R is for Rebound. (Please don’t let it be me.)

Dear Marie,

Konichiwa! You might have heard through the virtual grapevine that I recently read your book and decided to ‘Kondo’ my entire house. I kid, of course, about the virtual grapevine, because I suspect you’re far too busy cashing royalty cheques from your selling-like-hotcakes book to pay attention to negligible bloggers like moi. (How do you say ‘me’ in Japanese?)

Speaking of – royalty cheques – where might one store those? Or do you have some direct deposit arrangement with your publisher to avoid that ghastly paper trail and all it entails.

I have to tell you, Marie, I began the Kondo experience exactly two weeks ago today. I followed your advice and started with clothes, though I will be the first to admit I did not thank any of my purged items ‘for their service’ because, Marie, I simply do not value things all that much. I think having kids has completely stripped me of that, because one minute I was wearing a cashmere sweater and the next someone spit or puked on it and I realized, quickly, that clearance items from Target, JoeFresh and Gap would have to become my wardrobe mainstays. At least until these little gems leave for college or trade school or whatever it is they’re going to do.

And at that point, I’m going to be completely grey, likely with a bad perm, and wear elasticized waistband pants from the Karen Scott collection.

But only ones that ‘spark joy’, bien sur!

It has to be said, Marie, that my bedroom has never, in all of my adult life – scratch that, life – looked as good as it currently does. The tops of my dressers are clear of the piles of books I kept meaning to read. The drawers are filled, somewhat immaculately – not quite up to your standards, I’m sure – with folded shirts, stacked vertically so all I have to do is pull open a drawer and select the least offensive shirt.

No more rifling through a pile of folded shirts and upending the precarious arrangement because I wanted to wear the shirt all the way at the bottom. Truly, it’s genius. Every night as I get into bed, I look around the room and am astonished at how tidy it is.

But Marie, I am tired.

For two weeks now, I feel like I’ve done nothing….but tidy. (Which is not to be confused in any way with cleaning. More on that later.) Perhaps this is to be expected, as I’ve gone through every item of clothing in this house. Nearly every piece of paper. My kitchen. The bathroom. And every drawer and cupboard within my little bungalow.

I feel like I spend all of my time tidying and, if I’m not tidying, thinking about tidying. When I’m walking through the house, I am fixating on open drawers, and items not where they should be. I am sweeping up every crumb that mars my (dirty) floor – I swept five times today! I am doing load, after load, of laundry and folding everything just so. And it’s exhausting.

In your book you insist that none of your clients has ever ‘rebounded’ from the Kondo life back to the messy life. And I have to tell you, these words keep me up at night. (Or they would, if I had more energy.) Because what if I’m the one? What if I am the only person in the world who is unable to maintain the magic?

Can you even imagine how that will make me feel?

But on the flip side, I’m not sure I can sustain all this tidying for very much longer. 

First, allow me to point out – simply for factual purposes, – that you do not have any children. You are one person. Living in a shoebox apartment. With, from the sounds of it, a shoe cupboard where you store everything you own.

I share my bungalow, which is just a Canadian word for very-expensive-small-house, with three children and a husband. I also need to point out – again, simply stating facts – that every single one of the people sharing my home is of the male persuasion. I say this, not to be old-fashioned, bringing up long-standing stereotypes about men being messy and women being tidy, because of course there are incredibly messy women and extremely tidy men. But in my particular case….well, Marie, suffice it to say there are no extremely tidy men living here.

For instance today, I finally tackled my boys’ bedrooms. It was a trying experience, to say the least. I have one boy who refuses to put any of his clothes away, preferring, instead to send them to the laundry basket. Even if they’ve just been laundered. I have another boy who puts nothing in the laundry basket. He uses his dresser drawers to store dirty clothes. And I have another boy who prefers to store his clothes balled up underneath his bed, mingling with dustbunnies.

Forget tri-folding their shirts and stacking them vertically, I would just like them to put clean clothes in the dresser and dirty clothes in the laundry basket.

I spent an hour and a half on the first bedroom. I even made masking tape labels for their dresser with the words: ‘Shirts. CLEAN only!’ Then I tackled the second bedroom, inviting my youngest son, who was home sick today, to experience the magic of tidying his room. I invited him to look at his closet and remove any shirts that didn’t ‘spark joy’. He handed me approximately 20 empty hangers, not a single shirt. I invited him to slither under his bed and look for ‘forgotten’ items of clothing. He used that opportunity to wonder aloud what his fellow classmate – also home sick, whose mother coincidentally loaned me your book – was doing. ‘Probably not making beds and getting rid of stuff,’ he grumbled.

His tone of voice suggested it was not the kind of sick day he’d envisioned.

I got my utility bill in the mail today. It seemed excessively high. I was about to compare the current bill to previous months to see if our usage had increased, or if the price had. And then I remembered: I got rid of all my old utility bills. Because you told me to.

And then there’s the matter of the dirt. You see, Marie, I’ve been so busy tidying my house, racking up steps on my fitbit as I scurry around trying to put.everything.back.in.its.place.lest.I.become.the.person.who.rebounds, that I haven’t had any time to clean it.  The layer of dust on every surface is considerable. And let’s not talk about the haven’t-been-washed-in-weeks floors.

But as bothered as I am by the dirt, I simply can’t fathom addressing it, thereby spending even more time on my bleeping house. I have things to do, Marie. Or, at least I think I do. My computer is about to crash underneath the weight of 48,000 digital images. I need to make dinner. I’m supposed to paint three electric boxes by tomorrow, for pete’s sake.

In other words, I’m desperate for some of that magic.

Yours, from a very tidy desk,





R is for Ruthless. In the nicest possible way.

As with all milestones, achieving the dubious milestone of ‘having all one’s kids in school full-time’ has saddled me with some considerable baggage – in the form of expectations for how I will spend ‘all my free time’.

The expectations are largely self-imposed, a result of all those days I clung to the thread of hope that someday ‘all my kids would be in school full-time’ and then, when that happened,…...I would exercise, have a tidy house, and tackle all the projects that I never managed to accomplish during those seven, slightly chaotic years spent with little people.

Thus the weekend before the boys’ first day of school, I spent a large amount of time in front of a blank piece of paper, staring at it, trying to create some sort of roadmap for the six kid-free hours each school day would provide. I tried to create slots for things that had to get done, things I hoped to do and the inevitable avalanche of volunteer opportunities and meeting requests that begins as soon as the kids file into school on that first day.

Care to be classroom mom? Can you help with mulching? Free for a meeting on Wednesday? Friday? How about next Monday and next Friday? Costco run? Special lunch volunteer?

And on it goes.

Staring at my blank piece of paper with its kid-free time slots and a lengthy list of to-do’s to fit into those hours helped me understand, rather quickly, that if I wanted to emerge from this coveted year with something tangible – other than instagram pictures of latte art and a calendar full of things I don’t want to do – I would have to become someone else.

I would have to become ruthless…in managing my time.

After years of overscheduling and trying to fit it all in, of saying ‘yes’ and ‘sure’ and ‘I think I can make that work,’ without even looking at my calendar, I am learning to lean heavily on the words ‘no’ and ‘sorry, can’t make it.’ It’s a paradigm shift, to be sure – not saying yes the instant a request for help appears in my inbox, or worse, saying no. One that I hope will result in a more sane, productive person by the end of the school year.

Unfortunately, the saying no extends to things I like, too. Netflix (and the binge-watching it enables) being the first item on the chopping block, followed by the ol’ world wide web.  And the minutes that turn into hours as I fall into its rabbit hole of browsing and link-chasing. Instead, I am determined to become a person who reads every day. You know, books. Because I’m not getting any smarter reading three-sentence paragraphs about what Kate Middleton wore.

Most nights now, ruthless Nicola goes to bed around ten, grabs one of the four books on her nightstand, and reads for approximately thirty minutes before turning off the light. Having always been a person who devotes herself to one book at a time, typically finishing it within a week, it is somewhat demoralizing dividing my attention between books and making so little progress. But allow me to imagine my reading is more focused and meaningful as a result.

How else to reconcile the fact that I will be reading these books until Christmas.

One of the books on my pile – and lately the recipient of all my reading time because the copy belongs to a friend – is Mari Kondo’s bestselling ‘The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.’

A friend mentioned the book to me about a month ago, describing it as ‘one of my top 5 life-changing books’. I saw it at Costco a few days later, but decided against buying a copy because ruthless Nicola is also on a ruthless budget. Luckily another friend loaned me her copy and I’ve spent the last few days reflecting on my tendency to hold on to things I have little use for – never used wedding gifts (from 19 years ago), receipts, art projects, emails and books I fully intend to read. Someday.

If you’re similarly inclined – to hang on to things because someone gave them to you, or because you might need them – you should definitely read this book. Though perhaps not at the same time as you’re reading Steven Pressfield’s ‘War of Art’, which is all about the inner battle and what keeps you from doing what you ought or want to do. He labels it Resistance.

Tidying Up might well be my current form of Resistance.

But there’s no denying the spark of joy I feel when looking at my insanely tidy closet and drawers.


Driving Mr. Daisy

I don’t remember exactly when it happened, but at some point in recent months the professor stopped driving. His use of public transit and ongoing city-blindness* had severely impacted his ability to get around town, which severely impacted my ability to not get irritated, which resulted in him coming up with the genius idea to leave the in-town driving to me.

The end result has been undeniably peaceful and efficient, if slightly strange.

On Thursday, when it was time for our weekly coffee date, he hopped in the passenger seat and we/I drove to Caffe Beano for our typical latte-followed-by-a-walk excursion.

After some extensive research over the years, frequenting every so-called good coffee shop in the southwest quadrant of the city, I have determined there are really only two, maybe three, places where I enjoy sitting down with a coffee. Caffe Beano is one of them.

Now before you jump at the chance to book a flight to Calgary and experience this oasis of caffeine, let me save you the trouble. You probably won’t like it.

Even the professor, who typically agrees with my [very particular] preferences, is all ‘this is just like the mt cup‘ which was at one point the only coffee shop in our adopted college-hometown, Muncie. The mt cup (clever, isn’t it) was known for the bizarre artwork on its walls and sloping, uneven floors, decorated with furniture undoubtedly extricated from some grandma’s basement.

Their coffee would  not pass muster in today’s award-winning-barista culture, but they once served a cinnamon coffee cake ‘muffin’ which was as perfect as a muffin could get. I believe it was the owner’s mom’s recipe and it was a thing of [caloric] beauty. They also served cinnamon sugar bagels with cream cheese piled three inches high. Which were delicious…once you’d removed 90% of the cheese.

But this was about Caffe Beano. Three thousand kilometers to the northwest.

It’s situated on a sunny street corner, a few blocks from downtown, in between a restaurant and a cheese shop. Just outside the entrance, there are wooden benches in a semi-rectangular configuration for people who smoke (5 feet away from the door, please!) for the homeless in need of a perch or a snooze, for people with dogs, and for those beret-sporting European-types who want to bask in the sunshine-with-marginal-warmth au cafe. We once saw a group of men speak animatedly about a piece of art one of the group members had brought in the back of his pick-up truck. All to say, the clientele is eclectic and diverse and it makes for the best people watching.

Inside there is an array of seating  – small tables, vinyl banquettes and bar stools by the enormous windows. I think that’s part of why I’ve come to love the place: the enormous windows. And also because even at its busiest, I can always find somewhere to sit.

But the thing I love most about it, is the enormous cafe au lait bowls they use for lattes ‘to stay’.

I parked the car and as we walked inside, the professor turned to me and said ‘who’s paying?’ Because after someone on my Facebook timeline kept liking and sharing articles from ‘You Need a Budget’ I determined that I did, in fact, need a budget. So for a whopping three weeks now, the professor and I each get our own ‘allowance’ which, along with the driving, has been all kinds of good. Except for Thursdays when we have to figure out who is paying for coffee.

For the record: I never actually read any of the You Need a Budget articles. I thought the name kind of said it all.

‘Let’s just pay for our own coffee,’ I suggested once we determined we were each at the tail end of our respective fortunes. So the professor went first and ordered his latte and a muffin. Except when it was time to pay he realized he’d left some of his ‘fortune’ at home. ‘Ummm,’ he looked at me, and I handed him some change. I ordered my latte and a muffin and walked past the coffee bar, noticing the relatively long line of patrons ahead of us, waiting for their various beverages. Figuring it would be a good while, I made my way over to the table where the professor was sitting. With his latte-as-big-as-your-head.

‘How did you get your latte already,’ I asked, surprised, given the aforementioned line of people waiting at the counter.

‘I don’t know,’ he shrugged, ‘lucky, I guess.’ And we ate our morning glory muffins while I waited for my drink. ‘Did you take someone else’s drink?’ I finally asked, after noticing the line had not diminished in any way.

‘No, I don’t think so. Maybe? The guy just said ‘latte’ and I assumed it was mine.’

‘Even though you’d just ordered your drink? And there was a line of people waiting at the bar?’

‘I didn’t see them.’

I left the table to go wait for my drink.

‘Latte for Jason,’ the barista announced. ‘Um,’ I leaned forward, ‘I think he took someone else’s drink,’ I confessed in a hushed voice. ‘Oh, that’s cool,’ the barista replied setting the drink aside, his face suggesting he wasn’t feeling too jazzed about having made a second latte for an unhappy customer.

‘Almond milk latte,’ he announced as he set my bowl on the counter and I thanked him profusely and walked back to the table.

‘You told him, didn’t you,’ the professor eyed me suspiciously.

‘I had to, he said ‘latte for Jason.’

‘I don’t even remember anyone asking me for a name.’

‘Well, the cashier did ask me for my name, but he didn’t say it, so you’re not totally wrong.’

The professor scanned the side of his cup to see if anyone’s name had been scribbled with the dry eraser the cashier uses to convey instructions.

‘Ugh, soy latte,’ he showed me the words. ‘I thought it tasted weird.’


*a severely underreported condition in which the afflicted has no knowledge of a city’s street names, directions, or places, regardless of the amount of time they’ve lived in said city.

The Concert

Mere days after we returned from the heartland, the professor and I had a date to see Brandi Carlile in concert. He’d bought the tickets on my birthday, after I’d suggested we try to catch her show in Grand Rapids during our week in Michigan.

I scrambled to feed the boys dinner and raced to pick up the babysitter and upon relinquishing the barest of instructions and our cell phone numbers, we raced to the venue where the concert was due to start at 7pm.

We speed-walked through the University campus towards the concert hall, in an effort to make it to the show on time. As we got closer to the venue, we spied two hulking tour buses parked in the loading dock and a few couples walking hand-in-hand towards what I assumed was the entrance. Though the professor insisted we use a different door.

The building was eerily quiet, other than a line of about 10 people waiting patiently in what could pass for a foyer, I suppose. This struck me as unsettling – it was 6:52, the concert was due to start in eight minutes and a dozen people had shown up.

We asked the same questions they’d been asking one another, ‘it is tonight, isn’t it? 7pm? Yes, that’s what it says on my ticket. And we’re sure it’s here?’

We stood and wondered and checked our phones until, finally, a man with short hair carrying a cash box appeared on the scene. ‘Oh, are you here for the concert?’ he asked. ‘Yes,’ we all clamored in unison. ‘It’s been moved upstairs.’ As if we should have deduced as much from the lack of signs and posted information.

We raced upstairs, for fear we’d miss the music, only to find a slightly longer but not exactly significant line-up of people.There was only one plausible conclusion: the 7pm printed on our tickets referred to the time the doors would be opening. And the concert wouldn’t start until 8.

Which was precisely the situation we’d intended to avoid, having concluded earlier in the summer at another concert that we were far too old for smaller venue, standing-the-whole-time-because-there-aren’t-any-seats concerts. And as such, we’d take a last-minute, standing in the way, way back spot rather than spend three hours standing for the sake of something more proximate to the stage.

Operation ‘save our backs’: foiled.

We waited semi-patiently for the line to snake into the venue when the professor noticed a friend up ahead in the line. She came over to say hello, mentioning something about how she’d had plans for the evening but then tickets for the concert were being sold on Groupon and she couldn’t pass up the opportunity.


It was all starting to make sense. The line-up of 10 people downstairs. The concert being moved upstairs. The not-particularly-long line of people waiting upstairs. Tickets being sold on Groupon.

Either Calgary didn’t have any Brandi Carlile fans. Or they’d all decamped to Edmonton for Folk Fest. Or nobody knew about the concert.

We passed through the ticket check, where we held up the line because the scanner couldn’t read the bar code on the professor’s phone. ‘It’s too dark,’ the guy with the scanner complained. And I couldn’t help but think it surely didn’t matter, while the professor muttered something about paying full price for these unscannable tickets.

Finally the guy gave up and waved us on. We walked into the very empty, dark, chairless room, feeling like we were about to attend the world’s worst high school reunion. There was a stage with instruments and a screen draped in black cloth. And an empty wooden floor. And a guy selling drinks in the corner. But instead of making awkward small talk with people we hadn’t seen in twenty years, we had to stand and wait for an unidentified opening act starting at an unidentified time.

In order to help pass the time, the professor purchased a bottle of water from the guy in the corner. We traded sips – sparingly – to avoid a mid-concert bathroom break. After one of the longer hours of my life, the opening act apeared on stage. One man. And his guitar. Wearing plaid newsboy pants, an army jacket and possibly a cap.

He sang a song and despite its strange nature, there was no denying he had a good voice. Vaguely reminiscent of Glen Phillips who, wikipedia tells me, was the lead singer of that 90s band Toad the Wet Sprocket. I did not know this piece of information in the 90s when I was actually listening to Toad the Wet Sprocket. Which, let’s be honest, is a very strange name for a band. Perhaps when I’m done here, I will ask Google about its origin.

The opening act sang another song and tried to engage the audience with some very awkward banter that made it clear he’d only recently learned he would be opening for the show, and that this group of less than 200 people was the biggest crowd he’d ever played for. He sang a couple more songs. More awkward banter ensued about how he kisses his dog more than his wife. And also, if memory serves, that his sartorial choices made him look like a Japanese dad.

Then, more songs. ‘This evening is not what I expected,’ the professor grumbled. Indeed, it felt like a scene from a movie where two people go to hear their little brother ‘play a show’ and find the room mostly empty and the brother making cringe-worthy small talk to detract from the fact that no one showed up. Also, instead of getting off the stage at the earliest opportunity, the little brother just.keeps.singing.

At some point a text appeared on my phone:

‘Um, so how ’bout this dog loving, Japanese pant-wearing opening act…..’

Apparently our groupon-savvy, concert-going friend was having a similar experience.

‘Dead man at the wheel!’ she texted, referring to one of the songs he’d just played, ‘how about dead woman at the concert?!’

Finally, the little brother got off the stage, at which point I’d been standing for two hours, having listened to six or eight very strange songs; paying a babysitter for every loving minute of it. A thought crossed my mind as I stood staring at the stage crew fiddling with the (approximately) 143 guitars on the stage: we could just leave and try to forget the night ever happened. It wasn’t as if attending a Brandi Carlile concert was on my (nonexistent) bucket list.

More fiddling and tuning. I’d told the babysitter we’d be home at 10:30 – based on the purported 7pm start – and every minute the tall, grey-haired man in black stood on the stage picking up instruments….was another minute we were going to be late.

At last the crew disappeared and one lone cello-playing man appeared on stage and sat down. The tacky black cloth covering the screen fell away, to my astonishment, and revealed a tableau of pinks and reds and shadows. And that’s when another thought occurred to me: maybe this concert was going to be….good?

The cello man started playing ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home’ which had several audience members, including the professor, flummoxed. ‘Why is he playing the Battle Hymn of the Republic?’ Brandi Carlile and the twins, along with the drummer, walked on stage and began singing Firewatcher’s Daughter, the song I probably like the least on her new album. As in, every time it pops up on the playlist, I immediately skip it.

And yet…the harmony, the energy and the 143 guitars…..it was simply spectacular, watching people who obviously loved what they were doing and were good at it. It turned out to be the best concert I’d ever seen.

And that’s high praise from someone lucky enough to see Bon Jovi’s New Jersey Tour in 1990.

I’ll be there for you.

The Last Day

‘Are your kids ready for school?’  and ‘Are you ready for your kids to go back to school?’ had been asked in recent conversations with adults, signaling – along with cooler temperatures and the occasional sighting of a yellow leaf – that fall was upon us.

The sixty-six days of summer break had somehow evaporated and yesterday we found ourselves at the end.

The fact is, I wasn’t really ready for school to start and all that goes with it. We’d only had about three weeks at home and the boys had somehow fallen into a rhythm of interacting without continuous fighting. As far as I was concerned we could remain like that indefinitely. Though at some point it would become odd – this woman at home with her three grown children playing Lego, reading library books and earning computer time by playing outside.

But then it was August 31st and there was so much fighting and general unhappiness that I concluded some time apart would be good. For all of us.

Yesterday, really today, marked the end of an era – of seven years spent almost solely in the company of my children. ‘Are YOU ready for tomorrow,’ a friend had asked, knowing that I too was reaching a milestone of sorts. I thought for a second about this day I’ve been thinking about ever since Percy was born. And the subsequent countdown  at the start of every school year that had defined my life up to this point: six more years until all the boys are in school full-time, five more years, four, three, two, one and then…it was the day before all the boys would be in school full-time.

‘I think so,’ I replied, ‘I’ve been thinking about this day for such a long time.’ Not in a desperate sense, necessarily, but in a factual, call-to-awareness sort of way. To remember where I am and where I’m going. A kind of antidote to that cliched photo-of-kids caption: ‘how did they get so big’ or ‘when did they get so big’. Because it didn’t happen overnight, these kids sprouting from blobby toddlers to boys in big clothes making weird faces in photos. Even if it seems like a blur of continuous motion in my mind.

For what did it mean to be ready? Was I going to cling to Percy’s arm, refusing to be separated from him, and the principal would be summoned to physically remove me from school property? Was I going to sit at home sobbing because I was all alone? Did I have paid work lined up? Did I have a plan for organizing the 48,000 photos on my computer hard drive?


Did I realize that my three boys would be at school all day? Was I interested in seeing what I might accomplish with six child-free hours* each day?


So yesterday was the last day….of summer togetherness, of life….before all the boys were in school full-time.

I wanted it to be special and memorable in a super enjoyable way and, like so many highly anticipated occasions it was filled with tension and bickering instead. Which is perhaps memorable in its own way, but not the stuff of scrapbooks and slide shows.

I took them to a couple of playgrounds, once it became clear that remaining at home would likely result in blood being shed. And then we stopped for drinks at Starbucks where I sat poised with pen and paper, like an overeager interviewer ready to record whatever bits of their self they were willing to divulge.

‘What are you excited about for this year?’


‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘What’s your favorite color?’ I finally asked, just to round out my series of lame and cliche questions.


Who in the history of the world has named white as their favorite color? 

We returned home and retreated to our respective corners – basement, living room, kitchen, bedroom – until dinner time. And even then I still had to mediate a bitter brotherly, vaguely Clintonesque, battle over ownership of a Lego figure and the statute of limitations surrounding ‘playing with a toy.’

Does it mean using the toy at the particular moment someone else wants it? Does it encompass the preceding twenty four hours before someone expresses an interest in using it? What if the owner intends to use the toy in the very near future at the time someone else wants to use it?

‘It depends upon what the meaning of the word is is.’

Despite the tension surrounding the start of school, there is also the palpable excitement of new, yet familiar, beginnings which I find endearing. It is, without a doubt, the most efficient and well organized day of our entire year.

Last night, the boys fell asleep soon after their baths. The professor made lunches while I readied backpacks and water bottles and set the table for breakfast. This morning we were all up at 6:45. There were fresh blueberry pancakes (and coffee) on the table before 7:15. The professor walked the Gort to the bus stop. And we walked the younger boys to school, arriving fifteen minutes before the bell rang. If only we could be this family more than once a year.

Only six more years for all the boys to be in school.


September 2015: Grade 1, 6 and 3. 


Just to prove that, forty minutes later, the Hen did go to school with a clean face

*Fridays, professional development days, holidays and weekends not included. And sick days, I forgot about sick days.

Heading home

The ninth and final installment of Summer 2015: Roadtrip to the Heartland.

We emerged from our suburban hotel at a surprisingly efficient 8:30am. Surely a new trip record for the Johnsons, undoubtedly attributed to the hour gained since leaving Michigan. We ate cereal out of cardboard bowls (which I just happened to find under my seat yesterday, three weeks later), supported yet another mediocre Starbucks, and hit the road.

It was to be a difficult day of driving as we were due for another close encounter with North Dakota. We made it as far as Fargo before I felt the need to get out of the car. Although, now that I think of it, we may have pulled off at a rest stop near the Minnesota border for one of the boys to go to the bathroom. Or maybe that was before Jamestown. Or all of the above. Who can recall?

The professor googled ‘best coffee in Fargo’ and the Red Raven Espresso Parlor popped up in the search results. So we drove through unknown streets in search of an algorithm’s idea of suitable caffeine.

We stopped, briefly, in the parking lot of an auto repair shop, to verify we were on the right street, when the Gort looked up, saw the words ‘auto repair’ and despaired, ‘oh, no, what do we have to replace now?!’ [For in addition to the Missouri alternator emergency, we’d also kitted out our Sienna with a brand-new Indiana muffler.] It was to be the funniest moment in all seven days of driving.

Which is sad, really.

We stopped for coffee. Which led to a stop for burgers. And then we hit the road to Jamestown where we stopped for an emergency bag of m&m’s at the world’s scariest looking grocery store. And there was another stop after that for gas and a Subway sandwich for somebody’s dinner.

When the professor said, at the beginning of our return trip, that he was saying goodbye to happy Nicola, he really meant he was saying goodbye to happy everyone. For the atmosphere in the car on the tail end of every one of these trips is always charged. High levels of irritability mix with exhaustion and abnormal blood sugar levels in decidedly unpleasant ways, and we have no choice but to endure it; the journey and one another.

As we headed towards the border, which had me feeling slightly anxious on account of our previous encounter with America’s finest, I suddenly panicked that it might be closed by the time we got there. I envisioned us having to drive to another point of entry, or possibly spend the night in the car. Luckily, that particular crossing point turned out to be open 24 hours a day. I suppose we should add it to the list of things to investigate: border crossing hours of operation. If we ever intend to make this roadtrip again.

My memory is somewhat hazy, nearly a month later, but this is an approximate account of our exchange with customs:

Where are you coming from: Indiana

How long were you there: One month

What were you doing: Visiting Family

Value of any purchases: Maybe two hundred bucks

Have a good day.

Oh, Canada.


I couldn’t help but think of the Gort’s panicked conclusion from several days earlier, upon nearly being run over by a motorcycle in the South Beach parking lot: ‘we need to go back to Canada! It’s safer there.’

I don’t know about safer, but pedestrians do have the right of way. And border agents don’t seem overly suspicious of kids having passports.

We rolled into Regina at a surprisingly decent time, meaning: notmidnight. And fell asleep in a relatively undramatic fashion, meaning: noonescreamedforthirtyminutesplus. It was, what I like to call, a roadtrip miracle.

The next morning we awoke, ready for the last stretch to Calgary through some of the flattest, most unexciting land in the history of flat and unexciting land. I consulted Google to lead me to my morning coffee and as we drove through downtown Regina, I found myself thinking: Regina is not half bad.

It may be a side effect of driving 8153 kilometers, my thinking that relocating to any university town with the potential to reduce our overall driving time, would be awesome.

Or maybe, as Bill Bryson suggests in his book The Lost Continent, I’m on a perpetual search to find ‘the perfect town’ that seems only to exist in mid-century film and literature. After leaving Regina, we drove through the hamlet of Moose Jaw and stopped in Swift Current, which surprised me with signs for a Saturday farmer’s market and a newly opened independent coffee shop.

But despite its slightly closer proximity to Indiana, I did not contemplate – even for a second – moving there.

The last couple of hours of the trip always hold a bit of excitement as the boys start calculating what time we might get to Calgary; anticipating the fun of being home, with their toys and in their own beds. And the professor’s spirits lift a bit, too, as he anticipates a day in the very near future where he will not have to spend more than fifteen minutes in the car. And I imagine my own bed. Getting my clothes out of a closet or a dresser. Making my own coffee and eating real food.

Just after 4:30pm, we ran from the car, through a rainstorm, into our little white house. After being gone for 33 days and sleeping in 13 different beds. My basil plant had shriveled to a brittle outline of its former self (good thing I stayed up to make pesto the night before we left), and the colorful orange planters I’d bequeathed to Mother Nature, had died a severe and painful-looking death.

But we were home, and that was more than sufficient. We ate french toast and bacon and crawled into bed at a relatively decent hour. The next morning the professor emerged from the shower looking especially handsome, and as I tried to pinpoint the reason, I realized it was because he was wearing a t-shirt and pair of jeans I hadn’t seen every day for the last 5 weeks.

The boys were back to the business of being a trio, playing Lego in the basement and at the coffee table, as though the trip had never happened. While I got back in the car to address the empty fridge and pantry and the chipped windshield North Dakota had given us as a parting gift.

I think about it often when we do any trip, but especially these marathons – the difference in being a parent versus being a kid. The cleaning, the packing, the laundry, the arrangements, the driving, figuring out food and paying for it all…just how much work it is to make memories.

For the adults, it’s brutal with a side of awesome. And for the boys, it’s awesome with a side of brutal.


The Warriors

Eight installments down. One to go. 

Exactly one month from the day we first got in the car to drive southeast, we got back in the car to drive northwest.

A friend living in Wyoming had invited us to stop there on our way back. I was all set to accept her invitation, as in: I’d already typed the words, ‘yes, we’ll do it!’ when I realized driving straight west would add seven hours to our return trip. I could handle a seven hour detour….on the front end of the trip. But I could not handle seven extra hours in the car….on the way back.

If nothing else, our stop in Yellowstone, circa 2011, had taught me that much.

So I declined very apologetically and we set our sights on the shortest, most direct route: Minneapolis. Regina, Saskatchewan. Calgary.

We hugged our family members goodbye……and then the professor hugged me. Which I found odd, considering we were going to be spending the next three days in very close quarters. ‘I’m saying goodbye….to happy Nicola,’ he explained.

Fair enough.

We drove away from South Haven and, somewhat apologetically, steered our old and tired van onto Highway 31. Maybe cars don’t have feelings, like fatigue, but I find myself feeling sorry for our little Sienna. Approximately 3 minutes after hitting the highway, the tire pressure light glowed orange on the dashboard. Surely, a new trip record.

We pulled off at a gas station and the professor checked something and hit a button and then we started driving again, crossing our fingers that would be the end of it.

Already at the orange alert level of despair, I decided I needed to find better-than-swill coffee to get me through Chicago. Some people have smart phones with out-of-country data plans and coffee-finding apps. I have a sister. I texted her to inquire about good-coffee possibilities in St. Joseph or New Buffalo. And, albeit with a slight time delay, she steered me to the latter town’s David’s Delicatessen. Complete with driving directions.

We bought one final Sunday edition of the New York Times, just to clutter up our filled-to-the-brim car, and a couple of coffees and climbed back in the car to navigate the maze of highways and traffic that define Chicago, past Kid-Vegas (Wisconsin Dells) to the land of 10,000 lakes.

The professor and I used to live in Minneapolis many moons ago. We made the drive through Chicago, past Madison dozens of times. And yet, on this, the first day of our trip home, in what was to become another of the mind-boggling, brainless moments that seemed to define Roadtrip 2015, we somehow missed the Madison exit and drove straight to Milwaukee instead.

As far as navigational malfunctions go, it wasn’t the worst, but when you’ve already driven six thousand some kilometers, you don’t want to drive even one unnecessary kilometer. Unless it’s for a donut or an iced coffee. And even then, it’s 50-50.

Like our meander through Kid-Vegas. Based on my memory of previous drives, I felt confident that I-90/94 was void of any easily accessed Starbucks chains. But when we got to the last Wisconsin Dells exit, we saw the telltale green and white logo on an exit sign. Naturally we veered off. Not because we like Starbucks all that much. But because it is a beacon of comfort and security; offering a momentary respite against the cruel world of asphalt and highway signs and gross fast food chains.

Except, when we got to the stop sign, the arrow pointing to Starbucks had some crucial small print underneath it: 2mi thataway. I was fully prepared to steer the car-van back onto the highway for, believe it or not, we have a fairly strict rule about only stopping at places that can be seen from the highway (unless, of course, we’re talking about a Whole Foods or something awesome.) ‘Oh, let’s just go. What’s two miles,’ the professor sighed and so, against my better judgement, we headed east. For the longest two mile drive known to man, that featured the least accessible Starbucks in the history of coffee chains. Where we sat in the drive-thru for a tears-inducing amount of time.

Though I despised my venti iced coffee, I still drank it.

Eventually, despite detours and stupid stops, we made it to Minneapolis. Driving along the curve of I-94 near ‘the U’, I thought back to my coffee-drinking, graduate school days when we had no kids and lived in a little bungalow. And I had a monthly pass at a downtown parking garage because it was the cheapest place to park my car while I was at class.

It struck me as very grown-up and light years removed from my current life, having a monthly pass at a parking garage.

Our resting place for the night was in some far western suburb, near the highway we’d be taking on our way to Saskatchewan. But first we had to acquire some provisions for our next day’s journey. And there was the matter of dinner. And ‘naturally’ this could only be remedied by stopping at the Whole Foods near Lake Calhoun.

We cut through Uptown on Hennepin Avenue, past the long-gone Blockbuster where we used to rent movies on Friday nights. So many new restaurants and coffee shops keeping company next to places we used to frequent. Like D’Amico & Sons, where the Balsamic Chicken Salad with Strawberries is still on the menu after all these years.

After the boys had eaten something that resembled real food, we headed over to Lake Calhoun to stretch our legs and feel something besides air conditioning on our skin. It was a beautiful night and people were out; walking, running, sitting at picnic tables with friends. The sun was just beginning its descent and the lake, dotted with sailboats, glowed.


Yes, I pretty much follow them around and take pictures of their backs. 



Minneapolis really might be the perfect place to live, with its lakes, trees, architecture, vibrancy, and natural beauty. If you’re able to set aside the brutally cold winters. And the way too humid summers. And there’s the matter of the never-ending road construction projects. Truly it feels like something from FDR’s New Deal – are they just working on roads to create jobs for people?


Aspiring American Ninja Warriors

I could have stayed at the lake for hours. But the boys were dying to find our hotel so they could watch American Ninja Warrior. They’d discovered the show on our last night in Michigan (six years after the fact) and it had become their only topic of conversation. In the car. Running to the play structures at the lake. Jumping onto rock-hard sand from a six-foot-high ledge. The surprised look on my middle would-be warrior’s face as he hit the sand suggested he hadn’t quite thought it through.

While the boys were glued to the hotel television screen, watching insane feats of strength, I readied everything for our earliest-possible departure the next morning. I marveled at how things had changed in the seven years we’d been making the journey to the heartland, recalling some very late nights of kids screaming in hotel rooms while exhausted parents struggled to retain their sanity.

And then the professor turned off the light right in the middle of Fat Guys in the Woods. And somebody completely lost it. And I thought, ‘maybe not.’


Calgon take me away


The seventh installment of, what was it called again? Take heart, there should only be one more. 

‘Do you want to go [fishing],’ my sister surveyed my level of interest for her proposed activity.

It was day five of our vacation. Everything I owned was covered in a thin layer of sand and I’d spent more time in a bathing suit during those days than in all of the previous two, maybe three years combinedMy level of enthusiasm for making memories had been greatly diminished from four weeks of living out of a duffel bag and the vaguely nagging feeling that had begun consuming me; a growing reminder that the drive all the way back to Calgary was imminent.

‘I really don’t want to go [fishing] at all,’ I finally spoke up, ‘but I know the boys will enjoy it.’ Which is really the ultimate litmus test for any vacation activity. And why we climbed in the car and drove forty-ish minutes to the Wolf Lake Hatchery so the boys and their cousins could try their hand at catching and releasing small fish. For twenty minutes.

After all, vacation is really for the children.


Eleven of us had been staying in South Haven, Michigan in a rented house a couple of blocks from ‘downtown’, just shy of a mile’s walk from local South Beach.

Barring the noisy main road that ran right outside one of the bedrooms, it was a pretty good set-up, more than adequate for our goals which were the same goals anyone vacationing with young children might have: keep kids alive, keep parents alive, wear kids out sufficiently so there is at least one hour between the time kids finally fall asleep and parents peel themselves off the couch to go to bed.

We had talked, briefly, about the possibility of renting paddle boards or kayaks, but Lake Michigan had assumed a slightly oceanic state, with choppy water, rolling waves and red flags hanging ominously from wooden posts on the beach, for most of our stay. We could only assume this would not pair well with our nonexistent paddling-kayaking skills.

Thus our water-based activities amounted to: going to the beach twice each day, carefully placing blankets on the sand that nobody sat on for more than two consecutive minutes, and keeping track of six children. Staying just long enough to justify the energy expended in getting everyone ready to go to the beach, finding a spot and setting up our space, and packing it all up again.

Daytrips weren’t really a priority – much as I’d secretly hoped to see three-hours-away Sleeping Bear Dunes – on account of the three days’ driving looming on the approaching horizon. But we did drive to Saugatuck one morning for coffee followed by a few hours at the Saugatuck Dunes State Park, where the beach was smaller than we remembered it and biting, black flies followed us wherever we went. Along with a slightly suspicious odor of possibly decaying animal flesh.



But, before you cross it off your list! If you are the type of person who likes a fifteen, err twenty-five minute walk through a beautiful forest spilling out onto an uncrowded beach, this is the place for you. Me. For maybe I’m the only one who doesn’t like sitting an arm’s length away from terra-cotta-colored strangers wearing what amounts to brightly colored underwear.

Addendum: vacation is really for the children and people watching. 

It’s how I amuse myself everywhere I go, staring at people, mesmerized by their clothes and hair, trying to figure out a tiny bit of their stories. Like is the young-looking married woman setting up a tent on the beach, the mom of the teenager standing beside her? Or is it her sister?

Are the gray-haired women walking along the water, both wearing denim shorts and black shirts, one thin and wiry and the other plump, a couple? Or just old friends?

Is the prematurely grey, late-twentysomething man that we saw at sunset one night, walking hand in hand with a young blonde woman, actually on vacation with his parents? A theory I developed two days later, at sunset, when I spied him sitting next to us on the beach.

‘At sunset’ being a legitimate event in the life of any beach town, as it turns out.

Last year when we stayed on the Oregon coast, people quietly emerged from our Truman Show-esque housing development each night to gather at the top of the beach and watch the sun go down. I assumed it was an Oregon thing, until the professor and I walked down to the beach on our first night in South Haven, and found hordes of people sitting along the pier, on the beach, on the grass by the yacht club; all coming out to watch that orange ball slip into the water.

It never gets old.


We were strolling within the two block radius that is downtown South Haven one morning, on a very brief and fruitless jaunt in search of good coffee, when we walked past a mom who’d clearly had it with the preschooler sitting in her stroller. She used ‘the monster voice’ as the professor likes to call it, battling to keep the stroller tray in place while the less-than-stellar preschooler fought to fling it into the air. ‘That’s it,‘ she fumed, ‘I’ve had it with you.’

‘Va-cation,’ I sang, referencing that Seinfeld episode where George Costanza made up a signature jingle for himself: Co-stanza.

It proved a useful, smile-inducing addition to the myriad of scenarios that present themselves when engaged in the enterprise that is vacation. Kids waking up before 7am every day? Forced family photos with unhappy children? Unable to take your son kayaking because the water’s too choppy? Taking six children fishing and everybody catches a fish except one, bitterly unhappy child?



On our last morning there, my sister and I walked to the beach for an 8am yoga class. It had been approximately ten months since my last attempt at a downward-facing dog, but I had high hopes the one hour session would give me a sufficient amount of zen to make it through ‘the drive’. The fact that I’m trying to quantify zen might indicate a fundamental lack of understanding of what it actually is.

Yoga-on-the-beach might be the perfect metaphor for vacation with children.

What could be better? Being quiet, standing on the sand and staring out at the water….while trying to contort your body in ways it resents. Lying down for a well-earned shavasana, after an hour of bending and holding; the possibility of drifting off to sleep tantalizingly within reach.

Except for the one trillion particles of sand boring tiny holes into your back.

Sitting in the car on the drive back, the zen having left me within the first fifteen minutes, I could still feel the sand in my back.