Tuesday, March 24, 2015

50 States Trip #1: The Carolinas

So I mentioned in my last post that we are going to spend 2 years visiting all 50 states. It will probably take us 2 years to get the lower 48 and then two separate, really expensive, trips to hit Alaska and Hawaii. Even knowing from the beginning that we will need to be flexible to achieve our goal, it was awfully surprising that the lesson was learned so very quickly.

We planned our first trip last month to head up to some mid-Atlantic states and see Washington, D.C. Unfortunately, the weather did not agree with us and one of our kids barfed in the hallway on the new carpet the week we were supposed to leave. The recovering barfer and the frost-bite inducing cold forced us to reevaluate our plans.

We decided, days later than we had originally planned, to just head to the Carolinas so that we could at least begin our adventure instead of cancelling altogether. We had no reservations or pre-planning, but since it was February we figured we'd be able to find a decent hotel and packed anyway. We got the car loaded up and all the kids buckled in and then realized we had a flat tire.

So then we went to Discount Tire and got two new tires. The children thought it was awesome, they gave us money back on our two tires still under warranty, and they were done in 30 minutes. Yay, Discount Tire. 
Giant machinery is always cool
Finally, we were on the road and headed to Charleston, South Carolina. Charleston is lovely. There are Spanish moss covered trees and old cobblestone streets and a gas light district that smelled a little too much like natural gas for me to completely relax. We stayed right next to the market that opens every day and were able to walk everywhere we went. Hotels in that area are expensive, but we only stayed two nights so it wasn't too terrible.

Our first day we visited the Old Slave Mart museum, the Old Exchange and Provost, and Fort Sumter. I apparently fall far into the camp of "stark truth-telling parents" because it really didn't occur to me that I might traumatize the children with the history of slavery until someone mentioned it on Facebook. Anyway, we looked at photographs of small children in chains and actual whips and listened to personal stories that have been recorded by actors and it was painful yet enthralling. The children were most interested in the fact that families were broken up as children and parents were sold to different owners.  

It was also painful because we have a 2-year-old and he is incapable of somber reflection. I don't have any pictures of this because human beings were sold like animals in that spot and it didn't seem like an appropriate photo-op for small white children. 

I don't have Old Exchange photos, either, because that included a guided tour and during guided tours Jay and I spend all of our energy and focus keeping our children from destroying historic artifacts and knocking over strangers. It is like taking a litter of 3-foot-tall tiger cubs everywhere we go. Still, the history lover in me enjoyed both of these locations and I am glad we went.

We spent the afternoon at Fort Sumter, the site of the start of the Civil War. To get to the fort you have to take a 30-minute boat ride, which was a big hit with everyone. There is an indoor area on the boat so even though it was cold we didn't freeze. The fort itself is exactly the kind of place we like to take the kids. It is outside, there is plenty to look at, and it has historical significance. You're only allowed to stay about an hour because the boat will leave you (the park rangers actually rode back with us) so we didn't get to spend much time inside the museum on the actual island. Also, my son may be the only tourist ever to have left his winter gloves on Fort Sumter. He had owned them for one day. 

Cannons are amazing

Family Ft Sumter selfie-may need a selfie stick
The next morning we visited the market and said "don't touch that" 147 times and "no, you may not buy that" 412 times. The market is interesting for adults and apparently sheer torture for small boys. We also ate an amazingly delicious breakfast at the Dixie Cafe, which was on Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives from the Food Network. You should go there. 

From Charleston we took this awesome bridge over to Sullivan's Island to go run around on the beach for a few minutes.

This wasn't really planned, but we were headed from Charleston to North Carolina and it looked like a fun detour to drive over the bridge. Once we were over, Jay thought we should see the Atlantic because our children either don't remember it or haven't ever done so. It wound up being one of my favorite activities.
Boardwalk to the beach
We literally just drove around until we found a place to park near a public beach access point. We ran down this wonderful boardwalk, past a sign that said to watch out for coyotes, and down to the beach.

The path was surrounded by marsh and grasses and it looked like a secret passage to the sea. I'm sure it's a totally different world in the summer, but in February it was like we had our own personal ocean. Definitely worth the detour.

Here is where we totally short-changed North Carolina. I really love North Carolina. Jay and I lived there for a year and there are many places worth seeing. Asheville, the Outer Banks, and the universities near Raleigh-Durham (University of North Carolina, North Carolina State University, Duke, and Wake Forrest) are all fun. Unfortunately, they were all getting snow and crazy weather, too. 

We also were kind of run down from the terrible barfing of earlier in the week and we spent an extra couple of hours on the highway due to a horrific fatal accident that we passed on the way. It resulted in an RV on its roof with a car resting on top of it. I've never seen anything like it.

All that to say, we chose to go to Charlotte, North Carolina because it is close to Charleston and about 3 1/2  hours from our house. We also assume that we will spend the night in North Carolina during other trips to places further away. That turned out to be a good decision because another kid started barfing in the hotel room that night.

But before the barf, we went to the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

Full Disclosure: I am not actually a NASCAR fan. Growing up in the South, you kind of can't help but hear about races or big names in the sport, but I was totally surprised when my college roommate from Delaware told me her brothers were huge NASCAR fans. I learned that auto racing is actually quite a popular sport, beating out basketball at both the professional and collegiate level for "favorite sport" among Americans for the past several years. 

We decided that a giant NASCAR museum was certainly unique to North Carolina and something that might be fun for the kids. And, honestly, it was a great museum. You get to climb on examples of how the track tilt has changed over the years from flat to over 30 degrees. 
Hanging on at 33 degrees

We got to sit in a race car and pretend we were in the winner's circle.

See how happy I am at winning?
And I got a Dale Earnhardt hat because it was awesome.

Turns out that the NASCAR Hall of Fame is incredibly kid-friendly. It is already loud and you have to try pretty hard to break a car museum. Plus, there are several interactive video-game-like simulations throughout the whole thing. We finished up our evening with some really great Carolina BBQ, but then regretted that when the barfing began.

The next morning we limped home with a garbage bag in front of the poor sick kid, two new tires on the faithful minivan, and two more states crossed off the list. Next stop: the Mid-Atlantic states. 

Monday, March 16, 2015

Our 50 Nifty United States Adventure

Are you singing the song right now? I certainly hope so. If you're too young to know the reference, please watch this short video before going any further. You're welcome in advance.

Yeah, the 80s were as awesome as you imagine them to be. So much jingoistic pride and an evil Communist enemy to justify it all. Sigh. RIP, USSR.

Anyway, Jay and I are actually attempting to take all six of our family members to all 50 of the nifty United States. We have high hopes and a slightly indeterminate timeline. We are planning for most of them to be done in the next 2 years, but outliers (looking at you, Alaska and Hawaii) are going to be a bit of a stretch. And I've already been to both of them so, you know, tie goes to me.

I'll be sharing our trips and some pictures and such, but I thought I'd do an explanatory post that sets up our reasoning, our "rules", and our goals for these trips. So, first things first; what counts as visiting a state?
Our scratch-off map of the USA-how cool is that?
For our purposes we must spend the night inside the state's borders AND do something unique to that state. Most major cities have an art museum, a science museum, an aquarium, a zoo, a botanical garden, and a children's museum. So unless that city has a world class facility (think MoMA, the San Diego Zoo, or the Smithsonian) we avoid those types of attractions. Ditto goes for colleges and universities, although we may visit one if we really can't find a kid-friendly thing to do in that state (let's hear it for the Cornhuskers)! I have a strong preference for natural landmarks and historical sites so we will be focusing primarily on those types of attractions.

Secondly, we are not attempting a comprehensive tour of every state nor will we attempt to visit each state equally. It's just not possible given our monetary restraints, the ages of our kids, and the number of miles between states. I am fully aware that most states have many beautiful or unique characteristics, but we cannot see all of them, especially with small children. So, yes, although I would love to cross your crazy bridge, West Virginia, the thought of doing it with my boys who have yet to develop a fully-formed concept of death makes be break out in a cold sweat. Which leads me to my next point...

We will be sticking close to major highways (and therefore, hospitals), major cities (and therefore, hospitals), and staying primarily in chain hotels (they are usually near hospitals). Before you think me a crazy hypochondriac I would like you to know that we have yet to go on a trip with 3 or 4 kids where everyone remained well the entire time. And I have walked to an emergency room in downtown Philly in the pre-dawn haze holding a baby who was having a hard time breathing. Don't judge me. Also, most places do not take kindly towards 6 people in one room and larger cities have more suite options. This is not an off-the-beaten path kind of adventure. Yet.

Because Jay and I have a deep appreciation and love for well-made food that we did not prepare ourselves, we will also attempt to eat something locally famous in every state. The goal is to do our best on that one--great restaurants are not always kid-friendly and new foods are not always compatible with small kids and long car rides. And as we all know, hungry children need food fast and I will not beat myself up if we eat at Schlotzsky's because it was what we could find in a hurry.

Some Logistics: We are not leaving our lives and driving around for 3 months. Jay has to work because we are not independently wealthy and we all like to eat on a regular basis.  Instead, we will be using our flexible school/work schedule to take long weekends and 7-10 day trips until we are finished. The intent is for us to drive to as many destinations as possible. That is useful, because we can pack the faithful minivan with our road trip necessities (which, sadly, now involves Clorox wipes, a roll of paper towels, and garbage bags instead of trashy magazines and massive amounts of chocolate), but it also means more time spent in travel. Clearly we will have to strike a balance. If we fly, kids have to be able to schlep their own stuff. Actually, that holds true when we drive, too. We are not planning our trips too far in advance so that we can work around extreme weather, peak crowds, and Jay's work responsibilities. Clearly, we have more flexibility for spontaneous trips the more we drive.

So, what do we hope to achieve?

Well, selfishly, it is a personal goal of mine (and Jay's). I like games and somewhat arbitrary goals and this is a fun one for both of us. We also want to instill a love of travel in our kids and the joy of seeing and learning new things through personal experiences. Obviously, we are also excited about spending time as a family developing a host of those shared experiences that are unique to our family team. We do NOT expect our kids to remember every state and completely understand Westward Expansion or the Civil War when we are done. WE will remember and that is good enough. Also, I need them to love maps as much as I do.

Traveling with small kids is never efficient, never convenient, and always vaguely embarrassing (except when it is overtly embarrassing). Tour guides will always comment on or to your children. They can't seem to help it. In fact, guided tours are not usually our friend, but that's a post for another day. Strangers will mention that you "have your hands full" as they walk by, arrogant in their unencumbered saunter and ability to have meals and go to the bathroom WHENEVER THEY WANT.

But that's okay. Our kids light up at the thought of museums and monuments and road trips. And, honestly, so do I.

***In case you, for some odd reason, notice that I don't ever write about the few states we've already all been to, I wanted to list them here.
  1. Georgia--obviously. If you live somewhere else and want to cross GA off your list head to Atlanta (super easy by plane or car) or Savannah (easiest by way of South Carolina)
  2. Florida--I have no idea how many times I've been to Florida. All of our kids have been to Disney World and to the Gulf Coast beaches, both of which are fun for families if you've never been.
  3. Tennessee--lots of Tennessee is beautiful. Memphis, Nashville, and Chattanooga are all fun places. Chattanooga has a little more for kids (they can't hit the Nashville music scene just yet) and it is close (2.5 hours) to Atlanta.
  4. Washington--This crazy far one is because Jay's sister lives there. We spent a week visiting her and saw Seattle, Tacoma, and my absolute favorite, Mount Rainier. We also got lots of stares and comments in the airport, the car rental place, and everywhere we went with four kids. One lady asked to hold my youngest for a picture to prove to her sister that you could, in fact, take a baby on Mount Rainier. I said yes. 

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Thoughts on Wallpaper...because it is vitally important to society

O.k., it is not vitally important to society, but based on the reactions I got when I told people I was going to hang wallpaper in our new house, it is a decorating technique about which people have strong opinions. Most gave off a fascinated, incredulous, faintly disgusted air as though I had just announced I was leaving Jay to marry my cousin. (What's up cousins? I'll let you guys decide which one.) I can only assume that you all, like me, have had one or both of the following run-ins with wallpaper:

1. You have attempted to remove wallpaper stuck directly to drywall using that horrible round scraper thing (that just leaves 8 million tiny holes in your wall), the steamer that makes a soggy mess, and/or the terrible smelling "remover" that seems to have no effect whatsoever...


2. You recall that time in the 70s/early80s that your parents tried to hang wallpaper together in the bathroom and they got into a fight so loud you thought that Daddy might be going to live in a different house and then he kicked your Big Wheel.  For instance.

The wallpaper I used was not like that kind of wallpaper at all. It is called "paste the wall" and you literally paint universal wallpaper paste onto the wall in a strip just a little bit wider than your roll, cut a strip the same length as the height of your wall, and stick it up there.  The paper feels like really high quality wrapping paper or maybe butcher paper so it is easy to handle without tearing, pulling, or bubbling. You also don't have to do any soaking or "booking" like old wallpapers. You can re-position it without it tearing fairly easily. And, although I did not test this, my research said that it actually comes off in one piece which makes it popular with renters in older buildings in Europe. We'll see if that holds up when I get tired of wallpaper.

Cutting a strip to length

 To be honest, I don't really know if this is a common U.S. product yet or not--I fell in love with an Orla Kiely print (Multi-stem Original, if you like it yourself) and I could only buy it from Europe. It was oddly difficult to search for wallpapers online--there are so many choices and so many I hated--and I didn't even know there were different types when I started. I found this Youtube tutorial by these lovely British people who can give you more advice than I could on how to hang it. They mix their paste up from a powder, but here in the U.S. it just comes in a resealable gallon already mixed.

Here are my two cents on how this little project went for me.

paint brush (get a wide one)
paint tray (to pour paste into)
universal wallpaper paste ($20 at Home Depot or Lowe's)
measuring tape
utility knife
washcloths (wet to wipe off paste on the front of wallpaper, dry to smooth paper down)
plastic straight edge (like a painters' edge--to get paper into corners and around trim)

Making a straight edge
Working around a door frame

This really wasn't all that difficult. I told Jay it was like a cross between painting a room and wrapping an oddly shaped gift. He said, "so something I'd be really bad at." Um,,,yes.

Sun that caused my ladder falling
The hardest part was going up and down the stupid ladder I fell off of a few weeks ago while painting a sun on a ceiling and that I chose to put paper on all four walls of our small foyer. There was a door or doorway on every wall so there were also corners and door frames in almost every strip I hung. I think I hung just two strips that only needed trimming at the top and bottom.

It certainly helped to have a graphic print--the nature of the print itself makes seams harder to see. Also, working quickly made it easier to trim because the paper becomes more malleable (and therefore harder to cut in a straight line) the longer it is on the wall. One last tip, if you do all four walls know that it is not possible to have the pattern line up in that last corner so start in the corner you think is least important so that you will finish there with the mismatched print.

I actually really like it and think it would not be hard for most people, especially if you just wanted to do one accent wall. It is more expensive than paint (like 60-100 dollars a roll expensive) and you probably need one more roll than you think you need to match up your pattern. I ordered mine from www.wallpaperfromthe70s.com and it shipped from Germany and was at my house in three days. For some reason, the UK was unable to get me their wallpaper.

Final verdict:
Easy to do, low to moderate expense (depending on how much wall you're covering), takes a few hours, and I love the result. Yay wallpaper!
Final Product

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Our crazy move to a smaller, crappier house

Old House, New House. 
So I moved. It's been about a month and it has not been that awesome of a month. I have really dragged my feet (drug my feet?) about writing this post because what I have to say is rambling and weird and doesn't make a lot of sense. So I'll just start and you can see if you care to read to the end.

Jay and I get antsy. I don't know if it's because we grew up with some chaos in our lives or what, but we can only go about two years before the "let's do something different" monster starts to rear its head. We've moved, changed jobs, left the country, had babies, quit careers, and gone to grad school. Because the same is boring and we, like I said, get antsy. It feels like a physical weight that might suffocate me if I don't find some new mountain to climb fast.

Since our youngest turned two last summer it was about time for something else before we found ourselves with yet another kid. We wanted something harder and more challenging--I think it makes us feel alive. I looked into returning to teaching, but that didn't work out (and if I get up the courage to bare my soul I will write about that soon) and so we started pondering what we wanted to do differently. The idea really became "if we don't have a known path to take, what unknown path could we blaze together?"

Thus began some months of prayer and discussion and dreaming that led us down ideas of international travel or living, selling everything and roaming around for a year, and of homeschooling our kids during our travels. It was all crazy and expansive and incredibly exciting. But we had to make some decisions--where are we going, what are we doing, and are we going to do anything at all?

As we prayed we felt God calling us to live more closely, more freely, and more simply. Jay and I had no idea what that meant in any practical way. We began to compare what we were spending our time and money on to those goals of "closer, freer, simpler" and one of the things that we realized was that we had a big house with a lot of stuff in it and not all that much time together. So our first step became to sell our house and get rid of some of our stuff.

And we did sell the house in about 3 days and then we had to find somewhere to go and it has all been totally whirlwind and chaotic. Which I kind of like, but it also freaks me out. I am complex.

I learned how to sell furniture on Craig's List and that Goodwill eventually gets tired of seeing you. I learned about proper house framing technique (apparently our former house had a leaning chimney--who knew?). I learned that most smaller construction of the past 20 years doesn't come with much of a yard.

And then we packed up all the stuff we had left and moved our four kids into an older house that is about a thousand square feet smaller than our last one.

We are certainly, objectively, closer. There isn't all that much room. We have clearly simplified our possessions, but I still have boxes of toys that are sitting in the garage. Which, by the way, might be too short for the minivan. Freer? Well, we have a great back yard where the children roam and play more freely than they did. And this house cost us less than our old one so our finances are freer for our dreams of travel.

We also used the disruption of moving to experiment with a new school for our kids. They go to classes twice a week for instruction and tests and then do their practice, homework, and projects at home the other three days. Again, definitely closer and freer--not sure about simpler, but we're new to this. We are planning on using the more flexible schedule to achieve our first travel goal of visiting all 50 states as a family (which I will also write about soon).

But even though I am glad to be on this journey, and would absolutely choose it again, it has been hard. The kitchen cabinets are 40 years old and you can tell every time you open a drawer. My bathroom is tiny and I don't know where to put my contacts. The laundry room is in the garage and it is cold--except in August when I may die of heat stroke in there. The house still smells like old people somehow. And although our mortgage is less it feels like we are hemorrhaging cash paying for things like door knobs (there were 4 different kinds of knobs on 12 different doors and I could not handle it) and the benefits of insulation.

It's kind of hard to explain how we got here, but it involved a lot of deeply earnest prayer and fasting and a complete letting go of this crazy adventure.

Because that's what this whole life is; one bizarre and overwhelming adventure where we are called to do good and glorify God.

Oh, and I do love adventure. Adventure is why we randomly moved to another state once upon a decade ago. It is why we wandered around Europe one summer. It is how we wound up with four kids. It is what we want our children to see their lives as instead of as something to be slogged through complaining about politicians and how busy we all are.

I have had moments and even entire days when I've said, "Lord, is this the dumbest decision we've ever made?" (Side note, the actual dumbest decision we've ever made is a toss up between attending a time share sales pitch only to discover we were too young to claim the free TV prize and purchasing a Toyota 4Runner that was possessed and randomly locked and unlocked its own doors.)

I have been confronted with my own arrogance and materialism when I realized I care what other people think of my new house. I feel so much pressure to have something special or Instagram worthy to show off before I have people over. I hate it when I have to admit I am shallow.

I don't think it's the dumbest decision we've ever made, but it is scary and stretching and growing and that is always at least a little painful.

So I moved. To a smaller house in the hopes of living a bigger life.