did little to actually help us get anywhere.

What began as a smooth, well-maintened freeway suddenly, and without warning, turned into a meandering suburban highway a la the Boston Post Road but with four times as many red lights and only half as much asphalt. I’d hoped to be on the road by 9 a.m. and digging into my gluten-gree breakfast sandwich around 10:45; instead, we’d left at 9:30 and, although it was nearly noon, were nowhere near our destination but instead were coming to a stoplight-ed halt every thirty feet. It was at this point that Nick uttered the words at the head of this post, and I began to contemplate whether or not to acquiesce and turn the car around.

Instead, we stuttered along in silence, creeping down the coastline but unable to see the ocean at all. When at last we found the road that the directions had listed and followed it as it wound its way toward the shoreline, through hairpin curves and up and down impossibly steep hills, passing cars that surely should have hit us because there was simply no room for the both of us (but somehow there was – we were on the automotive equivalent of the Weasleys’ tent at the Quidditch World Cup), we expected to be at our destination momentarily…

… but failed to find it at all. It simply wasn’t there. Whether the directions were incorrect or our maps were wrong or we just had no idea where the hell we were going and didn’t know who to ask, it didn’t really matter. It was just no use.

Two and a half hours in the car for nothing.
AND we were still starving.

We’d known all along that this third day of our vacation would involve a lot of driving; we’d expected that much, had planned for it. When we’d told Annie and Ella our itinerary, they had balked at a day that included so much driving, saying it would be boring, but my sister-in-law chimed in that adults enjoy that kind of time because it allows us to just talk to one another, check out the scenery, etc.

As Nick and I headed back on the road toward Rincón (after throwing in the towel and admitting defeat on the GF breakfast) and 2.5 hours became 3 (after stopping at the only skating rink in the Caribbean) and I contemplated the caloric content of our poorly printed maps, my sister-in-law’s words came back to me… and it was all I could do not to laugh. Or maybe cry.

To say that Nick and I were not enjoying this little jaunt was a ridiculous understatement. Our blood sugar was so low, it was barely measurable. We had no idea where we were, where we were going, how to get there, or if we even wanted to get there. There was no “checking out” of scenery because a) sometimes there was no “scenery” save for strip malls and red lights, b) when there was “real” scenery, it was hardly noticeable because were were scanning every road sign for possible directional clues, or c) we couldn’t even attempt to look at the scenery because we were focusing on staying alive and not being driven off the pavement, in part because of the tiny twisted roadways filled with crazily confident drivers, and in part because the rain clouds that had been off to the north were now causing torrential downpours that overwhelmed even the fastest setting on the windshield wipers.

And talking with one another?
Um, no.
Unless swearing and muttering under one’s breath counts. If it does, we are communication experts.

At last, we essentially gave up and settled at the first restaurant we found that was even halfheartedly mentioned in our Fodor’s guide, where we watched the rainstorm slide down the beach. We also purchased food that could, at best, be considered mediocre (is chicken salad supposed to contain gristle?), but that was pretty much the only thing keeping us from dying a low blood sugar death, so we devoured it as though we hadn’t eaten in sixteen days, not sixteen hours.

On the way to Old San Juan – three-plus hours back exactly the way we’d come, except slower – we decided to stop and see these amazing-looking petroglyphs that I’d been dying to explore. Which meant that we drove out of our way for another thirty minutes, still couldn’t find what we were looking for, realized we didn’t have enough time to take the time to find it and still make it to our dinner reservation (on time), and just headed back to the hotel.

Whiiiiiich meant: seven hours in the car. Essentially an entire day of our vacation. Seven frustrating, exasperating, disappointing, hungry, soggy, exhausting, uncomfortable hours. They were not the highlight of our trip.

While we drove the final hour to Old San Juan (or, if I’m getting the facts right, while *I* drove; Nick gave up 2.5 hours in so I drove the remaining 4.5), sitting in brooding silence beside one another, I heard my sister-in-law’s cheerful words in my head once again, and noted that we were hardly the picture of marital happiness, or even a moderately content couple. Not only were we not talking – we weren’t really enjoying one another’s company, period. The more I considered topics we could be discussing, and the more I decided that I didn’t want to be discussing any of them at that moment, thank you very much, the more disheartened I became. We came on this trip to celebrate twenty years of being together and we can’t even take a little adversity and laugh it off? We can’t even manage to hold a conversation? WTF is wrong with us?

It was only after we handed the car over to the valet (a little too eagerly, but I don’t think they noticed) that I realized my entire upper body hurt. Yeah, some of that was due to the (incredible, once-in-a-lifetime, not-to-be-missed) kayaking we’d done the night before in the bioluminescent lagoon, but the majority of it was due to the tremendous stress from our drive. I’d been so busy trying to navigate, read nonexistent street signs, avoid potholes, see through the wall of rain, and evade drivers who wove in and out of lanes like pinballs, I hadn’t considered that my fingers were permanently welded to the steering wheel. Uncurling them was physically painful; my shoulders hurt to the touch.

So, hey. Perhaps when you’re that stressed out, cheerful conversation isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. Maybe not talking is just fine. Maybe nothing is wrong with us.

When we’d told friends that we were taking this trip, the most common response was, “Good for you!” Sometimes, this meant exactly what it sounds like: “I’m genuinely happy for you guys that you’re able to take this vacation together! That alone time is really important. I hope you have a great trip!” Other times, it carried a slightly snarky edge: “Oh. How lovely that your boss doesn’t mind you taking time away from the job. Interesting that you’re comfortable leaving the kids like that. Would that we all could be fortunate enough to take such a trip.”

But most often, it was said with an air of envious but dubious incredulity. “Wow. I’d love to take a trip like that, but we don’t even take the time to go out to dinner together. Good on ya for making it happen.”

Every time I heard it – “Good for you!” – I was surprised, because not taking the time to do stuff just the two of us simply isn’t an option for Nick and me. It’s not that we think our relationship comes before our family (although plenty of people do, and that’s dandy), and, in fact, most of the time it’s the exact opposite; it’s more that we know that our family won’t exist if we don’t put our relationship first sometimes. That, and – for as fabulous as our daughters are – it can be awfully nice to not be actively parenting every so often. The time we spend away from our kids is important and awesome. Plus, we genuinely enjoy one another’s company. (As evidenced by our blissful Puerto Rican drive, duh.)

It doesn’t have to be a full-on VACATION, just the two of us – the last time we did that (which was only our second solo vacation ever after having kids) was three years ago. Mostly, it’s not. But, when we are fortunate enough to afford it, it is leaving the girls with a babysitter and going to a concert or a game or a show. Or even just Barnes and Noble and Starbucks. Or it’s leaving the girls with their grandparents overnight while we go to a hotel. Or it’s a lunchtime date while the kids are in school. Or, when time and finances and life’s curveballs don’t allow for anything more, it’s talking and watching TV after Ella and Annie have gone to bed. No matter what it is, it’s something, and that’s what’s important.

Back when the girls were three and five, we were driving home from a (family) trip to Vermont when Ella threw up. All over. In her carseat. After stopping and getting things cleaned up (and the girls quieted down), Nick and I engaged in a lengthy and heated conversation as the girls napped. It was just a difficult time, with the butt-wiping and the crying at the drop of a hat (the kids, not me; not most of the time, anyway) and the refusing to eat broccoli one day and gobbling it up the next. He adored the girls, but this stage was hard. I asked him how I could help and expected to hear any number of solutions except for the one he gave me: He wanted to eat dinner with just me one night a week after the girls went to sleep.

BOOM. Of all the things, that was what he wanted: a little more alone time. A little more conversation. A chance to hear and be heard without having to cut somebody else’s meat or refill sippy cups.

We had those dinners for years, albeit not at regularly scheduled intervals, up until last year when the girls’ sports schedules changed our dinnertimes. Although we rarely eat together anymore after the kids are in bed, the premise remains: we two are important. Spending time together, alone, is important. Even if it’s driving aimlessly down the Puerto Rican countryside.

After our day spent ziplining and food kiosk-dining and kayaking in a glowing lagoon, I actually said to Nick that such a perfect day would be impossible to top. I didn’t anticipate being stuck in our rental car for seven hours in torrential rain, but indeed, the previous day proved un-toppable.

As we ate our dinner that night – the greatest meal of our lives – we discussed our disappointing day and what it symbolized… and what it didn’t. Upon reflection, we realized that there was nothing we could have done to prevent it; we were going on the best information available to us, using the resources at hand, and we got stuck. It was no one’s fault – it just happened. No, it hadn’t been how we’d wanted to spend the day. In fact, it sucked that fully one half of our sightseeing days in Puerto Rico had been wasted driving to nowhere. But it was what it was, and it was over now, and next time, we’d know more and could make better-informed choices. In the end, it was a small portion of our total vacation, and our tremendous meal – and subsequent, unexpected performance of native Puerto Rican music and dance – far overshadowed the bad parts of the day.

Which, the more we thought about it, pretty much summed up our twenty years of being together. Yes, there have been bad times – days and weeks and months of them. Sometimes, they’ve been avoidable, but more often than not, they just happened – no one’s fault. Rather than giving up, we’ve chosen to continue the journey – and some days, that brings us to something delicious. Others, we drive around in circles. We can become so stressed, we can scarcely communicate, but we don’t realize that’s what’s happening while we’re in the thick of it.

Sometimes, life throws crap at us that we don’t want, that we didn’t ask for. We are prepared for it to be tough and long, but sometimes it’s different than what we expected, and that sucks. Still, we’ve kept on – in silence, if need be – knowing that the other one is there. And, when all is said and done, the bad days are outnumbered by the good ones time and time again. There is rain, but there are rainbows. There is silence, but there is so damn much laughter. There are peanut M&Ms and Skittles purchased at the only gas station in Puerto Rico where the attendant doesn’t speak a word of English (not that I’d know), and there are singular meals that make an entire vacation worthwhile. The journey isn’t always easy, but in the end, it’s so totally worth it.

I knew that I was excited to go to Puerto Rico with Nick, but I didn’t realize how much we needed this trip together until we took it. It was, indeed, “good for us” — in every possible way.

Especially where plantains or wine were concerned.

That night, after we returned from our epic dinner and native dance/music watching, I asked Nick to please take a “real” picture with me…
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Picture 1: VERY NICE, NICK.

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Picture 2: He goosed me *exactly* as the shutter went off.
“Em, don’t worry… maybe it didn’t actually take the photo then…”
OH YES, IT DID.

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Picture 3: Nick cooperates; I look like a hunchback.

At last, I declared that we’d taken enough of these, but we should try one more – sitting on the chair, just for good measure…
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 annnnd that’s, like, the creepiest picture ever taken.
Plus my ass looks enormous.
I guess we’ll quit while we’re ahead. Or whatever. 

 

 

Puerto Rico: A beautiful paradox

This whole Writing About Our Trip To Puerto Rico thing has me kind of stumped. On the one hand, I want to tell you about everything – all of it – in detail, both because it was wonderful enough to document it and also because maybe I’ll convince you to go – and oh, you should. It’s fabulous.

On the other hand, this isn’t really a travelogue kind of blog, and frankly, reading blow-by-blow accounts of peoples’ travels can get a bit tedious, even if you’re a read-about-travels kind of person.

I’ve been pondering this conundrum for the past few days, this contrast between two approaches – and, after going through my photos today, it finally struck me that it is precisely this contradiction that I want to write about. (Not my own personal narrative, but rather the island as a whole.)

The entire time we were in Puerto Rico, Nick and I marveled at how fascinating it was – the disparity between new and old, modern and antique, Puerto Rican and American, sleek and rundown.

We got off the plane and were immediately bowled over by the heat; I’ve been in some damn hot places, but Puerto Rico was a different kind of all-encompassing, steamy, can’t-escape-if-you-tried, walk-for-five-minutes-and-your-shirt’s-soaked-through hot. But it was also tropical and somehow fresh and reminded you that you weren’t in Kansas anymore, Toto, but that you’d spun your house and landed in a (muggy) little slice of paradise.

As we exited the main terminal to pick up the rental car, we expected to see “traditional” Puerto Rican scenes and sights and buildings…
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I’m embarrassed to admit that I’m not sure what this is, but it’s in Old San Juan and it’s over 400 years old and it’s really, really cool.

… and were instead greeted by a Buffalo Wings restaurant.pr01
If we’d wanted wings, we could’ve traveled 60 miles to Buffalo instead of 1800 to Puerto Rico. IRONY, my friends.

Actually, that was a pretty good introduction to the juxtapositions we’d be seeing throughout the rest of our vacation. When we got to Old San Juan, we found ourselves driving down narrow, blue-bricked streets with rainbow buildings…
(Note: you can click on any of these to make them larger; the horizontal ones are especially small on the blog and are more interesting up-close)
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… but also past long-ago abandoned buildings…pr64

 

… often just steps away from one another.pr59
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That’s not a potted plant – it’s a tree that’s grown out of the building.

 

Never before have I been in a place in the Western Hemisphere where the past and present mingle so cohesively – where orange cars are parked outside of centuries-old forts.pr2

The Castillo de San Cristóbal was one of the most magnificent creations I’ve had the privilege to visit, perched high atop the hillside, nobly guarding Old San Juan…pr27

… and the cruise ships and hotels just beyond its imposing fortress walls.
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Looking back out at the fort from our balcony – when I wasn’t busy terrifying other hotel guests – was pretty freakin’ rad.

Out some of the castillo‘s windows, the view of the city was so warmly old-meets-new inviting, we might as well have been in Tuscany.
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(Or what I imagine Tuscany is like, having never been there. Work with me, y’all.)

Other vantages, at first glance, looked almost identically inviting…
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… but, upon closer inspection, showed how the city is courting growth and decay simultaneously.
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The fort itself, like so much of Old San Juan, was insanely windy, which provided its own interesting dichotomy: crazy hot meets constant breeze = hotter than hades but also sometimes not hot.

At times while walking around the property, I thought I might actually melt into a puddle, Wicked Witch of the West style – but inside this gun turret (last used in World War II, how awesome is that), it was so dark and breezy, I was positively refreshed. 

Old San Juan proved to be an absolutely delightful city; we could easily have stayed there for the duration of our visit and been perfectly content. It is entirely walkable (although the hills are no joke; San Francisco is mildly bumpy compared to OSJ), taking you along those aforementioned blue-brick-lined streets and past shops, restaurants, memorials, historic sites, crumbling city walls, gleaming new buildings, tourist traps, and residential apartments. The diversity was both startling and fascinating.

One street was lined with gorgeous, enormous, well-tended planters in which lovely tropical flowers and plants were flourishing…pr11

… while another was so poorly maintained, with peeling paint off the bars surrounding the doorways, that I didn’t even realize the building was occupied until I spied the soccer ball on the stairs inside…
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… while this one left no doubt that prosperity had long ago come and gone, despite the beautifully hopeful mural painted on the wall.
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Sometimes, we found ourselves so deeply within the confines of the city, winding down tiny side streets and in and out of shops, that we could only assume that the ocean was nearby. Others, we stood right alongside the shoreline, palm trees and tile-roofed buildings meeting with blue-green water.
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Similarly, these houses had completely unobstructed views of the ocean, a location that would make beach lovers green with envy…pr12

… until you noticed that they were falling apart, hole-y roofed, barely standing. It was sobering and curious and somehow lovely all at the same time.pr12a

 

This curious contrast was not only present economically in Old San Juan, but in virtually every other aspect of Puerto Rico (that we noticed, anyway. After 3.5 days there. We’re probably experts). Wide, inviting, breathtaking beaches were everywhere we turned, with water warm enough to fill a bathtub.pr41

Naturally, we stopped to enjoy the surf… but, paradoxically, also checked out the only skating rink in all of the Caribbean.
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Driving around Puerto Rico was an adventure in diversity in and of itself. The streets in Old San Juan are relatively clearly denoted, once you know where to look for the street names…
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… but all of the other roadways throughout the island were essentially unmarked, making for some rather difficult traversing (which might have tested our togetherness just a wee bit more than we’d intended, but whatever. We made it). We went ziplining in the rainforest at a place that was completely contemporary, safe, and wildly fun…pr36 DCIM100GOPRO

… but was accessible only by a potholed “road” that was technically two-lane but – like many Puerto Rican roads – was really barely wide enough for one car, ending at a collection of dilapidated, candy-colored buildings that apparently once belonged to the YMCA. It was otherworldly (and completely awesome).pr34
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One evening, we were fortunate enough to happen upon a performance by a local music/dance group that showcased some native Taino songs and dances. They whirled and sang songs that were hundreds of years old…pr50

… while wearing store-bought clothing and – if you were three years old – sparkle shoes.pr54

Throughout our trip, we saw animals everywhere, from dogs looking at us out second-story windows in updated, crisp-clean city apartments…
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… to wild chickens wandering aimlessly in and out of the driveways of barely-still-standing rural homes.
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We explored buildings that had been constructed (or whose construction had begun) before the oldest structures in the United States even existed…pr25

… but we also ate dinner at the most state-of-the art, ultra-modern (ABSURDLY DELICIOUS) restaurants imaginable.
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I’ve considered doing an entire entry just on this one meal, but I’ll never do it justice. Also, you’d be bored. And hungry. Suffice it to say it was magnificent.
This is dessert, which means espresso for us both, caramel corn creme brûlée with peanut brittle ice cream and Sparkling Frangelico for Nick and gluten-free organic carrot cake with some kind of ginger-flavored sorbet, plus a white wine from Hungary.
SOSOSOSOGOOD.

The juxtapositions weren’t unsettling, but they definitely made us realize we were in for more than just a simple vacation on a tropical island. There was a wonderful thread of cultural heritage that was woven into every city and location, but there was evidence of attempted growth all around us. Traditional Latin music blasted through car speakers as motorists navigated congested highways and itty bitty side streets with equal parts daring and insanity. English and Spanish were spoken almost interchangeably, a nod to their roots in Spain and their current status as a United States territory. Everyone we encountered was exceedingly friendly, but, strikingly, there were still bars on every window and door, from the cities to the suburbs.
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Note the dog peeking out from the second story of this home, too.

Even the weather was inconsistent – sunny one moment, downpours the next, and then instantly sunny again. As we stopped for lunch in a beachfront restaurant along the western coast, we happened to notice a storm rolling in from the north. It’s not every day that you get to see a storm glide in across the ocean and swallow you up.
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Our favorite, most incredible part of the visit – a kayak tour to a bioluminescent bay – couldn’t be documented, because it was pitch black and also glowing microorganisms don’t show up so well in iPhone videos (lame). It capped off a perfect day that we knew would be unbeatable; and indeed it was, with the following day being overwhelmingly disappointing as we got stuck in horrible, unpredictable traffic for seven hours (yes, really) and wound up missing out on the things we’d hoped to do and see. But that night, we ate the best meal of our lives (see above), and all was forgotten – contrasting experiences that bumped right into one another, ultimately creating something amazing.

And, in the end, that’s how we felt about Puerto Rico: that it was spectacular. Inconsistent, yes. Confusing, yes. Simultaneously beautiful and worn down, yes. Interesting, yes. Worth a return trip? Oh hell, yes.

Even before we’d left the island to make our way home, we were talking about going back and bringing the girls. It’s so accessible for us as Americans, both because it doesn’t require a passport and because the people and culture are so welcoming and affable. It felt familiar but foreign, expansive but contained, exciting but comfortable, relaxing but invigorating, crazy but chill. After 3.5 days, we felt like we’d really seen the island, but that there was still so much left to explore.

Which means that we’ll have to visit again.
Can’t wait!

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