Wednesday, August 27, 2014

First day of Kindergarten, FAIL!

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Just as we were getting used to our summer routine at home after vacation, it’s time to disrupt it for yet another major life event – Little Miss started Kindergarten! I don’t know who was more excited, her or me. I admit, I don’t seem to be plagued by the worries and pangs of first-day-of-school parents; many years of preschool took care of that for us. She’s a pro in making friends, finding her way around, and impressing her teachers, after all. She’s got this.

One thing that did get me worried is how the rigid schedule will affect our family. We’ve never really attended a preschool with a strict time policy, so on most days, we’d saunter into class when we’re good and ready. Which could be anywhere between 8AM and nearly 10AM. Now, with a 7:45 start time for girls who often wake at 7:30, it’s going to be interesting.

But what’s more interesting is that, for someone born and raised in Malaysia, the American school system is completely new to me. I have no idea what it’s like for the kid or what to expect as a parent. My Guy provides the occasional insight from his experience in a suburban school, but mostly, I’m winging it, like I do with much of this parenting gig. As a half work-at-home, half stay-at-home parent, I knew I could afford to be more involved in my girls’ school, but it wasn’t until Kindergarten orientation that I realized just how much more I needed to do to step up my game.

School pickup and dropoff. After-school activities. School lunches. After-school snacks. Homework. Packing the bag for the next day. Not to mention PTA meetings, volunteering in school, and the occasional playgroups.

Holy cow, that alone feels like a full-time job. And that’s just one kid.

But I can do this, I tell myself. In fact, I’m excited to get involved and find my place in Little Miss’ new world. I’ve complained about my girls orbiting around me every time we’re together. They like staying close, playing near me, seeing my shadow in their periphery. Now that Little Miss is in school, that centrifugal force that tethers us will soon lose its power. My influence as a parent will soon be usurped by that of her friends and teachers. I know, I’m being dramatic, but it happens, and while I want to see her find her place in the world, I also want to be close enough so she knows she has the space to grow but she can still always count on me when the need arises.

And so i figuratively fold my sleeves up and get down to this elementary school business. It starts with the school lunch, which, out of my own excitement, took me an hour to prepare as I had to be creative with what tools and materials we had in the kitchen to make it fun for her. It still wasn’t Pinterest worthy, but hey, I had to work with what I had. My Guy made fun of me when he saw me making her a card so I could slip in a note for her first lunch at school. Hey, she’s my first baby! Shut up.

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After the painstaking planning of her lunch, I went to bed, eager for the next morning. We set our timer for the coffee, ready to conquer Kindergarten as a family. Except we forgot one thing: we forgot to set our alarm. And that’s how the girls found us the next day, still sound asleep. Probably drooling. The moment I heard them and saw the morning light in my room, however, I leapt to my feet. I knew something was wrong. I checked the time: 6:55. Arrgh! How the hell did that happen?

Parenting FAIL.

However, something magical happened. Even though we’d planned on waking at least 30 minutes earlier, having only 20 minutes to do everything kept us all, especially the girls, laser focused. We neither needed to plead with them to finish their food nor coax them to get dressed. They were amused by our panic. Perhaps seeing us in a comical state inspired them to cooperate, like implicitly agreeing together, all right, let’s help these clowns out.

In the end, we still somehow made it with 10 minutes to spare. They both had breakfast, they brushed their teeth, and Little Miss even had her picture taken. Booyah! I felt really bad for screwing up, and I apologized repeatedly to Little Miss, who was just thrilled that she got to “save the day” by unexpectedly and miraculously waking earlier than usual. Luckily, we get to redeem ourselves as we get a do over – again and again, for everyday for the next 15 years. Surely we’ll get some of those days right.

But just in case…I’ve already set my alarm for the next morning. 
 

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Monday, August 25, 2014

Welcome home

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The anchovies sizzled in the pan and eventually dissolved in the olive oil before I tossed in a generous heap of chopped garlic and crushed red pepper. This formed the base of one of my favorite comfort foods, pasta with broccoli, garlic and anchovies – a dish that quickly found its way to our dinner table the week we returned from vacation. After many days of indulging in fried seafood by the coast, a simply prepared poached salmon with grated fresh ginger, sesame and ponzu sauce, though not much to look at, was also an enormously satisfying meal. The house had the strong, pungent odor of my cooking as I went about dusting the cat hair that collected in the two weeks we were away from the furniture and in various nooks of the house, unpacking two suitcases with two cats who, after our absence, would not leave my side, so happy they were that we were home.

But they’re not alone. As much as I enjoyed our time on the road, celebrating my birthday in the Big Easy and watching my girls flourish with their grandparents, I couldn’t be more gratified working on the most mundane tasks – carefully laundering the clothes covered in sand from our spontaneous visit to the beach on the surprisingly beautiful Gulf coast, weeding my crispy, brown yard that got fried while we were away, cooking comfort foods we rarely find on restaurant menus – in my own home as we spent our last week of summer vacation together before school starts. It’s lovely to be able to escape routine sometimes, but even lovelier to come back to it as the time away resurrected my appreciation for the little things that made home, home. Like my bed. Sinking into sleep that first night back was and is always a pleasure beyond words. Like the silence around the house as we immersed ourselves in our own task at hand, with the occasional humming in the background as the girls bring to life a scene from some Disney movie in their coloring book with crayons, color pencils, and markers.

Like the little craft corner that we have carved out for our girls, where they spend many minutes, sometimes hours, just coloring or drawing or cutting or pasting or whatever creative task du jour, affording me time to putter about in the kitchen or the yard. They still don’t play outside like I hoped they would, but now that it’s finally getting into the triple-digit temps, I don’t blame them. While I sought the comfort of routine in my kitchen, they found theirs in this dedicated spot. It’s often the first place we find them in the mornings; while the grownups are still trying to shake sleep from our eyes, they’re already busy making art.

 

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I loved how each of us slid comfortably back into our respective roles with renewed vigor. We’re energized by our travels, but exploring and discovering different parts of the country also affirmed our appreciation for our part of the world. This was my first trip away from Austin since we moved here five months ago, and it would be the first time in a long, long, long time that I wouldn’t have Chicago’s magnificent skyline to welcome me home. I didn’t know how I’d react upon returning to our new city, but when I spotted the now familiar sight of Austin’s skyline in the last 20 minutes of our very long journey, I was overcome with joy. The cityscape here pales in comparison to Chicago’s – it doesn’t have quite the architectural gems like the Sears, I mean, Willis Tower, the intricate Chicago Tribune Building, the diamond-shaped roofline of the Stone Container (now Crain Communications) Building, or even the imposing sight of the Hancock Building, but one thing Austin does have that Chicago doesn’t: our house.

And, really, that’s all the welcome home I needed. That, and my bed, of course.   

Monday, August 18, 2014

Nine years and counting

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Today marks nine years since my first electric kiss with My Guy one lovely August evening in Chicago. Here’s a story that I think captures our nine years together quite well.

 

Jumping In

He said, “look, we’re not too far away from the Gulf,” and showed me the map. He was right. A detour to Pensecola would be nice. We weren’t really in a hurry to get home anyway. After five long, unexciting hours in the car since we said goodbye to My Guy’s parents in St. Augustine, Florida, it was time for something different.

”You sure?” He double-checked, right before the exit off the Interstate that would’ve taken us all the way back to Texas.

”Yes, let’s do it.” We’ve never seen the Gulf of Mexico – why not?

And that’s how we ended up here.


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Before we left the car, we said to the girls, “Okay, listen. We can play in the sand and even walk in the water a little, but we’re not going in.”

They both agreed. Of course, that’s before we actually saw what was in store for us. We were foolish enough to think that we would just feel the waves wash over our feet, kick around in the sand a little and continue on our merry way after a few minutes at the beach. HAH! What were we (not) thinking?!

 

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When we saw the pristine white sand against the two-toned blue of the gulf, we couldn’t believe our eyes. The postcard-perfect beach took us by surprise. We did attempt – albeit feebly – to resist the temptation, but when the waves found our feet, it also washed away all signs of resolve. The water was warm and inviting, the waves, gentle yet fun. Both Pickle and Little Miss begged, can we please go in the water? At that point, resistance was futile.

”But what about our clothes?” My Guy asked.

”Just go in.” I said, although he didn’t need too much persuasion. His heart was already there. Much to the delight of the girls, he took them in with him. There wasn’t even a moment’s hesitation on their part; they were ready to dive in the moment we mentioned the word “beach”.

 

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Pickle had lived next to one all her life before we moved to Austin, after all. It’s practically in her DNA. We had our suitcases in our car, so I decided to actually change out of my maxi dress and into my swimsuit in the car so it doesn’t billow around me and make me look like some striped grey blob in the water.

Since our version of the beach in Chicago meant tentatively wading in chilly Lake Michigan most of the time, the lovely bath-water temperature of the Gulf felt incredible. Little Miss was brave enough to swim on her own, and Pickle, in her swim vest, would ride the wave to me after letting go of her daddy. It was such a thrill to be in there with them. We didn’t stay too long though. Maybe an hour at the most, since we had the rest of the journey ahead, but for something so surprising and so unexpected, the hour felt extremely satisfying. It was such a tremendous gift.

This may seem like a once-in-a-lifetime thing, but honestly, this is what it’s like to live with My Guy. Spontaneous. Fun. Delightful. Full of passion for exploring and discovering something new. And once in awhile, I’m even inspired to take a little risk. We don’t scale mountains or tame lions, so it’s not like we lead the most exciting lives, but a little relocation to Austin here and a little unplanned detour to the beach there make it seem like what we have is enough.

Actually, what we have is plenty, and I am extraordinarily grateful for this life, for this man, for every day we’ve been together these nine, wonderful years.

 

 

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*  *  *


Happy anniversary, my love. You’re pretty cool, you know that?

Friday, August 15, 2014

Road trip 2014: Florida, Part 1

The day after my birthday in New Orleans, we had to continue our journey to see the girls’ grandparents. With another eight hours on the road, we needed to tire the kids before departing so they would actually spend some time napping in the car. When we saw the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas by the Riverwalk, we knew it would be a good choice. At least it’d be air-conditioned.

Coming from Chicago, we’re used to rather impressive sea creature exhibits at the Shedd Aquarium. But when we moved to Austin and saw that its “aquarium” is this dank, dark hole located in some strip mall, we decided to stay away completely. Austin has many things going for it, but having a world-class zoo, aquarium, and museum is not one of them.

Which is why we couldn’t wait to take advantage of such attractions in other cities. After breakfast at a really cool space near the hotel, where the girls packed their bellies with Nutella and banana crepes, we made our way towards our last stop in the Big Easy.

 

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ANOTHER EIGHT HOURS

(plus three more for our various stops)

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Goodbye New Orleans!
 

 

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They were movie zombies (thank you Disney!) for the second leg of our journey to Florida, also my favorite part of our trip. Not only were the girls especially good during these 8.5 hours on the road, but while they had their headphones on, My Guy and I distracted ourselves with an audiobook: Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods.” I read the book right after it was published years ago, but this was my first audio book experience ever, and I was rapt. We both were. It certainly made the journey far more interesting.



ST. AUGUSTINE - HERE AT LAST!

 

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We made it to their grandparents at almost midnight, but the next morning, the girls didn’t waste any time jumping in their grandparents’ pool—you just can’t keep these girls away from the water. This was where Little Miss gained confidence and started swimming like a pro last September. This year, it is Pickle’s turn. After a week and many hours in this bath-water warm pool, she’s comfortable enough to swim from grownup to grownup without her swim vest. Progress!

 

 

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Helping nana with dinner.

 



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Papa, a golf pro, passes down the family legacy to the next generation.

 


FORT MENENDEZ

At this hands-on old fort, we learned the history of St. Augustine and how the natives, the Timacuans, took advantage of locally sourced food and materials to survive. The girls dipped candles in lard, weaved with the help of their daddy and papa, played games made with corn and beach pebbles, and discovered the uses of many items from nature that the Timacuans used as equipment, utensils, and weapons.

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Checkers 

 

 

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SEA WORLD—ORLANDO

Last year, the girls’ grandparents surprised them with Disney World. This time, it’s Sea World, and our girls were deliriously excited. More sea creatures! More rides! More adventures! Little Miss loved her thrill-rides. Even Pickle enjoyed the tiny roller coaster for kids her size. I was perfectly content to watch my family of thrill seekers from the sidelines. Somebody had to carry the bags and get the (overpriced) funnel cake, right?

 

 

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So yes, we’ve been keeping busy, but even then, we are able to get some R&R in, which, in our case, means sleeping in every morning, thanks to an early-rising grandpa, who takes care of the girls who have no idea what sleeping in means, while we catch a few extra minutes of sleep. Well, hours, in this case, since we usually wake at 5AM to start work at our home office on weekdays. The girls bask in the attention from their grandparents, and we’re afforded some time to ourselves. We also managed to see three movies in the theaters; one family-friendly flick with the girls and the others with just grownups while they stayed home with their nana. We even got to venture into Jacksonville for some swanky cocktails and tapas on our date night.


Clearly, there’s a lot of indulging going on—Attention. Food. Time. Rest. A little and a lot of everything. Just like any great vacation should.

 

 

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A beautiful sunset on our lovely date.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Road trip 2014: New Orleans and my birthday

Many years ago, you’d find me saying, “I don’t do road trips.” I was all about minimizing my time traveling so I could maximize my enjoyment at my destination. But that was then.

Before I had kids, when travel meant airfare times two. Now it’s times four.

Before I quit my nine-to-five job, when I had to spend my time wisely with only a handful of paid vacation days from work. There’s an urgency to the destination then, when time was so restrictively finite.

It’s different now. Ever since My Guy and I both left our corporate jobs, we’re able to have a little more freedom with how we spend our days, our summers. Suddenly, road trips are more enticing – sure we spend more time on the road, but that also means we get to see more. There’s so much to explore, especially in this country that I’ve called home for a little over half of my life. In four days, it would be the 20th anniversary of the day I set foot in America. (Holy shit!) But I’ve barely seen much of it.

And I’d like to.

Which is why we decided to drive to St. Augustine to visit the girls’ grandparents. From Central Texas to Northeastern Florida. A 16-hour road trip, 13 of which would be spent on the same Interstate highway across five states. Were the girls older and more capable of keeping themselves entertained for longer periods, we would perhaps have picked more scenic routes than the interstates, but that time will come. For now, 16 hours was already a stretch.

Instead of hurrying to our destination, we decided to spend two nights in New Orleans as it’s ideally located exactly halfway between. It was planned that way because I also wanted to spend my 39th birthday there. Yes, I’m actually admitting to my age because even if I didn’t, Little Miss would announce it on my behalf anyway, like she did back in Chicago, when she used to stop people passing us in our neighborhood to say,  “My mommy is 37 years old!” I’m just beating her to the punch.

I have to say, I think I picked a good spot for a birthday.

 


The Journey

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Nearing Houston, we found more colossal highways, like the ones in Austin. Everything is bigger here in this state. And no matter where we are, there’s always a lone star or the shape of the state of Texas to remind us of where we are. Like we would ever forget, with all that looms so large above us.



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Can you believe this is a rest area bathroom? In fact, this entire place is dedicated to providing travelers with information about the history of Texas, as well as its native plants and animals. (Wow!) This was where we stopped for a quick stretch and picnic lunch, an hour or so outside of Houston, off Interstate 10.

 


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Oh yeah, this was right here at the rest stop—creatures we might spot if we ventured along the nature walk. NO. THANK. YOU. I love that they built this to entertain the weary traveler, but I have to admit, as much as I like discovering new things along our journey, I could happily go on without knowing what critters surround me as I’m exploring the area. Ignorance, in this case, is definitely bliss.

 

 

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By now I couldn’t wait to GTFO of Texas. 

    

 

HELLO NOT TEXAS!


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Yay, Louisiana! They don’t call this the Wetlands for nothing. We hit a major downpour right after we spotted a beautiful rainbow right in front of us. On this bridge, we were crossing the Mississippi River, with downtown Baton Rouge on our left and only 1.5 hours left to New Orleans. 

What isn’t pictured is the parts of the highway that ran above the river and lake on long stretches in Louisiana. We were surrounded by water and marshes, but since I was the one driving and My Guy was asleep, we don’t have pictures to share. We’ll try on our way back. After living in Texas for the past five months, we noticed just how lush this part of the world was compared to ours. It’s green in Austin, but you can sense the crackling dryness of the area just by looking at it. Here, plants grow on plants, smothering the area with a greenery that’s breathtakingly vibrant and startlingly alive. Had it not been for the drought in our area, I probably wouldn’t have noticed.


The Destination


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We arrived at the hotel at around 8PM; the sun was already on its way down. Once we dropped our bags off, it was time for dinner.

 

 

 

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First stop: Bourbon Street. It was fun because of the novelty, but I couldn’t do it again the next evening. It’s definitely something to experience, but not one I would go back to over and over again. Cheap beer/cocktails, crappy trinkets, and the relentless throng of people are just not my scene.

 

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The girls received their beads within minutes of our arrival. But at least they didn’t have to bare anything for those. The beads were thrown by random strangers from a random balcony on Bourbon Street. Pictured here, are my Girls Gone Wild after nearly 12 hours of traveling (eight hours of driving plus the gazillion breaks along the way). After a meal of etouffee and jambalaya, we ventured into a garden that lured us in with live jazz.


MY BIRTHDAY


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A birthday selfie after breakfast – I had a Croque Madame - with my favorite girls in the whole wide world.

 

 

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A day of exploration started on the Riverwalk. That’s the Mississippi River beside us.

 

 

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St. Louis Cathedral at the French Quarter. I loved seeing banana trees – so common in Malaysia - as part of the landscape here.

 

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We stopped to admire the lovely frescoes, and I have to admit, the cool interior was a lovely reprieve from the heat and humidity for which New Orleans is known.



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Of course we had to stop at the French Market too.

 

 

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Saved by frozen Mango slushies. These girls were troopers for awhile…but their enthusiasm melted in the hot, hot sun. And who can blame them?

 

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No, we didn’t get a Gator on a Stick, but we did have gator sausage at dinner the night before. Little Miss was sorely disappointed we didn’t order the fried gator though.

 

 

 

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Waiting for the streetcar (not trolley!) while munching on ice to fight the heat. The poor girls – they overheated easily, especially this little one.



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As far as the girls were concerned, this is The Streetcar Named Get-Me-The-Fuck-Back-to-the-Air-Conditioned-Hotel.

 

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We drove beyond downtown New Orleans while Pickle napped in the (air-conditioned!) car. We found old neighborhoods with really quaint and beautiful homes, and we admired the magnificent old oaks in New Orleans’ impressive city park. Once she was up, we popped into a Toys R’ Us to get Pickle a stroller – we realized that, as active as she usually is, she still had little legs and expecting her to keep up in the heat was too much. We’d left our stroller at home, so we bit the bullet and got a new one just so she could have a more pleasant experience for the rest of our trip. She was certainly happier the rest of the day. And so were we. Oh, the things we learn…

 

BIRTHDAY DINNER

    
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A food town, New Orleans is teeming with great places to eat. But having recently won the 2014 Best New Restaurant in the country, Peche Seafood Grill became a no-brainer pick for this birthday girl  lady woman. At five and three, the girls tried raw oysters for the first time. I think I was six or seven, but I’ve loved them since my first taste of their briny succulence. Little Miss went back for another, and Pickle remarked, after swallowing, “I think I like it a little bit,” but refrained from more. My Guy spoiled me by ordering another half a dozen while Little Miss went to town with the shrimp, heads and all. We were also amused and amazed by the little pellets they provided on the side, which turned into fabric wipes in the hot water. Magic! On our way back, Little Miss, who didn’t get a stroller, gave us the biggest smile I’d seen all day when her daddy hoisted her up and carried her halfway back to the hotel. I think that was the happiest part of her day. Followed by the shrimp heads as a close second.


NEW ORLEANS AT NIGHT

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Cafe Du Monde in the background.

 

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A trip to NOLA would not have been complete without these quintessential beignets of course. The girls showed little interest in beignets (I know, such weirdos!) so we chose to savor them ourselves, when they were back at the hotel with a sitter (a surprise that My Guy arranged so we could experience some grownup night life).



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Back at the Riverwalk to walk off all those extraneous calories, although at the rate we were going, I would have to walk back to Austin to make up for all that we’ve consumed so far.




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It’s some Bourbon cocktail, but it’s not on Bourbon Street.  By choice.


When we returned to the hotel, Little Miss was completely out for the night but her sister popped out of bed, happy to see us. It was past 11PM, and I couldn’t believe she was still up, but at the same time, I could. It’s vacation after all, and my birthday! Rules don’t apply when we’re on the road. They watch hours of movies, we dine on junk food, and we move to the rhythm of our bodies, not the clock.

Maybe that’s why it was a great birthday celebration. Away from the usual routine, even whiney, overheated, overexerted kids seem a little more bearable. As we walked the uneven and battered streets of New Orleans, I inhaled the flavors of a city so full of history and life, glad to be navigating the urban jungle - my natural habitat – with my family. Yet, at the same time, I was just as happy to be able to walk away from all this and on to the next part of our adventure the next day. It’s amazing to think that at 39, I have yet to scratch the surface of all the things I want to see and do in this world.

But hey, I’m trying.

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