Monday, September 29, 2014

The Great American Family Vacation

When I first started this Blog, I talked about the “American Dream”. Getting married, buying a house, and having kids. Those are definitely the big three, and I’ve checked all three of my bucket list. However, there is another activity that is almost as American as the big three – that of taking the traditional summer family vacation.

You may recall that we actually have taken a few trips with Jackson over the years. You may think that the great “cruise” experiment of 2012 qualified as a “family vacation” – but not in my mind. As a middle class child growing up in the Midwest, summer vacation meant one thing – loading up the family vehicle and driving to the beach. THAT is the quintessential family vacation.

When we decided to take a vacation, our family and friends pretty much had one consistent response – “you’re crazy”. Taking a vacation with a 2.5 year old and a 2 month old? With no additional assistance besides yourselves? I think taking such a “vacation” is punishment for stealing in some third world countries. But we shook off their warnings, assuring ourselves that we were fully capable of surviving our children and the trip, and that we were going to prove them all wrong.

We were drunk with confidence, and making questionable decisions.

The Preparation. Once we decided to take a vacation, we were pretty open to a variety of options. Again, to fit the bill of being a “family vacation”, it just required us to drive to a beach somewhere. After some quick research, we discovered that traveling from Cincinnati Ohio to ANY BEACH IN THE COUNTRY takes approximately the same amount of time. It’s uncanny. Seriously – pick any beach on the Atlantic coast of America, from Maine to South Carolina, and it’s going to be like 10-13 hours away. So we decided on finding a nice, quiet, family friendly beach by the name of Sandbridge on the northern end of the Outer Banks. What could possibly go wrong?

Over the years, I’ve taken the advice of the wise Rick Steves, and packed less and less on each trip I take. I could probably survive a week at the clothes on my back plus a bag containing a bathing suit, pair of mesh shorts, toiletries, and cell phone charger. Heck, forget the bag – the stuff I need could probably fit into the pockets of my cargo shorts. However, having kids means you need to find a way to pack up approximately 50% of your house two to survive one week outside of your house. As we started to consolidate items in preparation, it was quickly evident that there was no way half of our house was going to fit into the trunk of my Camry. We were going to need to borrow a larger family truckster – in this case, the in-laws’ mini-van. The family vacation just kept getting more and more traditional!

With the mini-van packed to the brim (literally, we had to remove the back seats to fit all of our stuff), we rolled out. Adventures awaited!

The Drive. One of the biggest fears leading up to the vacation was the 10 hours that we would be spending in the car each way on the trip to the beach.

First the kids:

With Jackson, we had options – give the kid enough York Peppermint Patties and time with the iPad and he would probably sit in his car seat for 24 straight hours. Evan on the other hand? When he cries, the remedy 90% of the time is picking him up – something totally illegal while driving a car (thanks, Obama). Your only options for a two month old are to feed them (something quite tricky – but not impossible – while breast feeding), or attempt to entertain them with books they don’t understand, funny faces they don’t find funny since they’re miserable, or with plugging them with a pacifier and praying.

And really, can you blame him? I did some quick math, and Evan spent 1/70th of his life thus far in the car on this trip. That’s 1.5% of his life!

Then there’s us:

Is having one person drive 10 straight hours possible? Absolutely. However, I get stir crazy and need to stand up and walk around during a 2 hour movie, so the prospect of driving for half a day made me twitch. “Don’t worry”, KB told me, “we’ll split up the drive and you’ll have plenty of time to take a nap and play on your phone during the drive.” Somehow, during this planning, we failed to factor in that our children are not self-sufficient. In reality, we discovered that keeping both kids happy while driving usually required sitting between them and doing everything you can to keep them entertained. There was no napping. There was no the Facebook-ing. Just the challenge of keeping two kids happy with the added element of difficulty associated with them being strapped into car seats.

On the trip down, we played it smart – breaking up the drive over the course of two days, resulting in two more-reasonable five hours drives – but this also introduced a new fun element to traveling with two very small kids… sharing one happy hotel room.

Hotel Life. Again, looking at the big picture, we were SMART. We realized that we couldn’t stay in a single hotel room for a week at the beach. The prospect of getting Jackson to fall asleep while I was less than 10 feet away seemed unlikely. He would want to play with me the entire night. Likewise, if Evan was right next to me, I’d feel like a REALLY bad parent when I pretended to not hear his cries and sleep through the night. This is why we rented a condo in Sandbridge – with two big bedrooms, and a great walk-in closet for Evan to sleep in. A family that sleeps apart stays together… and also actually gets to sleep.

But then there was the pesky overnight stop in Charlottesville, Virginia. It would be crazy to rent two separate hotel rooms for the night, and I think someone would have frowned on KB and I dumping the kids in one room and us sleeping in the other – so we all piled into one room and hoped for the best.

First the good news – it turns out that hotel rooms are better than any playground or amusement park for Jackson. Seriously, if you asked him the highlight of the entire vacation, he would probably pick the 12 hours spent inside the hotel room. Why?

Inside, there was a real life phone he could play with (thankfully, we didn’t end up with any crazy long-distance charges on our bill when we checked out), a microwave at his eye level (hello free radiation!), a fridge at his level that he could open and close repeatedly (energy bills be damned), and two big beds to jump on. What more could you ask for?

In all honesty, everything was going great and everyone was having a good time until it came time for sleep. After repeatedly snagging Jackson and pinning him down in his bed, he finally relented and laid down for sleep. Thinking he was finally drifting off to sleep, Kate and I sneaked our phones out and started checking Email / the Facebook / Internet… and were immediately busted by our child.

“What you doing?”
“Nothing – go back to sleep”

We’d lay in darkness and silence for ten minutes, then assume he was asleep and try again.

“Daddy – what you looking at?”
“Nothing – go back to sleep”

This continued for about an hour, until I rationalized it was “late enough” to go to bed on vacation and not feel like I was super lame. In hindsight, it was good that I got my sleep – given that the beach awaited!

The Beach. This probably goes without saying, but it is dramatically different going to a “family” beach location versus going to an all-inclusive resort in Mexico, the last few vacations we’ve taken sans-kids. Here are a few of the key differences:

  1. In Mexico, where you have nothing to do but sleep in and relax, you need to be on the beach by 7:00 am in order to secure the best oceanfront chairs and location. Ironically, at a family beach, where your kids wake you up by 7:00 am, you can show up on the beach at 10:00 am and there is no one there. Why?
  2.  In Mexico, before you can head for the beach, you grab a quick bite to eat and lather up the suntan lotion. It can sometimes take up to a half hour to get ready. On a family vacation, getting the kids to eat breakfast, dressed, and ready for the beach is somewhat more intense. If you start right when you wake up at 6:30 am, there’s a chance you’ll be on the beach just before it’s time to come in for nap time – if you hustle.
  3. In Mexico, you leave your room with a towel, a room key, a book, and maybe an oversized mug for alcoholic beverages. Maybe you even have a bag to carry these things in, but it’s small, lightweight, and you can swing it in the breeze as you happily walk to the beach. Remember how I brought half of my house on the trip with me? Well, even though it required a mini-van to drive it to the condo – it turns out that we could take most of it from the condo to the beach strapped to my back and draped around my arms… oh, and also carrying Jackson the majority of the time… just because he didn’t feel like walking. Most walks to the beach ended with me dropping everything and falling down face first on the sand, exhausted.
  4. In Mexico, you have pretty busy days. Read a book, drink, play in the ocean, drink, walk on the beach, drink, eat, nap, swim in the pool, drink, nap, repeat. On a family vacation, I spent five days on the beach and swam in the ocean for a total of ten solid minutes. It turns out that when you have one child who can’t swim and another who can’t be in the sunlight, it somewhat hinders your ability to do your own thing on the beach. There’s lots of parenting… not so much drinking. Walks on the beach happen… but lose something when they involve carrying around a child and worrying about spending too much time away from the sanctuary of the Shade Shack.

I would be remiss if I didn’t at least dedicate one solid paragraph to my favorite part of the trip – the Shade Shack. Knowing that we needed to keep Evan out of the sun all day, we researched Amazon and found the highest rated shade device was the “Shade Shack” – compact, quickly “popped open” and created a nice little lean-to that you could sit under and enjoy shady times on the beach. The first day, it worked pretty good. You load up the base with sand to prevent it from blowing away in the breeze, it did provide some nice shade for Baby Evan, and it seemed far more convenient than those suckers fighting with umbrellas and Easy Up Tents.

Then it came time to take it down and put it back into its nice compact case. There were four simple instructions. Fold it in half, grab it at a 90 degree angle, twist it, and it magically returns to its original saucer-shaped form. Lies. LIES I tell you! After fighting with the Shade Shack on the beach for a half hour, I dragged it back half open to our condo (along with the other 50 pounds of beach-going materials on my back) and threw it on our patio.  Kate foolishly thought “silly boy, I’ll take care of this” and then proceeded to fight with the Shade Shack herself for a half hour on the patio – before deciding we would just hold it together with beach chair towel clips.

The good news is, that made it even more challenging to drag it to and from the beach every day – which is good, because that was the added degree of difficulty I was looking for in my Sherpa-ing. On the last day, I had visions of chucking the Shade Shack into the beach in a fit of passion and crying “go back from whence you came, devil object!” but instead we brought it home so that Kate could return it to the good people of Amazon as being “defective”. Check mate.

The Verdict. Having said all that, there were some of those “magic parent moments” on the beach that were definite highlights. There’s something about the sheer joy Jackson found in jumping waves in the ocean (translation – me holding him and having him jump the waves) that I won’t forget. There was the sacred tradition of passing down the art of making drip castles to Jackson that made me think “if I die tomorrow, at least I’ve taught him all that he really needs to know”. There was the seven straight days of hearing the hilarious comments from Jackson that I normally miss while he’s at school all day. And then there was actually spending some face-to-face time with Evan that helped distinguish me from the other males that he sees the most in his day-to-day life… that being the male actors on Scandal.

You’ll note that there weren’t a lot of Evan stories on the trip, and there’s a reason for that. It turns out going to the beach with a baby who isn’t allowed to be in the sun is kinda like taking a deaf person to a music concert. Yeah, in theory they were there, but they didn’t really experience. Aside from the token ten seconds where we put Evan’s feet in the ocean or two minutes where we put him in the pool, the highlights of his day were trying to avoid getting sand all over him and trying to find a way to take his naps in the wind of the beach.

When we returned home, people asked me how vacation was. I often replied the same way – “it wasn’t really vacation… but living normal life in a different location.” But then I decided to look up the formal definition of the word. It turns out “vacation” is defined as an extended period of recreation, especially one spent away from home or in traveling. By that very pure definition, we probably did take a vacation – we were away from our house for a week, we traveled, and in theory there was recreation being had… at least by Jackson.

As for me, since I returned home more tired than when I left, so it is difficult to call it a “vacation” – but here’s the thing. As a grown-up, when I think back to my youth, the vacations are what you remember. It’s an extended period of time that you are forced to spend time with your family and make memories all day every day. Is it sometimes painful and exhausting? Absolutely. Were there times I cried out “we’re disbanding this family!” Maybe every day. But good or bad, memories were made. And in the end, I guess at this point in my life, vacations aren’t really about me – they’re about making memories for the kids. At times, I think Jackson would have had just as much fun playing with dump trucks and dig digs on our couch at home with me for a week – but then every time he sees a commercial for a beach vacation, he’ll say “I was there!” and is excited about it. Note: he also says this when he sees footage of war in the middle east, but… close enough.

We took a family vacation and we lived to tell about it. Were the warnings we received beforehand justified? Absolutely. Did it take so much out of me that it took a solid month to regain the energy to write a blog post about it? Fact. Good, bad, or indifferent, did we make family memories that we’ll never forget? Most definitely. Clark Griswold was right. In the end, isn’t that all that matters?