Monday, December 29, 2014

Holiday Travel: 2014 Edition

As I have well documented here, we like to take road trips, and bringing young children with you makes road trips harder.

We traveled to Jacksonville for Thanksgiving and Toledo for Christmas. These aren't short drives: 7 hours to Jacksonville and 9.5 to Toledo, not counting stops. And, we'd like to keep doing this sort of thing in the future. So, what have we learned?

We bought a portable DVD player for Marla. We used to be against this to the hilt, based on this notion: "We didn't have this sort of thing when we were kids. Our children aren't going to rely on electronics. They'll entertain themselves the old fashioned way, darn it!" But, here's how we justify it now: when we were kids, we also didn't have to sit in highly restrictive car seats that don't really allow you move around or do anything. Really, it's no fun being a kid in a car anymore. Times have changed, and so I am more than happy to use technology as best we can to let us do what we want to do.

(Speaking of which, only recently did I start listening to music in my car streamed via Bluetooth from my phone. This is just the kind of thing I didn't even know I could do. What other technological advances am I missing out on simply because I don't know they exist? Maybe this is one reason why you have kids.)

I'd say about half of the driving time was spent with the DVD player on. Marla spent the other half of the time napping or eating, mostly. Pre-Bruce, one of us (usually Amber) could sit in the back with Marla and help entertain her, but now the back seat is full, so technology does the entertaining for us.

For longer drives, leaving at 4 AM is still the way to go. Usually it goes something like this. For the first two hours, both kids sleep, then we stop, then Marla watches TV for the next two hours, then we stop again, then we start eating, then Marla gets tired and naps again, and then maybe after another two hours of TV, hopefully we've made it to our destination.

But really, it's just a lot easier on us if we start the drive when the children are sleepy. Normal wake up time - 7 AM, give or take - might be the WORST possible time to leave. The last thing Marla wants to do upon waking up full of energy is sit in a car for a while. Better to shift the last two hours of her sleep into the car, and then let her release some energy at the first rest stop. We've also found that it's best to arrive at our destination at least two hours before bed time, because the kids aren't going to want to go right to bed when we get to our destination. Also, leave any earlier than 4 AM and we're sacrificing too much sleep. Leaving at 4 AM is the way to go, maybe even for "shorter" drives (6 to 8 hours).

It's good to know where the playgrounds are. A unique challenge to traveling with an infant is that you have to stop to bottle feed him every three hours, and each feeding normally takes 30 minutes. It's one thing if you only have the baby with you, but what if you also have an older kid with you that you have to entertain during feeding time? Then, it's best to find a playground, so that Marla can go run around and play while we try to feed Bruce. Rest areas are okay, too, because there is plenty of space for Marla to run around. (The more energy Marla burns off at each stop, the better.) Gas stations and restaurants are not good places to feed Bruce, unless it happens to coincide with meal time, in which case Marla can eat at the same time.

So, yes: lots of playground stops, both ways, and we also stopped at a friend's place in Columbus for a "play date". We were fortunate that it was both dry and warm-ish during the Jacksonville and Toledo drives. It was 45°F when we left Toledo early Saturday morning. That's a bit warmer than it was in Toledo in January 2009.

As far as finding the playgrounds, Google Maps and the Garmin aren't the most reliable, because you never know if a place called "Lincoln Park" is going to have a playground or not, or if it's just a ballfield. So, I did a lot of research beforehand and located a playground every 30 miles along both the Toledo and Jacksonville routes, because you never know when you're going to need to stop. Rest areas, too. (This proved most challenging in West Virginia and South Carolina: not much there in the way of playgrounds.)

(By the way, I've kind of gotten away from the playground reviews. Too many playgrounds are too much alike for me to justify writing up individual reviews anymore, but I am still adding all newly visited playgrounds to the master spreadsheet. I even gave out a 0/10 "upkeep" score recently! Turns out, Northwest Florence isn't exactly the best part of town.)

There will be plenty of time for county collecting later. Usually when we go to Toledo, I would pick a route that might be an hour or so longer than the baseline route, just so I can visit a new county or two. There are still six counties in Ohio I haven't been to yet, but since these drives are already taking long enough as it is...we didn't do any county collecting this time. So, no new counties for me this Christmas, or even Marla. (Bruce got several new counties, this being his first time in both Jacksonville and Toledo; he's now up to 84 counties in 7 states.) In fact, I haven't added any new counties in eight months. EIGHT MONTHS! AAAHHH!! Maybe I'll have to do something about that soon.

No matter how well the drive goes, you'll be pretty exhausted afterwards. I thought our drives to both Jacksonville and Toledo went really well, and yet, we were exhausted afterwards. So, I don't know when our next big road trip will be, but I suspect we won't do anything "major" - farther away than, say, Charlotte - until spring or summer, at least.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Loucks Family Christmas

We spent Christmas with Amber's family, the Loucks Family. It was a bit crazy, at least compared to what I'm used to: 5 kids, 4 "middle-aged" people (i.e. my age), and 3 grandparents/great-grandparents. I guess that's really not THAT many people, but even my largest Christmases growing up only involved 10 people, including at most 3 kids.

Anyway, I decided to count how many presents each person got, as best I could. So, here's a chart:

Each person's age is in parantheses. I don't know Paul's age, but he's Dawn's husband, so I assume he's in the neighborhood of 40.
Also, Amber and I (and also Marla and Bruce) would have gotten more than we did, but we didn't bring all of our presents with us, and we also still have presents coming from my side of the family. For everyone else, I don't know whether that was "everything" or not.

As you'd expect...the kids were the big winners! Except for Bruce. Poor Bruce.

This is what 172 wrapped presents looks like:

Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 19, 2014

83.3 miles

In some ways, my bicycling ability has plateaued. I've already done a 100K (three, actually), and it's not that I CAN'T do anything longer than that; it's just that doing anything longer than that would just take a really long time, and I'd rather not spend an entire Saturday away from my family. But if I have an extra vacation day to use, I COULD take the day off from work, and ride my bike for 7 hours or so. That's what I did yesterday: drove east of Raleigh, then got on my bike and rode from 8:30 AM to 3:30 PM. Total distance: 83.3 miles.

(This isn't why I took this picture, but yes, I did use that toilet.)

Most bike rides are fun for the first 40 miles or so. Then, muscles and things start to hurt, and it becomes not fun. Between that and the time factor, I keep most my rides at 40 miles or less. But, sometimes it's fun to push my limits.

...although if I really wanted to push my limits, I would have driven west to (somewhat) mountainous Stokes County and ridden this 45-mile route that I plotted a while back, but have never gotten around to doing, because despite the shorter distance, it's still a huge time commitment: 1.5 hours of driving each way on top of ~4 hours of bicycling. But rather than go to the mountains, I decided I'd rather just post a large mileage number. ("I rode my bike 83 miles" sounds more impressive than "I rode my bike 45 miles in the mountains", right?) So I drove east of Raleigh, parked the car, and then headed for the relatively flat terrain of Nash County. I think I could do 100 miles? Probably, but it wouldn't be fun. Simple math, really: if the first 40 miles of a bike ride are fun, then the last 60 miles of a 100-miler would not be fun. Plus, completing a 100 miler would take me even longer than this ride did. I think I'd have to do it in Spring or Summer when we have more daylight. But then, it'll also be warmer, which in some ways is worse for long bike rides because it means I have to pack more water. (Water is heavy.) I could do a supported 100-miler, but the kind of people who do supported 100-milers are much faster than I am. Or, I could plan a route such that there's a water fountain at the halfway point or something, but what if I get there and find that the water fountain is broken? (Water fountains, or "bubblers" as they call them in Wisconsin, aren't the most reliable things out there.) If I couldn't refill my water halfway through, then to complete a 100-miler in mild-to-warm weather, I'd have to bring at least a gallon of water with me. (That's not an exaggeration: I consumed about 3 quarts of fluids during the 83 miler, and I still felt dehydrated afterwards. On a warmer day, surely I would have needed to drink even more.) Suffice to say there are some logistical challenges to doing a century, and so I don't know if I'll try one next year or not. Maybe it'll depend on how much vacation time I have to spare.

Bicycling Trip in Asia update: I haven't added yesterday's distance yet, but my fictional bicycle ride across Asia, which started in Singapore 19 months ago, is now only a few weeks away from New Delhi. The last 7 months have been spent in India, and the last 2 months have been spent in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. At 462 miles, Uttar Pradesh is the longest state (or province or region or whatever) on the entire 10,064-mile Singapore-to-Gibraltar route. Also, at a population of ~200 million, it's also more populous than any other country (excluding India of course) on the Singapore-to-Gibraltar route. I wonder how bicycling-friendly the roads of Uttar Pradesh are?

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Nap Time

Before Bruce came along, the weekend routine was set: be home between 1 and 3 PM for Marla's nap. Well, about the time Bruce was born was also when Marla decided to not really nap anymore. I think it's been a few weeks since we had an actual, on schedule, in bed, afternoon nap. Usually Marla just plays and talks until 2:30, at which point we give up and say "we'll just put her to bed early" (which often doesn't happen either). Pretty much the only way we can get an afternoon nap to happen is if one of us stays in her room and naps with her, or we're in the car and Marla falls asleep on her own.

A no-nap Marla is much less cooperative before bedtime than a nap Marla, but still, she's much less dependent on naps than she used to be. Used to be, she had to nap, or else the afternoon would be completely awful. Now afternoons are fine, and evenings are just slightly more difficult.

If your kids still take regular afternoon naps...lucky you!

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Parkwood Christmas Parade

Our neighborhood, Parkwood, has its own Christmas parade. We never really much bothered to go before we had children who might enjoy it.

People generally laugh when I talk about our neighborhood Christmas parade, as in, "Aww, it's really cute that your neighborhood has a parade." Yeah, well, our parade is kind of a big deal - it's the largest holiday parade in Durham! So there.

Marla's favorite thing about the parade? The free candy, probably. Or maybe the marching bands, I don't know...I just assume that candy always wins. (The parade had three high school marching bands and one middle school band. Pretty good turnout, although I've learned that the bands are paid by the neighborhood to appear. Is it typical among holiday parades for marching bands to get appearance fees?)

Personally, I liked that Smokey the Bear made an appearance.

Also, I like that we can walk to a Christmas parade. Parking is always an issue with parades, not this one! (Parking isn't really a problem even for people who drive; there's plenty of close proximity street parking.) And it's kind of neat that the moment we walked out the front door, we heard the bands in the distance. Inconvenient if you live here and have somewhere to be, perhaps.

It took 30-45 minutes, for all of the parade participates to march by, which certainly makes this smaller than, say, the Raleigh parade. Maybe it's on par with a typical small town holiday parade, which it turns out, is just our style. The parade might be the best thing about Parkwood, other than being 3 miles from my work, of course.

Thursday, December 04, 2014


Now that I've (mostly) caught up on sleep, I can blog about our trip to the karting facility while visiting Jacksonville last weekend.

Your local children's arcades have always had go kart tracks, but the cars go slow, and all you have to do is mash the gas and never use the brake. Not quite a true test of driving skill. But recently, a few go-kart-specific establishments have opened up, marketing themselves as "go karts for adults", or just "karting". (Karting is a real thing with major world championships and everything, and is where many top NASCAR and Formula One drivers got their start.) Here, the cars go much faster, and you'll never actually reach the kart's top speed. And more importantly, you actually have to use the brakes, such that putting in a top lap takes significantly more skill. (And, it's also much more expensive than the go-karts at Frankie's Fun Park or Adventure Landing, but more on that later.)

We have one local karting facility called Rush Hour Karting. I've never been there, but while visiting Jacksonville for Thanksgiving, we went to a similar place called Autobahn Indoor Speedway, located in an old warehouse in an office park. All you have to do is show up, sign the waiver, pay up, wait 30-60 minutes (depending on how crowded it is), and then you get a 14-lap race, At ~23 seconds per lap, one race takes 5-6 minutes to complete. Wee! A few of my friends joined me, plus one guy named "Quagmire". (More on him later.)

Surely, given all my experience playing racing video games over the years, I would be able to do pretty well at this even though I have no prior karting experience right? Well, sure...I was able to beat all of my friends (also first-timers), both on track and in terms of fastest lap. (They returned the favor in Mario Kart afterwards.) Quagmire, on the other hand...he brought his own helmet, so I'm guessing he comes here a lot. He turned the fastest lap of the entire week during our race. (He also screwed us out of an extra lap, because the race ends as soon as the leader completes 14 laps, even though he was at least a full lap ahead of the rest of us. Why don't they do timed races instead?)

The hardest part for me was controlling the car under braking, applying just the right amount of brake without scrubbing too much speed off, yet enough speed to still make the corner, all while keeping the car on the optimal racing line. Steering is hard too - my arms were pretty tired after just 14 13 laps. I would love to do this more often and see if I could ever get as good as, say, Quagmire. (For the record, I think I could.)

Problem is...this is a pretty expensive hobby. Not counting the one-time $6 "license" fee, a single 5-6 minute race costs $20. Sure, you can get discounts the more times you race, but still, doing this often can get rather pricey. A lot of people think curling is expensive, but with curling, $20 gives you two hours of activity, not just 5-6 minutes. If you ask me, curling is a much better value than karting. Actually, auto racing in general is one of the more expensive hobbies one can have, to the point where if Marla ever tells me she wants to be the next Danica Patrick or whatever, my response will be, "Sorry, but auto racing is too expensive. Wouldn't you rather be the next Jennifer Jones or Debbie McCormick instead?"

That said, I would like to go to Rush Hour Karting sometime. Who wants to join me?