Getting Back to Old-school Blogging

Sometimes I think back to when I first started this blog–eight years ago, if you can believe it!  I didn’t have a clue.  I didn’t know how to get people to read it.  I didn’t know anything about branding.  I had never heard of SEO.  I didn’t make pinnable images.  I didn’t have a Facebook Page.
If you aren’t a blogger, you may not even understand the first paragraph.  If you are, then you know exactly what I’m talking about.  Like it or not, if you want people to read what you write, all that stuff matters.  And it’s hard work, and takes time that you could be devoting to writing, and sometimes it just sucks the soul right out of you, to be honest.
I like writing guest posts, and participating in blog hops.  I like writing reviews and getting free things. I love what I am learning about branding and want my blog to be what it needs to be in order to open the door to future opportunities for me.
BUT . . . I also just love writing, telling stories, ranting about whatever, letting y’all know what I am doing and what I think about things.  I don’t like it when my stories don’t get told because I don’t have the time to edit pictures and create a featured image.
So this summer I am going to conduct a little experiment in less is more.  Yes, I am still going to do all that blogger stuff I mentioned above.  But not all the time.  Sometimes I am going to do what I am doing right now, just sharing thoughts and feelings with y’all the way I used to.  I hope that you will read and share even without all the bells and whistles, but even if you don’t, I will be WRITING instead of mostly not writing.  This will be my own little summer adventure!

Why We Can’t Have a 70s Summer and What We Are Doing Instead

You’ve probably seen posts like this and this extolling the virtues of the summers of yore and planning to recreate them.  Heck, I might even have written a post like that myself.

Now, don’t get me wrong–I loved my childhood summers.  It sounds idyllic when I talk about it, and I really think it was.  I remember sleeping late and watching game shows, daily swims at the neighborhood pool, long walks around the subdivision, wearing bathing suits while riding our bikes, chasing lighting bugs and playing games outdoors in the dark, the hum of the streetlights and the songs of the cicadas.  I’d love to go back and do it all again.

But that neighborhood pool shut down years ago, and we live in a neighborhood that comprises three cul-de-sacs.  My kids don’t have friends their age nearby, plus they are also antisocial and frankly don’t care.  It’s also about ten degrees hotter then it was during my childhood and we don’t have a shady yard like the one I grew up with.

I’m all for leaving kids unsupervised and unscheduled while I live my own life, but kids nowadays when left to their own devices are apt to fill that unscheduled time with actual devices.  William likes his computer, Lorelei likes the videos on her phone, and they both like watching movies way more than they are going to like spending time outside in the blazing 90 degree heat.  They do play outside, I promise–but with much more interesting things to do inside than existed back when there were four t.v. channels on a good day, they aren’t going to want to spend a whole day out there.

So this summer I am going to get up early and try to get as much done and then in the afternoons I am going to take them on some kind of adventure.  Some of them will be longer than others but the goal is to do something every weekday so that we don’t all spend the day staring at screens.

School let out Wednesday and our first adventure, a tradition for the last day of school for as long as I can remember, was going out for ice cream.

Thursday I surprised them with a trip to Little Ponderosa Zoo and Rescue.

Friday we checked out the University of Tennessee Trial Gardens.

I’m not insisting they accompany me on the Saturday adventure, since that’s usually my day to do as I please, but Lorelei chose to come with me to the Farmers’ Market this morning.

market 1

I have many more mini-adventures planned, and I’ll keep y’all updated.  It won’t be a 70s summer, but I think it will be a good summer.

Answer Me This Returns!

I’m so excited that Kendra of Catholic All Year has decided to bring back her Answer Me This linkup!  It’s such a great way to start off my blogging week.  Here are this week’s questions.
1. Any big plans for the summer?
Summer starts early here in Tennessee–my kids have been out of school since May 22.  So we’ve already done one of our big summer things, visiting Baltimore for John’s mom’s 80th birthday.
Ripley's 1
80th birthday old bay lorelei crab
I personally have also had a trip to Dallas with my sister and a weekend by myself downtown as well.  The next big family thing is to spend a couple of nights in Gatlinburg at the end of this month.  And John and I are going to Chicago at the end of July for a wedding, with the added benefit that we will get to visit Teddy, who is interning there.  Here are pictures of him BEFORE and AFTER the haircut he got so he could look professional this summer:
teddy before
teddy short hair
2. What is the strangest thing you believed as a child?
My grandmother told me that there was a brownie living under the stairs in her basement.  We used to set out a bowl of milk for him when I spent the night with her, and it was always gone when I woke up in the morning. 🙂
3. What is your favorite amusement park ride?
I used to love roller coasters, but they scare me now.  As I tell my kids, real life is scary enough, so why do I want to scare myself more?  I can’t stand anything that goes in circles because it makes me sick, so that knocks out a lot of possibilities.  So I will go with water rides, specifically the River Rampage at Dollywood.
4. What’s on your summer reading list?
I don’t have a list, but I do have a stack.  There is always a stack.
booksThe stack has actually grown a lot since that picture was taken.  And I can’t tell you what is in it, except that Emily really wants me to read the Grisha Trilogy, so I guess I will comply.
5. Have you ever fallen asleep in public?
Constantly.  I always fall asleep at the symphony.  ALWAYS.  It’s embarrassing.  I fall asleep at Mass during the homily if I’m tired.  But I can sleep sitting straight up so I hope Father does not notice, especially since we sit in the second row.
6. What is your favorite smell?
Honeysuckle on May evenings.  Barbecue smoking in the Fall.  A certain cologne my husband wears that reminds me of when we first fell in love.
094 honeysuckle closeup
And there you have it!  If you want to read the other responses, or play along yourself, click here.

He's Baaaaack

There is another laundry basket in the hallway.
I have to check the waistbands of all the jeans and boxer shorts for sizes before I put them away.
Another car is jockeying for position in front of the house.
I am cooking more meat than usual.
We needed a second pew on Sunday.
The t.v. has been on during the day.
My grocery list last night included peanut butter, protein powder, Gatorade powder, and three dozen eggs.
Teddy’s home for the summer. 🙂

Picture taken by a school friend of Teddy’s

Hey It's Good to Be Back Home Again . . .

. . . after ten days away! (about which much more later, I hope!)
The last time we went to Baltimore, our house burned down.  So I think we were all a little nervous and were happy to come home to this:

Two of three kitties have yet to put in an appearance, though, so say some prayers that they come home soon. (Yes, we had someone caring for them while we were gone.)
The primary purpose of this trip was to look at colleges for Teddy, a rising senior, and I will write more about that in another post.  This made for a lot of driving and hotel changes and being at places at certain times, which made this a less relaxing trip than last year’s.  It was the kind of vacation you need to recover from.
We started last Saturday and drove straight to Baltimore, arriving too late to do anything more than crash.  We made two changes in our usual vacation protocol this year, two expensive but necessary changes:  we drove two cars and booked three rooms.  For years, John and I have shared a room with the little people while the three big kids stayed together. This time, Emily shared with the kids, Jake and Teddy were together, and John and I were blessedly alone until the last couple of days when we took William off Emily’s hands to give her a much-needed break.
We have a minivan that seats seven, but with the size of our boys, the amount of stuff we needed to bring (and knowing we would be acquiring more before we came home) and the fact that some members of our family are irritable while others are irritating, we had Teddy drive his car as well.  So the big kids followed us and Teddy did a spectacular job of driving in unfamiliar and challenging territory.
So last Sunday we indulged ourselves in our hotel’s outdoor pool for a few hours before heading to John’s mother’s house.  We visited for awhile then went out for crabs.

I’ve loved crabs since my very first crab feast 25 summers ago, and now the kids love them too and are quite expert at picking them. (What exactly some of the stuff is that we are discarding doesn’t bear thinking about.)  Even William, who takes picky to a-whole-nother level, LOVES crabs.  After dinner, we went back to Grandmom’s house for dessert–which means four or five different choices!
Our first college visit was the following morning, just a day trip to Georgetown, our alma mater, only an hour away in D.C.  We followed that with a trip to a monument the kids didn’t even know existed, visiting Theodore Roosevelt Island.

We drove around D.C. for awhile.  Traffic was bad and parking practically impossible.  Jake struck out on his own to see the Lincoln Memorial and the White House, while the rest of us drove to the Tidal Basin (where parking is free) and took a quick look (and a bathroom break) at the Jefferson Memorial.  There’s a nice museum at the lower level that is new since my last visit.  Next time we do D.C. we will remember to leave the car and take the Metro.

The plan was to head back to Baltimore for supper, but we just happened to see an old college favorite, The Dubliner.  After we parked we learned there was an hour wait!  So we went next door to another Irish pub instead.
We departed Baltimore for New Jersey on Tuesday, stopping there just long enough for a college visit at Princeton University before heading to New Haven, Connecticut.  The following morning was our Yale University visit, and then we drove to Warwick, Rhode Island.  We were so tired by this time that John and I and the little kids just chilled at the hotel for the evening–John took them swimming–while the big kids went out exploring and finally to a movie.
The next morning was a real highlight of the trip for me.  An online blogging friend–Laura Rossi–learned I was in her home state, and took the time to come to my hotel to bring me a muffin and have coffee!  We had a great time talking and our visit was much too short.  I still smile when I think about it.
After we checked out we drove into Newport, Rhode Island.  It was frustrating that all our visits had to be so brief this time.  There is so much to do and see in Newport, where I have been before because I have family in the area (who I wish I had had time to visit!).  Right now I am so exhausted that I don’t even want to think about traveling, but I know we need to get back up to some of these places for more leisurely trips in the future.
Anyway, our main purpose for the Newport visit was to try a new beach.  We went to Easton’s Beach, which the locals call First Beach.  I think it might be my favorite beach of all time.  From the parking lot to the water is only a few hundred feet!  I’m used to trudging what seems like miles over hot sand to get to a place to sit.  It’s also a narrow beach, almost like a cove, so even the big boys couldn’t get out of sight.  And yet there are plenty of good waves.  We could have done without the red seaweed that remained in the little kids’ hair until the next day, but we had a lovely few hours there.

After washing off the sand we went for a short drive to see the Newport Mansions from the outside, then parked downtown and found a place to have dinner.  We would have liked to walk around afterwards because there are tons of shops there but we were just too worn out, and we still had to drive to our next stop before bed.
The next stop was kind of a dump in Malden, Massachusetts, just past Boston.  Seriously, we drove through the exciting lit up big city and across a cool bridge with purple lights and then we were all like, what kind of neighborhood are we staying in?  It didn’t look as bad by daylight.  But hotels any closer to Boston are very expensive.
Boston roads are full of those traffic circles and we did have a small amount of trouble finding our way but we made it to our appointment at Harvard University the next morning in time.  When we were finished there we took the T (that’s Boston’s subway) to Beacon Hill to have lunch at Cheers.  It’s a tourist trap, really, but still kind of fun to say we did it.  The sad thing is that the show ruined the pub that inspired it.
After that we had big plans.  I’ve been to Boston before–the only one in my family who has–and I wanted to take them on the Freedom Trail.  We were all really excited about it.  Except this was the first really hot day of the vacation.  And we were full.  And worn out from the rigors of the trip so far.  We started walking through the Public Gardens to Boston Commons and by the time we found a bathroom everyone was so wiped out that those crappy motel rooms were starting to seem very inviting.

So we trudged to the nearest T stop, rode back to Harvard Square, went through an unbelievable ordeal and paid $27 to retrieve our car (we took only one car unless we were traveling between cities), and drove back to the lovely Econo Lodge, where we ordered Indian food for the little kids (the best meal of the trip, per William) and Chinese for the rest of us and vegged in the AC the rest of the night.
That brings us to Saturday, when we drove from Boston all the way back to Baltimore, where we were lucky to find rooms given the storm which had left hundreds of thousands of people without power and looking for refuge from the searing heat in all the local hotels.  We got there in time for an evening swim before going out in search of dinner, and then it was back to the hotel and a late night for me doing laundry as we were all almost out of clothes.
Sunday included swimming and more laundry, and then we met the family at Squire’s, an old favorite of theirs and of almost everyone else in Dundalk as far as I can tell.   Then we went by John’s grandmother’s house (which his mother is working on clearing out and selling) and acquired some new possessions while Jake and Teddy carried several heavy boxes down to the basement.  Finally it was back to Grandmom’s for more dessert and conversation.
John wanted to stay an extra day but he was the only one.  The rest of us were very anxious to get home, and it took us about eleven hours yesterday to accomplish that, counting multiple bathroom stops!
So far today I’ve already driven Jake across town to pick up his girlfriend, gone grocery shopping, done multiple loads of laundry, and written some client letters.  But I’m so happy to be home that it’s all good. 🙂

Savannah Smiles

For the past umpteen years (twenty, at a guess), we have spent several days in Baltimore every summer.  Our very good reason for our faithfulness to Charm City as a vacation spot is that my husband was born there, and that once-a-year trip is usually the only chance he has to see his mother and other family members.  We take the occasional side trip from there–to Philadelphia one year, always to a beach for a day, often to D.C.–but aside from a few days here or there in Gatlinburg, that has been the extent of our family vacationing.  We just don’t have the money–or the time–for more, since not only do we have to pay for every vacation we take, we also lose a week’s income since John is self-employed.
This year, though, John’s mother is spending almost all of every day taking care of her 93-year-old mother-in-law.  She’s worn out and not feeling up to company, and didn’t think it would be much fun for us either.  She encouraged us to take a break and try somewhere new.  So we decided to head the opposite direction and visit a city none of us (except Emily) had ever seen–Savannah, Georgia.
Emily had been to Savannah on a Girl Scout trip years ago (Savannah is the birth place of the founder of the Scouts, Juliette Gordon Lowe) and had long wanted to return.  I knew Savannah only from my reading of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (which made it sound interesting enough) and Gone with the Wind (in which Scarlett visits her aunt there and is bored to death, a good endorsement considering the source).  We knew it was near a beach and people said there was a lot to do there, so we found a hotel and headed south without much of a plan (with one of our members quite sure that it was going to be a boring vacation).
Well, we all fell in love with Savannah.  Three of the kids say they would like to live there (including the one who didn’t want to go in the first place).  Even John said he wouldn’t mind going back (and that is saying a lot, since John likes to cross places off his list and be done with them).  It’s just beautiful there (although hot hot HOT!).  And as we were promised there was plenty to do.
Some activities we enjoyed:
The Ferry across the Savannah River (Savannah has excellent and free public transportation):

Shopping and sight-seeing on River Street:

The beach on Tybee Island:
Oatland Island Wildlife Center:

Fort James Jackson:
Forsyth Park:

The Squares of beautiful downtown Savannah:

And the food!  There were so many restaurants to choose from.  Never did we have a bad meal.  The crab stew is especially noteworthy, the kind of thing that makes you moan when you taste it.  Our favorites were The Crab Shack on Tybee Island and the Casbah (with belly dancing!) in downtown Savannah.
We arrived on Monday night and left the following Sunday morning, and there was plenty more we wish we’d had time to do.  If you are within a day’s drive and are looking for a good place to take your family (or a nice venue for a romantic getaway, for that matter), I recommend Savannah.

Vacation, all I ever wanted . . .

We just returned from our summer vacation (more on that later) and I thought I would share some of what has worked for us as a big family (five kids, two parents) planning and paying for and enjoying out-of-town trips.
Planning ahead is essential.  I can remember going on trips as a child and just deciding to stop when we got tired of driving (which was pretty much never, since my father hated to stop and once drove from Tennessee to Rhode Island with only food and bathroom breaks) and finding a hotel.  Not only would that make me a nervous wreck, it would not be economical.
Anything that can be done online, I do, and that includes vacation planning.  My first stop is always Hotwire, which I discovered many years ago.  You can get crazy deals on hotels, with one catch–you won’t know the exact name and location of your hotel until after you book–and pay–for it.  It’s a little scary the first time, but we’ve never ended up with a bad place.  Still, I’m a little wary of doing it when I don’t know the area I’m traveling to.  I don’t ever do it when going to Mobile to transport our daughter to and from college because I am afraid of landing in a particular motel that we loathed.  However, for our usual summer trip to Baltimore it is great because by paying attention to various clues I am able to land in the same motel year after year at half price.
If I don’t see exceptional deals on Hotwire, I try Kayak, where you can see the hotel names ahead of time and which searches all the major travel sites at once.  I almost always end up booking through Orbitz, usually for a pay-ahead deal.  The great thing about Orbitz is that by looking at I can almost always get a coupon code and save even more.
Another crucial money-saving tactic for us is to book a hotel that serves free breakfast.  For our family that amounts to an added value of at least $50 each day.  If you haven’t tried this option lately, you might be surprised.  Our most recent hotel offered eggs and sausage, waffles, french toast, bagels, English muffins, biscuits and gravy, a variety of cereals both hot and cold, milk, juice, coffee, tea, fresh fruit, and yogurt.  And if you wanted to carry some of that up to your room for later, they were okay with that as well.  They also offered round-the-clock coffee and lemonade for free, and late afternoon chips and cookies, although we were never around for that.
Having an in-room refrigerator and microwave is another plus.  We made one trip to the grocery store at the beginning of our most recent vacation and spent $50 to stock up the refrigerators.    We also had a safe place to store leftovers from the early dinner we ate out each evening.  We were able to keep everyone fed while only paying for one big meal out each day (a HUGE savings since only two kids qualify for child meals and a dinner our for all of us at a decent restaurant was never under $100).
While not essential, laundry facilities on site are helpful.  Some of us don’t have enough clothes to last seven days.  And with the ability to do laundry, we can pack less.  We have gotten so good at packing that we did not even need to put anything on the roof of the minivan for this last trip and we could still (mostly) see out the back window!
We tend to spend some time in our hotel rooms (we get two, one for the parents and the two little kids and one for the three big ones), so it’s important that we have wi-fi for the four laptops we brought along, and that there are good television stations (we don’t have t.v. at home so this is actually a big treat for all of us on vacations).  Both of those amenities seem to be pretty standard at this point.  We always bring work with us (although we rarely actually do it) so having a business center with a printer makes us feel reassured.  Finally, and most important of all–a deal-breaker, in fact–is that our lodgings must have a pool!
Having covered hotels and food, let’s talk about the transportation.  We drive.  We cannot afford plane tickets for seven, and even if we did, the one time we did fly to Baltimore was so stressful that I don’t think I would do it again if I could.  Our kids have always been good travelers.  Nowadays we drive straight through if our destination is 500 miles or so away.  When they were little, though, we stopped half way.
When I was a little girl, the drive was strictly a means to an end.  If possible, we started at night and drove through the dark so we would stay asleep and my father could make better time.  We did not stop for meals; we went through the drive-through and ate in the car.  Luckily, John and I both agree that the drive is part of the fun.  We are too old and too tired to drive at night.  So we usually try to start as early in the morning as we can be ready (we are always too ambitious about this part) and we stop for a sit-down meal at least once, even though it takes two hours to do it.  We accept the fact that every bathroom stop will take half an hour and that every gas stop will involve snack purchases.  Like any family, we have various things we do for amusement in the car–the alphabet game, mad libs (we made up some of our own this trip), reading aloud.
This was the first trip we took in which we were fully smart-phone enabled.  No maps were used, only phones.  It was AMAZING how great this worked, even just for walking around the city.  If we got off track all we had to do was ask for new directions from our current location.  I will never be going back to maps, or even to printing out directions from MapQuest!
We have also learned to pace ourselves on vacation.  Everyone needs to rest.  Having spent so much time picking the perfect hotel, we all enjoy spending some time there with the pool, the t.v., the air conditioning, and the maid service.  Needing to make it to the free breakfast gets us out of bed in the morning, but we generally don’t make it out of the hotel until close to noon.  Then we pick an activity or two for the day.  We eat an early dinner before heading back to the hotel for swimming and relaxing.  Technology was helpful with this part of the trip as well.  Friends on Facebook who knew where we were made recommendations for things to do and places to eat.  Our iPhones helped us with location, prices, hours, and menus before we committed ourselves.
Next post I will write more specifically about our recent trip and the city we fell in love with . . .
How about you?  Do you have any traveling tips to share?

Don't Give Up On Me . . .

I’m still here.  I still have a lot to say.  I am not finished with Liturgical Music “Week,” and I will respond to the many thoughtful comments I have received lately.
However . . .
In the next two weeks, I have to

  • help Emily get her things together and transport her back to Spring Hill (or John does–we are arguing about it);
  • buy EVERYTHING the kids need for school (uniforms, shoes, underwear, school supplies–EVERYTHING);
  • launch Lorelei into kindergarten (she has never been away from me);
  • learn all about a new school;
  • deal with registrations for two schools;
  • help Jake and Teddy get back on schedule and on the right track for KCHS;
  • get into the swing of a new football season;
  • complete the homeschool registration process for William;
  • locate and organize all the homeschooling books, which are still packed in boxes in the sweltering garage.

There’s more, I know there’s more, and that’s only the school stuff.  I still have to work with John, and do dishes and laundry, and figure out how I am going to keep the house even a little bit clean without Emily’s help, and get shots for these kittens, and make some doctor appointments, and shop for and prepare food . . . it is not making me feel better writing it all down!
Believe me, I’d rather blog.  And for all kinds of reasons I cannot wait until August is over.

A Busy Day

It’s almost midnight, and I am having a hard time keeping my eyes open.  It’s been a very busy day.
Today I

  • Got up at 6 a.m. to get Teddy up for football and put in another load of laundry before sneaking back to bed;
  • Got up again at 9:30 to take Emily to pick up a friend to spend the day at our house;
  • Made a stop at the grocery store before dropping the girls back at the house;
  • Drove to KCHS to pick up Teddy after football practice, and stopped at Weigel’s and McDonald’s on the way back to the house;
  • Went pretty much right back out the door to have lunch with a friend at Panera Bread;
  • Came home and did more laundry, made some phone calls, and did law office work:
  • Went out to vote, and to Walgreens, and to Weigel’s (again), McDonald’s (again), and Fox Pizza;
  • Came home and ate and did more laundry and checked the election returns;
  • Participated in a family dramatic reading of “Twelve Angry Men” because we thought it would be a fun way to do summer reading;
  • Did more laundry and came upstairs to spend some time on the computer.

All this, and the heat index was 110 today.  No wonder I am worn out.  And still I feel like I got nothing done today!