Road Trip

family-road-tripYou’ve planned for months, and anticipated this as you got your work-life in order for two weeks off. The excitement’s been building until you’re all loaded in the car and leaving the city limits. Somewhere between noticing the cows in passing farms, and investigating all of the candy in the rest-stop vending machines, comes the dreaded cry from the back seat. Are we there yet?

We were headed to South Carolina, joining a family gathering at the beach – a rare opportunity for our kids to see their cousins. We prepared for the trip as if we were flying to the moon, our van filled with food and a variety of entertainments for the kids. Juice boxes, coloring books, sandwiches, story books, Raffi on cassette tape. This was before the days of portable electronics, so no movies to induce hours of quiet travel. Instead, we discovered that our kids weren’t to be placated. One of the adults had to climb into the back seat with them to ensure they remained engaged. Special toys dropped between the car seats had to be retrieved; even finding things of interest in the scenery required annotation: “Look! Horses…way over there…that you can barely see…oh we just passed them!” Sometimes, mercifully, the kids fell asleep, but it was short-lived, usually interrupted because we needed gas, or just a few minutes out of the van.

At around 4pm on the first day, we pulled into the parking lot of the motel where we were staying. A small, serviceable place with a playground and a pool. Time for the kids to expend some of that pent-up energy. For the next few hours, they ran around, splashed, squealed, and dunked. Even dinner was an adventure, ordering off a menu with ice cream for dessert. Before bed, our daughter was testing the trampoline qualities of the bed while watching TV, and our son was finishing his bath. As I was drying him off, he summed it all up: “This place is great! Next year, let’s just come here for vacation!” My husband and I smiled all through the next day of driving.

Years later, delayed in a city far from home, I try to remind myself that it’s not all bad. Finding a paper outside my room, a friendly face at the complimentary breakfast buffet, a clean rental car. Maybe next year, I’ll come back here on purpose.

Keeping Cool

breezyThough Chicago is the Windy City, air seems to stagnate in August, never moving as much as you’d like it to. Stepping outside is like being wrapped in a hot wet blanket, and I plan my path on the shady side of the street out of the scorching sun. After a long winter, you’d think a nice hot summer would be what everyone wants, but all we seem to want is a continual state of perfect weather – clear skies, 75 degrees, and no sweating. And if Mother Nature will not provide this, we want air conditioning.

Walking down the sidewalk, the occasional shop has its door open and a wave of cool air pours out. Better than any sale they might advertise, I’m drawn in for the relief. However, once inside, my temperature lowers, and I’m shivering. A sweater becomes my summer companion – to the grocery, office, or movies – because air conditioning gets too cold.

When the sun goes down, it may be noticeably cooler. However, in a condo with only west-facing windows, we lack the possibility of cross-ventilation; cooler air only irregularly blows in the windows. I’m tempted to set up a cot on our terrace, sort of a sleeping porch, but instead, we shut the windows and crank up the AC. Sleep will now be tolerable, and I’ll be wrapped in blankets.

Growing up, our house didn’t have central air conditioning. Instead, in late July, we’d install a couple of window units to cool part of the house through the muggiest days. But to cool the entire house, we used an attic fan. Behind a louvered opening in our upstairs hall, this giant fan would pull cool night air in through the windows and flush out the hot air. We’d adjust the windows to be open about 4 inches, and the pull of the fan would sometimes trap beetles and moths against the screens. We used doorstops to keep interior doors from slamming shut. The cool air would wash over by bed, and the hum of the fan would be the last thing I heard before drifting off to sleep.

Everywhere I’ve lived as an adult, I’ve wished for an attic fan. For those times when it doesn’t seem hot enough to turn on the AC, but the house won’t cool down. We live on the top floor and have a sky light and I fantasize that the condo association would let us install an attic fan there. The closest we’ll come is ceiling fans in every room. And on the rare days when the temperature drops, I throw all the windows open wide, inviting that cooler air inside for as long as it might last.

What is normal?

normal distributionI met someone who never learned to swim. How could that be? I thought swimming was a fundamental skill like walking or breathing. Summers at the pool were a normal part of my life, but the truth is, normal is different for everyone.

My childhood felt normal, but was made up of countless elements uniquely configured to make it my family. In the house we grew up in, my brother and I each had our own rooms. There were trees to climb in, and places to build blanket forts. We watched our favorite programs on three TV channels, and went to drive-in movies in the summer. Most of our relatives lived in town and we had big holiday cookouts in the back yard with cousins running everywhere. We rode our bikes to friend’s houses, and walked to school. I played the piano. We rang a cow bell to tell my brother it was time to come in for dinner. Our vacations were often camping trips with gourmet menus. We’d spend Christmas Eve standing on my aunt and uncle’s porch singing “Joy to the World” at the top of our lungs to get them to open the door.

Of course there are lots of things from my childhood that now seem so ancient and quaint as to no longer seem normal. Slide rules, transistor radios, record players, phones with rotary dials, paper maps. The utter absence of computers or wi-fi access chills my children’s blood, I think. It’s hard to explain how we survived those pre-historic days, what with fighting the dinosaurs and all.

But our normal evolved to become the normal our kids grew up with. Books at bedtime, day care, play dates, Friday night movie and pizza, a computer at home, summer camp, and flying to visit family. Both parent working, moving to another state, and hosting a number of exchange students. Our kids attended the schools where my husband taught, and ran with the cross country team he coached. I’m sure it felt normal to them because it was all they knew.

Once at school our son’s class was sharing their birthday traditions; when it was his turn he said, “On my birthday, I dress up and go door to door in the neighborhood begging for candy.” I can imagine the confused expressions before he said, “My birthday is on Halloween!”

What is familiar becomes comfortable; we build on it, hold it dear, and it just feels right. Reinforced and repeated over the years, it becomes what we’ve always done. Our normal.

Being a Tourist

IMG_1510Anywhere you go that isn’t home, you’re officially a tourist. Whether you’re there to sightsee, or just passing through, if you need to study the map, or ask directions, you’re a tourist. Thanks to the internet, it’s hard for any new destination to feel new once you arrive. You can simulate the neighborhood stroll on street view, and practically taste the entrees from the luscious pictures someone has posted of the restaurant you’ll try tomorrow. You’ve seen a slide show – and reviews – of everything notable there. Fortunately, real life is a bit different, delightful, and surprising.

We’re visiting Madison, Wisconsin and are finding it a beautiful, walkable city. Downtown near the capitol it’s hilly with beautiful views of the two lakes that hug both sides of the isthmus. It’s clean, with little traffic, and blessed with clear skies and low humidity. The home of the University of Wisconsin, I’m sure this town feels very different once school starts. We strolled past the row of fraternity houses, and shuddered to imagine a busy football weekend. But for now, it’s quiet. There’s a wedding, and a bachelorette party, but nothing to disturb us.

Our pre-trip research told us that Madison has a large farmer’s market, but that didn’t prepare me for the endless tables of vendors set up all around the capitol building; the gorgeous produce, the crowds of strolling shoppers, and the families relaxing on the capitol lawn. I looked around for the camera crews – surely this picture-perfect market was a movie set? Next we climbed to the dome of the capitol building where we could walk outside, see some of the dramatic sculpture up close, and look out over the geography formed by glaciers.

Years ago I visited Paris. First time there, but to a French student who has pored over French history, and maps of Paris and its landmarks, it felt familiar. I knew from the top of the Arc de Triomphe I’d see the spokes of streets radiating to the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, and Sacre Coeur. Yep, all of Paris was arranged as it should be. Down at street level, there was so much more to see. The width of the sidewalks on the Champs Ellysees, the glittering pastries, the sprawl of cafe seating.

I’ve learned that preparation makes for a good trip, so that you have somewhere to stay and some ideas for good meals, but it’s also important to be open to the experience of a new place. Poke around, stroll aimlessly, find its humble offerings. Then you go out in serious search of cheese curds.