This is Hellas

Nineteen years ago, Adam and I took our first trip together, to Greece. It was a gift from his parents, this trip to a place he’d grown up visiting every year for vacation. It was also our honeymoon. We were married so long ago, those still took place immediately following the wedding.

I am sure that other people have much better ways of planning their vacations. I came up with a list of three vacation spots, and started fleshing out the options. I ran out of time when I’d only finished the first option. Thus, a return to Greece!

If I’d really been thinking, I would have waited until next year, a pleasing symmetry with our 20th anniversary. But I wasn’t, so the 19th anniversary it is.

We’ve been in Athens for just over a day, following marathon travel. So far we got up at the crack of dawn to see the Parthenon before the crowds woke. We’ve met stray cats, tread polished stones where citizens with voting rights have walked since the concept first originated, eaten in cafes, tracked down favorite spots from (gulp) last century, read books, bargained in the Plaka and gotten a ride from someone’s cousin who happened to grow up in Toronto and study linguistics. So far Athens is very on brand.

Tomorrow we take a ferry to the island of Aegina, to the port of Aegina Marina. We’ll dive off the rocks, like they did thirty years ago. I’m hopeful we’ll see some good stars, play some games, read some books and sit in Panos’ Cafe.

Sea change

“One more chapter!”

“Ok, but then it’s really time to go.”

This is an exchange that could (has) happened between almost any two people in my family (in all versions of family you’d like to consider). (When I say it what I usually actually mean is that we’re not leaving until I’ve finished my book.) Adam and I have long had vacations that consisted of beautiful locations, museums, snorkeling and bevies of books. On our honeymoon I read 11 books – and that was only because I didn’t have room to bring more. When we went to Istanbul, we saw Hagia Sofia. We walked the walls of the Fortress of Europe. We watched night fall over the Bosporous… but a favorite memory for both of us was the morning we went to a little cafe, drank them entirely out of orange juice and both of us finished entire novels. (Mine was Guy Gabriel Kay – great vacation reading!)

Ten years ago at just about this time, I was on this self same island of Cozumel for a week. All my daiquiris were virgin that trip since I was pregnant with the firstborn child who was – would become – Grey. I took refuge in the buoyancy of the water. And we read. A lot. But since then, our reading vacations have been stolen moments (pretty much all during Camp Gramp week). Sure we might sneak in a paltry four or five books on a vacation, but nothing like the epic conquests of yore. Children – especially young children – require slightly more attention it turns out.

When an unexpected opportunity arose for us to go back to Cozumel this April vacation week, I grabbed it with both hands. We returned to the same excellent resort (Presidente Intercontinental, if you’re curious) that we went to last year. A huge part of that was that the kids had loved Keri, who ran the kids club. They happily got dropped off with her after breakfast and picked up sometime in the afternoon. This left Adam and I ample time to follow our true desires: snorkeling, time together, and reading entire novels in one sitting on the beach. SIGN ME UP FOR MORE! We still had plenty of time for adventures and time together, but the surcease from bored children was delightful (and they enjoyed it!)

This time, though, they’ve only spent a few hours there. The only thing nearly as fun as snorkeling along the reefs with my beloved – pointing out the octopus and lionfish and barracuda – is snorkeling along the reefs with my beloveds. Grey has become a fine swimmer and can almost dive with the snorkel. Thane – indomitable Thane – arrived barely swimming and has improved by leaps and bounds since. He insists on swimming (even though he really can’t) and calmly keeps paddling even as the waters close in over his head. He’s unflappable. Add a life vest, and he was perfectly content to come snorkeling with us – even letting go of my hand to go investigate some interesting formation. How much more fun things are when I can do them with my children and yet find them fun for me!!

Then, yesterday, my life changed forever. I think that may not be an understatement.

Thane is in Kindergarten. He has a gift of great focus. He always has – he could do a hundred piece puzzle at three through sheer determination and patience. (Certainly not through optimal strategic choices, assuredly.) The door to reading has finally opened to him. He has many needed words by sight and strong phonetic skills. He still struggles to blow past words he doesn’t know, but he has three of us standing by to tell him that e-n-o-u-g-h is enough.

“Mom” he asked. “Did you bring me any chapter books?” I handed him “A Horse and His Boy”. He gamely worked his way through the first pages. “Mom, do you have anything easier?” Well, no I didn’t. But what I did have is the wonder of technology. I LOVE my Kindle, in part because it means I don’t have to pack an entire suitcase of books. (Yes. We did regularly bring a suitcase for the books and board games.) I just got a new Kindle (backlit, with 3G downloads so I don’t need wifi to buy the next book in the series) but I brought my old Kindle with me in case. In case of what I’m not sure, but in case.

I downloaded Books 1 – 4 of the Magic Treehouse and handed it to him, showing him how to turn the pages. We went to breakfast. And an hour later, he was begging for more time. He’s plowed his way through the first three and a half books (as well as a non-fiction book on Jupiter his dad bought him.) We all sat – at breakfast, in front of the pool, in the beach chairs, at dinner – all reading our books together. It was GLORIOUS. The world has opened up before us, of the quietest and most profound adventures.

Then, as though my heart was not already filled to brimming, my eldest. My beloved. That child I carried with me as a promise ten years ago… started reading Narnia. I read him the first few chapters of “The Horse and His Boy”. (Personally, I think “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe” is one of the weaker Narnia books. And “The Horse and His Boy” stands alone best of the rest of them.) He finished. And asked for more. Yesterday he read “Prince Caspian”. Today “The Lion , The Witch and the Wardrobe”. At dinner he downloaded and started “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader”.

There once was a boy named Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.

Those books were my gateway to this wondrous world, my friends. They initiated me in the arts of the fantastical. I remember the realization crashing on me that ASLAN was like JESUS. (How much more precious is an allegory when discovered by a reader instead of explained!) It was a short hop for me from Lewis to his dear friend Tolkien. And that’s a world my imagination has never fully left behind.

This marks, I think, the beginning of a new phase of my life. I have long left behind parenting babies. My feet are crossing over from parenting young children (that stage where your greatest wonder is how the heck you’re going to keep them entertained so you can do things). I enter through the doors of parenting all elementary children. Already I can sleep in. Already they dress themselves. Grey puts on his own sunscreen – hallelujah. And now, my sons will begin to go on the greatest adventures between the pages of books. Some they will share with me. Others they will venture on alone. But their journeys have begun.

Planning for a break

I remember the week I was to have my wisdom teeth out. My sister had hers out a few months before. She’d been laid up for a week. I think my parents had taken advantage of her crankiness to send me to live with my cousin for a week (during which time I learned how to make tuna fish casserole and why I should clean my room). When my turn came, I had A Plan. I was, at the time a Very Serious Musician. I liked Wagner, despised Haydn and read music history for fun. (Ok, some things actually don’t change.) During my week of convalescence I laid in a store of books and created a plan for systematically listening through my entire classical music collection. This plan would ensure that my week of recovery would get me through every single CD I owned.

I got my wisdom teeth out. In a fit of deferentialism, I did not fill my pain med prescription. (We learn things as children…) I ended up watching Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, drinking chocolate milk through a straw and crying for pain when my mother came home. Early. With my ten year old brother. Who had chicken pox.

I may never have forgiven my brother because instead of my meticulously laid out classical music plan, I spent the week babysitting him.

Anyway, this returns to my memory because
a) I’ve never forgiven him
b) I have another week off

I’m older and wiser now, and I know that either I will rest in the week or I will get around to all those things I never have time for – not both. Or at least not both on a particular day. So far I’m getting fillings done (another reason to remember back to that week), volunteering in Thane’s classroom (I NEVER volunteer because I’m always busy at work) and probably going to Costco to lay in a goodly supply of sunscreen. Thus the knowns.

In the unknowns, some of the things I might do include:

  • Organizing the attic
  • Organizing the basement
  • Practicing my guitar
  • Reading books on business (I just bought Lazlo’s Work Rules to prepare me for my first day, and on the advice of my outgoing VP of HR also bought a book on how to win at your first 90 days.)
  • Sharpening up my increasingly non-existent/dull programming skills
  • Reading up on my new industry
  • Video games (Tragically I’ve finished the entire Fable series and I like happy cheerful goodspirited games – a vanishing genre. Also, my best Minecraft worlds are (ahem) on my work computer. My work computer, which I love, and I only have about 18 hours left together. Farewell good tool!)
  • Playing Ingress. (GO RESISTANCE!)
  • Meeting up with people I like who I’m always like “we should have coffee” and never have time to have coffee with
  • Packing for Mexico
  • Sleeping in
  • Reading lots and lots of Facebook
  • Pressure washing the back fence and getting the yard ready for spring
  • Making really, really good dinners
  • Picking the kids up early from school and hosting playdates from parents who invite my kids over on school nights which I can never reciprocate
  • Going on a hike in the Fells
  • Bringing the car in to have the artistic flourishes (scratches) Thane added a few years back removed
  • Finally organizing my music so I can listen to it on my phone
  • Organizing 14 years worth of digital pictures
  • Donating that cat food that makes Tiberius throw up but that is really expensive medical type cat food
  • Writing some decent blog posts
  • The thing is I know better. I know I’ll get like four of those done (sleeping in and too much Facebook are like, locks – chances are looking good for some Ingress too). The whole point of this week is to stop being productive for a week. To rest. To relax. To recharge. To lay down for one deep breath the heavy load I carry every day. But I’m always gobsmacked at just how unproductive I am when I stop being productive. I am a creature of great inertia. When I’m “going” I power through work at a phenomenal rate. But when I stop… you’ve met no one lazier.

    So – we’ll see! I’ll let you know how I do on my list. And hey – if I’ve been meaning to get coffee with you, give me a call!

    Sad to say, but I’m on my way


    A fortnight ago I picked my careful way through icing puddles to the nail salon. I drove, even though it is two blocks away and I had time, because the sidewalks are nigh impassible. I asked for a pedicure, and picked a completely unprofessional, unseasonable, inappropriate robin’s egg blue. I watched ice skating and slalom while my toes were transformed. I carefully covered them in layers of thick socks and sturdy shoes for my homeward journey. It seemed impossible to me, in that moment, that there would ever again be a time when my toes would willingly encounter non climate controlled air.


    A week ago found me rising at 3:30 in the morning, and pouring my dressed-before-bed children into a taxi, which wound in the predawn darkness to the airport. (Which airport was absolutely chock-full of other parents with other tired children.) My sons both blew my mind with their exceptionally awesome behavior on the first flight to Houston and the second, down to the small island of Cozumel – just across the channel from the playground of Cancun. The island is very small – a teardrop off the cheek of the Yucatan. We stood in unaccustomed heat in an outdoor line. The returning travelers looked tanned, relaxed and sad to be leaving. The pale and pasty newcomers, waiting for immigration, had anticipation writ large across our tired & dark-eyed features.

    It was nine years ago that I last came to Cozumel. I was gravid in pregnancy, and longed for the weightless relief of warm waters. I noticed the changes as we took the short taxi ride from the airport to the resort (a new one – I discovered the one I’ve been to twice before is in the midst of a major remodel, which explains why it had no rooms available).

    We are at the Presidente Intercontinental. Even the driveway made me feel like I was about to experience something rather more luxurious than my standard expectation – which was true. Our room is small, with two full beds and a fine carpeting of Legos (to make it feel like home). Strangely, there was no lamp on the balcony (the phrase “you get what you pay for” usually refers to what happens when you cheap out. In this case, a more-expensive-than-I-would-have-liked vacation has come along with excellent service and facilities, and within moments sent two guys to figure out how to get a light on the balcony.) But I have watched warm pacific waters through a peek-a-boo curtain of palms every day here.

    I have taken somewhere between a bajillion and a quadrillion pictures (discovering that the lighting conditions on tropical beaches are actually quite challenging for people pictures and also that my children have come to see me as unwelcome paparazzi when I have a camera in hand). The resort has a fantastic child care offering (paid for as part of the overall price, which I appreciated), so all the days but two Adam and I have gotten to snorkel together, as we have on romantic vacations since we got married. We visited Mayan ruins and watched the wild, unchecked waves of the Caribbean. We saw many, many, many iguanas. The boys played in the sand, learned to love the pool, learned to swim way way way better and learned absolutely nothing about effective bargaining techniques. (Ask me about the shark tooth necklaces!)

    Today we coaxed Grey, who had spent days snorkeling in the pool and avoiding the ocean, to join us for a snorkel. I was entirely prepared for it to be beyond his courage. It can be intimidating, seeing the vast seascapes of the ocean unfold as an unknowable world before you, the colors fading in distance. When we encountered a barracuda in the first five minutes, I was entirely prepared for a hasty retreat. As we, holding his hands, pulled him further away from shore and towards the coral-encroached sunken ship, I could hardly believe his courage held. But it did. We saw so much together. It was a moment past what I could have hoped for, where the vistas of his dreamscapes expanded. He also devoured, in a heart-warmingly familiar way, “The Westing Game” For a day or two there, any question pointed his direction was answered with an “mm-hmmm”. I loved seeing his sun-burnt nose stuck in a book. For all he was an early reader, I have had trouble moving him into chapter books. He prefers the easy familiarity of comic books. I hope that an affair or two with a good novel might change that.

    Thane is, as ever, indomitable. Fearless in the water, he started the week nearly drowning himself. A pool noodle added just enough buoyancy for him to not drown mostly. Towards the end of the week, we just put him in a life jacket and let him go in the pool. (Actually, his wonderful caretaker Keri thought of that first. The Kids Club here isn’t just Screens R Us. She takes them to see the iguana habitats, and to go swim at the pool. Thane refused to join us twice today because she was helping him sew a very cool alligator puppet.) He also loved hanging out on the beach (I wonder how long it will take before he has no sand in his hair?) He and Grey have been amazing brothers this week. I just loved seeing his excited face and bouncing eyes above his third cup of strawberry yogurt every morning – so full of joy and wonder and gratitude.

    While I was writing this on the porch, a fire dance broke out on the beach below. So cool!

    I’ll post again once I go through the pictures. When Adam and I came here last, we had a film camera. This time we took pictures on: my good camera, my old point-and-shoot, Adam’s phone, my phone, my iPad. It’s funny how many changes a decade can bring.

    We prepare our return back to our land of cloudy skies and gales. I confess to being unenthused by piled snow, chill drafts and stinging cheeks. I prefer the nuisance of sunscreen. But I feel thawed, rested, invigorated. I have connected strongly and deeply with the people I love most in this world. I have visited the Summerlands from the heart of winter, and won a respite from the seasons. I’ve seen lionfish and stars and smiles. I return to my labors with a lighter heart and darker skin.

    New times in old Montreal

    Through October, November and December as my life sped up to warp speed, I consoled myself with my previously spotted annual pattern recognition of busy times and less busy times. “Just make it to January” I encouraged myself, doing the laundry at 11 pm on a Saturday night. “Once you get to January, you’re good!”

    Bad picture, bad show, happy kid.
    Bad picture, bad show, happy kid.

    January came. I was really busy. “You’re just catching up on all the stuff that got put off in December.” I don’t even remember February. And March felt like a desperate sprinting finish to a marathon, with Easter and vacation a firm deadline that made it impossible to have any task slip at work or at home. I had birthday parties, Vinterfest parties, dinner parties, Burns Night parties, Pie parties. We took the kids to Scooby Doo Live: the Musical. I traveled to Atlanta (family), New York (work), Minnesota (work) and Tampa (work).* I rearranged the dining room. I played three hard pieces on trumpet for Easter. I signed the kids up for: swimming lessons (2), basketball (1) and science class (1). I did the taxes, rethought my pie crust recipe, wrote my best blog post ever (by volume), and managed a rocky production go-live (for work) from the hallway of the YMCA while Grey learned to dribble. It’s just been BUSY.

    But on Sunday, after the high of the hallelujas and the truly awesome final high C I hit on the postlude, my beloved husband and I threw stuff in suitcases, packed approximately 93 digital devices (we used to pack 93 books, but now we have digital devices with the books on them!), and started driving North.

    Long time readers have likely picked up my vacation patterns, and notice a discrepancy. We usually take zero time off this time of year, until camping heats up in May. Then we take a romantic, exciting vacation in August while the kids are at Camp Gramp. So why am I taking an exciting, romantic vacation in April this year? It just so happens that Camp Gramp and Gencon line up this year. I’m quite certain that my husband loves me more than Gencon, but I also know that it would make him sad to miss it. So when I realized my folks were also coming out for my mom’s spring break, well…. I snuck in our romantic vacation this week. (Of course, it would be longer if the coming weekend was not Helgacon – another, smaller convention – but at least that gives me some time with my own family.)

    Not that a romantic vacation with the two of us is without games...
    Not that a romantic vacation with the two of us is without games…

    We weighed three options for our vacations: trip to Europe, beach vacation in Caribbean, less expensive vacation somewhere we could drive to. After reviewing all options, and recalling that we are (financially) putting a nice new car on top of our house (in the form of a new roof) this year, we opted for a taste of Europe in Canada.

    So here we are in Montreal! We got this really amazing loft hotel thingy, with a full kitchen, comfy chairs and couches, a full size table (for gaming!), and a really excellent spa tub. We walked the city length and breadth on Monday before the weather turned bitter. Our peregrinations brought us to Chez Geeks where we stocked up on some games to see us through (see above picture – those are all new!). Then we had chocolate crepes for lunch. Any lunch served flambee is a good lunch, in my humble opinion. Books, bathtub, pizza. Relaxing.

    At the Chinese tea house
    At the Chinese tea house

    Yesterday we went to the Montreal Museum of Archaeology and History, which might be one of my least favorite museums ever.** We also went to the Notre Dame Cathedral, which was lovely. There was a fantastic paper shop, and then we sat in an ornately decorated Chinese tea shop and had tea served to us while we both wrote on our beautiful papers. For dinner, we went to an Alsatian restaurant and I got escargot and duck confit. Mmmmmmmmm……

    Today is lightly scheduled. One nice part of a close-to-home vacation is that the opportunity cost of hanging out in your glorious hotel loft is much smaller. So the only key thing on the docket is a trip to the Scandinavian baths. I’m wondering how many vacations I can have unique spa experiences in. I doubt this will top the Turkish baths, but I figure I have to give it a shot, right? Also, probably fondue for lunch. Or maybe crepes. Or crepes and fondue.

    When we return, I have this fond hope that maybe, MAYBE, it will actually be that quieter time. You know, where I can blog more than once a week and hang out with my beloved sons? Yeah, we’ll see about that!

    *Two of those three trips were around major storms where the question of whether we would make it back or have to tough it out a few extra days was a real one. I was very happy to make it back both times!

    **I emerged from it – no easy feat, given it’s labyrinthine structure and lack of guidance – cognizant that I was absolutely no more informed regarding: Quebec separatism, the linguistic ebb and flow of the province, the fur trade, the Iroquois wars, the building of the great underwater wall in the St. Lawrence, impact of the War of 1812, why Montreal has a huge statue that I like to call the “Lord Nelson fanboy plinth”, Canadian relations with the US, construction of the transcontinental railroad, the use of First Nations Tribes in building skyscrapers, how the St. Lawrence waterway was opened for commerce, or any other topic that might be vaguely interesting. The mandatory (you could not get to the museum without going through it) introductory frenetic video actually said something “Oops! Iroquois!” at one point and showed a big wall going up. GAH! However, it was very well marked which elements of the 150 year old foundation were original and which were changes. I kept thinking to myself, “This is only 30 years older than my house….”