I can tell when you don’t care. I keep talking anyway.

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I know my beloved readers are overdue for another dose of Beth …. There’s been alot going on lately. There was an impromptu visit from my cousin, who – annoyingly enough – ran a marathon a day or two before joining my crew for an enormous plate of nothing healthy and a beer the size of her head. Then, there was a planned visit from my mother and her husband to celebrate the birthday of their precious youngest granddaughter. There was a welcome-back BBQ at the girls’ school, where we were swarmed by wasps while meeting teachers and having blurs of colour pointed out to us as “the girl I was telling you about”, “the new boy”, “that kid who’s always in trouble”, and “the guy who picks his nose all the time”. Then, we toured their classrooms. They’ve done an impressive amount of work already. When I was a student, by this point in the school year, I had done – at most – a review of all the stuff I forgot and a two-page essay about how I spent my summer.

Then, there was Bridget’s birthday. We threw a party for a handful of her friends (Bridget being an introvert, a handful is the number of people with whom she can spend more than fifteen minutes without attempting to hide in her room). It was lovely. The group was small enough so that I could make all the food myself – with some help from Ryan, who likes to chop celery and assemble sandwiches. He also blew up fifteen pink balloons. I’m terrified of balloons, so it suited me to outsource their inflation. He mowed, I vacuumed. Purpose of vacuuming before a children’s party: unclear. But it had to be done …. because. He also gave up his other religion, Sunday football, so the girls could use the Wii. This is no small thing for this man and his football.

Bridget is, possibly, the only child on earth who doesn’t like cake. She licks off all the frosting, then claims to be full. As soon as you throw out her naked cake, she says she wants another piece because she’s not full anymore. So, I made mini-cookies-n-cream cheesecakes instead – she loved them:

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The best thing about them: they’re even easier to make than a birthday cake, and people are impressed by them anyway.

I know that birthday parties these days are almost on par with proms when it comes to planning, significance and expense. However, the little girls enjoyed themselves just as much at our house eating finger foods and ransacking Bridget’s room as they would have at mini-golf or bowling or laser tag, and the party didn’t cost $25 per kid before cake and loot bags. One child was particularly concerned that the party didn’t have a theme. She asked about it three times. Finally, I said “ok, the theme is yay, Bridget is seven“. She relaxed, and turned her attention back to the group. At that point, a song they like had come on the radio, and they were dancing with the glitter shakers I had laid out for the craft they were supposed to be working on:

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There is glitter on the floor, the rug, the furniture, our clothes, our hair. None of us will ever be glitter-free again. This is nothing new, though, in a family that includes two little girls. I don’t mind. Glitter everywhere is a sign of a good life. I said this to a dear friend of mine when she arrived to pick up her daughters. She affectionately told me I’m effed up. I pointed out that this was true even before I confessed my affection for glitter, and she agreed. After the crafting and some free time, they descended like a plague of locusts on the table I had prepared. Particularly popular were the “fancy” drinks (grape juice):

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* See? Glitter. Everywhere.

Collectively, they ate about three baby carrots, a tenth of a sliced pepper, a dozen grapes and their own weight in party mix and mini-cheesecakes. As they sang “Happy Birthday” to Bridget, she glowed. That moment was so worth the planning, the mess and the post-party crash. After the party, eyes still shining, Bridget even confided her career choices: 1) rapper, 2) tattoo artist and 3) nurse. In that order.

Some of you, while reading what I just wrote, were smiling. Maybe even saying “aw, how sweet” – and enjoying the level of detail. Others, though, were bored by it all, and annoyed that they were spending time reading about a kid’s birthday party. These people, if I were talking to them, might also have said that it was sweet. The difference would likely lie in their tone and frequency of eye contact. After reading what I wrote about the code many parents speak – what we say to preserve our children’s feelings and innocence, as opposed to what we want to say – Ryan said three things that made me think. First, he pointed out that I don’t always use code. Sometimes, I am brutally honest with Fiona and Bridget. He’s right – that happens. From time to time, it’s because they need it. Other times, it’s because they’ve started talking before I’ve finished my first cup of coffee the morning after a late night – or because we’re all running late and this is no time to wander down memory or speculation lane. Either way, sometimes the code gets dropped. Second, he reminded me that there’s a code among grown-ups, too – friends, neighbours, colleagues. It’s used when we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings or we don’t want a bad relationship with that person – in other words, we have good intentions – but we just aren’t into whatever they’re saying.

No, I don’t want to hear about your new workout routine – I’ll be fine if I never know how many times you flexed your inner thighs before you showered and drove to the office. I also don’t care that you’ve cut out gluten and you’re not as gassy anymore. But I’ll probably say something vaguely encouraging like “oh, good for you – whatever works, right”. I guess there’s some part of me that really is happy that your son has landed a summer job or you’ve bought a new couch – but that part is very small, and hidden beneath layers of actual interests. So, while I say “oh – congratulations”, the tone might be a little flat or my eyes might be drifting over your shoulder to the water fountain or washroom, planning an excuse and a getaway. If we’re on the phone, I might be speaking in code if you’re hearing a string of mmm-hmms and yeahs. If you’re reading your daughter’s report card line-by-line, or listing the types of birds that have arrived at your feeder lately, or telling me about your neighbour’s new interlocking brick driveway, you probably shouldn’t expect anything more than that.

“That’s nice.” This, you may remember, appeared in the post about parents’ code words and phrases. It is not only used on kids, and it means the exact same thing when it’s used on grown-ups. Of course, I don’t think it’s nice that you wasted a whole weekend laying down hardwood flooring or regrouting your shower tiles or staining your deck or wandering around Costco. I don’t think it’s nice that your kid is in gymnastics, jazz dancing, hockey, and saxophone lessons, along with learning the art of Japanese cooking and presentation. It’s also quite possibly the opposite of nice that you’ve finally succeeded in your effort to instate those neighbourhood by-laws that make it illegal to drive above 20 km/h, paint your house anything other than desert shades, or have grass more than four inches high. But, again, maybe I don’t want to hurt your feelings. Or maybe you are my superior, and I don’t want to offend you and make my office life miserable. Or maybe I’m just not in the mood for a debate. So, “that’s nice”.

The third thing Ryan said is that people use the same lines of code on me sometimes. This didn’t come as a revelation – I know people don’t always care about what I’m saying. I know they are sometimes uninterested; I’m not oblivious to long lines of mmm-hmms and yeahs. And I know that sometimes you don’t really think whatever I’m saying is nice. However, I appreciate the code because it means that the person with whom I’m talking, however boring they find me, doesn’t want to crush me by admitting it. It’s your way of being kind to me. Thank you! Also, even if I know you would rather be sitting in a white room listening to the sound of your own heartbeat than my voice, I’m going to keep talking. Fair’s fair; you’ve probably done the same thing to me.

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“Sweet Pea, do you know yet if the school is doing Pizza Fridays this year?”

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There are so many ways to mess kids up …. Some obvious ways include letting them grow up thinking that Froot Loops and potato chips count as fruits and veggies, howling insults at them all the way through tee-ball or minor hockey and shedding guilt-inducing fake tears whenever their behaviour is less-than-stellar. Oh, and telling them that Rover didn’t die – he just went to a nice farm where there’s lots of room to run, plenty of squirrels to chase, and an endless supply of rawhide. Another way to crush them would be to say what we really want to say …. All those things we mutter under our breath when they’re leaning on our last nerve – we can’t just say those awful things out loud to our kids. So, we speak in code. I found myself thinking about this code a few days ago when it was way past bedtime and Fiona and Bridget were duking it out for the title of Most Annoying Child in Canada, If Not The Entire Flippin’ World. I said, in a creamy voice, “you guys need your rest – you are going to be so tired tomorrow, and you won’t have a good day”. This is a line of the code. What it really means is “the pitter-patter of little feet is going to make me run screaming into the night if it doesn’t settle into its bed and leave me to my near-homicidal thoughts”. Here are some other coded phrases I use – and what they are masking.

“Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha! Good one!” Every now and then, our girls crack a joke that is actually funny. You know, about 7% of the time. The rest of their jokes range from the merely lacking-in-humour to the impossible-to-understand. They are good at making each other laugh, but that’s about it. However, I don’t want their little spirits to wither like a balloon from last week’s party – so I laugh. Even when I’m thinking “um, ok”. And I don’t tell them they’re at their funniest when they’re being dead serious – that’s when the real laughter happens. Hopefully, they can’t tell the difference yet.

Speaking of laughing, something else I never say – but always think: “Ok, it was funny the first time. Maybe even the second time. Now, stop doing it before I give in to the temptation to have you appraised by a black marketeer.”

One-word answers …. If one of the girls asks a question and I respond with “yes”, “no” or “maybe”, and there’s no elaboration, what I’m really saying is “no more questions, please”. This is especially true of “uh-huh” and “mmm”. I am making a grocery list and I just wrote “butter” three times. Go away.

“Oh, sure, maybe we’ll do that sometime ….” Translation: you’ve pulled this one out of the wild blue yonder, and I’m thrown off. This string of words can mean anything from “yes, let’s think about this and maybe even do it” to “your cray-cray proposal has the same chance as a snowball in hell”. Either way, I need to think it through.

In the same vein, there’s “maybe”. It can mean anything from “never” to “yes, sometime when I’m not so tired or we’re not so busy” to an honest “maybe”. Sometimes, it’s mumbled meaninglessly while I’m driving or cooking or cleaning the bathroom, in an effort to head off an exhausting exploration of everything that could possibly be associated with the topic that has just been raised. Maybe your hamster would enjoy wearing a hat. Maybe your teacher’s actually crazy. Maybe we could go to a movie Sunday afternoon. Maybe you can have a sleepover with your friend. Maybe we could buy you a cellphone when you’re fourteen. However, none of that can happen right now, because I’m flossing. So let’s just sit on this one for a while ….

“That’s a great idea!” This one’s usually accompanied by an ear-to-ear smile and frantic nodding. It may or may not be a great idea. Whatever. I want you to get completely immersed in making the idea happen, so I can finish this chapter or bubble bath or phone call.

“Wow – what a lovely drawing!” This one’s tricky. Sometimes Fiona or Bridget creates a truly lovely drawing, and I’m telling the truth. About half of the time, though, it’s not a lovely drawing. It took them five minutes or less to make it, and it looks it. But what kind of asshole would criticize a picture held up proudly for inspection and praise? Not this asshole.

“You’re a big girl now! You can do this.” In other words, I’m tired of doing this for you, and change happens now.

“It’s good for you! Have some – you might find that you actually like it.” It’s probably good for you. You might like it, but you probably won’t. Truth is, I bought the ingredients, threw them together after a day that’s already been twelve hours long, and I will lose my shiz if I have to scrape it off your plate into the garbage can. It may or may not be good for you, but it will cut me to my quick if you don’t eat at least a few bites.

“That’s nice.” Whatever it is, it isn’t nice. If it were nice, I’d have found a different word for it. Oh, your friend wears $100 sweaters? That’s nice. So-and-so gets cookies after dinner every day? That’s nice. That kid who bullied you all the way through the second grade offered you a lick of his lollipop? That’s nice. Your school’s selling chocolate bars / candles / gift wrap and there’s a prize for the kid who sells the most? That’s nice. Mrs. Has-No-Life-and-Therefore-Volunteers-For-Everything showed up to tie shoes just before P.E., and gave her kid a big hug before she left to resume placing consumer complaints and watching daytime television? That’s nice. None of this is even remotely nice. I just don’t want to smother the girls with my cynicism before they’re able to make these sorts of judgements for themselves.

“Is your school doing Pizza Fridays this year? Because I havn’t seen the form, and I know how much you guys like your Pizza Fridays ….” In other words, we’re not even one month into the school year, and I’m already trying to weasel out of packing lunches.* Three cheers for the code!

* The Pizza Fridays form arrived yesterday. I nearly cried in relief and gratitude.

Saying “no” is allowing us to say “yes”.

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Fall is the season when kids usually go back, not only to school, but to scheduled activities. Hockey, gymnastics, music, ballet, pottery, swimming …. Of course, some kids go to these lessons all year long, or switch to something different for the summer, like soccer, but many families choose to synchronize their children’s school and organized activity attendance (like we did).

We’re no strangers to the kid-tivity circuit. When Fiona was five, we enrolled her in rhythmic gymnastics. It didn’t seem to be inspiring her, though, so the next year, she tried ballet. She liked it a little better. Ryan’s parents bought the girls swimming lessons for Christmas, which they attended during the winter and spring of that year. The following fall, when Bridget turned five, she started ballet, too. We had an unofficial family rule that there were no extracurricular lessons until the age of five, mainly because we both think that classes for babies and toddlers are pretty silly. (The swimming lessons were an exception, as we were about to spend a week at a cottage with its own beach, and we wanted the girls to have at least a rudimentary grasp of swimming.) Even though both of the girls were attending ballet, it wasn’t overly stressful – their lessons were at the same time, and the ballet school was in the same building as a Food Basics. Ryan and I would do the weekly grocery shop while they did whatever it was they did in ballet class. Learn ballet, I guess. There was a recital, in which they both demonstrated that they had spent time in the same room as the other kids on stage, and then it was summer again. In mid-July, as if they both knew the drill by now, they started talking about which activity they’d try when fall came. Neither wanted more ballet. Fiona said she wanted skating; Bridget said she wanted gymnastics. Since extracurriculars for children are simply what one does, we signed them up. Fiona’s skating was on Mondays. We’d get home from work and daycare, scarf down spaghetti, then Ryan would take Fiona to her skating lesson while I stayed home with Bridget and we made the next day’s lunches together. Bridget’s gymnastics was on Tuesdays, earlier in the evening. We’d have dinner at Subway, then drop Ryan off at home, where he’d slap together tomorrow’s sandwiches while I drove Bridget to gymnastics. While she was at gymnastics, Fiona and I would shop for groceries. I enjoyed those little slices of one-on-one time with each girl. But I didn’t enjoy our family’s schedule, and neither did Ryan. Neither did Fiona and Bridget, after the novelty of skating and gymnastics wore off. Sure, they had fun once they arrived and started their lesson, but many weeks the announcement that it was Monday or Tuesday and we were working around the corresponding activity was greeted with sighs and groans. “But I wanted to play with my hamster / make a craft / read my new library book / play a game!”

The girls were tired. Two scheduled late bedtimes every week isn’t good for kids. And heaven forbid something else was added to the week, like a birthday party or dinner guests or a weekend away – or something equally disruptive but less pleasant, like a major homework assignment or head lice or a water main break. That could push them to the cracking point. Ryan and I were tired, too. Tired of saying “no, you can’t do insert-requested-activity-here; it’s Monday / Tuesday, and you know we have skating / gymnastics today”. “No, we’re not reading one more story, you need to go to bed early – remember you’re up late tomorrow night.” “No, we really can’t fit this in right now, we’ve got enough going on.” Tired of going to bed Sunday nights with the one-two punch of Monday and Tuesday hanging over us. Tired of dragging kids who’ve already had a long day at school and daycare to yet another place where they needed to pay attention and play along. Tired of thinking the girls should miss their class this or that one time, then guiltily pushing them to attend anyway, because we’d paid big bucks for each lesson. Tired of strangling spontaneity with the chains we’d forged ourselves. Just tired. And we only had two kids in two extracurriculars! I can’t imagine how families manage more than that, yet I know they do. There are families who live in their minivan, eating drive-thru dinners behind the wheel, ferrying the kids all over the city four or more nights per week, and maybe Saturday mornings, too. Kids who do their homework in the waiting areas of dance studios, arenas and gyms while their sibling is taking a lesson. Why? Because it’s what one does, of course.

This year, after much discussion, Ryan and I decided to say “no” to organized activities. We didn’t sign the girls up for anything. They considered their options again, but never actually asked for any particular lessons. So we let the registration deadlines slide by …. At first, it felt like a negative choice. Every other family does the extracurricular thing; so should we, right? Our girls are enrolled in …. nothing? Really? It’s just not what families do. It felt strange even discussing it with other parents. Some parents expressed admiration for our choice, and said they wish they could do the same (without explaining why they couldn’t, of course). The father of one of Fiona’s friends confessed that he doesn’t enjoy the extracurricular grind, and he doesn’t think his daughter does, either. Yet, he has enrolled his daughter in a couple of weekly lessons because he doesn’t want her to end up outclassed by her peers – a misfit because she is just a regular person with no sharply-honed talents. This thought has crossed my mind the odd time, too – I don’t want Fiona and Bridget to feel out-of-place when they are all grown up and their friends are showing off their mad skillz on the oboe, the balance beam, the rink and the canvas. But do they need to be experts in any of these areas to be well-rounded? No. This is simply what we’ve been programmed to believe. They’ve had many different experiences in many different situations, and I highly doubt they won’t have anything to talk about when they are older just because they’ve never spent a summer’s worth of Saturday mornings on a soccer field.

We are heading into the third week of the school year, and already it feels like we’ve made the right choice – and it doesn’t feel negative anymore. In fact, by not scheduling our kids’ downtime, we’ve been able to say “yes” more. “Yes, you can explore the pet store at the mall, even though we’re only here for Subway and the bank – we’re not in a hurry.” “Yes, you can tell us this long, complicated story of what happened on the playground today, because we can linger over dinner.” “Yes, you can spend a bit of extra time with your hamster – it’s no big deal if bedtime shifts by fifteen minutes. We can make up for that tomorrow.” “A two-birthday-party weekend? Sure – nobody’s overtired and in need of make-up sleep.” We just said “yes” to an outdoor concert on a Thursday night (Dear Rouge, Lorde and Serena Ryder were wonderful) – and all four of us had a great time. We might not have done that if Thursday came after two or more late bedtimes, or if there were lessons of some kind scheduled for Thursday evenings. Fiona once wistfully said “I wish I could just relax today”, and I remember thinking “how sad that she is saying that at the ripe old age of eight“. Everyone should have time to relax, especially kids. They should look for shapes in the clouds, compose short stories with fantastic plots, inventory their rock collections, watch ants at work, spin until they’re dizzy, empty their mind and just be.

We’re not going to spend all our free time dong nothing …. We’re planning to go swimming and skating together, and maybe we can spend more time at the park. We used to go for walks alot – maybe we’ll start doing that again. I’m going to start teaching Fiona and Bridget how to play the piano, and some basic sewing skills. Ryan and I have been toying with the idea of one-on-one dates with them, where we split them up to spend quality time with them as individuals, then trade kids the next time. We’ll still be busy – but the schedule will be a flexible one that we set ourselves, and I have a feeling that we’re going to be happier as a result. There will definitely be some couch spudding, though, and that’s ok, too – because we’ll have time for it now.

Nobody goes to Kansas! (Except us ….)

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I know it’s been a while since I last posted anything. We went on our annual big-ass road trip, and I don’t do much interwebzing when I’m travelling. The day after our return was the first day of school – fourth grade for Fiona and second grade for Bridget. (And how did that happen anyway? I feel so …. old. Or, at least, middle-aged.) For days, I told myself that it was ok that I hadn’t posted in a while because we had just gotten back from our trip and it was the first week of school and we had weekend guests coming …. but we’ve been back home for a week now, the guests have been and gone, and it’s now the second week of school. I can’t seem to find any more excuses – so I’m writing.

We went to Kansas. Take a moment to think about whether anyone’s ever said that to you. You probably came up with the same line that we heard from the border guard when we told him we were going to Kansas …. “Nobody goes to Kansas! Why are you going there?” Great, I thought, we’re going to get cavity-searched because we decided to go to Kansas for this year’s family vacation. Thankfully, he didn’t do that; he simply shook his head in bemusement and wished us a nice trip. And it was! It was raining the day we left, as often seems to happen on the first day. Bridget mentioned that she didn’t have her umbrella, and then asked, panic-stricken, what she would do if she needed to go to the bathroom. She couldn’t get out of the car in the rain, could she? I pointed out that she’s not made of sugar, and Ryan and Fiona razzed her. She didn’t take it well. Not wanting to ruin the first day of the trip, Ryan offered to let Bridget call him the baddest thing she could think of. She thought for several seconds, then her face spread into a devilish grin and she gleefully declared him a “butt-faced pooper”. We cracked up, and the term stuck around for the entire trip. It was later upgraded to “lovable butt-faced pooper”. I admit that some of my laughter was due to relief that what she came up with was so tame, since I am aware that both girls know nearly every swear word English has to offer.

That first day was also Fiona’s ninth birthday. She had asked if she could have another birthday on the road – so we left a day earlier than we had planned, with a cake that I had decorated inside a plastic container and thought about every two minutes or so until it was safely pulled from the trunk and presented. She wanted a “little green alien”: 001

She chose Cracker Barrel for her birthday dinner, which made all of us happy. She wanted a swim in the pool, but it was dark by the time we finished dinner and the pool had closed. So we swam the next morning in the rain. Extremities were numb by the time we left the pool, but we had done right by our birthday girl. Our little Bright Eyes is nine. Already. I’m happy and sad all at the same time – but that’s another post entirely. The rest of the day involved rolling through scenic New York and Pennsylvania, simultaneously admiring the mountains for their wild beauty and cursing them for interfering with the radio reception. And a speeding ticket around Allegany. New York has a bizarre system where you take a piece of paper from the cop and mail it to the nearest courthouse, declaring whether you wish to pay up or contest. If you want to pay up (and we did, since our car was going too fast and we really didn’t feel like showing up at a courthouse in rural New York a week later), the judge will decide what your fine should be based on your driving record in the state of New York and how many miles you were over the limit and mail you the judgement. Then, you mail back the money. Which I imagine goes to the First Stagecoach Bank of The New Worlde, in keeping with the antiquated system …. It ended in a lovely little town called Ridgeway, at a motel attached to a delightful Italian restaurant. We enjoyed beers in front of our room door, listening to a crowd of rednecks outside their room, arguing about whether a Canadian-style healthcare system should be adopted by America. Wonder if it was inspired by our license plate ….

The next day, we attended mass at a local church called St. Leo Magnus, then left Pennsylvania for a few minutes in West Virginia and the rest of the day in Ohio. We stopped to roll down a steep, grassy hill, just to shake off that been-in-the-car-too-long feeling. Dinner was at a Mexican place called Tumbleweeds, in Zanesville. Because margaritas were only $1.99 each, Ryan enjoyed one for the first time. I enjoyed two because, you know, $1.99! Fiona ate her first jalapeño pepper, and we all howled as she gulped water like her belly was on fire. Our six-pack that night was a yummy honey brown, which we had purchased at a drive-thru beer store. Yes, a drive-thru beer store. God bless America. We watched the MTV Video Music Awards together. Aside from Iggy Azalea’s and Rita Ora’s performance of “Black Widow”, I wasn’t overly impressed – but Fiona and Bridget enjoyed seeing all the glitter and glamour.

Monday brought us fully into the searing, screaming-cicada heat of the Midwest. Iced coffee was how I got my caffeine fix, in a gas station’s 16-ounce “medium” cup. I love how the US has ginormous everything, particularly the Midwest …. After panting our way through Indiana into Illinois, we stopped in Effingham (joke potential: endless) at an Econolodge. We spent over an hour splashing around gratefully in a pool, then sauntered across the parking lot to a restaurant called Niemerg’s Steakhouse, which gave me fried chicken done right.

We reached our destination on Tuesday, but did not encounter one of those lovely welcome centres that guide us through our visit to any given state. This was a bit dispiriting, but it’s happened before and we weren’t overly concerned. We joked that perhaps Kansas didn’t have any promotional material because, as many people had implied, there’s nothing to promote. We stopped in Lawrence, where the lobby of the Old Virginia Inn was fully stocked with what-to-do-in-Kansas pamphlets and books! After a delicious steak dinner at Longhorn, we spent the evening watching an Elvis biopic and excitedly flipping through pages and pages of Kansasia (not a real word – until now).

The next morning, we left the beaten track and headed down the back roads into the heart of the Sunflower State. I decided the occasion called for a little Hank Williams, and he wailed his way through golden cornfields, rolling hills dotted with hay bales and crumbling towns that seemed like they really were something once – all of it pressed down by an endless swath of bright blue. We stopped at a playground in one of the towns (Overbrook, I think), and burned off some energy. The playground was old, with scorching metal slides and a merry-go-round and a real jungle gym you could actually hurt yourself falling off (as opposed to the tiny plastic facsimiles that a toddler could conquer), and we loved it. We had lunch at a diner called Cindy’s Family Café, which featured beaded pennants made by the mother of one of the waitresses, and other assorted tat. I tried chicken-fried steak for the first time, and fell in love. Ok, maybe that’s a little dramatic, but it was really tasty …. The waitress yammered away with everyone in the restaurant, including us. She asked us why we were in Kansas, because “nobody goes to Kansas”. When she asked us where we were from, we told her Ottawa, and added that it’s the capital of Canada. She said “oh, really – I thought the capital of Canada was Cue-beck”. We also talked briefly with a one-legged man named Bob, who rasped that he had spent most of his life trucking grapes to Winnipeg and then wheat to Lodi. In Hutchinson, we discovered “one of the eight wonders of Kansas” (yes, the sign actually said that): Strataca Underground Salt Museum. Going down in a rickety mine-shaft elevator to 650 feet below the surface is something I never thought I’d be bold enough for – but I did it, and so did my three travelling companions. The salt mine was dark and frightening, yet strangely beautiful. The walls sparkled, and the air was purified by the salt. Apparently, this underground salt stash was created when the water covering North America dried up, and it runs all the way to New Mexico. We rode a train through the mine, hearing little snippets about miners’ lives in particular and salt in general, and peering into parts of the mine that have shrunk over time (or even collapsed). At times, panic would well up inside my chest, and I’d fight it down. It was irrational, I knew, and I wanted to make the most of this odd experience. I have yet to hear about the other seven wonders of Kansas, but maybe we’ll have a second go at Kansas someday and make them our goal. We had a late-night dinner at a Denny’s in Wichita, and the girls practically fell into bed. Ryan and I sat under the low-flying planes from Wichita’s airport (classy location, I know) and planned our Thursday.

We spent the next day seeing more of the Kansas countryside on our way to Kansas City (yes, technically, Kansas City is in Missouri – but it’s pretty close anyway). We checked into an uncharacteristically nice hotel (for us, anyway) – a Four Points by Sheridan directly across from the K. We had a little swim while our nasty old-suitcase-in-a-hot-trunk laundry traumatized the washers and dryers of that elegant establishment, then headed to a Royals game. While I couldn’t give a rat’s ass about baseball, I love ballparks. I love the hot dogs and cotton candy, the buzz of the crowd, the cheesy-but-infectious chants and clapping. I love watching people love their team. Ryan and I were excited to see that the K is catered by a local brewery called Boulevard, which meant a decent selection of beers was on offer. We each had a truly refreshing “lemon ginger radler”, and went back for more. Unfortunately, the Royals lost in the tenth inning to the Twins, who – annoyingly enough – had lost in their home town when we saw them last summer. Being in the ballpark of the winning team is a very cool feeling, but it seems that teams lose more than they win when we’re in attendance ….

We enjoyed a badly-needed sleep-in on Friday morning, and had brunch at an IHOP – the crepes I ordered were amazing. We had one of those conversations that happens rarely in day-to-day life, but all the time on a road trip – a conversation that was allowed to meander down all sorts of side trails because there was time. Bullying, and whether Ryan and I were popular when we were kids (answer: no-yes-maybe). A sad story about an unpopular kid in their school whose brave attempt at a talent show number was a bust, which added to her social woes. My advice to Fiona and Bridget was just to be nice. Be generous, be kind, be themselves, and one day they’ll find their crowd – and understand that popularity is not as important as being true to yourself and the people you love. Down Syndrome, and what chromosomes are, and how two Xs make a girl and an X and a Y make a boy. The connection between chromosomes and aging. I wish we could have more of those conversations …. Not long after that, we ran into crazy, blinding, road-flooding rain. A gully washer. Despite Ryan’s assertion that all the gullies had been washed, the rain followed us into Iowa, accompanied by the occasional sky-splitting bolt in the distance. In Mount Pleasant, we had the bad luck to encounter the Old Threshers’ Reunion. We were turned down by a Best Western, and scored the second-last remaining room in a Rodeway. Yet another amazing thing about road trips: you discover things you never knew were things. Mount Pleasant lived up to its name anyway. We had a mouth-watering dinner at a Pizza Ranch, then a swim in the pool and a soak in the hot tub. Amazingly enough, neither facility was crammed with squealing little FFAs – and it was a relaxing way to wind down after the stormy drive.

Saturday took us into Wisconsin. The mountains reappeared, and the trees became thicker and darker. We ended up at the Best Night’s Inn in Sparta, a pretty little roadside motel with wooden cupboards smelling of summer camp, and (bizarrely) scarlet carpet and mattresses. The air was crisp and clean. Sparta calls itself the “cycling capital of America” – you can file that under stuff-you-never-knew-because-you’ve-never-been-to-Sparta. We attended mass at St. Patrick’s Church, where prayer requests were announced for Annemarie Cooter and Benjamin Semen. Ryan and I managed to keep straight faces, against all odds. You just can’t make this stuff up …. We walked to a hole-in-the-wall pizza joint called Slice of Chicago for what might have been the best pizza we’ve ever had, accompanied by wonderful local beers. For the first time since Pennsylvania, the night air was cool. We dragged a radio outside with us to listen to a broadcast of retro Casey Kasem from the very station we listen to online every Saturday night. It was a perfect evening; how often do we get to say that?

The next day was long …. We stopped to climb some hoodoos, but mainly we were pushing our way home. We saw the promise of fall in a patch of undersized-but-already-bright-orange pumpkins, and in the splashes of red, orange and gold in the leaves. There was the gentle glow of a late summer dusk beside Lake Michigan, signs advertising pasties every twenty-five feet, and something called “The Honest Indian’s Tourist Trap” (hailed by a hand-lettered sign). That evening’s dinner was at a seafood joint on the Michigan side of Sault Ste Marie, with quite possibly the best crab legs I’ve ever had.

We crossed the border the next morning, the first day of September, and knew we were in Canada when we passed two Tim Horton’s in less than ten minutes. It was nice to be home, and fall is great in its own way, but there was that bittersweet feeling that always comes at the end of a road trip: we wanted just one more night.