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Friday, October 5, 2018

J + L : A long, drawn-out love story

(NOTE: I began this post in August 2017 and just finished it. So this first bit isn't entirely accurate, but it's why I started it.)

Everyone's kids are starting back to school, and I realized recently that it was exactly thirty years ago that I was gearing up to start a public high school after three years in a private junior high. The only people I knew at Van Buren High School were two girls I'd met candy-striping at St. Edwards that summer - cousins Tam Nguyen and Jan Nguyen - and a guy with whom I'd gone to elementary school, and who had moved across the river into our neighborhood over the summer.

I wish I could tell you about how the clouds parted and the sun shone down and lit up my heart the first time I laid eyes on James, but that's just not how it happened. We were in proximity for a long time before he really registered on my radar.

Our school wasn't tiny, but not nearly as big as it is today. We moved in pretty similar academic circles, and had multiple classes together. The one I remember most from sophomore years was French. James sat beside me, either in front of or behind his girlfriend. They held hands under the desks a lot, and were generally disgusting.

By the end of the year, I considered James a friend, that I know. For some reason, I wasn't really close with his girlfriend. Then in junior year, James and I had even more classes together, and by the time summer rolled around, James was no longer in a relationship. And I was interested.

For the life of me, I can't remember how this happened, but at some point, I was invited to play Dungeons and Dragons at James's house several times over the summer. I'd never played before, but totally wanted to hang out, so I jumped at the chance. I also sucked really badly at it. I couldn't keep the races straight, or remember what my strengths were, or anything fun like that. I got killed every dang week, early, but I kept coming back because... well, I wasn't exactly having fun, but I enjoyed the company.

You'll have to forgive my foggy memory here. I think I discarded a lot of this to make more room in my brain during the years that history pertaining to James didn't feel like it would be important to my future life. But something happened during this time wherein James and I discussed my job at Harvest Foods (Safeway) and he had told me he'd drop in and say "hi" on this one particular day.

Oh. My. Goodness.

Although I can't recall exactly how that came about, I do remember being extremely excited and nervous. Suddenly all of the "gross" stuff I'd thought about James when he was in a relationship with someone else seemed like it'd be sweet... you know, if I were on the receiving end of it. How great a boyfriend would he be?!

My co-worker and great friend Danielle shared my excitement with me, and kept an eagle eye on the door while I bagged my groceries. She kept telling me how awesome my hair looked, and generally being my hype man.

Finally, I registered the glint in her eyes and looked over my shoulder. There he was! He walked in, kind of looked around a moment, then before he saw me, a curly-haired blonde I'd never seen before trotted in, caught up with James, and took his hand in hers.


Danielle looked almost as deflated as I felt.

Once again, this memory fades into obscurity. I'm sure James and I exchanged niceties. I was just stunned. I'd never seen that girl before, never heard that there was someone James was interested in. Where had she come from?

I know now.

Apparently, James was driving home from work one day and thought he saw someone he knew at a mailbox in his neighborhood. He waved at her, then realized it was not who he thought it was. It was a new person. This girl. And that's their meet cute. (Which, as I've stated, we did not have.)

I went back to Dungeons and Dragons one time. James's new girlfriend was there, sitting in his lap, as I remember. I couldn't after that. I was done.

Right before school started, my friend and I decided that senior year would be a cool time to join the band, in which neither of us had ever played. My friend had the advantage of being able to sight-read music and play a couple of instruments. I could read rhythm charts, so I ended up in auxiliary percussion.

We started practice during the summer. Long, hot mornings in the wide open practice field. The percussion section was fun, though, and I loved it. One particular break, we were standing in line for the water fountain when James, who was right behind me with his girlfriend, said to me, "Laura, I know it gets you all excited to see me so hot and sweaty like this. I get it." I cannot for the life of me explain why I had a double-edged response to this. It was half, "Eww, get over yourself + how can your girlfriend stand you" and half, "That guy has zero confidence issues. That's appealing."

Also, it was very clear that, whatever else he might have said or done, he treated his girlfriends with overt admiration and care. Um, he also did stupid stuff that got him suspended from school for days at a time, but I wasn't aware of those things until much, much later.

At some point I started dating... well, honestly, the first of two gay guys I dated that year. He definitely had some confidence issues, as a closeted man in 1989 small-town Arkansas likely would. But one time stands out. I think we might even have broken up by then. Whatever, we were all heading over to the football stadium for a game, and for whatever reason, the band bus wasn't available. They had a van for the bigger instruments, but told us all to get a ride with people who had cars. (I'd wrecked mine, so didn't.)

I ended up in my friend Tim's vehicle, with some other guy riding shotgun, and James and me in the back seat. It was a totally forgettable 4 minutes in the car, except for what happened when we got to the field.

I got out of the car and was hauling some gear to the bandstands when my boyfriend (wink wink) marched up to me, livid. He said, "You be careful around that James Gates. He only cares about one thing." Seriously, he was shaking. I will never understand that, but... he was kind of right.

So we graduated. We were good enough friends that my mom took a picture of him receiving his diploma, an honor reserved for only about a dozen of my closest buddies. The next fall, I headed off to college near Little Rock, and James went to Kansas. By the end of the semester, we both returned "home."

James's parents had moved, so he and a friend ended up living in a "swanky" bachelor pad near the fairgrounds in Fort Smith. I was going to the community college, and maybe he was, too. At some point, we ended up hanging out again. He was single, and I, once again, was VERY INTERESTED.

Interested enough to hang out at the aforementioned anti-frat-house and listen to a bunch of self-entertained young men recite "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" in its entirety. We also went to see "Dances with Wolves" at the theater (yes, first run; we are not young people) together. James complained afterwards about the inclusion of Kevin Costner butt with no balance of lady butt. At this point, you might be wondering WHY I was so interested. I can't explain it. There was a lot more to James than his juvenile male shtick, but for some reason, that WAS a part of it. I think it still is.

And then James decided to join the Navy. He was going to go to Colorado to be with his family for a bit first, then he was enlisting. I wanted one real live date before he left, so, in my characteristically understated way, I asked him out on a legitimate date... By drawing a short comic book called "Middle-Aged Deformed Kung-Fu Lizards," about some super anti-heroes who end up trapped in a book until they successfully convince James to go on a date with me. Because I like to play things cool.

It worked, though. He agreed. I don't remember this at all, but James said that I asked him to write down everything he'd never done, so I could plan something totally new for him. Not sure he ever completed that assignment, but what I picked was a day trip down to Hot Springs to go to Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum, then lunch, then finishing off at the Midamerica Science Museum.

I picked James up and maybe 20 minutes into a three-hour drive, he fell asleep in my car. I was super irritated! Now I realize he might have been playing possum just to avoid anxiety over my frightening teenage driving habits.

Back in the day Midamerica Museum had an underground viewing room so you could see into the pond that butted up against the main building. As we stood watching the fish swim around, I told James, "When I was little, I'd stand here and pretend I lived in the water. I wanted to be able to breathe underwater so much." Quietly, James said, "I still do." I seriously felt like Cupid had just shot a freaking arrow into my heart and that I might drop dead right then and there.

Spoiler alert: I did not.

As an aside, if you ever have a chance to go to the Midamerica Science Museum, do! It's really fun. We should plan another trip there soon.

So, after a fun day out, I drove us back to northwest Arkansas. And that was it.


I'd left something at James's house. I'm thinking maybe it was lipstick? Something. Anyway. I needed to pick it up before James left town for good. The night I did so, I was going out with some girlfriends. I believe it was Danielle and Laurie. They sat in the car as I hopped out to meet James in the front yard. We said goodbye and hugged as my heart raced, hoping maybe, just maybe, he would kiss me goodbye. He did not.

When I got back into the car, Laurie said, "That was a very passionate hug." She was wrong, but it was a sweet consolation gesture.

James moved to Colorado a bit before Christmas 1991. I thought it'd be neat to make him a Christmas video, so a new friend I'd made in the local community theater and I drove all over Fort Smith and Van Buren for days, getting footage. In the end, my dad and I edited it using his work editing hardware, which allowed us to lay down a separate audio track, meaning the Christmas parades I filmed were played over Mannheim Steamroller music instead of just street noise. It sounds simple enough now, but at the time, I thought James would have to be super impressed by my technological prowess.

At the beginning of 1992, I moved to Fayetteville to attend the University of Arkansas. James headed off to basic training. We corresponded for some time. I would write him in the third person, as though the person about whom I was writing (myself) were a princess. I related everything as an allegory, rather than the actual boring recounting of going to classes, going to work, etc.

James told me that he would spend hours every night writing letters to people, after days full of working out and studying. He was only getting about two hours of sleep per night, according to his recollections.

Our correspondence died off in time, as we both got busy with separate lives. Somehow, though, over the years, we managed to keep up, even before the internet was much of a "thing." James got out of the Navy fairly quickly. If you know him, you know that the kind of structure and authoritarian nature of the military is just not a great fit for my husband.

The next time we really connected, he was living in Stillwater, Oklahoma, and I was in Las Vegas. As we exchanged a couple of letters, I met D's dad. I wrote James: "To be perfectly honest, I got in touch with you to see if the time was right for us to try to get together. But now I've met someone and we're engaged." James's characteristic response to that news was, "That's nice. But what does your engagement have to do with us?" It was comforting to know that his charm had remained so consistent across the span of time.

We still managed to keep up, exchanging updates every few years, until we connected on Facebook in maybe 2009 or so. James was never extremely active on Facebook, but I caught him online every once in a while, and we chatted. After my divorce in 2011, we started talking a lot. For once, I wasn't interested in him romantically. We were both trying to date people, and we'd commiserate about the frustrating stuff.

In October 2011, I went up to Tulsa for the Oklahoma Sugar Arts Festival and saw James at a contra dance to which he'd invited me. He was there with a girl he was dating, and I didn't realize it at the time, but they were in the process of breaking up. It was the first time I'd seen James in person in twenty years. He hardly looked different; his hair was longer, but that was about it.

In time, I learned that James and this girl weren't seeing each other anymore. He seemed a little less communicative than usual, so a couple of times, I invited him to come down to Dallas on one of the weekends I didn't have D. On one of those occasions, he said, "That sounds like fun. A lot more fun than watching my dad die."

James had gotten laid off of his job just in time for his family to contact him and tell him that his dad was very ill and he needed to get there as soon as possible. James spent about six weeks in a hotel with his stepmom as his father received whatever care they were able to administer, then he passed away.

I agonized over attending the funeral. I tried to figure out a way to make it work. I calculated driving up to Kansas the day of the funeral and driving back immediately afterward. I couldn't make it work.

Then James disappeared.

Months later, I happened to see him online when I was down in Temple for an insurance thing. I told him I'd be home over the weekend and asked if he wanted to visit. He said he had no means to get there, so I offered to come see him. I asked him his address. He wrote back something to the extent of "Listen, I wish I could be what you need for me to be right now, but I can't." I said, "I'm coming to Tulsa. You can send me your address, if you want." For some reason, that broke through some wall, and he said, "I suppose I could hock a guitar for gas money." I told him no need; I'd just head up to Tulsa after driving home, feeding the cats, and repacking.

I didn't actually get a response from him until after I'd gotten home, regrouped, and headed north supposing I could enjoy the city if I didn't hear back from him. I did. He warned me to stay in my car until I saw him, because he lived in a dangerous apartment complex. He also warned me that his place looked like a train hit both a bookstore and a liquor store. He wasn't kidding.

My first thought, when I saw James come around the corner of the building was, "He looks like a little kid." He'd lost a significant amount of weight since I'd seen him the previous year. I'd been worried that James was depressed, and I think he was. But he genuinely likes a "pleasantly" cluttered space. His apartment was that on steroids. Plus, his complex had bedbugs. And roaches. And... you get the idea. I had no idea how to make sure he was going to take better care of himself.

We went out to dinner to catch up. The next day, James took me to the Philbrook Museum of Art, where we rescued a bright blue and green lizard. Then we went to the grocery store and I bought stuff to make beef and broccoli, brownies, and several other dishes he could freeze to eat later.

While we cooked (at my hotel, as his counters were covered with dishes, boxes, paperwork, etc.), we showed each other videos that were meaningful to us. We talked about politics. About religion. About friends. About what we were doing.

It was a great weekend, and I returned home hopeful that he'd been cheered up at least a little bit. For once, I wasn't hoping anything. I hadn't had ulterior motives in visiting. I had no expectations. But James was already messaging me when I returned. He knew I was planning to move to Austin and wanted to see me again before I left, if that wasn't too much to ask.

And, I don't know, we ended up falling in love.

There was a lot more to it. Like, I helped hook him up with a job in Dallas, and he moved there several weeks before I moved to Austin. Yes, I could have changed my plans. But I'd learned from a previous experience not to change my life's trajectory because of a new relationship, no matter how promising it seemed.

Then I moved to Austin while he worked in Dallas, from August until February. The long distance thing sucked. But when he moved to Austin and got a job here, it was worse. At least we'd spent weekends together when we were in separate towns. Once he lived in town ,we'd manage an hour or two here and there, but he was otherwise exhausted from the new grind, or I had things going on with D.

It was wearing on me and putting strain on our relationship when one night in the middle of March, James had come over for dinner and said, "I think we should get married on April 1. That seems appropriate."

The rest, as they say, is history.

I'm going to tell you the truth: James and I were both super hot messes when we got together. We were both 40ish, but when I think back to some of the things we were doing or thinking or saying to each other, I feel like we were still babies. The fact is, we were both still reeling from a lot of emotional damage. We probably should have waited longer before pursuing a relationship.

On the other hand, we've both been very, very good for each other. I think we balance each other out in so many ways. I've never been as content, hopeful, and secure with myself and my life as I am with James. I think he gets something good out of this, too... Like the fact that I check the mail and make sure bills get paid and minutiae like that.

James has also made me a better parent, also because of the balancing factor. He's chill and has perspective and patience when I'm freaking out. He also provides for us so I can stay home with both kiddos, even the one who doesn't really need me too much anymore (sniff... but not really).

I have told James, and continue to believe, that whatever I might have fantasized being in a relationship with him might be like, the reality has surpassed it.

A funny side product of this is that things I used to LLLLUUUUUHHHHHHHHVVVVVVE, I now still enjoy, but not nearly as much, because my actual life is so enjoyable. Examples: Back when Rockapella was verboten (don't ask; I couldn't explain it), I extracted so much happiness from their music and seeing them perform. When they came to Austin a few years ago, James and D went with me to the concert. And it was so good. But it wasn't the super-bright mark in a pretty dark existence that it had been in the past.

Another one: We just got back from vacation, and we had a lot of fun and delicious meals while we were there. In the past, I would have poured over menus ahead of the trip, and decided on what to order long in advance. I deprived myself of so many foods that I loved, except on special occasions, that I was just obsessed with meal planning, especially on vacation. Now, I eat what I want when I want whenever it's available. So I had fun getting "free" food on vacation, and things I don't normally eat because we don't eat out a whole lot. But it wasn't the luxurious break from a monotonous relationship with food that I've had in the past.

This is, of course, a vast improvement over what my life was before. When your life is so pleasant that it's hard to make it MORE pleasant, that's pretty amazing. And James has given me that. Finally. (!!!!)

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Saying Goodbye

I met Rob when we were two of half a dozen second-graders put into a first/second grade "split" classroom at Morrison Elementary school in Fort Smith, Arkansas, in 1979.

Me: Gentlemanly haircut courtesy my barber grandfather; second to the end on the left in the back row of kids.
Actually, Rob's hair is not unsimilar. He's 2nd to the end on the right, same row.
When we were seven years old, 46 sounded old. So very old. Even older than our parents! Of course, at the time, we had zero thoughts of what our lives might look like after school, after families... it all seemed like much MUCH later. Too much later even to consider.

Since Morrison only had one of each grade, we were in school together. Our little sisters were best friends. Our parents were in the PTA together. We spent a lot of time in the same space until we started junior high, at which point I went to a private school and then we moved across the river, one town over. Coincidentally, Rob's family moved to Van Buren the summer before we started high school, and once again, we were in school together.

We had some mutual friends, and a couple of my good friends dated Rob. But mostly, we were in separate social circles throughout high school. Rob was in ROTC and ended up serving in the Navy. He got married the year after we graduated, and and next time I heard from him, it was thanks to the internet.

I don't remember whether it was Yahoo! or AOL, but I remember chatting with Rob when he was living in Hawaii and I was in Las Vegas. It made the world feel extremely small. Two kids from small-town Arkansas had made their ways across the country and were still very far apart, but able to catch up in real time over a computer screen whenever it was convenient.

Later, we became friends on Facebook. Rob and his growing family had moved to the Austin area. I was living in North Texas. And, as you know, I ended up in Austin, as well.

James and I went to the Hayeses' for dinner once shortly after we got here. It was long enough ago that D was still hanging out and went with us, spending the entire night playing Minecraft with Rob's older child, Mak. Even though we were in the same basic metro area, it was almost an hour from the Nuthaus to Rob and Sarah's.

We invited them down once, but Rob got a migraine so just Sarah and Peyton, their younger daughter, came. Sarah told me about Austin's moonlight towers, which gave me something fun to research downtown. It's pretty cool history, and I was glad to know about them.

Later, we moved WAY further south, then, almost two years ago, we moved to a tiny town about 6 minutes from Rob and Sarah's house. We kept talking about getting together. Sometimes, when they'd visit "our" park to kayak, Sarah would ping me on Instagram, but I never noticed in a timely manner.

But today, after having grown up neighbors, lived all over the place, and once again being neighbors in a totally different place, I saw Rob. I wish I hadn't.

Because 46 doesn't seem so old anymore. It's downright youthful, isn't it? And it's much, much too young to say goodbye to a spouse.

Hearing so many people speak of Sarah today inspired me on a couple of levels.

For one thing, I tried to pinpoint the first memory I have of her. You know what it was? That she showed up at prom my junior year with a senior who was probably the first guy I was ever truly in love with. I thought he and I had all the same friends, but I'd never seen Sarah before. Then that was basically all I remember until, right around her graduation (which was the year after mine), Sarah and Rob got married. Babies in love.

Sarah had a history with cancer. You can (and should, really) hear about it from her in this video she made four years ago. When we had dinner with them, she spoke about some of her experiences... but not much. Mostly, we talked about family and our common histories and jobs and normal "grown-up" stuff. She had an easy, hospitable way.

And everyone who spoke at her funeral today spoke of being loved, and seeing Sarah love others so tangibly. Rob's aunt said that, having known Sarah since shortly after the wedding, she'd never seen her raise her voice or say a mean word about anyone. Now, I realize no one is perfect and likely Sarah did both of these things at some point, but no one who knows me could say that about me... on any given single day of my life, honestly.

So the other way I was inspired by Sarah's funeral was just to be better. To live a joyful, hopeful, outward-facing life that will leave everyone I touch better off than before they knew me. My track record so far is not great.

As Rob and the girls try to figure out a new way to live, I am confident that the love and goodwill Sarah put out into the world will enfold the family. He joked today (yes, he spoke at his wife's funeral) about how Sarah was basically The Energizer Bunny and that he certainly couldn't have stopped her... but I hope he knows the person he is, and the partner he was, gave her the space to do the things she did. I wish every possible ease and comfort for the whole family. And I'm grateful I got to know Sarah, if only briefly and somewhat distantly. Rest in peace.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Early Life Crisis?

The couple of days leading up to Mal's 4th birthday were... interesting.

He expressed a great deal of opposition to having a birthday. He didn't want a party. He wanted to stay 3. He also spent Sunday and Monday having ideas of things he wanted to do, then just getting inconsolably upset about things I didn't understand, and telling me that I had ruined his day or ruined his birthday.

Monday he woke up and said, "I just want you to go pick up my cake for me." Of all the reasons I booked a party at Chuck E. Cheese, the grocery-store cake was not among the most important.

He agreed to go, and was ready to leave the house by 9 AM. We were supposed to be there at 10:45 to set up for the 11 o'clock party. Finally, at about 9:45, we went ahead and took off. I drove slowly (don't laugh; I actually set my cruise control for 5 under the speed limit), got gas, and we stopped by the Salvation Army store to kill 15 minutes or so.

The party ended up being a lot of fun. Mal loved it, loved having his friends there, and, of course, loved the cake. And pizza. Between birthday extras and people just handing their tickets over to him, Mal ended up with something like 2700 tickets, easily a record for us. However, he seemed unimpressed with the bigger offerings newly-available to him. He ended up walking out with 4 gummy Ring Pops and a bunch of points for later.

Just so I'll remember (because I have pictures of D's 5th birthday that include a little girl of whom I have zero recollection), Harrison, Alexei and his sister Anya, Blake and her brother Canyon, and Loki and his brother Zephyr came to Mal's party, plus Nana and Pappy and everyone's designated adult.

We finally gave Mal the LandSpeeder we bought him at 75 percent off when Toys R Us was closing. It took two days, but Mal finally sat in it and pressed buttons. He still won't drive it. He's waiting for Harrison to come over and drive it, and he says he'll sit beside Harrison.

The first thing Mal said to me on Tuesday was, "See? I woke up and I didn't turn 4." I had to break it to him that he was fully four on that day, though he'd gotten a reprieve during his actual party because he'd been born 19 minutes after his party officially ended.

The rest of the day and most of today has been much easier, emotionally-speaking. Mal wanted to go back to Chuck E. Cheese today, and because of a card we got for booking online and some left-over plays Pappy gave us, we were able to play for an hour with nothing out of pocket.

So... this time last year, Mal was finally ready to start using a toilet. Six weeks before his 3rd birthday, I thought we were still months and months away from it, but he was out of diapers during the day at his party. Since May of this year, we've had some regressions with his willingness to go when he needs to defecate, and I'd blame the switch from the training toilets to the big ones, but it wasn't a direct correlation.

However, a couple of times this week, he's just gone without my knowing (rather than my reading his face and ordering him to go NOW) and has called me in to help him finish.

Another cool thing is that he's been mostly dry overnight for a few months. I wasn't super committed to getting rid of the nighttime Pull-Ups just because I don't love taking the bedding off in the middle of the night, and I knew we definitely wanted to do Pull-Ups on vacation, using a bed that doesn't have waterproof covering. He was only wet twice during that 9-night stay, and has only been wet once in the 9 nights since we returned. The night before last, I let him go to sleep without a diaper on, but chickened out in the middle of the night. Last night, no Pull-Up and he was dry.

The cool thing is that, during the past week or so, he's been receptive to my encouragement to use the restroom before we go somewhere and, especially, before we go to bed. That's a huge change, and I'm loving it.

So he's growing up a lot, but also resisting growing up. He's a super fun kid, and spending time with him is an unmitigated blessing. Here's to Year Five!

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Are the "Must-Haves for Disney" Truly MUST-Haves? Our assessment...

Before our travel, I went through several lists of "must-haves" for a trip to Disney. Some things, like a Smart phone and a camera and a change of clothes for Mal, we would have taken even without outside forces hadn't suggested them. But I'm going to address a few things that we just didn't use at all, and a couple of things that were indispensable.

1) Plastic baggies of various sizes. USED THEM! A lot. We had clothes that needed to be rinsed out when we were out and about, and a couple of times had a left-over cookie (about which I forgot and which then got pulverized in my bag) or other snacks. Every day, I had two each of the gallon, quart, and sandwich-sized bags, and I used many. Just replenished at night at the hotel. Oh, we also used them for disposing of wipes (which we use, because it's easier to get a kid clean with wet wipes than just TP) so as not to stink up the hotel room. Recommend.

2) Ponchos. DID NOT USE. It rained every single day on our trip, the majority of which were when we were in the park and running around. Many people put on ponchos, wore them for 20 minutes, and then either had to stow them or toss them. I'd gotten very inexpensive disposable ones, because I didn't want to have to deal with folding them up and trying to tote them after if we did use them, but we did not. We actually left them in the hotel room because we ran out of room in our luggage. I hope someone was able to use them rather than their just getting tossed. Unless you're going when all day rain or severe storms are expected, don't bother. What we DID find useful...

3) Compact traveling umbrellas. USED! We each had these umbrellas that come in what looks like a glasses case. These aren't huge, but they'll keep your head and shoulders dry, and they dry out very quickly after use. They were easier to access and utilize, then stow again, than the ponchos would have been. Plus, you always get wet when you take a poncho off, right? The umbrella would also have been good to keep the scorching sun off, if you're there and not pushing a stroller. Now, I have one in my purse and one in my car for unexpected weather events. Recommend!

4) Portable phone chargers. DID NOT USE. I know, I know. "Everyone" says that your phone battery WILL die when you're in the middle of a Disney day. Mine never did. James's sputtered after he'd put it into a waterproof bag during the rain, and I think it overheated. But in terms of use, we just didn't use our phones enough to kill the battery on any day. I only got below 50 percent the day our a/c went out and I was using the Messenger app and texting a whole lot. I DID use My Disney Experience, and opened it often to check or change or add plans. But I shut it down when I wasn't using it, so it wouldn't run in the background and drain the battery. I also had all apps closed, including Messenger, for the same reason. I wasn't posting to social media or taking pictures with my camera in the park, so pretty much used it as a clock and for planning. We never waited in lines long enough to utilize Play, and we didn't do Agent P's in Epcot, then we were never in the parks more than about 7 hours on any given day, so we just did not need to recharge until we were back at the resort. We both have our chargers now, which might prove useful in the future. But we just did not need them at all when traveling. I certainly can see how you might, if you have a good phone camera and use it, plus post to Instagram, plus just leave the MDE app open and habitually turn to your phone in down times, etc. So use your judgement on this one.

5) Quarters and pennies for pressed penny machines. Sadly, DID NOT USE. My first kid would have blown through all $20 in quarters that I'd brought, but this kid was not too into the whole thing. He chose maybe 2 or 3 the whole trip. And you know what? When you have rolls of change in your carry-on luggage, the TSA's equipment can't tell what it is, and you have to let them go through your bag. Then when you don't use the change so you still have it at the end of your trip, they check it again! My purse is really heavy now. I suppose I could go to the bank and get paper money, but I never have change for the carhop at Sonic, so I guess I'll hold on to it.

6) My Disney Experience. USED A WHOLE LOT. Guys, I get that some people aren't planners. But I can only imagine that it's very difficult to tour Disney with a small child without at least a little bit of a road map. We used it a lot in the parks, to help us find bathrooms and such, and also to make new FastPasses and to verify times when we'd set other stuff up. But I used it and the Disney website at length before the trip. We'd set our dining reservations the day we were able to (180 days in advance) and, though I changed several around at the last minute, we could not have gotten in to Be Our Guest if I hadn't. And Tusker House was full fairly far out. We also set the maximum  number of FastPasses we were allotted 60 days in advance. Flight of Passage, Na'vi River Journey (which, to my surprise, was 115 minutes compared to FoP's 75 minute wait), and Slinky Dog Dash would have been impossible without the FastPasses, because I don't wait in lines for more than 20 minutes. Furthermore, we saw people on the elevators heading down to the pool who didn't realize our pool was under renovation until they got there. We talked to another family on the pool shuttle to the other side of the resort who said the same thing. I can't imagine not having that information before leaving, just to mentally prepare and have a plan. Disney gives you tools to help make your trip easier. I recommend using them!

Also, there were a lot of FastPasses we let lapse without using, because Mal wasn't up for it, or we didn't feel like whatever it was going to take to get there. One time, it panned out really well for us. I had made a FastPass for Goofy's Barnstormer, an exceptionally short kiddie coaster in Fantasyland, the night of the Halloween party. But we knew by then that Mal was not going to be ready for ANY coaster rides on this trip. Turns out they had to close it due to weather, and they gave us an "open" FastPass for anything from 5:30 PM until 9:00 PM that day or the next. I didn't see the free pass until much later, but we were able to use it to ride Test Track the next day, after having made our Tier 1 FastPass for Soarin' (you can only make advance passes for one of those two). So if you think, "I only need two at this park," just make one for the heck of it.

7) Another app I'd used before the trip, in conjunction with the website, was Lines by Touring Plans. My Touring Plans subscription really helped me decide when to go for sure, what days to hit which park, and to lay the foundation of how we'd make our way around the parks, by giving me an idea of how long it takes to walk from here to there, how long they expect the waits will be, and then how long the experience lasts. There's an app you can use to update plans in the park and to check actual wait times (which vary from posted wait times because Disney uses the wait times to direct traffic flow just as much as it does to kind of give you an idea how long you might have to wait). Well, after the second day, I deleted the Lines app from my phone. Once you had completed a step in your plan, you click "done" and it moves it off of the top, going on to the next item. OH MY GOSH, it takes forever to do that. Like 10 seconds or so. Which sounds like a petty grips, but when I'm trying to do it on the fly, and we've done 8 of the things... I really don't feel like waiting for my app to process everything. Definitely recommend the website and yearlong subscription. Maybe have the app for an outline of your plans, since MDE only has the FastPasses and meals? But I wouldn't plan on it helping too much in the parks, unless I was doing something wrong or had crappy hardware (it's a ZTE Axon, but other apps function fine on it).

8) Wipes. Yep, USED THEM. Ever since D was too old to need wet wipes for cleaning up after toileting so I didn't carry them anymore and then a pigeon pooped on D's dad's shoulder while we were waiting for the San Antonio River Walk boat to fill up so we could take off and a lady on-board with us had a wipe to give, I've thought that wipes are just a good idea to carry around, anyway. And with snacks like cotton candy and super melting Done Whips, wipes are a lot better than dry napkins. Recommend!

BONUS: I don't know whether this is on any lists, but we also utilized and loved the packing bags that act like vacuum bags, but you don't need a vacuum, you just press the air out with your weight. I suppose it helped us fit more into our small bags, but even if it didn't, I was able to organize clothes by days so unpacked several days at a time as we needed clothes and then pulled more out as we freed up hangers. Also, in case anyone had needed to go through our checked luggage, we wouldn't have had any cases of a pair of underwear falling out and getting left behind, or caught in the zipper, or anything. Maybe they did go through our bags. I have no idea. It was all tidy when we opened them.

BONUS THOUGHT ON THE DINING PLAN: As I mentioned, we got the dining plan for "free" ($300ish upgrade to make our park tickets Park Hoppers, which we never used) and, in that case, it was well worth it. There was a 25% discount on our room at the time, too, but financially, taking advantage of the free dining made more sense. Whether it makes sense to purchase the dining plan when it's not offered gratis (and rumors are that the gifting times are almost over) depends on several things. For instance, we had a table service meal for every night of our stay, or the equivalent as we skipped one day but ate at Jiko, which uses 2 table service credits as it's considered Signature Dining. In every case but the one I just mentioned, the tab for the three of us usually came to right at $140-150 before tip. The dining plan is roughly $75 per adult and $25 right now, and assuming the we ate other food throughout the day, it seems like, yeah, we'd easily spend $180 per day on food.

However, with the dining plan, you can get specialty drinks and, on table service meals, dessert. James might have splurged on a neat cider or something, but while I enjoyed the beverages I got, if we'd been paying out of pocket, I would have just ordered soda. Also, given how our child is about eating, there likely would have been several meal times when we would not have ordered him anything at all. And we were always full, so likely would only ever have eaten desserts as a snack, never to end a meal. So, on our own dime, we actually would not have spent quite so much on food. It was fun not to worry about how much a dish cost, and just go for it, though, so I can see the benefit of that. For our family, though, I would not purchase the dining plan. It was super fun stocking up on goodies to bring home at the end of the week when we hadn't used a bunch of credits, though!

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Home Again, Home Again...

By the time we went to bed (VERY EARLY) Monday night, I was *almost* caught up. I had pulled the third and final load of laundry out and laid the pieces so they wouldn't wrinkle. But I'd done the rest of the laundry and put it away, I'd unpacked everything, vacuumed the house, and cleaned the bathrooms and kitchen. I'm still waiting for my left foot to get back to normal. It doesn't hurt, but the swelling is just weird.

To backtrack, on Saturday we took it super slow at the resort in the morning, including my taking Mal swimming, and his also playing at Simba's Cubhouse. A bit after lunch, we took a bus to Magic Kingdom, then got on the monorail to visit some of the resorts. we looked around Polynesian, where we had a dinner reservation, and tried to rent a boat to explore the lake. But just as we arrived to do so, they called a hold due to lightning in the area. So we rode the monorail over to the Contemporary and looked around their lobby. Mal also bought a set of resort buses he'd been looking at since he played in our lobby with some other kids who had them.

After that, we went back to the Poly for a delicious dinner at Kona Cafe. Mal had fun playing on the beach after, and I felt bad when we took a Lyft back to the hotel and realized we hadn't gotten all of the sand out of his shorts.

The Poly smells so good, and it made me excited to visit Hawaii in a couple of years. Also, it made me excited that where we stay isn't overrun by so many people!

The next morning, we had breakfast at Boma, which, according to our server, is the #6 breakfast buffet in the country, according to maybe USA Today? Anyway, it was great, and I finally got to try the POG juice! We'd eaten at Boma our first night, and really love the mix of Afro-centric cuisine and more "Murican" stuff for our nuggets-and-fries kiddo. The server brought Mal a light-up Buzz Lightyear, which was sweet. He's usually served as a souvenir in a kids' drink we can't order using the dining plan.

After breakfast, we took another Lyft to Art of Animation to see the Cars... cars.

This was undeniably cool, but, good gravy, Mabel, it was in full sun and so so so so hot. The day had a high of like 91 but with a real feel of 106. Seriously, this week made us feel like Austin weather is AMAZING. We stepped into the Austin air and were like, "Oh, this is nice. 88 and 60% humidity. Sweet."

Next, we went to Disney Springs, which was Downtown Disney last time I was in Florida, because James had a date at The Void. There is a lot of construction, and we had to walk around a bunch to find one of the only ways "in" to this outside shopping center. And, have I mentioned, it was hot? We enjoyed a soda on the rooftop bar of the Coke store, then walked toward The Void. Mal wanted to ride a tiny train, so we did that. Then we shopped a bit while James did his thing. In the end, we made it back to the bus stop and were going to go back to the hotel, but the bus took so long to get there that James was done and caught up with us. This is what he did.

That night, we had an amazing "signature dining" experience at Jiko, where I had elk loin for the first, and maybe last, because where the heck else am I going to get that?, time. It was amazing.

And the next morning, we had to wake up early to head out. Mal cried, and said he wanted to live at the hotel, that he would miss his animals. We really did have an incredible week. D did a great job house-sitting, and it really didn't take too long to get everything back in the order I am used to... once I remembered where everything went!

Now we're settling back into a rhythm, and it's raining a lot, so that's pretty cool.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Yawn. Good (last) morning!

I have to wake James up in 10 minutes, but thought I'd pop in here to say that we're on our way back home in a few hours!

To catch quickly up on the past few days: Friday, we went to Hollywood Studios. Because of my legs giving me issues and how much we have loved the resort, I had pushed everything back to as late as I could. Consequently, we got into the park, had some fun photo shoot activities, watched Muppets 3D (which Mal loved, and also I wasn't sure where my backpack was so I was a little distracted, but I still enjoyed it and my backpack was just in the stroller), started to check out Toy Story Land but decided it was too hot with zero shade, so spent the rest of the time before lunch in "One Man's Dream."

We ate lunch at the Sci Fi Dine-In Theater, and it was so much fun. Then James and I rode Star Tours. Although we knew Mal wouldn't be up to it, we walked him through the line so he could see C3PO and R2D2. He really wanted to meet them, like a character interaction, and was disappointed that he didn't get to do that. BUT he met BB8 later in the day, so that helped.

Okay, we did the "First Time in Forever: A Frozen Sing-Along," and I have to tell you: It lives up to the hype. Such a fun show, and the adults in our party might have teared up at the very end (and I knew what was coming). Highly recommend. Our historians were brilliant.

"He's got the whole Aria in his hand..."
We had FastPasses for Slinky Dog Dash at 6:50, and did rider swap for that. Then it was time to check in to the Star Wars dessert party. It was super neat, and Mal got to interact with some Storm Troopers, in addition to our meeting Kylo Ren, Chewbacca (a special treat for James), and BB8. I was dealing with the fact that our A/C was out at home, an apparent thermostat problem that ended up not being a thermostat problem after all, but fortunately our expert house-sitter and my parents got things taken care of on the ground so that by the fireworks, I was dialed back in to the vacation.

Mal would have talked to BB8 all night, seriously.


Okay, that's all you get. Time to pack up and hit the road. Then the air. Then the road again. Grocery delivery this afternoon, and I have to tell you: I love the future. Safe sitting around and sleeping while we travel!

Friday, September 14, 2018

Some Observations About Disney (and maybe about myself)

We did Animal Kingdom yesterday, and it was a great day! We got into the park around noon, and explored Discovery Island then did the Gorilla Falls trail before lunch at Tusker House. It was another character meal, and we met Mickey, Goofy, Daisy, and Donald, who were all dressed up for a safari.

It was getting pretty close to time for our Flight of Passage FastPass (which is like *the* pass to have, as wait times are always more than an hour, and often more than two). We'd promised Mal he could play at the dino dig, so we headed in that direction. We'd actually had FastPasses for Expedition Everest, as I mentioned in the last post, but guess what? It was down, for some reason. They gave us blanket FastPasses for the rest of the day, but we were so busy, we didn't get to take advantage of them. We really didn't have time to do them, anyway, after I'd pushed back our lunch time.

We ended up not seeing a lot of stuff, including the trail in Asia, but it was better to do a shorter day, because by the end of the day, Mal was falling apart and I got my first "old lady" ankle rashes from walking in the heat! Huzzah!

Mal liked the playground and dig, and we got into Pandora in plenty of time to find out where stuff was (there are no signs; it's supposed to look like a natural planet, and signs would muck it up).

I rode Flight of Passage while James and Mal rode Na'vi River Journey. Everyone talks about how awesome Flight of Passage is, and they're not kidding. It was fantastic. The closest thing I can compare it to is Soarin', but on steroids. It's 3D, and you're astride a banshee. You can even feel the banshee breathing. The scenery is bonkers. So beautiful. I was crying a lot of the time on the ride, and for a bit after.

Mal and I explored Pandora while James did rider swap to experience Flight of Passage, then we headed over to Lion King. It wasn't seating yet, so we went back through the Gorilla Falls Trail to see the hippo, which we'd missed before. It was totally worth it! We'd noticed the fish in the pool the first time, but not the hippo. He was right there!

We ended up getting back RIGHT as the Lion King started, but they let us go in. We made it through 2/3 of the show before Mal had to go to the bathroom. He really liked the tumble-monkeys, though!

The last thing we did was to go on the safari. We got to see two female lions in a kerfuffle, which the driver said he'd never seen before, and the sun was just going down, so it was beautiful. On our way out, we walked through Pandora, which was getting lit up for the night. Even the sidewalks glow. I took the opportunity to get a Pandora sunset beverage, too.

The we boarded the bus for the ride back to the resort.

Over the past few days, I've pondered a few things:

1) HOW DO INSTAGRAM AND YOUTUBERS WHO COVER DISNEY LOOK SO GOOD?! We step out the door for three minutes and I'm melting. Now, granted, I haven't properly fixed my hair since Mal was born, but here, I'm just getting it up off of my neck because it's so dang hot! Forget full makeup (another thing I don't really do, anyway) and a sleek long hairstyle. Not happening. Also, there have been plenty of people I've seen in heels and ornate outfits. IT'S 400 DEGREES! HOW?!

2) So is Disney just this busy now?? One of my favorite things about being at Disney has always been meandering around, enjoying the view. We've found a few pockets of places to do that, but overall, we have to keep on the move because there are SO MANY PEOPLE. This is the slowest time of the year now, which is why I tried a summer trip at all (every other time I've been to Florida as an adult, it's been in January, but they have the marathon now and it's apparently busy in January, too). I have memories of getting right on a bus and going, and now almost every bus is packed, and we've almost had to wait for a second bus, before a last-minute sardine situation. It's a lot of people to handle. I'm glad we picked a quiet resort.

3) Thank God we're on Free Dining. We would probably have eaten at all of the same places (except maybe Jiko) and it would have been VERY expensive. Most of our table-service meals have been about $145 before tip. And we're doing one of those every day. If we weren't on the dining plan, we probably wouldn't be getting dessert and fancy drinks, but it would still be in the $100 range. Then $4-8 here and there for snacks throughout the day, $12ish for adult fast-service meals, etc. $$$$$$

4) I'm old. In the past, I've LOVED seeing me in my Disney pics. "Oh, look how cute I am in France!" Now, I'm having to just say, "Welp, there I am. Someday I'll cherish these pictures." Plus, the ankle thing. My mom used to get that, and, you know, your parents are old people. I had a child when I was ancient, and although I've never gotten the "are you the grandma?" question yet, I feel like it's right around the corner. Sigh.

5) Bonus observation: Why do people like Havianas? I got a really cheap pair from the Disney website, and they're cute, but they're heavy and slippery and super uncomfortable to wear. That said, I'm wearing them today because my feet need a break from my other shoes, but they are HORRIBLE. Are all Havianas like that?

6) Disney PhotoPass is cool, and I love Memory Maker and all... but you either have to download ALL of your pictures or do one at a time, which involves clicking on the picture, clicking "download" clicking "okay" then at some point going to the download area and actually downloading it So the latter is cumbersome, but the former results in the generation of multiple large zipped files that you then have to download and extract, and you can't tell in advance which pictures are the ones you already have until you've downloaded them. And the wifi in the resort is, well, typical public wifi. Why can't they give you the option to "download new" or "download pictures from this date"?

7) The cast members are so great with kids. It becomes contagious and a lot of guests are, too. Also, the Mousekeepers in our area have been so good juggling our coming and going. There have been times, on cruises and other hotels, where I felt pressured to get out to accommodate housekeeping, or just to tell them "don't worry about it." Here, if you're in your room, they move on and come back. It's great for families who aren't the "out the door at sunrise, back after dinner" kind of people. Which I used to be. But not anymore. We've just had extremely positive interactions with pretty much everyone we've encountered.

8) Parents can get pretty tightly-wound when they've spent a lot of money on vacation and their kids are not following the program. Some of these moments have hurt James's an my hearts. Yesterday, he overheard a lady tearing into her little kid in the lobby of our hotel. When we were going into Enchanted Tales with Belle and a probably 8-year-old girl was sobbing because of the magic mirror scene, her mom leaned over and said, "You are TOO OLD FOR THIS." I wanted to hug that little girl so bad. Now, I have definitely "gotten onto" Mal a couple of times, but that's when he was acting crazy and at risk of hurting someone else, or when he was being a jerk in the kids' club and saying, "I don't want anyone else to be here." And then, I mostly just offered to take him back to the room where he could be alone.

I get it. It's hard. Like yesterday morning, we were taking it easy, and Mal suddenly put on his shoes and said, "Let's go somewhere!" We were not ready to leave for the day, so I asked him if he wanted to come with me to get breakfast. He said, "No, I want to go somewhere. I'll get my stroller." I told him I was going to get us breakfast, and that I needed some tape for my blisters, and he could go with me. He said, "I'm just going to get my stroller, and we can go." I reminded him we weren't leaving yet, and asked him if he wanted to stay and play with James while I got some stuff done. But he didn't. He didn't want to stay, and he didn't want to do what I was doing. He wanted to get his stroller and GO. I finally just left, and could hear him crying in the hallway.

So I turned around. I offered to take him with me in the stroller, and that seemed to make him happy. I pushed him down to the lobby, we went into the gift shop where I let him pick out some candy (I KNOW; we have lots!), and then we went to get breakfast. That was all it took to make him feel better, and when we got back up to the room, he was ready to hang out for a few before we left for the day's adventure. We keep telling ourselves "It's his vacation, too." And D's. That's why D isn't here. By choice. Not my preference. But it's not just a vacation for the grown-ups. I wish we were all better about remembering that.

And as tired and overstimulated as we are, the kids are more so! That's one reason we're trying to build in down time every day. Once again, I changed our plans for today. We were supposed to get into Hollywood Studios around 2:30 for lunch, but I pushed it back to 4:30. We'll end up doing way less, but we have tickets for the dessert party before the fireworks, so we need to make it until 9!

I guess that's it for now! Reminder that the pictures are here. Yesterday's photos should be up soon; they stopped uploading last night, so I'm having to babysit them this morning.