Tuning out and tuning in

I hadn’t realized I needed the break until we were there. That may sound a bit daft – how could I not know I needed to get away? That some time off would be a good idea? Wouldn’t I understand my own self?

The answer, apparently, was no. I knew I was looking forward to our trip to Puerto Rico, to sharing the island that Nick and I loved with Ella and Annie, introducing it to my dad and Meg, celebrating my dad’s birthday. I knew I was psyched to be on vacation for six delicious days(!). But I didn’t discover just how stressed and anxious I had become, nor how liberating it would feel to lose that stress and anxiety, until we arrived.
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Fresh tropical popsicles at check-in make everything better.

IMG_0161So does the local rum in your hotel room.

It wasn’t until then, when we were essentially forced to take a break from life as we know it, that I understood not only that I had been feeling tense, but why: politics. More specifically, the ever-present coverage of politics on the news, my Facebook and Twitter feeds, every time I turned on the radio.

Politics. Every. Where.

 

In our house, this is not business as usual. Until this last presidential election, Nick and I discussed politics basically never. (Obviously, social justice is a big deal in our family; I know that LGBT concerns, racial prejudice, and women’s rights have become political, but to me they’re just human issues.) It wasn’t that we didn’t care; we did. We had opinions. But, by and large, we trusted our politicians – even those with whom we disagreed – to take care of politics.

As Andrew Sullivan wrote in New York Magazine: “One of the great achievements of free society in a stable democracy is that many people, for much of the time, need not think about politics at all.”

For the past 16 months or so, I’ve thought of politics virtually daily. And I don’t like it. It’s exhausting; it’s maddening; it’s disheartening; and, without my realizing it, it was seriously stressing me out.

When we got to Puerto Rico, we got out of the news cycle. I unplugged and breathed.
It was glorious.
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Yes, I still checked in; I was aware of what was happening on the mainland. But I didn’t take time to dwell.

Avoiding politics became a deliberate decision. My dad and stepmom, Meg, are often at opposite ends of the political spectrum from Nick and me, so it would have been simple to fall into a debate, even accidentally. We chose not to let it happen. This was a family trip to celebrate my dad’s birthday; that was our focus. (I mean, if I hosted myself a party and someone went on about how awesome the Red Sox are, or started dissing the Yankees, I’d be pissed, y’all.) On this – my dad’s birthday trip – I had no desire to do that to him, to us.

At first, it was actually somewhat challenging; for months now, politics has been dominating my daily life. (And if I believe the news or my Facebook feed, politics is the only possible topic worth discussing or contemplating.) I didn’t know what else to talk about. We began with some slightly pregnant silences…  but they soon abated. How refreshing and renewing it was to consider books, family, movies, school, work, music, travel, food… You know – life outside politics.

IT DOES EXIST.
Sweet fancy Moses!
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Some liberal folks might say it’s my duty to bring up politics, to continually acknowledge that our current political environment is not normal, not okay, should be challenged. I agree that we cannot sit back and do nothing. We must remain aware, engage, keep at it.

But sometimes, it’s okay to sit one out. My friends know how I feel. My family knows how I feel. My dad and stepmom know how I feel. Staying quiet for a few days was not only acceptable, it was necessary.

See, at some point, this political cycle will end. Change will occur. I don’t know how or when or what it will look like, but I do not believe, in ten years, that the world will look as it does today. What I do know is that I adore my family, both my immediate family and my extended family. We may disagree politically, but they’re good people; in fact, they’re some of the goodest people I know. I respect them. I love them. When all is said and done, I want them in my life; I need them in my life.
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Decked out in our matching night kayaking jackets…

Sometimes, the right choice is talking things out. Other times, the right choice is taking a knee. This time, we knelt.

It’s hard to draw a direct line between the awesomeness of our our trip and my taking a break from contemplating politics, but there’s no doubt that it played a significant role. How magnificent it was to not be consumed by fear and anxiety, to not fight the urge to check the New York Times homepage or refresh my Twitter feed – to just be, to enjoy the moments.

How delightful to savor my daughters running in the surf; my dad knocking on our patio door just to say hello; my stepmom being the first to brave the ziplines, despite her fear of heights; my husband being pooped on by a seagull (<– maybe savor is a strong word).

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IMG_0684Zipline-ready!

I ignored my timeline updates and instead presented my dad with his birthday video, discussing it for days thereafter. There was no news, no politics, getting in the way of hearing Ella’s delighted gasp as she dipped her hand in the glowing lagoon of the bioluminescent bay.

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I was able to revel in Annie holding an enormous, rainbow-colored conch during our night snorkeling adventure.

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Night snorkeling: awesome. Also: TERRIFYING.

I gave no thought to the latest headlines when Nick and I took everyone to our favorite restaurant in the world, our hopes high that they would enjoy it too, nerves dancing as we waited for them to take their first bites… followed by relief and glee (and ridiculously full stomachs) as they agreed with our assessment.
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It mattered not what the president was Tweeting when my dad and I got ridiculously tiny (but delicious) coffees at an Old San Juan cafe. I didn’t care what the pundits were saying as I immersed myself in Ron Chernow’s Hamilton biography.

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There was no newsfeed calling my attention away from watching the girls make memories with their grandparents: laughing as they sat on bubbling jets in the pool; splashing each other in the ocean; sharing dessert (or sometimes not sharing; hey – it’s dessert); exploring 400 year-old fortresses; .
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Instead of my pre-bedtime ritual of scanning the day’s Top Stories, I sat with my legs in the plunge pool, the ocean 25 yards away, listening to the omnipresent chirping coquis.

I can’t remember the last time I truly missed being on vacation; I’m always bummed to leave, but usually the relief of being in my own bed and returning to routine makes the trip a happy memory. This time, I actively missed it. I’d awaken in the night and think I was back in the hotel, feeling the crushing weight of disappointment when I remembered where I was. It took me several days to even want to look at our photos and videos; I was too sad that we were no longer there.

Looking back, I can easily pinpoint the reason for this: pure. joy. Remarkably, I enjoyed every single minute with my family, my dad and Meg. We had no arguments. No disagreements. For six whole days, we relished one another’s company. The entire trip! (Seriously, what were the chances?) What an absolute gift it was to be able to spend time with these people who I love so fiercely and cherish every moment of it.

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I know that experiences like this are few; next time, the girls may not want to look at us, much less have fun with us. So I’m appreciating the heck out of this one.

Maybe some of that was coincidental. Maybe some of it was luck. But maybe a lot of it had to do with making the conscious decision to tune out and tune in. Yes, it’s a luxury to be able to do so; I know many people cannot afford to turn off politics… which makes me so grateful that I can, and so glad that I did. (Plus, now I feel far more energized to continue persisting and resisting. WIN-WIN.)

In the end, I missed nothing – it was all waiting for me when we returned, believe me – but what we all gained by focusing in instead of out is immeasurable.

Yes, we’ll always have Puerto Rico… but even more than that, no matter what, we have each other. Muy delicioso, indeed.

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A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Cheesy Souvenirs

Nick is going out of town again next week, which is always a little hard on the girls. He travels often enough that we can get into our own groove pretty easily, but they still miss him when he’s gone. One of the ways that Nick works to ease their sadness is to check in with them at least once a day, but more often twice – in the morning before school and at night before bed. He also tries to bring them back some sort of trinket or souvenir, which they can’t wait to get their hands on – even if it’s just a Washington D.C. pencil or a Welcome To Kansas City keychain.

When Nick and I went away to Puerto Rico, we knew that we’d be bringing back some kind of memento for Annie and Ella (in this case, little packages of cookies that we can’t find on the mainland and some cute seashell jewelry boxes that broke pretty much the moment we handed them over). In order to help us stay more connected to them while we were gone, we also knew that we’d be sending them photos of a figurine posing at many of our destinations.

Enter: Coqui.
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Remember back in July when I’d mentioned this little guy and told you I’d explain more later? Well, it took me 6 weeks, but here I am.

It all began three years ago when Nick and I went to Jamaica for three days to celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary. This was the first time I’d been away from the girls for more than a night and, honestly, I struggled. It wasn’t that Jamaica’s gorgeous beaches didn’t hold my attention or that my fabulous husband wasn’t good company, and it certainly wasn’t that the “free” rum drinks at our all-inclusive weren’t delicious; I just plain missed the kids. I didn’t want them with us – oh, no – but it took me a good 36 hours to relax and stop aching when I thought about them. (Ironically, having become accustomed to being away from the kids more often than I, Nick was able to settle in immediately… but 36 hours later, he began to get antsy and homesick. So we kind of met in between – and, man, were those middle four hours amazing!)

Calling home wasn’t easy (and even if it had been, I was adamant that I at least try to pull away), but we were able to use the wifi in the resort to send a few communications back and forth each day with our babysitters. It was the promise of these connections that caused me to pick up this little fella and decide to make him a part of our trip:

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He’s a little cross-eyed but rum will do that to a person cat…

We named him MoBay (after the local nickname for the Jamaican city of Montego Bay) and after texting our sitters a photo of him along with a caption – “Here’s MoBay the cat sitting by the pool!” (or something like that; it was three years ago, folks, so I’m exercising creative license) – we were told that Ella and Annie loved it, so we kept taking photos and sending them along once or twice a day. What began as a bit of whimsy wound up making the transition to Vacation/Enjoy Time With My Husband Mode much easier. I got a kick out of posing MoBay at various hotspots, knowing that the girls would be tickled and, even better, the hot sting of missing them began to dull as soon as I’d taken the photos. Win/win!

We brought MoBay home with us – after all of the photos, it was like meeting a celebrity – and he was promptly gnawed to a little pink nub by one of the dogs, ending his illustrious career… But the memories (and out-of-focus cell-phone photos) remain.

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Nick and I knew that, this trip, we would do the same – and so as soon as we left the hotel and began to explore Old San Juan, Nick hightailed it to a gift shop and returned with an itty bitty, glum-looking ceramic frog that we named Coqui (ko-KEY) after the native Puerto Rican amphibian.

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We were starving, so Coqui’s first photo was beside food.

Our serious-faced green dude did, indeed, connect us to our girls, and I had a blast deciding where to take the pictures – but to my surprise I found that he didn’t ease the missing of them… because I didn’t really miss them. I thought of them, sure – a lot. But they were smile-inducing thoughts, never tinged with sadness. Whether that’s because they’re that much older, so I knew they’d be okay… or because I’m that much older, and I knew I’d be okay… or because we’ve had a little more practice being apart from one another… I’m not sure. But I do know that it was awfully damn fun hopping onto that airplane and being all, “LATER, DUDES!”

MIssing the girls or not, Nick and I loved placing Coqui in his photo spots. There were the obligatory This Is What We Ate Today pictures, of course…

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Puerto Rico’s signature dish, mofongo. Deeeelishus. 
Is that a plantain in your dinner or are you just happy to see me?

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 Fantabulous coffee at the delectable Caficultura.

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Dessert following the best meal we’ve ever eaten, at Marmalade.

Coqui also joined us on all of our adventures, from ziplining…
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Yes, I kept him in my pocket while we zipped.

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Nick’s nod to Where’s Waldo… ¿Dónde está Coqui?

… to the bioluminescent bay…
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It was pitch black (sort of critical for this excursion) plus also we were in kayaks and I had this waterproof case-thingy over my phone, so this was the best I could do.

… to the incredible forts and Old San Juan sights.
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 Looking slightly pensive about having to board a plane in a few hours…

If we did it, Coqui was with us.
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Perched atop our favorite restaurant’s sign.

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Taking in a little native culture.

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Chillaxing at the beach.

We knew that this trip would be good for us – getting away, spending time together, finding us among everything else that life throws our way – despite friends saying how difficult it would be for them to leave their own children. How could we do it? Wouldn’t we think about them constantly? Would we forbid all talk of the kids and focus solely on other things?

Ummm…. hell, no. If we did that, we’d have about five minutes’ worth of things to talk about; there’s only so much we can say about the situation in Ukraine and discussions about how much we’d love to redo the basement but can’t find the time/money usually end with at least one of us leaving the room. Okay, so this is an exaggeration (not about the basement but about not having anything besides the kids to discuss), but we absolutely talked about the girls; they pretty much dominated our conversations.

It was in a good way, though. When we visited the dungeon at the Castillo de San Cristobal, we remarked that the kids would love this place. As we walked the tiny streets of Old San Juan, we noted which stores the girls would have wanted to browse, but how grateful we were that they weren’t trudging around in the heat. We considered whether or not they would actually enjoy ziplining and if they were old and mature enough for the nighttime kayak adventure. We heaved sighs of relief that they didn’t join us on our epically failed coastal drive and clinked glasses blissfully noting that we were enjoying the best meal ever without small children who would not appreciate the food.

And, of course, there was Coqui and his photo series, which connected us with one another any time we wanted. Ella and Annie were everywhere – and, next time we visit Puerto Rico, we intend for them to actually come along – but that didn’t take anything away from our vacation. In many ways, talking about them as often as we did made it easier to unwind and relax because we weren’t trying so hard not to think about them. Coqui helped being apart be even more fun, in spite of his contemplative nature.

Because I hadn’t desperately missed the children, I expected that returning home to them wouldn’t be all that big of a deal – oh, look. We’re home. Here’s a seashell box that you can break. When Annie came running into our bedroom the morning we were back and threw her arms around me with a monstrous hug, however, my expectations took a backseat. When Ella then crept into the room – cautiously, so as not to wake us – and glimpsed me for the first time in four days, her face widened into a smile so broad, so deep, so joyful, I thought I might be knocked off my feet just by looking at it. To receive a smile like that from a kid who hand-holds but is not terribly effusive… well, that was just about the best part of the whole trip.

That is, until we introduced the girls to Rock Star Coqui… and this other colorful creature we’d found in one of the gift shops.
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This little guy really gets around the Caribbean…

We’ve pretty much been granted their blessing to go away any time we’d like.

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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The island of enchantment… and laughter

A few days ago, Nick and I got back from a trip to Puerto Rico; it was amazing and fabulous and I would go there again in a heartbeat if only to eat at this one restaurant that served us a dinner I’m still salivating over.

There’s so much I could write about it, that I want to write about it, that it’s getting all squished together in my head (which doesn’t have much thinking space in it these days, anyway) and I can’t decide what should come next, so although I definitely plan to document it more in coming weeks, I will start with this one absurd story.

We stayed at this nice little Sheraton in Old San Juan right on the harbor in a lovely room with three itty bitty balconies – one of which, in the mornings and evenings, afforded us a rather industrial view…

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… and throughout the rest of the day overlooked the cruise ship docks.
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Although we did not spend a great deal of time in our room, on the last night of our vacation we found ourselves with a few minutes to spare before heading out to dinner. It had rained heavily, bringing in slightly cooler air (anything less than melt-your-face hot felt positively arctic), and so we opted to open up all three sets of French doors. I walked out onto the balcony overlooking the docks and took in the evening unfolding around me: the rainclouds rolling away, hints of sunlight dappling through and onto the buildings, the rolling hills in the distance, the tourists strolling the street below.

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This was taken minutes before I stepped out onto our balcony – from the floor above ours, but it’s essentially the same view. Minus the frog. More on him later.

While taking in the scene, I looked to the right and happened to notice that there were no balconies on the floor below us, but that all of the lower floors contained them. I also happened to notice that there was a gentleman standing on one of said balconies – one room to the right, two floors down – and that he was also looking to the right, which meant that I was standing behind him. To my knowledge, he didn’t even know I was there.

Without warning, a gust of wind blew through (then again, “without warning” is a bit inaccurate, because Old San Juan is ridiculously windy) and I heard a BANG!! behind me that startled me so much, I jumped violently, all but throwing out my back. I also screamed like nobody’s business – that brief burst of fear that escapes you when you have the absolute shit scared out of you.

See, the wind had sent a draft through the open doors of our hotel room, causing the ones behind me to slam shut, thus scaring the pants off me. In addition to being terrified by the BAM! from behind, I whirled around to face the now-closed doors and then became concerned that they had locked and I was stuck on this teeny strip of a balcony with only a railing stopping me from plunging to my imminent death below. Also I was hungry, so things were dire.

Meanwhile, Nick had been in the room getting ready for dinner when he, too, felt the gust of wind, and then – so says he – registered three sounds: a loud bang, me shrieking, and then an unidentifiable “HUH!” immediately thereafter. Bump! Aaaahhh! Whoa! Rather than ponder the third sound’s origin, he (wisely) chose to come to my aid and open the door to let me back in, thereby saving me from plunging to my death.

Just as I was wondering if perhaps this was some very twisted plot by my husband to strand me out on a balcony during our 20th anniversary getaway (a perfectly reasonable explanation, naturally), the doors opened and Nick gestured for me to come inside, which I did posthaste. I then recounted the story, explaining how the slam of the doors had scared me poop-less, and how glad I was that he wasn’t trying to play some weird trick on me and had come to rescue me instead.

After catching my breath and being reassured that everything was okay, I remembered the man who’d also been standing out on his balcony and realized my yelp and subsequent disappearance into our room might have been a bit disconcerting. Shaking my head, I lamented, “I bet I scared the heck out of that other man out there.”

And that’s when Nick put two and two together and realized that the third sound he’d heard – the “HOAH!” – came from the man on the balcony below, who had, indeed, been completely startled by my escapade. So startled, in fact, that he, too, had yelled out – so loudly, Nick had heard him from inside our room.

We then began to imagine this poor guy, stepping out onto his balcony… on vacation, likely, wanting to check out the view after the rain. He was there, relaxing – maybe for the first time all day, having traveled God knows how far to get to this little corner of paradise; maybe this was his first-ever vacation; maybe he’d always dreamed of spending the sunset on a balcony in Old San Juan – taking in the first hints of twilight, looking out over the utterly peaceful, calm scene unfolding before him…

… when CRACK!!! something slams to his left and “AAAAAHHHHHH!!” a woman screams, scaring the ever-loving crap out of him, which causes him to scream, too, like an unsuspecting guest being pranked on Ellen. He undoubtedly turned toward the source of the sound – to me whirling around in terror on my balcony, practically clawing at the doors to be let back inside – and then witnessed me magically being pulled through said doors (which were then shut behind me), never to be seen again.

Little ruins a tranquil twilight balcony moment like a fellow hotel guest shrieking and then being kidnaped. Worst. Vacation. Ever.

Bump! Aaaahhh! Whoa!

The more we pondered how my antics had obviously stunned the poor man, the more absolutely hilarious the entire farce became. We basically didn’t stop laughing for thirty minutes straight, until our sides hurt and we were gasping for air, and we essentially forbid one another from mentioning it again, lest we lose it during dinner.

That didn’t work, of course, because one of us would begin giggling – just the tiniest of bits – and then the other would see, and then it was all downhill from there. We laughed thinking about it the following morning .We laughed on the plane. We laughed during our layover. We laughed when we told the girls about it the day of our return. We’re still laughing about it now.

So, to the man I surprised and stunned on the balcony of the Sheraton Old San Juan: I apologize. Given the gale-force winds that whooshed along the streets all day and night, you’d think I might have anticipated the doors slamming, but I did not. I assure you that I was just fine – my husband was not up to anything nefarious, no matter how it seemed – and the rest of our night went on as scheduled. Except for the laughing fits. Those were not originally planned.

Puerto Rico: La isla de muchas risas.

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This photo has absolutely nothing to do with my story, but Old San Juan sure is perty.