Our last true family vacation was almost five years ago, when we took a high school junior, a seventh-grader, and two sixth-graders on a cruise to the Caribbean.
Needless to say, a lot has happened since then.
The oldest kids, Nicholas and Kate, are seniors in college and high school, respectively. Ben and Emma will be juniors in the fall. In many respects, their lives revolve around their friends, jobs, extracurricular activities, school, and what’s happening on their smart phones. As parents, it sometimes feels like we’ve moved from professional schleppers to the nether regions of “if we need you, we’ll call you.”
That’s to be expected, I guess. But the transition is not without its bumps.
We had a few of those bumps earlier this month, when we took our first actual family vacation since the August 2009 cruise. Because the kids’ schedules have revolved around theater, dance, shows, and school, we haven’t had the chance to take a significant period of time for just us as a family with little to nothing to do.
As you might expect from any family vacation, the wind up to the wind down wasn’t always smooth sailing. But, in the end, it was just the break we all needed.
Planning for this trip has roots that date back more than a year. On a whim, Jill and I decided to participate in a timeshare presentation in exchange for an extremely good rate at a resort of some kind. Then I was laid off, which pushed things back as we worried about our financial futures (still a concern). We decided to take advantage of the program this past Christmas, but those plans fell through as well due to a variety of issues.
After seeking another extension, I learned that we could take the vacation in St. Thomas in early July, a few days after Jill’s annual conference in Orlando. We discussed the pros and cons and decided to book the trip in the window between the various dance/musical theater camps, part-time and full-time jobs, and other various and sundry things that come up when you have three active teens and a college student.
When we started looking at the details, it made sense for us to drive down to Orlando and then fly to St. Thomas from there, given that plane tickets were $350 more per person if we had flown straight. We also could pick up Nicholas in North Carolina, rather than having him meet us either in Virginia, Florida, or somewhere else along the way.
As we made these arrangements, we decided to rent a van (ours has more than 130,000 miles on it), pay for gas, and possibly a hotel room rather than drive the 950 miles straight. That would not cost nearly the $2,100 that would be required for the extra plane fare.
We also could use the savings to finally take Emma to Harry Potter World, the closest thing she has to Mecca, and all of the kids to Disney World for a day. Result: We could drop in/drop out of Orlando for a couple of days and check something off the parenting bucket list in one fell swoop.
But remember, KAOS has set up a home office at our place, complete with Internet access and a fax machine. When we made these plans several months ago, we did not anticipate that Jill would encounter the First Lady of the United States along the way.
Several weeks before Jill’s conference, she was asked to present at a White House briefing on college and career readiness issues and how they relate to the school counseling profession. At the end of the briefing came the “ask” — aka what the American School Counselor Association wanted the White House to do.
Jill’s ask for ASCA was for the First Lady, who is spearheading the initiative that is putting this unprecedented spotlight on the profession, to come to their annual conference in Orlando. To everyone’s surprise, Michelle Obama accepted.
Despite being a national organization that represents more than 30,000 school counselors, ASCA has a small staff that wears many hats. When the acceptance came in just three weeks before the conference started, things had to be thrown into overdrive to accommodate the White House’s needs.
Anyone who has ever worked at or even attended a large conference with 2,000 people knows how exhausting it is. Jill and her co-workers usually come home and sleep for 24 hours straight after one ends; with the prep work that everyone had to do beforehand and on site, they were bushed before it even started.
Originally, rather than be gone from home for two-plus weeks, Jill’s plans were to fly home, sleep, unpack, repack, and then drive back with the family to Orlando. Fortunately, we were able to convince her that we could survive and make the drive without killing each other.
So, after arming us with a to-do list that bore a striking resemblance to a dead sea scroll, she reluctantly agreed to let us pick her up two days after her conference and board meeting ended.
After all, what could go wrong?
In the grand scheme, nothing calamitous occurred, but KAOS did rear its ugly head at times.
It started shortly after Jill left, when I spent three straight evenings shooting photos at the kids’ dress rehearsals for “Footloose.” This is something I’ve done over the years, but given that my photography business now is intertwined with the Metropolitan School of the Arts, it meant I needed to shoot more than just our kids’ dances.
With almost 80 different scenes in the hybrid dance recital/musical, that meant a lot of photos — about 1,500 per performance — had to be narrowed down and edited. Ultimately, I ended up posting just over 2,400 to my new online business site, which also was set up over the past month.
After three nights in the “Footloose cave,” Nicholas and his girlfriend Katherine came up to see the show. We spent a nice afternoon and evening together, and then we had a mini-family reunion (sans Jill) after the first set of performances ended. The next day, they and a host of other friends saw the matinee, but it was still after 11 p.m. when the marathon ended and everyone got home.
KAOS came into play the next morning, when I discovered that Jeremiah’s flight to a camp in upstate New York was actually 40 minutes earlier than planned. We (literally) flew out of the house and into rush hour traffic, but fortunately everyone was heading south and we made it just in time.
Much of the week between “Footloose” and the trip was spent working on my advertising consulting job, culling through and editing photos, and finishing a freelance piece in and around addressing the items on the dead sea scroll. As the Fourth of July weekend approached, I could feel myself sputtering to the finish line. I really needed that vacation.
Our plans were altered slightly — KAOS again — when Nicholas said he did not have to work on the Fourth of July as he had initially thought. This meant renting the van a day earlier, and the reservation I had placed did not allow us to extend without incurring a massive charge. And there was no way that I would drive four kids in a car for 16-plus hours.
So, 24 hours before we were scheduled to leave, I had to see if our van could be fixed up enough to reliably make it to Orlando and back. An annoying shimmy in the brakes was causing me concern, but we didn’t think that would have to be done until after we returned from vacation. And I knew that bill could be more than the cost of the rental, based on having similar work done last summer.
After having the oil and transmission fluid changed, I took the van to a local Midas where we had had the work done previously. Fortunately, four hours later, I learned the pads and rotors I had replaced in 2013 were still under warranty by a matter of days.
They were replaced, and we were on our way. It was going to be roadside fireworks on the Fourth of July.