Flummoxed by a Phone Booth at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter

Despite the countless times we have made the trek to Florida, we have never taken the time to head over to Universal Studios. Our days in the Sunshine State are reserved for one place and one place only—Walt Disney World. It isn’t so much that we hate on Universal, but that we love Disney so much we don’t want to spend time elsewhere. That finally changed when we made a trip several weeks back, unexpectedly, and for just a few days.

It wasn’t a full-on family vacation, but a spur-of-the-moment adventure. My husband had to travel to Orlando for work and we decided to make the best of it by meeting up with him halfway through the week for a little getaway. The thing is, we usually do Disney for 10 days at a time so there was no way we could do our normal vacation in just 5 days.

This had us rethinking our entire strategy and we decided to check out some places outside of the Mouse House. Now, don’t get me wrong, we spent a fair amount of time at our favorite haunts in Walt Disney World, but we ventured forth and tried a few new places, too. On the list was The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios.

Universal Studios as a whole doesn’t hold much appeal for my 13- and 11-year-old daughters. They simply have no interest in most of the park and are Disney fans through and through. The only thing that changed their minds was my youngest daughter’s current fascination with Harry Potter. Continue reading Flummoxed by a Phone Booth at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter

How To Pack For A 5-Day Con

My trusty, well-traveled, hard-sided suitcase, perfect for things you don’t want crushed. Image credit: Ruth Suehle.

Dragon Con starts this week. That means it’s time for the last-minute frenzied packing. Quick, somebody make a list! No worries—got that covered for you. Even if you aren’t Atlanta-bound this weekend, you can bookmark it for your next con, or possibly even your next vacation, assuming you like to spend time on the beach in your Avengers suit.

I’m a frequent traveler with airline and hotel status and enough nights away from home that I can tell you what brand pillows are on the Sheraton beds. (Those things are awesome.) I’ve also been doing Dragon Con for 13 years. This is my ultimate packing list of that accumulated knowledge. It comes with one rule: If it’s not on the list, it’s not in the bag. You might say to yourself, “Of course I’ll remember the bobby pins.” Tell me that again when you get all suited up and can’t do your hair.

Costumes each get their own packing lists. To emphasize the rule, if it’s not on the list, it’s not in the bag. The last thing I do when I make a costume is make a list of every single piece that’s required for it. Need the black full-body Spanx? Pearl earrings? No matter how small, or clearly impossible to forget, they’re on the list. (I don’t list regular underwear in these since that’s in the clothing section, but if it only fits with a specific bra, that goes on the list.) For example, here’s my list for Nyssa al Ghul:

  • Jacket
  • Pants
  • Belt
  • Quiver
  • Arrows
  • Bow
  • Black stompy boots
  • Flat black boots
  • Gloves
  • Bracers
  • Socks
  • Shoulder/chest piece
  • Hood
  • Veil
  • Sword
  • Black Mehron disc (for hair)
  • Sponge (for applying the color)

Image credit: Debadeep Sen Photography

I have two pairs of boots listed because while normally I wear the heeled boots, sometimes it’s day four of the con, and I want to suit up, but I just can’t look at the heels anymore, so I go flat. Thus, they both go on the list.

Don’t forget to list handheld items, like a weapon or other prop.

Whether you list makeup with each costume or in a separate makeup section is up to you. I end up packing a makeup arsenal, so I list it separately below, and I list a specific item only if it’s unusual to the arsenal, like a gold eyeliner I rarely use except for my Jean Grey costume or the blue lipstick my daughter uses for her Skylanders costume.

The Repair Kit
There was a time I swore I’d never take a sewing machine to a con. Then there was the time I did. Now I’m back to swearing that off. So this is what I now consider a repair kit. If yours includes a machine, you probably don’t need me to help you make this list!

  • Glue gun, duct tape, and safety pins: There is little that can’t be stuck back together with one of this magical trifecta. If you really want to get serious, add some E-6000.
  • Heat gun: Either for re-shaping foam pieces or melting hot glue that went where it shouldn’t.
  • Needles and thread to match all the costumes
  • Fabric scissors and sewing scissors
  • Paint and brushes for touch-ups
  • Spare parts of whatever is in your costume—rivets, buttons, grommets, buckles that might come loose—and the tools required to insert them.
  • Spare pieces if you think you might need to remake or patch something—for example, a few extra chunks of foam or Worbla if you have a fragile piece.
  • Zip ties
  • Velcro
  • Hooks and eyes
  • Sew-on snaps
  • Fray-Check
  • Extra wires, batteries, LEDs, or other electronics parts if your costume needs them.
  • Tide pen, because you just had to have BBQ for lunch, didn’t you?
  • Multi-tool

This is a good time to note that if you’re traveling by car, you can pack everything in the world. If you’re flying, you might have to pare down to the essentials. Think about what’s most likely to break on your costume, and bring the things to fix that.

I confess. We travel with too many electronics. Again, driving versus flying, but I carry much of this everywhere regardless. My husband has a bag we use that we even have come to refer to as “the electronics bag.” I list every item’s power cable separately because one inevitably gets left behind.

  • Laptop (play music, look for restaurants, download pictures from your camera)
  • Laptop power cable
  • WiFi hotspot
  • Tablet
  • e-Reader
  • Phone
  • Enough USB cables to charge the things that use them
  • Power packs (like this)
  • Camera
  • Camera batteries or charger
  • Extra memory cards
  • Waterproof camera
  • Power strip—because no hotel room has enough outlets

Hair and Makeup
This one’s going to be more personalized, depending on your needs. But especially if you don’t travel often, it’s the most important one for the “on the list” rule. You will forget something.

  • Makeup kit (don’t forget to list any specific items that are costume-critical)
  • Makeup remover
  • Curlers
  • Mousse, gel, spray, or other hair products
  • Bobby pins
  • Straightening iron
  • Hairbrush
  • Round brush
  • Deodorant
  • Razors
  • Toothbrush
  • Toothpaste
  • Eye drops
  • Contact lens supplies
  • Spare contacts
  • Glasses
  • Nail clippers
  • Band-Aids (entire first aid kit if you’re accident-prone or cautious—I was certainly appreciative of the person carrying one the year I cut my head open!)
  • Moleskin (if you’re blister prone)
  • Your lady-time supplies of choice, because even if you’ve never had breakthrough bleeding in your life, your uterus knows when you’re unprepared and not in a situation to deal with it easily.
  • Any medications
  • Painkillers of your preference (that aren’t liquor)
  • Tiger Balm—we’re old. Muscles hurt. Wintergreen smells good.
  • Earplugs if your roommates snore (hi, Neal!)

I don’t usually pack the things that hotels have—soap, shampoo, blow dryers, but if you are attached to yours, add them to the list. And if you’re a wig person, don’t forget all your wig accoutrements.

Whatever liquids you do pack—hair gel, shampoo, contact lens solution—wrap it in a plastic bag. The last thing you want is to get to the con and discover all of your clothes are covered in conditioner because the lid popped open or something crushed it.

Con Needs
If you’re flying, this is the stuff that should be in your carry-on, just in case.

  • Lanyard (for your badge—they’re sometimes not provided, and Dragon Con is one of those times)
  • Badge pickup confirmation (for Dragon Con, your postcard)
  • Photo ID
  • Small bag for carrying around daytime essentials, like the program guide, water bottle, phone, camera, etc.
  • Reusable water bottle
  • Cash—the ATMs around the con are going to run out of money. Don’t forget to have small bills for tips.
  • Your hotel confirmation number, just in case
  • Umbrella/poncho
  • Sunglasses
  • A couple of pens and Sharpies—I don’t know why this is, but you always need one and never have it.

In the Room
How much food you pack depends on how much you want to eat in the room. Some people bring PB&J and a loaf of bread and eat it all weekend. Here’s our approach for a five-day con:

  • Breakfast bars
  • Cookies
  • Chips/pretzels
  • Fruit
  • Soda
  • Alcohol of choice
  • Plastic cups
  • Pitcher for mixing
  • Paper towels
  • Bottle opener, because nothing is sadder than a six-pack you can’t open
  • Board games—now’s a good time for that Cards Against Humanity deck you never play because there are always kids around!

Just in case you aren’t actually in costume all weekend. Just in case you don’t want to ride home in a corset because you forgot actual clothes.

  • Enough clothes for the weekend—if you can’t imagine con without your favorite Batman shirt, list it specifically!
  • Underwear (extra underwear is never a bad idea—cons are sweaty times!)
  • Socks
  • Comfortable walking shoes
  • Swimsuit
  • Hoodie if you’re cold natured
  • Pajamas (just because you don’t wear any at home doesn’t mean your roommates want to see that)
  • Hangers for anything costume or clothing that should be hung

Final Tips

If you want to be absolutely certain you’re as prepared as possible, I would read a few other lists as well. This is what I’ve found we need. You may want things we don’t care about, like an alarm clock, or have personal needs that aren’t on my list.

Finally, here are a few general packing suggestions:

  • Pack folded clothes on the way there. Roll your clothes to come home, which makes them take up less space, and you can fit in your new treasures from the dealers’ room. I usually roll dirty clothes and leave any still-clean ones folded so I don’t accidentally launder clean clothes when I get home.
  • If you’re flying with family, spread out your clothes. If you need three suitcases for three people, that is not one suitcase per person. That is one-third of a suitcase per person, so if one goes missing, nobody’s naked.
  • If you have to ship to the hotel, they will usually charge you a handling fee for the box somewhere between $5 and $25, depending on which hotel and the weight of the box.
  • I have one costume that requires two suitcases and a Rubbermaid tub. It is an epic game of Tetris to get it in. If you have a similar situation, when you get to the hotel room, take pictures as you unpack it so you know how to get it all back in. Nobody wants to spend the last night of con trying to figure out how to get it all back home.
  • When I’m packing for the family, I make a chart for items that each of us need so that I can check off for each person and separate it by what goes in which suitcase. Here’s an example:
    Screenshot from 2015-08-31 10-34-29
    Image credit: Ruth Suehle

    You can see that in the purple bag, so far R and H have both of their formal outfits packed, but S and I do not. S has no underwear and should really get on that. S didn’t think he’d need a hoodie for this trip, so that spot is blank. Making this chart makes the list one-quarter the length compared to making each person an individual list!

  • Check with your roommates so you don’t end up with doubles of everything when one would be enough. Make a shared Google Doc and note who’s bringing what.

Good Idea or Bad Idea? Taking the Kids on an Anniversary Vacation

We couldn't bear to see Alaska and the Pacific Northwest without our sons, so we brought them on our anniversary celebration -- and we're so glad we did! Photo: Patricia Vollmer (with a selfie stick!)
We couldn’t bear to see Alaska and the Pacific Northwest without our sons, so we brought them on our anniversary celebration—and we’re so glad we did! Photo: Patricia Vollmer (with a selfie stick!).

Earlier this month, my husband and I celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary. Well over a year prior, we had decided to plan a very nice trip for our anniversary. Since we had such a wonderful experience with our 2012 Disney cruise, we made reservations for a Disney cruise to Alaska. Continue reading Good Idea or Bad Idea? Taking the Kids on an Anniversary Vacation

Need to Visit My 50th State: North Dakota

North Dakota, inspire me. Image: Wikimedia Commons by user TUBS via CC BY-SA 3.0
North Dakota, inspire me. Image: Wikimedia Commons by user TUBS via CC BY-SA 3.0

This summer my family and I have done quite a bit of travel. In fact, we recently wrapped up an Alaskan cruise that included driving from Colorado to our cruise port in Vancouver, British Columbia. And back. At the tune of 1500 miles and 2 days in each direction.

There were numerous benefits to our driving instead of flying to include the cost savings and the ability to be liberal with our packing since we didn’t have to pay extra to check luggage for a flight. Obviously driving took more time but we looked forward to seeing a new part of the country: the Pacific Northwest.

The most appealing reason for my husband and me was the chance to “check off” more states. Before the road trip, my husband had been to 48 of our 50 states (all but Oregon and Alaska), while I had been to 47 of them.

Continue reading Need to Visit My 50th State: North Dakota

5 Things You Must Do at GenCon

Achievement Unlocked - Bought New Games at GenCon, Image: Nicole Wakelin
Achievement Unlocked – Scored Games at GenCon, Image: Nicole Wakelin

GenCon, held each summer in Indianapolis, Indiana, touts itself as “The Best Four Days in Gaming.” The focus isn’t on video games, but on board games, card games, role-playing games, and miniature wargames. It’s the unplugged game convention and it is a massive affair. You cannot possibly see and do it all, but having just come back from my fifth GenCon, these are five things that should definitely be on your list.

Image: Nicole Wakelin
Image: Nicole Wakelin

1) Wander the Vendor Hall

It’s pretty much mobbed from open to close, but you must spend at least some time wandering the aisles. There are big names like Fantasy Flight Games alongside small independent companies that are the ones you should really check out. The big guys will be in your local games store, but the small guys might not, so this is your chance to demo great games you’ve never heard of and take them home on the spot.

GenCon Cosplay, Image: Nicole Wakelin
GenCon Cosplay, Image: Nicole Wakelin

2) Watch the Cosplay Parade

The cosplay parade at GenCon happens on Saturday afternoon and it’s not to be missed. Any cosplayer can participate in this march through the convention center to an area outside the vendor hall where they all gather. It’s a great chance to take pictures without clogging up the aisles of the vendor hall.

Image: Scotty's Brewhouse
Image: Scotty’s Brewhouse

3) Eat at Scotty’s Brewhouse

You have to take a break from gaming sometime and that means squeezing in a few hours of sleep and grabbing something to eat to keep you going through your next game demo. There are food options aplenty, but my can’t miss meal is at Scotty’s Brewhouse. They rename the foods to things like Goblin Fried Pickles and Ectoplasmic Dip, play geeky movies all day, and have the 501st on hand in the evenings for photos. Also, you get a limited edition die that’s a different color each day of the convention. One can never have too many dice. Good food. Good beer. Free dice. Enough said.

Cardhalla Gets Underway Image: Nicole Wakelin
Cardhalla Gets Underway. Image: Nicole Wakelin

4) Cardhalla

You know that tower you built on your kitchen table with a handful of playing cards? Imagine that, but with hundreds of cards from all different kinds of games stacked into towers that start on the floor and rise up above your head. This charity event is open to anyone with some very creative types building clocktowers and even dragons. Saturday night at 10:30, it all comes to an end. Everyone throws coins at Cardhalla to knock it down with frantic bidding taking place to see who gets to toss the first coin. Cardhalla comes crashing down and local charities benefit from all the donations.

Games! Games! Games! Image: Nicole Wakelin
Games! Games! Games! Image: Nicole Wakelin

5) Play All The Games!

This is The Best Four Days in Gaming, so play some games. There is open gaming everywhere, even in the hotel ballrooms, and if you don’t have friends at the con, then you’ll easily make some. People want to play with all the games they just bought and will be looking for players ready to join up. Don’t be afraid to jump in and try a new game with a whole new group of gamers.

Just remember, food, sleep, and a daily shower are important parts of the convention experience too. You can’t see it all, so don’t stress. Instead, enjoy what you do see and make the most of every minute. It’ll all be over before you know it!

Nerds Hiding in Plain Sight in Skagway, Alaska

Image: Nicole Wakelin
Image: Nicole Wakelin

We have just returned from a wonderful Alaskan cruise. This was my first cruise and my first trip to Alaska so it was a very big deal. Months of planning finally got us there and we had a wonderful time aboard the Disney Wonder. There were three stops along the Alaskan coast starting at the northernmost point of our trip in Skagway.

You expect to see certain things while you’re in Alaska. The list of expectations includes bears, bald eagles, and maybe some salmon swimming upstream. We saw all these things and they were amazing. What we did not expect was running into two wonderfully nerdy guys. They were hiding in plain sight at the Alaska Excursions Grizzly Falls Ziplining Adventure in Skagway.

We signed up for this excursion before the cruise because we love ziplining. We’ve gone several times closer to home and thought it would be fun to fly through the trees up north. You simply cannot beat the scenery up there and it was a beautiful view. We crossed suspension bridges, zipped over rivers, and had a grand time.

What made it one of the highlights of the trip were the two guides, John M. and Sam, who led this adventure. Once we were all suited up, they took us out onto the course and gave us the safety rundown. It wasn’t until I had zipped a few lines that I noticed John’s green helmet was painted to look like Boba Fett.

I asked him about this and he said he was a huge Star Wars fan and had even attended Star Wars Celebration several times. Sam joined in, tipping his head to show the Magic symbols covering his helmet. Nerds of the North!

The rest of our ziplining excursion was a fantastic mix of information about the landscape and talk about our favorite books. They were both voracious readers and we all ended up making lists of new books that we each wanted to read. We even had a chat about New York Comic-Con and San Diego Comic-Con and which was the better of the two. My vote goes to New York.

It was a wonderful experience. All the guides—even the non-nerds who were guiding some of our friends—were fantastic and made the experience something to remember. Should you find yourself in Skagway, Alaska doing some ziplining, look for the guys with the nerdy helmet decor. They’ll make the day one to remember.

Visit a Ball Pit Beach in Washington, DC, This Summer

Image credit: Snarkitecture

Through September 7 at the National Building Museum in Washington, DC, you can visit an unusual beach—one made of plastic ball pit balls.

The BEACH is an installation created by the Brooklyn-based studio Snarkitecture. It covers the museum’s 10,000-square-foot Great Hall with an ocean of nearly one million recyclable, translucent plastic balls. White beach chairs and umbrellas adorn a 50-foot wide “shoreline,” and the ball-pit ocean ends with a mirrored wall to make the space seem even more vast. You can take a ball-pit swim or take up whatever you might do at the beach, including grabbing a drink from the snack bar.

Admission is first come, first served, no timed entry. Adult tickets to the BEACH are $16, ages 3-17 and seniors are $13. For locals, there are also season passes available starting at $30 for an individual adult, $15 for youth, and $75 for a family (good for up to 6 admissions per visit).

Image credit: Snarkitecture

Go Green With The All-New 2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid and Plug-In Hybrid

2016 Sonata Hybrid (2)
2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid. Image: Hyundai.

Gas prices have left the stratospheric heights they reached a few years ago, which means people aren’t thinking about hybrids these days. The pain at the pump isn’t so bad and hybrids get a bum wrap for being blah, ho-hum cars that no one wants to drive. The 2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid has been completely redone this year, giving you plenty of reasons to go green.

There are two models to choose from, so you can go traditional hybrid or opt for the new plug-in model. Both are surprisingly not hybrid-ish behind the wheel. You’re not driving a sports car, but you also won’t feel like you’re driving a glorified scooter. There’s even a chance for you to play with your drive experience by selecting one of three drive modes.

2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid PHEV, Image: Hyundai
2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid PHEV. Image: Hyundai.

Eco is the most economical choice and it’s also the least exciting. I wouldn’t drive in Eco unless I found myself in the middle of nowhere, desperately trying to eke out the best fuel economy possible.

There’s a huge difference when you switch to Normal and the Sonata Hybrid suddenly becomes a car you want to drive. Press on the gas and the 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine proves that it is alive after all, with 193 net horsepower in the hybrid and 202 net horsepower in the plug-in. It’s all paired to a very smooth 6-speed automatic transmission.

Turn things up one more level to Sport and the steering and throttle response increase slightly. Again, not a sports car, but you’ll completely forget you’re in a hybrid, especially if you can find a nice winding road with tight corners. Opt for the plug-in and you unfortunately lose Sport mode, but stick with Normal and you’ll still be happy.

There’s a nifty energy indicator in the instrument cluster that lets you see how your driving style and choice of modes are affecting your fuel economy. It gamifies the driving experience by breaking things out to show how often you’re driving efficiently and how often you’re driving like Mario Andretti. It’s likely to make you ease up on the gas, if the numbers aren’t going in the right direction.

2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid PHEV, Image: Hyundai
2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid PHEV. Image: Hyundai.

The plug-in will run in three different modes and you can choose which one. There’s electric, hybrid, and battery charge. It can run purely on electric for 24 miles, more than any other vehicle in its class. That does mean it has a larger charge time of about 3 hours on a 110 volt and nine hours on 240 volt. It also has a class-leading range of 605 miles.

On the outside, there are some changes from the gas version of the Hyundai Sonata. There’s a larger grille, modified front and rear bumpers, and new wheel designs. It’s like a stealth hybrid that doesn’t want to brag about being green.

Hyundai has also pushed a lot of the battery components beneath the floor mat in the trunk to make for a nice flat load surface. It has 13.3 cubic feet of cargo space, so there’s plenty of room for groceries or a family’s luggage. They did eliminate a spare tire to free up some of that space, but there is a tire-mending kit instead.

2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, Image: Hyundai
2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid PHEV. Image: Hyundai.

While we’re talking about all that space provided by the lack of spare and relocated battery, let’s talk about the warranty. The car has a 5-year/60,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty and a 10-year/100,000-powertrain warranty, but the best part is the lifetime hybrid battery warranty. They’re the only ones with a lifetime warranty on their hybrid battery, giving them a huge advantage over the other guys.

The interior is spacious and, as is typical of today’s Hyundai, absolutely beautiful. They aren’t the cars they were a few years ago and this is a very good thing. The Sonata Hybrid has plenty of room for a family of four and if you need to put someone in the middle in the back, they won’t hate you for giving them that seat.

There are two big reasons people buy hybrids. The first is environmental responsibility and the second is fuel economy. Hyundai has the first one covered not just by producing a hybrid, but by being environmentally responsible at a corporate level.

2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, Image: Hyundai
2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid. Image: Hyundai.

Their recently remodeled headquarters uses recycled concrete from the old building to reduce waste and varying types of glass on the windows to make climate control more efficient. They even boxed up 73 pine trees and kept them safe during construction before replanting them at the new finished building.

They’ve got the second one covered with the numbers you’d expect from a hybrid. The estimated highway fuel economy on the Sonata Hybrid is 44 mpg, while the plug-in electric gets 93 mpge. You will happily be driving past the pump far more often than you have to stop.

The 2016 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid and Plug-In Hybrid offer two great choices for those looking to go green with their next car purchase. A beautiful and comfortable interior, sporty styling, great fuel economy, and that lifetime hybrid battery warranty make this car a winner.

Hyundai covered my expenses to attend this drive event.

Ram Trucks “The Courage is Already Inside” Ad Aims to Inspire Women

Image: Ram Trucks
Image: Ram Trucks

Lots of people think that cars are a guy thing. Even more think that trucks are a guy thing, but this ad from Ram Trucks will change that perception.

The ad celebrates women who have used courage to do what they, and everyone else, thought was impossible, and it features women who have broken down barriers to achieve success in their fields. You’ll be inspired to do whatever it is your heart desires by the time the ad finishes.

The 60-second spot aired during the Kentucky Derby and includes women like two-time Kentucky Oaks-winning jockey Rosie Napravnik and country singer Miranda Lambert who is the Academy of Country Music Awards most-awarded female artist. That kind of success only comes from pushing harder than you think is possible and never giving up.

There’s also outdoorsman Eva Shockey who is the first woman in 30 years to be on the cover of Field and Stream, professional motocross racer Tiana Falls, and a host of other women who have gone on to achieve great success.

Sure, it’s an ad designed to convince you to buy from Ram Trucks instead of one of its competitors, but the angle is still worth nothing. Truck commercials traditionally aim squarely at men, leaving women somewhere out of the picture.

This time, women are the focus of the ad and I love seeing the toughness, perseverance, and determination of women being celebrated.

Alyssa Milano versus Heathrow Airport

Screenshot: @Alyssa Milano


This week, Alyssa Milano took to Twitter to lambast Heathrow Airport for confiscating her expressed breast milk. Meanwhile, in small town Maine, I jumped for joy at finally having these policies and their ramifications brought to light by someone with a big enough voice to make a difference. Having traveled between Logan Airport and Heathrow Airport extensively with my children, I know from personal experience how Heathrow treats pregnant or nursing mothers.

When traveling through Boston’s Logan airport, I could not have asked for more courteous staff. I flew to London while in my second trimester, and was encouraged to use the fast lanes so that I wouldn’t be on my feet so long, I was even brought to the front for boarding, though I didn’t have children with me yet and had no first class ticket. Simple gestures that made a 17 hour journey so much more comfortable. When traveling through Logan with infants or toddlers, even when witnessing families traveling with older children, I saw the same impeccable service. Families are directed by members of staff to shorter lines, sometimes even skipped ahead if a child is in distress. Before we get into the idea of this being a privilege, and parents shouldn’t expect such behavior, let me ask you this: People traveling without children, would you rather be stuck in line with kids screaming, or would you rather kids get pushed through lines and settle down quietly to wait for their plane? I remember pre-child travel, I know how I would answer this question. Boston is a pregnant or nursing mother’s dream. Staff are helpful, sensitive and there are even rocking chairs.

Traveling through Heathrow as a pregnant or nursing mother, is like moving through one of the inner circles of Hell. Now it’s a big airport, so I don’t begrudge the distances you have to walk to reach your gate, or the small amount of time they give you before announcing the gate number, and expecting you to be there. I get it, Heathrow is enormous, those things cannot be changed. But laws and regulations can, and the regulations currently in place for nursing mothers traveling through Heathrow are appalling.

Alyssa Milano was traveling without her baby, and so using a breast pump to pump milk. For the uninitiated, you can’t just let that stuff sit in you for the length of a trans-atlantic flight, the body doesn’t work like that. While going through security, her expressed milk was confiscated. Her shampoo was not. They said that if the child had been with her she would have been able to keep the milk, she countered that if the child were with her, she wouldn’t have to use the breast pump.

Milano 2
Screenshot: @Alyssa Milano

Well, I’m here to tell you Alyssa, even if your child had been with you, Heathrow regulations still don’t look on nursing mothers with fondness. I traveled with my first son when he was nine months old. For reasons beyond our control, I wasn’t able to nurse so I had committed to exclusively pumping for the first year of his life. I carried my Medela around with me like most people carry a cell phone. Every three hours for twenty minutes I hooked myself up and thereby was able to sustain my son.

Image: Medela

It’s a three hour journey from my parents house to Heathrow airport, we stopped on the way for a bite to eat, and so that I could pump. I was a bit of a milking machine, and Toby was a bottle fed breast feeder so we arrived at the airport well stocked with my milk. In a cool bag, with ice packs. Ice packs that had been purchased in America and had already made the trans-Atlantic flight over and landed in Heathrow. And here my adventure begins.

We get to security, where my biggest concern is if they will let the pump through, even though I had checked and knew it was acceptable. Their first concern was the sealed jar of baby food. They made me break the seal and taste it. Quite frankly, I’m glad they did, we had never used store bought baby food before, but thought it best for the 17 hour journey ahead of us to use something a little more preserved. So I tried it, it was vile and we bought bananas from a cafe once past security. Their second concern was my breast milk. 4 ounces in each bottle, they wouldn’t let it past without me drinking some in front of them. Now I may have been using breast milk and making my own baby food, but drinking my own breast milk was not a frontier I felt the need to cross. But I did, slightly perturbed, and then came the biggest challenge: The ice packs.

These ice packs, as I have said, had already been through this airport once before. Logan airport security was fine with them coming through, and Heathrow had no need to check till my return journey. They insisted they would have to confiscate them. I insisted on talking to many people, and spending much time at security before I would un-willingly leave them behind.

Three hours to get to the airport. Three hours at the airport. Seven-and-a-half hours in the air. One hour through US customs in Boston. Two-and-a-half hours back to Maine. Seventeen hours of travel time—what did they expect me to do with breast milk that needs refrigerating? Three officers told me I could buy frozen ice packs once through security. This turned out to be completely un-true, Heathrow has a large shopping mall, but no-one sells ice packs, let alone ice packs that are already frozen. Back to security we went, they would still not return the ice packs but suggested we get ice from a coffee shop instead. Ice to fill our cool bag with water within the hour. We were told, by security, that once on board the plane we would be able to use inflight refrigeration. Good old US hospitality to the rescue, Starbucks graciously gave me some crushed ice to keep breast milk at a safe temperature.

Image: Sarah Pinault. Waiting at Logan Airport.

Once aboard the plane, we discovered that airport security had once again misled us. By this point, it felt like they were doing this deliberately to get us to move on. We were informed that it was illegal to store passenger property in on-board refrigeration. Luckily, Virgin Atlantic has the nicest and most helpful staff of any airline I have ever flown with. By this time I was pretty distraught and rapidly making calculations in my head as to how much milk would need to be thrown away, and if I would be able to pump enough fresh to keep my son calm on the plane. The flight attendants immediately came up with a solution and they filled our cool bag with dry ice from their meal compartments, which would stay plenty cool through our remaining trip back to Maine.

I don’t think people traveling with children should get special treatment, though I think it’s in everyone’s best interests when screaming children aren’t kept in line. I don’t think moms with small children should be exempt from the rules. I think the staff at Heathrow follow the rules they are given. I do however think that in this case, the rules are wrong. Regulations on flying with expressed breast milk need to be changed, and I for one, am glad that Alyssa Milano is expressing herself so vocally.

The 2015 Ford Edge Gives You New Tech in a Family Crossover

Image: Nicole Wakelin
Image: Nicole Wakelin

Crossovers are smaller SUVs that make it easy to carry kids and cargo, are much more affordable than full-size SUVs, and have fuel economy that won’t have you crying when gas prices rise. The Ford Edge has been leading the pack in sales, so Ford was very careful to improve things with their 2015 redesign.

It’s definitely a mom car in all the best ways. It manages to be functional and stylish so that you’ll like carting your kids to and fro and won’t mind having to make a mad dash to the grocery store because you suddenly need supplies to bake cupcakes for a party at school tomorrow.

Let’s start with the new technology in the #FordEdge, in particular the parking package. The Titanium trim level comes with an option package that will help identify a spot that is large enough for your car, and then steer you into that space. You manage the gas and brakes while the car manages steering.

Image: Nicole Wakelin
Image: Nicole Wakelin

As the wheel spins, a disconcerting thing if you’ve never experienced this before, messages on the infotainment screen will tell you when you need to shift from Drive to Reverse. It will do this both for parallel and perpendicular parking and if at any time you want to take control, then just put your hands on the wheel and the system disengages.

The only drawback is that the system is slow. If you’re in heavy traffic and there are cars waiting for you to park so that they can pass, then you’re going to get a few honks of the horn.

There’s also lane keep assist which will help keep you from drifting out of your lane. If the car drifts past the lines, it will let you know and it will nudge you back in the right direction. There are limits, however, as it will eventually tell you to put your hands back on the wheel. This isn’t full-on self-driving technology, but it’s getting close.

One of my favorite bits of technology wasn’t as fancy, but it was very useful. There’s a 180-degree front camera that lets you see when you’re trying to pull out. My drive was in Arizona so there wasn’t a snowbank in sight, but this feature would be so helpful when the winter snows make pulling onto the road an impossible task. It even has a washer so you can clear off mud and salt.

Image: Nicole Wakelin
Image: Nicole Wakelin

The inside benefits from an upgrade with materials that look and feel better than the previous generation of the Edge. I also liked that surfaces aren’t fussy, so when your kids inevitably get something icky and sticky on the seats, the seats will be easier to clean.

Soft-touch surfaces abound and there is storage everywhere you look. There are spots on the doors for holding water bottles that keep them in place so they don’t fall out when you open or close the door. There is a cubby on the top of the dash and another to the left of the steering wheel. If there was a spot that could hold something, Ford made it usable.

Storage right on the dashboard! Image: Nicole Wakelin
Storage right on the dashboard! Image: Nicole Wakelin

The rear seats fold down easily and even kids could push them back up into place. The best part about these seats is that when they fold up they do not catch the seat belt.

I cannot count the number of times I’ve managed to catch the seat belt as I’ve pushed the seats back and then had to open them up, adjust the belt, and push the seats back again. There’s a gap that lets the seat belt easily move so this just won’t happen in the Edge. It’s a small thing, but the kind of thing you’ll really appreciate when it’s freezing cold or pouring rain and you just want to get into the car.

Ford has also made the Edge a very smooth and comfortable ride no matter where you sit. The rear seats are large enough that the kids won’t be touching each other, God forbid, and front passengers won’t be bumping elbows either. The Edge evens out rougher roads nicely and the ride is quiet so you will be able to hear your kids and talk to them without that awkward half-yelling thing you do in noisy cars.

There are three engine choices starting with the all-new 2.0-liter EcoBoost twin scroll turbo 4-cylinder with 245 horsepower and 275 lb-ft of torque. This is the smallest of the engines and if you’re looking for oomph, then this is not the engine for you.

Image: Nicole Wakelin
Image: Nicole Wakelin

The 2.7-liter EcoBoost V6 gets 315 horsepower and 350 lb-ft of torque and is a lot more fun to drive. There’s more power here and you feel it when you accelerate, but you’ll also pay an extra $10K for the option, so drive them both to see what you think before you make the call.

The last choice is a naturally aspirated 3.5-liter V6 with 280 horsepower and 250 lb-ft of torque that has flex-fuel capability. They all get a 6-speed automatic transmission and can tow up to 3500 pounds for when the weekends come and it’s time for a getaway. Trucks are great, but they’re far from your only option for hauling stuff behind a vehicle.

The Ford Edge has received myriad updates for 2015 that not only keep it from falling behind in this competitive segment, but help keep it leading the way. Pricing starts at $28K making it easy to get into this comfortable, attractive, and functional crossover.

Ford covered my expenses to attend this drive event.

New Chevrolet Teen Driver System Keeps Kids Safe

Image: Chevrolet
Image: Chevrolet

Those first 16 years go by in the blink of an eye and suddenly you’re handing over your car keys to your teenager. You do everything you can to keep make sure they’ll be safe, make sure they know what to do, but how do you know if they’re really behaving behind the wheel? New Teen Driver technology from Chevrolet can help.

This snazzy new tech will make its debut in the 2016 Chevrolet Malibu and will help parents monitor their teen’s driving habits so that they can make sure they’re being safe. It starts with muting the car’s audio if the front seat belts aren’t buckled as a little reminder to buckle up.

The volume can also be preset, based on the key fob, so that music can’t be blasting at a ridiculous volume that would cause distraction for your new driver. Additionally, if the vehicle is equipped with active safety features like forward collision alert, stability control, traction control, and rear cross traffic alert, then these features will be automatically turned on and won’t be able to be turned off.

The Teen Driver system can also keep track of how your teen is driving by providing information on how far and how fast your kid is going on the road. Forward collision alerts, forward collision braking events, and antilock brake events can also be monitored to provide parents the opportunity to discuss driving patterns with their teens.

The system is not subscription based and is available as an option on lower trims while being a standard feature on the Premier trim of the 2016 Chevrolet Malibu. Now you’ve got one more tool for keeping your new teen driver safe on the roads.

Ski Joring – The Perfect Winter Family Adventure!

Photo: Judy Berna
Photo: Judy Berna

My family loves to attend somewhat nontraditional festivals and celebrations. When we lived near Washington, D.C., I’d scour the Thursday edition of the Washington Post, looking for the most unique thing we could do with our four kiddos that weekend. Among other things, we saw Native American Pow Wows and attended the National Kite Festival.

When we moved to Utah, then Upstate New York, the kids continued to grow, as did the crazy weekend adventures. Now we live in Colorado. Almost all of my kids are grown. But I keep dragging the youngest ones to crazy events. We’ve been to the Bacon Festival, Winter X Games, and Frozen Dead Guy Days. I thought we’d rounded up some of the best. Then child number three called home from college and said, “Are you guys coming up this weekend for Ski Joring?”

Okay. Hadn’t heard of that one. I started throwing the term around at work. Several of my co-workers had heard of it. I was astonished that this event had never been on my radar.

If you, like me, have never heard of ski joring, let me educate you. Ski Joring is a sport where skiers are pulled by horses, at high rates of speed. It’s a timed event. Skiers must navigate a course, involving several large jumps, as well as spear rings with their arms. It’s as crazy as it sounds.

Photo: Judy Berna
Photo: Judy Berna

Last weekend we headed off to Leadville, Colorado, about an hour from our house. Fun fact: Leadville has the distinction of being the highest (altitude) incorporated city in the United States, at over ten thousand feet. These facts I learned from my college son, whose tiny college campus is at the far end of town.

The main street of downtown had been shut down and truck loads of snow had been brought in. A course was carved out that included periodic jumps of impressive height. Even my ski loving kids couldn’t believe that skiers would be clearing the jumps, then continue on to capture rings with outstretched arms.

Here is a video of one skier, mid-course. It was fascinating to me that a horse could pull a person at a high rate of speed, without dangerously jolting the skier as they began their run. See how fluidly these professional athletes managed this feat at this link.

Photo: Judy Berna
Photo: Judy Berna

If you are looking for some pretty crazy, awe-inspiring entertainment, there is a national body called the North American Ski Joring Association. Here is the schedule of events across the country. You can find competitions in five of the United States and in several countries across the world. In some parts of the world, skiers are pulled behind dogs, mules, and snowmobiles. At the event we attended there were opportunities for children to try an abbreviated course, pulled behind a snowmobile.

Most of the ski joring events in the United States have wrapped up for this year. The courses are melting away and spring is just around the corner. But don’t forget this sport. When the snow starts to fly next year, this is one event that’s worth seeing. As plans are made for vacations, keep in mind the opportunity to catch a glimpse of this crazy new/old sport called ski joring. It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before.

Added note: Want to see what it looks like from the skier’s perspective? Catch this father (rider – Greg Dahl) son (skier – Jeff Dahl) team’s experience, from the GoPro, mounted on the skier’s helmet. Crazy fun!

Geeking Out with the Disney Dream, Part 1: The Little Things

Santa had brought the Vollmers a trip on the Disney Dream in 2012. Photo: Patricia Vollmer
Santa had brought the Vollmers a trip on the Disney Dream in 2012. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

Santa brought the Vollmer family a four-night Disney cruise vacation! The trip happened to coincide with our youngest son’s birthday. In a very uncharacteristic move, my husband and I agreed to take our sons out of school for a solid week and drove out to Port Canaveral, Florida, the home port to the Disney Dream, the Disney Cruise Line’s most-recently christened ship.

Learn more about Disney Cruise Lines through their website.  Check out Wikipedia for the Disney Dream‘s amazing statistics. Or better yet, how about the Disney Dream by the Numbers?

Our sons unwrapped big boxes with these certificates inside on Christmas morning. Photo: Patricia Vollmer
On Christmas morning, our sons unwrapped big boxes with these certificates inside. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

I don’t plan to discuss too much about the cruise itself. Anyone can write about taking a cruise, right? We stopped in Nassau, Bahamas, and on Disney’s island, Castaway Cay. Our sons got to experience snorkeling for the first time. I’ve cruised with Carnival in the past, but that didn’t hold a candle to a Disney trip! My family was geeking-out at some of the amazing little subtleties that make the Disney Cruise Line experience second-to-none!

1. Hidden Mickeys everywhere!

Need I say more?

It goes without saying that the "Hidden Mickeys" are everywhere. This one isn't quite so hidden, though. Photo: Patricia Vollmer
It goes without saying that the “Hidden Mickeys” are everywhere. This one isn’t quite so hidden, though. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

2. Characters everywhere!

Obviously, there are Disney characters on a Disney cruise, right? After having experienced many hours in line over the years waiting to meet Mickey, Minnie, Pooh Bear, Rafiki, Buzz Lightyear, and Mr. Fredricksen at Walt Disney World, it was a breath of fresh air to not have to wait long for characters at all. My sons filled up their autograph book on a family trip to Disney World in 2009, so they were rather laissez-faire about the characters this time around. In fact, we only waited in line for one character: Jack Sparrow! Most of the others we encountered almost by chance throughout the cruise ship.

When your very first elevator ride to your stateroom is with Donald Duck, the bar has been set pretty high. Photo used with permission by Patricia Vollmer
When your very first elevator ride to your stateroom is with Donald Duck, the bar has been set pretty high. Photo used with permission by Patricia Vollmer.

3. The Key to the World

Like other cruise lines, many things are tied into the key card. Disney calls their card the “Key to the World,” whether you’re on the cruise or staying at a Disney resort on land. If you are combining a cruise with a Walt Disney World vacation, the same card will have your resort key, park tickets, and Disney Dining Plan information loaded onto it.

On the Disney Dream, we used the key card to enter our stateroom, turn on the lights, enter/exit the ship at ports of call, drop off/pick up children from the Oceaneer Club, and charge beverages and souvenirs. It was even tied into a photography account when the on-board photographers take snapshots.

The Disney Dream was so new at the time that instead of swiping the key card in many places, we instead had a touchpad that was similar to MasterCard PayPass touchpads. To enter/exit our staterooms, the kids didn’t even have to remove the key cards from their lanyards. Just touch the card to the pad. We used similar touchpads for entering/exiting the ship.

The little black keypad above the door handle is a touch pad for the key card. The kids didn't have to pull their cards out of their lanyard pockets to open/close the door! Photo: Patricia Vollmer
The little black keypad above the door handle is a touchpad for the key card. The kids didn’t have to pull their cards out of their lanyard pockets to open/close the door! Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

Another thing the key card is used for is to control the electricity in your stateroom. I found this a great energy-conservation tool. There was a slot near the front door for the key card. A card needed to be in the slot before lights or the television could be turned on. I discovered that it didn’t matter what card was used for the switch—I’m guessing it was a manual connection switch in the slot somewhere. I saw a stateroom host using a Sleep Inn key card while cleaning a nearby stateroom. Ha ha!

Using key cards to control room electricity is not new technology, I know. It’s been commonplace in hotels in Europe and Asia for years.

4. RFID bands for the kids’ blubs

I didn’t get a picture of the wristbands, but each child ages 3-10 who wants to participate in the Oceaneer Club or Oceaneer Lab kids’ clubs on the Disney Dream are outfitted with waterproof wristbands. These two kids’ clubs together (they’re connected) offer over 10,000 square feet of playspace, covering everything from playground space to arts and crafts to interactive play. You may fit the children for the wristbands in the cruise terminal before boarding, at the registration temporary office as soon as your board, or any time during the cruise at the Kids’ Club check-in/check-out area (which I don’t recommend because there’s often a line of parents that you tend to hold up while the attendant is printing and fitting the wristband).

It seemed simple enough for the kids to tap their wrists to the gate to enter and exit. Very secure! You provide a password through the Disney website that approved adults can use to check out the kids from the secure areas.

Note: As a safety measure, the kids’ club policies changed significantly starting in January 2012. Whereas previously parents could freely participate with their children at any time, now the kids’ clubs offer “Open House” and “Secured” areas. If you desire your child to be at the kids’ clubs without parents present, they have to go to the “Secured” area and no other parents are allowed in. Only DCL child care employees. If the family desires to do the kids’ club activities together, they can take advantage of “Open House” periods in 2-4 hour blocks throughout the cruise.

Another hidden feature of the RFID bands—the geeky part—is that in the kids’ club spaces, the wristband is transmitting what rooms you child travels to. This helps the counselors maintain their ratios and helps the parents quickly find their children when it’s pick-up time.

5. The automatic hand washing machine!

Also in the kids’ club areas were these most awesome machines. Automatic hand-washers! The kids simply stick their arms inside and the machine automatically starts. Water spirals around your hands and forearms, then soapy water, then another cycle of fresh water. All in about 25 seconds. Take out your arms and dry them off! Even my youngest son, for whom washing hands always seemed to be a monumental task, was looking forward to this cool machine.

It's an automatic hand-washing machine! Before the kids entered the Oceaneer Club or Oceaneer Lab, their forearms were dunked into this machine for 30 seconds. Washed and rinsed! Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
It’s an automatic hand-washing machine! Before the kids entered the Oceaneer Club or Oceaneer Lab, their forearms were dunked into this machine for 30 seconds. Washed and rinsed! Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

6. The amazing cast

Unlike other cruise lines, families aboard Disney Cruise Line trips are assigned the same service team for dining and stateroom care throughout the entire cruise. This has both benefits and drawbacks.

Of course, a benefit is that you get to know several of the cast members. This is great for the kids. We had very friendly servers and the stateroom host was a sweetheart. At the end of the cruise, you are presenting gratuities to the servers and stateroom host themselves, instead of their pooling the money. Our boys learned quite a bit about Bulgaria from our server, Dimi. Dimi was relatively new and was practicing his Mickey-Mouse ears-shaped ketchup patterns every night.

One of the drawbacks is that I could imagine if someone received substandard service (which wouldn’t be tolerated for long by Disney Cruse Lines, I’d imagine), you’re left with that server for the duration. I didn’t see this, so let’s just hope this is purely hypothetical.

Meet Drenka from Peru and Dimi from Bulgaria, our dinnertime servers during our entire cruise. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
Meet Drenka from Peru and Dimi from Bulgaria, our dinnertime servers during our entire cruise. Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

If you’re celebrating while on-board, stand back! Disney gives you several opportunities to tell them whether you’re getting married (there were several weddings during our cruise), celebrating an anniversary or birthday, or on a honeymoon. Since our youngest son was celebrating his 7th birthday during the cruise, they gave him a button to wear. Cast members left and right would say “Happy Birthday” to our son as we were walking throughout the ship and on Castaway Cay.

My youngest son was allowed to wear a "Happy Birthday" button during the cruise. Cast members were wishing him "Happy Birthday" constantly. Here, Jack Sparrow is wishing him "Happy Birthday." Look at that face! You can't beat it! Photo: Patricia Vollmer
My youngest son was allowed to wear a “Happy Birthday” button during the cruise. Cast members were wishing him “Happy Birthday” constantly. Here, Jack Sparrow is wishing him “Happy Birthday.” Look at that face! You can’t beat it! Photo: Patricia Vollmer

7. Disney movies galore at the Buena Vista Theater

Are there any Disney films in theaters while you’re sailing?  If so, you have several opportunities to see them during the cruise for no additional charge.

Since we sailed in January 2012, I was thrilled to see Beauty and the Beast 3D being offered, but I didn’t get to see any movies during the cruise. It’s tough debating what items to cut from the packed schedule.

War Horse and The Muppets were also showing. Other movies offered included The Help, Cars 2, and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.

8. A cruise ship tradition: Turn-down service, Disney style

Anyone who’s been on a cruise vacation knows that the stateroom host makes up your room in the morning, and then during dinner he/she comes in and performs a “turn-down service.” For our particular stateroom, this meant pulling the bunk bed down from the ceiling, laying out chocolates, and leaving the kids a cool towel origami animal to enjoy.

Good night!

The bottom bunk is the couch with the back flipped down. The top bunk came down from the ceiling! Photo: Patricia Vollmer
The bottom bunk is the couch with the back flipped down. The top bunk came down from the ceiling! Photo: Patricia Vollmer
Stars and constellations of Peter Pan, Wendy, and the other Darling children graced the kids' top bunk. Photo: Patricia Vollmer
Stars and constellations of Peter Pan, Wendy, and the other Darling children graced the kids’ top bunk. Photo: Patricia Vollmer
How adorable is this? Sleepy Dwarf chocolates every night on our beds! Photo: Patricia Vollmer
How adorable is this? Sleepy Dwarf chocolates every night on our beds! Photo: Patricia Vollmer
This is typical for most cruise lines: towel origami. But this is definitely the first time we had a monkey hanging from our ceiling! Photo: Patricia Vollmer.
This is typical for most cruise lines: towel origami. But this is definitely the first time we had a monkey hanging from our ceiling! Photo: Patricia Vollmer.

Stay tuned for additional posts about our family trip aboard the Disney Dream. Coming soon: The Midship Detective Agency (and other biometrics), the Animator’s Palette, AquaDuck! and the stunning Disney art on the ship.

Letters to Aunt C: On the Power of Reading, Writing, and Good Advice

Image by Natania Barron


The Power of a Pen Pal

Having a pen pal is a rite of passage for most kids born before the age of the internet—you know, when communicating with people across the continent was kind of a big deal. I remember we got assigned pen pals in elementary school, and I can’t tell you for the life of me who mine was. I am, and remain, a very terrible pen pal.

With one exception.

My great Aunt C has lived in Northern California all my adult life, but in the 80s and 90s she traveled the world with her husband. Over the years she sent me postcards from Venice, from Bali, from China, telling me of the sights and sounds and expressing how important it was for me to travel.

It must have been knowing, and coveting, that freedom that inspired me to reach out to her like I did. I was twelve, and overwhelmed with absolute, crippling misery. The kind of crippling misery that only twelve-year-olds are capable of. We had just moved to Hatfield, Massachusetts, a small town outside of Northampton, Massachusetts, that often didn’t show up on maps. Where I’d been in middle school, I was unceremoniously tossed back into elementary school in Hatfield, since sixth grade resided there.

I also left my best friend, Hilary—who was pretty much the only person in the world who got me—and didn’t fit in with anyone at school. Since I did all my growing at 11, I was approximately the same height I am now, so I was mistaken for a teacher more than once.


The view in NoCal. Image by Natania Barron.

I went on and on in my letter to C about how horrible my life was. My grandmother (her sister) and I were never very close, and I didn’t expect she’d understand.

But Aunt C understood.

A few weeks after I wrote to her about my plight, which was clearly the worst plight in the history of plights, she wrote to tell me that she, too, understood not fitting in. That when she was growing up in the Midwest, she felt terribly alone. But there was an answer—there was a bit of magic—because not all was lost.

Read, she told me. Read, and you can go anywhere in the world.

I did. I read so much that I started to write. I couldn’t help it. All those worlds, those adventures, those people I met, they welled up inside of me and had to be let out into the world… changed a little (or hey, not at all, sorry Stephen King). It was Aunt C’s advice that changed me, that shaped me, that gave me hope. No one had ever respected my plight, had acknowledged how difficult it was for me. Everyone else had always said: “Oh, you’ll get through it,” or, “It’s tough for everyone.” There was so much unexpected power in being given permission to suffer and simultaneously granted a way out that was actually useful advice. No, “Try making new friends,” or, “Join a club,” or, “Get a new hobby”—this charge, to read, was the greatest I’d ever been given.

Then, as kids do, I became a teenager. I stopped writing as often, then stopped at all. By the time I was a college student, my days of writing to C came to an end for a while (though she did provide me with the funding to get my first computer). We saw each other on and off, mostly at a funeral or two, but it wasn’t until I went out to San Francisco about seven years ago that we started up our correspondence again, this time in email, after my son was born and not long after her husband died (Liam was born the same weekend her husband passed away).

Picking up the Threads

So it was that from 2007-2013 we wrote back and forth dozens of times, and I visited as often as I could. But in the middle of that, she fell ill. Cancer, for a second time. And things changed. After adventuring in Chinatown together in 2007—she was in her early 80s during my first visit as an adult—her life changed forever. The cancer, and its constant pain, left her much depleted. Her enthusiasm for communication dwindled.

It has not gotten better. Computers have become strange to her, her memory erratic, her handwriting unreliable. When I went to visit her last, my heart broke to see her change so. She had always seemed so ageless to me, a beauty who never knew her beauty, a bookworm who never saw her worth, but a woman who lived life with vivacity in spite of that all.

I call her when I can. And visit her when I can. Every time I visit her she sends me home with books, more books. I take them because I know it’s the richest give she can give. Most recently it was a collection of Rumi’s poems and a biography of our favorite potter, Maria Martinez (what are the odds, right?). But there are no more letters, and we’re an entire continent apart. There are conversations—she worries about my son Liam, who has high functioning autism, a great deal—but we fall into the same patterns again and again. While I visited her most recently, the conversation we’d had ten minutes before evaporated, and we repeated it again. Then again. I realized for the first time that the sharp, ebullient woman I know is fading away.

But not all. As we sat together a few weeks ago listening to the blessed rain, she leaned over to me and asked, “Do you remember that letter I wrote you? After you told me about school in Massachusetts and you hated it so much? I told you to read, do you remember that?”

I told her I remembered; I remember it every day. Twenty years have passed, but those words, they’re still there, still inside of me. I don’t know where that original letter is for the life of me, but it doesn’t matter. I can still see her neat typing on the page: READ. READ. The words are so clear they might as well be tattooed on my skin.

Words Left Behind

Our email correspondences are treasures to me now, as I prepare to watch her slip away again. I was a busy new mom when we first started writing again, but her joy and beauty and love always shone through. Across a whole continent, from California to North Carolina, it strikes me as still being astonishing. Letters like these are absolute treasures to me now.

I shall make note to find your book on the Vikings, etc. They made it as far as Istanbul, I know. Energetic sorts. Your uncle and I were agog in Istanbul. It was/is an incredible city, with much preserved history. One book “Istanbul” by Orhan Pamuk was my dead-on favorite last year. Despite a pep talk I couldn’t manage to convince my book group to read it.

The garden is slowly coming in to shape. My new Chinese neighbors were stunned by the grapefruit, and helped to pick tons. The lemon hedge is groaning with fruit, so I picked a grocery bag full to give recently. Oh yes, if I could figure out how to use my “Zio!” gadget on my computer, I could send you a snap of a large king protea. One blossom. I am proud of it!

Maybe I am getting a bit loony. But gardening does help to keep one busy. I have to be here, definitely, the first week of July, when all the apricots come in.

Please visit and we’ll make a return to Chinatown, or go to Marin County, or drive to Carmel.

We did not make it back to Chinatown, or Marin County, or Carmel, as it turns out. But that’s okay. Because the traveling I do with her, and will do until my last day, requires no physical transportation.


Yes. I will read. I will read and remember and write. And I will get a little loony in my garden, and visit Istanbul, and try, try, to do right by you, my dear.

Win a Family Four-Pack to Northeast Comic Con!

Image: Northeast Comic Con

It’s great to go to the monster cons like San Diego and New York, but there’s something to be said for those smaller regional cons. They’re still loaded with pop culture goodness and plenty of celebrities and they’re never as crazy crowded.

This year, I’m attending Northeast Comic Con for the first time with my husband and kids and I cannot wait. It runs December 6th and 7th at the Shriner’s Auditorium in Wilmington, Massachusetts, and GeekMom has tickets to give away to one lucky family! Here’s what you can expect at the convention:

This year’s event highlights include a holiday shopping experience for nerds and the people who love them, cosplay for adults and children with “Create-A-Hero/Villain/Character” contests, voice actor workshops and script readings, free-play video game arcade and tournaments, workshops for K!DZ, celebrity autograph signings, panel sessions, plus 150 vendors of vintage and modern toys, comic books, collectibles, art, jewelry, fashion, and pop cultural artifacts.

See, it’s got all the goodness of the big cons just in a smaller more manageable venue. They’re also transforming the convention center restaurant into the Kreature Kantina with food, beverages, trivia, and a live band. Yes, that band will be playing the Star Wars Cantina song.

My kids are going to be cosplaying as a medieval princess and Rainbow Dash, so they’re practically guaranteed to have a good time. Also, Santa will be there which means I have a better than even chance of getting a picture of my cosplaying kids with Santa for our annual Christmas card.

Want to join me? Just enter through the Rafflecopter widget below for a chance at a family four-pack good either Saturday or Sunday.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

If you don’t win, you can buy tickets at the door or buy them online and save. See you at the con and good luck!

Chevy Aims to Educate: Keeping Teen Drivers Safe

GeekDad Matt Blum and GeekMom Nicole Wakelin with a new friend. Image: General Motors

There are a lot of milestones in a child’s life like getting that first tooth and learning to walk, but the one that scares a lot of parents is the day their teenager gets a driver’s license. It’s a rite of passage for teens, but how do we make sure our kids are safe once they drive away?

That was the focus of the #ChevySafety event recently held in Detroit during Teen Driver Safety Week. We heard from a panel of experts on teen driver safety and got a behind-the-scenes look at all that goes into making cars as safe as possible for all of us.

First, the reality of the situation. Car crashes were the leading killer of teens ages 13-19 in 2012. That’s a downright frightening statistic, but don’t go running to take your teen’s keys just yet. There are things we can all do to help ensure that our kids are safe whether they’re the ones behind the wheel or a passenger in a car one of their friends is driving.

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Image: General Motors

You may have a car with the latest safety technology, one that warns of approaching traffic, cars in your blind spot, and even beeps if you drift out of your lane, but all that technology isn’t the thing you need to be focused on for keeping safe. The biggest thing that any of us can do, and it’s one that’s been hammered into our heads for years, is buckle our seat belts.

It’s kind of funny that, given the vast amount of safety technology in cars, something old-school is most likely to save our lives. You’d also think that teens would buckle up all the time since we’ve been strapping them in to within an inch of their lives since the day we brought them home from the hospital, but you’d be wrong.

Learning about safety tech first hand. Image: General Motors

A study by Safe Kids Worldwide, partly funded with a $2 million grant from General Motors, showed that 25% of teens don’t buckle their seat belts. Add to that the fact that nearly half of teens killed in car accidents in 2012 weren’t wearing a seat belt and the problem is even clearer. Wearing a seat belt reduces the risk of death to those sitting in front by 45% so almost half of those lost young lives could have been saved by a seat belt.

You know it’s important and I know it’s important, but how do we impress upon our kids that they need to buckle up every single time? Talk to them.

Studies show the more we talk to our kids, from the time they’re young not just when they’re teens, the more likely they are to heed our advice. Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia has done studies that show teens are twice as likely to buckle up and 70% more likely not to drink and drive when parents take an active part in the process of educating them about driver safety.

Image: General Motors

We saw the extensive amount of testing that goes into making cars safe, from crash test dummies to high-tech virtual reality labs that can analyze something as minute as the pattern a windshield wiper clears so you can always see clearly. We also got a look at the incredible OnStar Command Center where they can help in an instant if something does go wrong, but it all comes back to parents. We simply need to talk to our kids.

The technology is incredible to experience first hand and it’s easy to see how it can help save lives. The facility where they run all those dummies through their tests is huge and impressive, but it just won’t do the trick if teens don’t buckle up.

There are programs like Countdown2Drive that will help you get started with this important conversation. Talk to your kids early and often about buckling up and not driving distracted and you’ve gone a long way toward making sure they come home to you safe and sound.

General Motors covered all expenses to attend this event.

The Tech Behind The 2015 Ford F-150: And Now I Want a Truck

Image: Nicole Wakelin

I have never owned a truck because I couldn’t see why anyone would buy one unless they worked in construction or were a cowboy. Those guys, they need one, but me? No, I do not need a truck to haul my kids to school. However, after driving the all-new 2015 Ford F-150, I really, really want one.

Trucks are a big deal in the automotive world, and this one is pretty much the biggest deal of them all. It’s not just the best-selling truck in the United States; it’s the best selling vehicle. Period. The end. So when Ford redid the whole truck this year, people were excited and nervous.

When you’ve got a vehicle like the F-150 in your lineup. you simply can’t afford a fumble. Ford introduced their truck back in January at the Detroit Auto Show, but it wasn’t until now that they invited the press to drive it for the first time down in San Antonio, Texas. I was on this first-drive of the F-150 and it was an incredible experience.

Image: Nicole Wakelin

You may or may not know the horsepower on your car, but if you’re buying a truck, there are numbers you’re sure to be looking at before you plunk down your hard-earned cash. The two biggies are towing capacity and payload, and the F-150 has the other guys beat when it comes to full-size pickups.

It can tow 12,200 pounds and haul 3,300 pounds, and it does this with the help of some pretty amazing technological advancements. One of those advancements helps not just with its capability, but with its fuel economy and that’s due to the use of aluminum alloys instead of only steel.

This truck lost an incredible 700 pounds over the previous generation. That is a stunning number in an industry where every last ounce they can cut from a vehicle’s weight is cause for celebration. This means better fuel economy, braking, maneuverability, and handling, all of which become incredibly important when your truck is carrying a load or pulling a trailer.

Image: Nicole Wakelin

And, if you’re like most people, you’re thinking about those aluminum cans you can squish under the heel of your shoe and wondering if this is a good idea. Is it safe? Is it strong? Will it hold up under the pressures of daily use? The answer is yes.

They torture-tested this thing over more than 10 million miles, which covered all sorts of scenarios. They had it on their proving grounds, in labs, and even gave it to select customers who they new would, well, beat the heck out of it to see if they could make it fail. They couldn’t. The truck passed all of those tests with flying colors.

The F-150 now comes with four different engine choices, including a new 2.7-liter EcoBoost designed just for trucks. This engine is capable of producing 325 horsepower and 375 lb-ft of torque, which falls in the middle in terms of capability. Most people needing mid-range capability and about 90 percent of those who look for light-duty trucks will find this engine a good fit.

Image: Nicole Wakelin

It’s also equipped with start-stop technology that turns off the engine when the vehicle stops, saving you money at the pump. This is one of those features that, in some vehicles, is simply awful. The sound and vibration of the engine turning off and on can be downright jarring, but it was almost imperceptible in the F-150 trucks I drove. Really, the only reason I noticed it was off was the sudden silence, just like driving a hybrid.

There’s also an EcoBoost for those needing more from their truck. The 3.5-liter engine provides 365 horsepower and 420 lb-ft of torque. This one is the monster. It’s also the one capable of the top range in towing and payload and has been tested in the real world with over 500,000 F-150s with this engine already on the road.

Inside, there is a mind-boggling array of trims that take the F-150 from basic truck that gets the job done all the way to something that looks and feels like a high-end sedan with leather trims and wood finishes. And it’s also packed with the latest infotainment and safety technology like a 360-degree camera, blind-spot monitoring with cross-traffic alert, and a lane-keeping system. No matter your needs, there’s a configuration of the F-150 that will be a perfect fit.

Image: Nicole Wakelin

And driving the F-150 is something you have to experience. It is a big truck, so if you haven’t piloted one down the road, then your first few minutes will be spent thinking, “Wow, this is big.” That feeling, amazingly, only lasts for a short time, because though this is a big, capable, powerful, truck, it’s also a very well-mannered one.

Handling is smooth and easy, making you forget just how much truck that steering wheel is moving along the road. The seats are also supportive and comfortable, so that even after a full day of driving, there’s no road-weariness or stiffness when you get out of the truck.

I had the chance to tow a 9,000-pound trailer—something I have never done before—and once my heart stopped trying to beat right out of my chest, it was easy. Despite being a lighter vehicle than before, the trailer never pushed the truck, even going downhill. I drove a competitor’s truck right after the F-150 and experienced the disconcerting sensation of the vehicle almost jerking forward when the trailer did push the truck. In the F-150, it simply didn’t happen and the drive was much easier.

Image: Nicole Wakelin

It was a unique experience driving the 2015 Ford F-150, with access to engineers and experts that could answer my every question and explain exactly what the truck was doing along the way to make driving easier. They’re running special test drives from October 11 through December 21 in 38 cities, so you can try out the new F-150, too. Pre-register for events or just show up and they’ll be happy to let you take a drive.

You’ll be pleasantly surprised by what the all-new 2015 Ford F-150 has to offer, whether you’re using it to haul heavy loads or just for hauling the kids to school.

All trip expenses were covered by Ford.

Our Epic Family Road Trip to GenCon

Helping build Cardhalla. Image: Nicole Wakelin

We’ve been to GenCon for the last five years, but it has always just been me and my husband. We’ve flown out and driven out and decided that driving is more fun. Flying can be a hassle and I love road trips, so we always stop at fun places along the way. World’s largest ball of twine? I’m in!

This year, we did the whole trip a little differently because we decided to bring our two girls for the first time. They’re 12 and 10 and have been to local conventions, just nothing this big and all consuming. It’s one thing to drive into Boston for the day to attend PAX East, but an entirely different thing to drive 14 hours and then spend four days straight at a convention.

We thought about this, a lot, before we actually decided to bring them on the trip. It’s not just the distance, but the whole intensity of the thing. We wondered, as much as they love to play games, would The Best Four Days in Gaming be too much? Would they stay up late and be so tired that by day three they’d be little wrecks? Would this somehow make them hate gaming and never want to go near a board game again for the rest of their lives? We had concerns.

Image: Nicole Wakelin

In the end, we decided that we’d make the trip with the girls and just play it by ear. We didn’t plan to attend a lot of events. We didn’t have a crowded schedule of games to play. We didn’t even plan our exact drive route. Instead, we figured we’d see the sights on the way and take it easy once we arrived at the convention.

Lots of people make the drive from New Hampshire to Indianapolis in one day, but we broke it into two, stopping in Buffalo, New York, at the Staybridge Suites so we could have Buffalo wings for dinner. It’s what you have to do when you’re in Buffalo, right? Last year when we made the trip on our own we stopped there, too, and tried Anchor Bar. This year, we went with Duff’s Famous Wings because we were told that these are the places you go to in Buffalo for wings.

Although we liked Anchor Bar, Duff’s won our hearts for their super hot wings and giant bowls of french fries. If you want great hot wings and plenty of fries and giant pitchers of soda at a price that won’t break the bank, then try Duff’s. Also, there are two locations and though you might be tempted to go to the original, the one near the airport is not far and way less crowded with no wait when the other location is packed.

Paula’s Donuts. Omnomnom! Image: Nicole Wakelin

We also found a great stop for breakfast at Paula’s Donuts. This and Duff’s are all within just a few minutes of the hotel which really makes this a great pit stop. Sure, donuts aren’t the healthiest breakfast but I’m choosing to channel my inner Bill Cosby and his famous chocolate cake bit. If you go, try the cheese donut. I know, sounds odd, but think cheese danish. Everyone local suggested we try it, and they did not steer us wrong.

We arrived at GenCon on Wednesday night, the day before the convention started, and the kids had plenty of time to unwind in our room at the JW Marriott. This is where we stay every year. The staff handles the crazy of everyone checking in at once as though it was no big deal. They’re friendly, helpful, always professional, and never frazzled.

There are lots of places to eat in Indy, but the hotel offers a little break from the mobs of gamers. Their restaurant, Osteria Pronto, offers a wonderful breakfast buffet and a selection of upscale meals for dinner. It is on the pricey side, but the food is worth it, and the wait is never as long as you’ll find at less expensive restaurants in the area.

Ready for GenCon! Image: Nicole Wakelin

First thing Thursday, they were ready, and when I say ready, I mean ready like it was Christmas morning! There was no plan to get there the minute it all opened, but the kids wanted to see the crazy.

It was packed, and they were totally fine with the mob. They held our hands through the initial rush through the doors and happily wandered the show floor with us, checking out games and dice and stuffed animals and t-shirts and hats and, it was a lot of stuff. This is a big convention and it hit a record number of attendees this year at nearly 60,000 people, but the crowd was still manageable.

The girls loved every minute. They tried out some demos, had fun looking at the cosplayers, discovered the joy of eating at food trucks, and my oldest narrowly avoided being thrown in jail by a Stormtrooper. Hey, it happens at GenCon.

A little Imperial entanglement. Image: Nicole Wakelin

This was a GenCon unlike any other for me and my husband. We still went out and gamed, but we ended up splitting up with the girls so we could show them each the things they wanted to see. One night, the three of them played a new game at some chairs in the hotel lobby and the girls thought it was the best thing ever.

During GenCon, gamers take up every square inch of space in the local hotels. There are games being played everywhere you look at all hours of the day and night. This small moment, simply playing a game with my husband in the hotel lobby, made them feel like they were a part of it all and it was wonderful.

They even helped us at at our panel, where we recorded an episode of The D6 Generation with a live audience. Let me tell you, if you’re trying to get a room of unruly gamers to behave, nothing works as well as having two little girls give them all sad puppy dog eyes.

Cosplayer: @meaghanslottje Image: Nicole Wakelin

At the end of it all, we were all exhausted, but in the best way possible. We stayed up too late playing games. We walked around all day long hardly stopping to rest for fear of missing something good. And we all ate like we were on vacation.

But what made it perfect was going with the kids. We shared something we love and they loved it, too. It wasn’t the same as going on our own, but in the end, this GenCon was so much better. The last day, my youngest was very sad and said, “That went too fast. I don’t want it to be over.”

I know exactly how she feels.

A Walk Through the Universal CityWalk Orlando Expansion

Universal CityWalk \ Image courtesy of Universal Orlando
Universal CityWalk \ Image courtesy of Universal Orlando

Universal CityWalk is a unique place to visit in the Orlando, Florida area and sits as the middle man to Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios theme parks. With 30 acres of food, shops, movies, and partying to indulge in, you can bet that there is something for everyone in the family.

Depending on the time of year and when you arrive, parking can be anywhere from $6.00 per day (after 6pm during slow season) and $17.00 to park during the day. The pricing is a little high, but it makes sense because this is the main parking hub for both parks.

My first stop at CityWalk is always the food. Of the 20 options, I have two favorites for dinner. The first is Red Oven Pizza Bakery. This place has the best pizza I’ve had south of New York. If you want a light, but filling meal while going in between the two parks, this is a delicious place to hit up.

You have the usual choices to pick from, along with a few specialties including:

  • Pear & Fig with mozzarella, blue cheese, San Marzano tomatoes, and rosemary.
  • Funghi – a mushroom medley, red onions, fontina, mozzarella, San Marzano tomatoes, thyme, roasted portobello white truffle oil emulsion.
  • Alla Benno – Prosciutto, pineapple, jalapeños, San Marzano tomatoes, and mozzarella.
Antojitos at CityWalk  \ Image courtesy of Universal Orlando
Antojitos at CityWalk \ Image courtesy of Universal Orlando

My second favorite for dinner is Antojitos, and in my opinion is the best restaurant at CityWalk. If you plan ahead, you can make reservations online to keep your wait to a minimum. My choice entree is the steak tacos with a small side of guacamole. For entertainment, they have a house Mariachi band and it’s fun to hear them go from traditional Mexican tunes to current pop hits, such as “Wrecking Ball.”

Before you leave, check out the artist who is hand painting Mexican wrestler masks at the front of the restaurant. The masks are free of charge and you can request the artist to make a special one for you (tipping is appreciated).

In addition to my two favorites, CityWalk also has a food court with Moe’s, Panda Express, Burger King, Bread Box, and Fusion Bistro: Sushi and Sake Bar. The Bread Box is my favorite stop in the food court and offers hot or cold sandwiches starting at  $7.95. If you try something and don’t like it, feel free to ask for do-over and the staff will be happy to oblige you with a new selection.

Hot Dog Hall of Fame at CityWalk \ Image courtesy of Universal Orlando
Hot Dog Hall of Fame at CityWalk \ Image courtesy of Universal Orlando

If you’re more into the American fair for dinner Margaritaville, and the newest restaurant The Hot Dog Hall of Fame, are going to be the best places to hit up. The Hot Dog Hall of Fame is a must visit for any hot dog lover with a specialty two-foot-long hot dog and a slew of mustard choices. The outdoor stadium seating goes great with the big screen TVs that are mounted to the building.

Margaritaville is a nice indoor party for those whose motto is “It’s 5′ o clock somewhere.” I’ve eaten here plenty of times and insist you try the nachos.

I hope you didn’t fill up on dinner because Menchies is the next stop on my food tour. I was first introduced to Menchies by a friend during a girls-night-out and that one visit started a wonderful love affair. What’s Menchies? It’s a frozen yogurt shop that makes you do all the work for your snack. It plays out in your favor, because unlike at Cold Stone Creamery, you can add as much or as little into your bowl as you like.

Each station has two flavors and a mix it switch for you to do a swirl of the two taste options. They have flavors like cheesecake, key lime pie, fruit punch sherbet, and a slew of other odd-balls to choose from. The catch is you’re charged by the weight of your cup, so watch the kiddos when they’re making their selections.

For those who aren’t sure what to try, here’s my personal recipe for “Cheesecake extravaganza:”
(1.5) scoops of Honey Graham cereal (this acts as the cheesecake’s crust)
Desired amount of cheesecake soft serve
(1.5) scoops of Honey Graham cereal on top
(6 ea) frosted animal cookies
(1) scoop of favorite cheesecake fruit, mine is strawberries
Couple pieces of cheesecake thrown in for good measure
(2) cherries (chocolate covered or regular, it’s up to you on this one)

Okay, by this time you should be stuffed and loosening up the buttons on your pants. Time to walk off all of that food and check out the shops.

One of the most funkadelic shops at CityWalk is P!Q. They have some awesome stuff in there including Kidrobot’s famous Labbits. I’d advise keeping your kids away from the books. Some of them are not suitable for children (or my husband for that matter). For the silly-toy-geek, this will be the place you take your time and savor the shiny things.

If you are into GoPro, Oakley, backpacks, or the laid-back life of the surfer, check out the Quiet Flight Surf Shop. This is also a store you can cut through to avoid the crowds when walking to the park or back to the parking lot.

On top of my favorite places to shop, CityWalk also has the Universal Store with a little bit of everything including:

  • Harry Potter
  • Minions
  • Transformers
  • Simpsons
  • And more.

For the upscale shoppers, check out Fossil, The Island Clothing Company, Element, and Hard Rock. If you want to commemorate your vacation with a permanent souvenir, the artists over at Hart & Huntington Tattoo Company will be happy to oblige.

Now that we’ve eaten too much, done a little shopping, it’s time for a little friendly competition at the Hollywood Drive-In Miniature Golf.

Hollywood Drive-In Golf \ Image courtesy of Universal Orlando
Hollywood Drive-In Golf \ Image courtesy of Universal Orlando

What makes this miniature golf course special is the magic that happens when the sun goes down. The lights and the magic of the two courses turn on and it transforms into a new experience that you don’t get to see during the day. The pricing is a bit steep at $15.00 per adult and $12.00 per child. If you feel like being a big spender, you can play both courses (36 holes) for $27.00 per adult and $22.00 per child.

On those hot Florida nights, you may want to consider something that’s both air conditioned and less pricey, check out AMC Universal Cineplex 20 and relax while watching a movie on one of their 20 screens.  The popcorn is good, the seats are comfy, and sometimes they have special movies playing.

CityWalk is just as much fun on a rainy day as it is on a sunny day (and let’s face it, this is Florida, the rainy state). On a rainy day, do your body a favor and avoid the Blueman Group sign area by the theater. There’s an incline in the pavement that has claimed many a knee on a rainy day (including my own). On the upside, if you do slip and fall, screaming loudly will get security’s attention and the medic will be right behind them. The crew that took care of me when I was hurt one a rainy day were great and got me back on my feet in no time.

With the largest expansion in CityWalk’s history almost complete, the 30 acre entertainment complex truly does have something for everyone. It doesn’t matter if you have a picky eater, a big spender, a minion lover, or a Gryffindor quidditch player in your group, there really is something for everyone at CityWalk.

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Engage in Counter-Tourism

My kids staged a revolt after one too many visits to historical sites.

We were touring a restoration village; you know, the sort of place featuring a blacksmith shop, one room schoolhouse, mill, general store, and a few homes. Normally we stroll around on our own at heritage sites, looking and talking and speculating as we let curiosity lead us. But this time we came with a group of parents and children, so we politely followed a docent as she gave a series of memorized talks meant to educate the sweaty masses. It was hot and stuffy in those small buildings. The docent droned about the historic significance of various items, never changing her patter to meet a child’s interests. Worse, every time she was asked a question she went back to the beginning of her particular speech rather than jump back in where she’d stopped.

It was slow torture of the instructional kind.

If only we’d visited as counter-tourists. For well over a decade Phil Smith, aka Crab Man, has encouraged people to bend tourism into their own unique experiences.  He asks us to look past the official versions provided by guide books, limited by entrance fees, and structured around prohibited areas. Right beyond, we can experience these places playfully.

Tactics he shares in Counter-Tourism: A Pocketbook: 50 Odd Things to Do in a Heritage Site may seem silly to the uninitiated. But they are, at the very core, a way of stepping past approved viewpoints to freshly explore and discover new stories.


Counter-Tourism: A Pocketbook by Crab Man


Counter-Tourism: A Pocketbook by Crab Man


Counter-Tourism: A Pocketbook by Crab Man

It’s an approach that sidesteps the homogenization that Dr. Smith terms “mythogeography” or “the past on life support,” and instead celebrates the open-ended meaning found in every heritage site as a form of play.

Thanks to suggestions in Counter-Tourism: A Pocketbook: 50 Odd Things to Do in a Heritage Site we might make some new earthworks in the back yard after visiting a prehistoric site or visit a shopping mall as if it were a post-apocalyptic artifact.

Thanks to suggestions in his larger-scale work Counter-Tourism: The Handbook we might leave notes in graveyards, kiss statues, photograph mold and stains, knock on doors in search of our ancestor’s homes, or use a dream symbolism book to interpret a heritage site. (He invites you to submit your own counter-tourism hacks, too.)

This can get as complicated as you’d like because Dr. Smith is a complex guy. He’s written over 100 plays, does site-specific performances in unconventional setting, creates “mis-guides” and counter-tours, and authored books such as On Walking and Mythogeography.

We’re taking his work at the most basic level. If I can talk my family into checking out another heritage site, we’ll follow one of his suggestions. Maybe we’ll all wear pirate eye patches.

Geeking Out Over Tires With Continental Tire

Image: Continental Tire
Image: Continental Tire

As a car geek, I jumped at the chance to spend a few days with Continental Tire learning about tires by driving on their track in Uvalde, Texas. How could I pass up the chance to drive it like I stole it without having to worry about being arrested when I got out of the car?

This trip involved a group of bloggers who, for the most part, don’t know a lot about cars so it wasn’t geared toward gearheads with lots of boring technical specs, but toward real people. People who just need to know what they need to do to keep their families safe on the roads.

After a wonderful dinner in San Antonio where we all had a chance to get to know each other, we got up early the next day to drive out to Continental Tire’s proving grounds. This isn’t just a track or two, but a 5,000 acre facility with paved and dirt tracks designed to mimic every kind of terrain you might tackle. Okay, you probably aren’t going to tackle some of it unless you’re thinking of becoming a professional rally car driver, but it’s there to test the tires that would do the job.

Image: Nicole Wakelin
Part of the proving grounds. Image: Nicole Wakelin

There were three different scenarios set up with both Continental Tire TrueContact tires as well as competitive brands. The first test was a wet braking test that had us accelerating to 55 MPH on a wet track then slamming on the brakes to bring the car to a dead stop. The second test had us taking a tight 200 meter circle with a section of wet track on one curve, and the last test was a wet pad set up with cones for an autocross handling test. My drive partner, Jessica, was perfect, because she was as ready to put these cars to the test as I was and had no fear about driving hard.

The wet braking test easily painted us the clearest picture of just what a good set of tires can do to keep you safe. Check out these results with 55-0 MPH times and the distances it took to stop.

  • Nissan Altima Bridgestone Ecopia 422 4 seconds, 145.2 feet
  • Nissan Altima Michelin Defender 3.5 seconds, 135.7 feet
  • Ford Mustang Continental TrueContact 2/32nd front tread 4.7 seconds, 178.9 feet
  • Ford Mustang Continental TrueContact 4/32nd front tread 3.9 seconds, 141.1 feet

The takeaway there is really how much of a difference just 2/32nds of an inch on your tire makes in how quickly you’ll stop and how far you’ll go. I was on a closed track and the worst thing I was at risk of hitting was an orange cone or two. In the real world, those cones are other cars and other people. Your tires matter.

Image: Continental Tire
Image: Continental Tire

It’s also worth noting that they put those tires with the worn treads on the front of the car. This might not be what you’ve heard over the years, but if you can’t replace all your tires, the worn pair should always go on the front. We experienced the difference this makes while on the 200 meter circle. With good tires on the back, it was easy to regain control coming off of the wet track. With the good tires on the front, let’s just say there were not so many orange cones on that track as there were when we started the day and there was a lot of hysterical laughter in our car.

We spend a lot of time in our cars these days, and as moms we’ve often got our kids along for the ride. This experience showed me the importance of having good tires on your vehicle. We all get our tires checked once a year at inspection time, but after seeing how dangerous worn tires can be, I’ll definitely be checking mine more often.

Continental Tire covered all expenses for this trip.

Learn How to Stay Safe on Wet Roads From a “Tire Nerd”

Image: Michelin North America

The sun is shining, the birds are singing, and the snowy winter weather is just a memory, but the spring rains pose a driving hazard of their own. It’s easy to think that it’s only the snow that can cause problems, but April showers bring plenty of potential for sliding across the highways, too.

Russell Shepherd is a mechanical engineer for Michelin North America and a self-professed “tire nerd” who has driven over every road surface imaginable in his years working on tires. He has mechanical engineering degrees from both Florida A&M and Georgia Tech so he knows his stuff. With drivers twice as likely to have an accident on wet roads than on dry roads, Shepherd has come up with a set of five tips to help keep you and your family safe.

Image: Michelin North America

Pay attention to how the car steers, especially if steering feels looser than normal, you’re sliding, or you feel the anti-lock brakes activate. These are all signs that your tires are losing their grip, and that you need to slow things down.

Image: Michelin North America

Sometimes your first warning that you’re hydroplaning isn’t sliding out of control, but losing acceleration. If you’re giving the car gas, but it doesn’t seem to be speeding up or feels like it’s slowing down, you might be hydroplaning. Once again, slow things down so you stay in control of your car.

Image: Michelin North America

Just because the roads are barely wet doesn’t mean it’s safer than when they’re drenched. It can actually be exactly the opposite. A thin coating of water can mix with oil and dust on the roads creating a very slick and dangerous surface. Be cautious the second it starts to rain, not just when things are soaking wet.

Image: Michelin North America

Here’s one that should happen before it rains, and on a regular basis. Check your tires visually for wear and make sure you check the whole tire. Turn the wheel so you can see the entire surface, not just the outer edge so that you don’t miss wear that’s hidden from view.

Image: Michelin North America

Tires aren’t cheap, but they need to be replaced when the tread gets down to 2/32nd of an inch. Yes, it’s that old penny trick. Insert a penny into the tread head first and as long as Lincoln’s head is covered, your tread is okay.

If you do need to replace your tires and can only manage two at a time rather than the recommended four, make sure to put the new ones on the back. That’s where traction is most important for keeping the car going in the right direction and not fishtailing.

These are easy tips that everyone can follow and are particularly helpful for teen drivers. If you’ve been driving for years, then you have probably experienced some of these situations and know they could happen and how the wheel will feel in your hands. Teen drivers may have no idea, and not knowing how your car will behave on wet roads can be dangerous.

Take a minute to check your tires, share these tips, and help ensure that you and your family are safe when they hit the road this spring.

A Refreshing Walk Around Austin, TX at SXSW

This post is sponsored by Cottonelle.

It's really... really huge.
It’s really… really huge.

It’s possible that I’m getting older. But after two days of the craziness of SXSW, I decided that I was going to walk. And walk. And walk. Being something of a country mouse, I’ve always been fascinated by cities–especially newer cities. So on my last day in Austin as a Cottonelle corespondent, I did three things: I put on my favorite dress, got my hair done, and I put on my walking boots (this is Texas, after all).

My hair was done courtesy of the Cottonelle Refresh Lounge. Which really was, as a concept, one of the coolest ideas I saw at the con when it comes to brand efforts. And I’m not just saying that because they brought me out there. Walking around the conference I saw lots of attempts from lots of brands to “stand out” from the crowd. But there were no other places that really offered a sense of, well, refreshment and relaxation like the Cottonelle Refresh Lounge. Not to mention awesome hair. And a place to recharge my phone.

The crowd was pretty impressive, and I was tired. So instead of muscling my way in, I took myself and my fabulous hair and I walked. I’m quite a fan of the Old West, and the buildings around Austin certainly didn’t fail to impress. As I meandered through the crowds and out I thought it might be interesting to share the one thing that most SWSXers weren’t sharing: the beautiful city that hosts such an amazing conference.

If you weren’t following me on Twitter or Instagram, you might have missed it. So I’m sharing the gallery below. It was, in a word, refreshing. When I returned for a taping of Jimmy Kimmel Live and got ready to return to North Carolina, I was so glad I had a chance to experience Austin a little. Crazy cab rides with pugs in the passenger seat (which really happened) and adventures and all. I’ve got to say I was refreshed in more ways than I imagined, and I’ll always remember my trip to Austin, TX.

Small Cons vs Big Cons

Rebecca in a blue wig playing Kung-Fu with Ceili Conway (home-made Jack Frost cosplay!) Image By Karen Conway
Rebecca playing Kung-Fu with Ceili Conway (home-made Jack Frost cosplay!). Image By Karen Conway.

I was introduced to geek conventions with a small con in my home city called Albacon. It hosted maybe one hundred people? I played some games, listened to fantasy authors, and watched anime with a friend for a day. As a parent with two early elementary aged children, it was a wonderful escape.

“That was fun!” I enthused. My friend shook his head.

“No. No. You have to come to ConnectiCon.”

So I accompanied my friend that summer to ConnectiCon. Ah. I understood why my friend had not been impressed with the other one. ConnectiCon, a fan-run convention, had a few thousand people (now they have close to 10,000), many dressed in elaborate cosplay, tons of panels on such a variety of topics, famous guests, soooo much anime, and way more than I could take in. As someone new to being a geek, and an older woman with kids, I felt somewhat out of place. But I was intrigued by this culture, started getting into it, and went back year after year. Eventually I brought my kids when they were teenagers. Love it.

I’ve also been to NY ComicCon, Arisia, and PAX East. Some big conventions around here.

And I’ve enjoyed myself at Pi-Con, “The Friendliest Little Convention in the New England,” as well as subsequent years at AlbaCon.

A couple of weeks ago, my kids and I tried out GeneriCon, another small geek convention close by. We played games with friends we knew (Kung-Fu!), watched some anime (Angel Beats), attended panels (Bad Anime by ConArtists was brilliant), admired artwork, participated in Iron Cosplay (10 minutes to put together a costume on a random theme with random materials), and generally had a good time.

I love the energy of big cons: famous names, rows and rows of cool art, crazy panels with loud crowds, big stage cosplay events, jammed-packed late-night dancing, test playing new games, and the incredible realization that THERE ARE SO MANY GEEKS OUT THERE! I remember describing NY ComiCon to someone, “If you took the entire population of Albany, turned them into geeks, and threw them together in one building—that’s what it’s like.”

At smaller cons: Cheap tickets. No lines for the bathrooms. No lines to get into anything! Plus, keeping track of my kids was darn easy in a small space. There’s also something else: getting to know the geeks in your community. At GeneriCon, I kept bumping into people I knew from other walks of life. They didn’t seem surprised to see me there (I do write for GeekMom) but I didn’t know THEY WERE GEEKS TOO!

I’m a fan of cons, and I’ve had good and bad experiences at large and small ones. What are your experiences? Do you like larger or smaller exclusively?

Would You Stay in a Frozen-Themed Room Made of Ice and Snow?

Quebec City’s Hôtel de Glace will unveil a Frozen-themed room this weekend. Image: Hôtel de Glace.

If you loved the movie Frozen, you may want to start planning a trip to Quebec City, Canada.

At the time of this article, it was 28 degrees (Fahrenheit) in Quebec City—and that seemed like sort of a toasty point when compared to the upcoming week’s forecast. Within just a few days, temps are expected to drop to -6, with -17 a real possibility. (Just writing that made me shiver.) However, I’m guessing people will brave the chilly temperatures for a chance to stay in a Frozen-themed hotel room.

The Hôtel de Glace just announced plans to unveil the room this weekend. The hotel is very well known for its aesthetics, which includes 32,000 square feet of ice and snow. However, that’s not just outside. The actual hotel is made up of the cold stuff. Open from January 3 to March 23, 2014, the hotel includes approximately 500 tons of ice and 15,000 tons of snow.

This year’s icy attractions will include the “Frozen Suite,” a space modeled after the bedrooms of Disney’s newest characters, Anna and Elsa. The room was built in conjunction with the film’s art director, Michael Giaimo. The Hôtel de Glace is also planning to feature the “Frozen Activity Cave,” which will be located on the property for all guests to enjoy.

The themed suite will remain open through the rest of the hotel’s season, which happens to end five days after the movie comes out on Blu-ray and DVD. Would you consider staying in a Frozen-themed room that’s actually… well, frozen?

Hotel guests can expect ice sculpting, guided tours, an isolating sleeping bag for snuggling atop the room’s icy bed base, and average temperatures ranging from -13 to 41 degrees (Fahrenheit). It looks absolutely gorgeous, but I’d need an entire suitcase dedicated to just socks.

According to the hotel’s website, an average overnight stay will run you $219. However, there’s no word on what it will cost to live like a Disney princess.

Like the rest of the hotel, this Frozen-themed room is made almost entirely of ice and snow. Image: Hôtel de Glace.

A Children’s Music Garden in an Industrial Land

Photo: Karen Burnham

The Gulf Coast of Texas is a blend of beautiful bayou and birding country and industrial wasteland. That was brought home to me as I visited the Baytown Nature Center not too far from my home near Houston. To get there from Highway 146, I drove over the Houston Ship channel (which goes to one of the busier ports in the world) and through a ginormous ExxonMobile chemical refinery (according to Wiki, one of the largest in the United States).

Baytown’s official motto is: “Where Oil and Water Really Do Mix.” It didn’t seem like a promising place to find a children’s playground, frankly.

Image: Google Maps w/ additions by Karen Burnham

But once you enter the nature preserve, all of that changes. Through a trick of geography, the children’s area looks bucolic, not industrial at all. There are tons of birds soaring around and it gets a lovely breeze. You can see the impressive San Jacinto Monument from several vantage points. There’s a lot to love about this park, but I’m going to focus on the Music Garden, and specifically how it captures the spirit of Baytown by using recycled industrial welding canisters for many of its instruments.

Photo: Karen Burnham

The Bayer Music Garden (almost every part of the park is sponsored by businesses or local families) has eight different stations, all of them fundamentally percussive. Four of them use brightly painted welding canisters, cut down to different sizes, to provide an array of drums, bells, or chimes. One series is stuck in the ground and topped with durable, flexible plastic, making a set of bongo drums just at kid height. Another four are strung up with the bottoms cut off and wooden clappers added to make bells.

Photo: Karen Burnham

One of my favorites is two rounded domes set low, each with different patterns cut into them. One looks like whale tails, the other has a star. The way the patterns are cut, the different sections make different tones when struck with the attached rubber mallet. Other stations include welding canisters set on posts that can be spun or whacked, two sets of steel chimes, a large wooden xylophone, and a hollow wooden bench with carved out tonal areas. It’s such a creative idea and use of local material! I’m also impressed with the park’s upkeep and maintenance: when I had been there before, many of the rubber mallets and clappers had gone missing. This time they had all been freshly replaced.

Two caveats: one, the reason the park maintenance can be so good is that the park is fee-based. Unlike most of the free parks in the area, this one has a $3 per person charge, although kids under 12 get in free. We loved the center so much we decided to spring for a $40 family membership, and there’s also a $20 individual annual pass available. Another thing to remember is that Houston has the nickname “The Bayou City,” and bayou is just the fancy French word for swamp. So mosquitoes can be a problem. We went on a rare warm day after a string of cold days, and the little buggers were out for blood. Usually the breeze kept them away, but any instant it died down I was brushing them off my son and he still got bitten several times on his legs and neck. Given that mosquito-borne illnesses like dengue are making a resurgence, it’s probably best to consider bug spray.

Those concerns aside, I haven’t even mentioned the built-up hill and tunnel, the kid-sized animal statues for climbing on, the pirate ship, or the rope spider web. This is a park that offers a lot to explore, but I continue to be especially impressed with the way the Music Garden creatively blends the industrial and scenic characteristics of the area using recycled materials. Something that perhaps other parks can emulate!

Interview: Running a Kid’s Track at a Geek Convention

©2013 John O'Halloran johno@tyedye.org
Kids talking with real life astronaut, Cady Coleman. (Photo: John O’Halloran)

When I went to the World Science Fiction Convention (aka WorldCon, aka LonestarCon3, aka LSC3) over the Labor Day weekend this year, I was very impressed by their services for children. From the bonded, licensed day care that I used for my two-year-old to the impressively creative “Rangernauts” track that an 11-year-old of an acquaintance of mine enjoyed, I wanted to learn more about what goes on behind the scenes. I tracked down the organizers, James Bacon and Alissa McKersie, and they graciously agreed to an interview.

Geek Mom: Hello! Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us. Could you briefly introduce yourselves, and maybe talk a little bit about how you first found your way to WorldCon?

Alissa McKersie: My name is Alissa McKersie and my first Worldcon was Denvention in 2008.  My husband at the time attended regularly and thought I would enjoy it.  And boy, did I!!!  I was told I fit in better than a fish to water!  It was a couple of years before I could attend again, however.  I was finally able to go to Renovation in 2011, and this is where it all changed!

James Bacon: I’m James Bacon, Irish Science Fiction fan living in London. I went with local fan friends by ferry and train to Glasgow ’95.  It was a great con, but I couldn’t get to another until 2004. I ended up helping the Children’s Programme there run by Inger Myers and Persis Thorndike.

GM: Once you made your way to WorldCon, how did you come to be involved in the kid’s track of programming?

AM: While looking through the program book of Renovation, I remember coming across a program item that I was really excited about called “Doctor Who Lego Build”.  Keep in mind, I was unfamiliar with Worldcons, and I had NO IDEA they even had separate programming for children.  On another note, I did quite a bit of volunteering. I helped out back stage for opening ceremonies!  That was quite fun! So, when I found out that this Lego Build was for kids, I thought that I’d just volunteer for it! Gosh, I work with kids everyday (I’d been teaching martial arts for 13 years), so let’s go have fun!  And, I did!  James Bacon was running the Kids’ Program at Renovation, so this was when we met.  I remember him coming to me the very next morning and asking me to join the team for the next year at Chicon 7.  Thus, ChiKidz was created.

JB: I’d been running unusual conventions, Aliens Stole my Handbag, Damn Fine Con, and They Came and Shaved us, which were ‘Fun Cons‘ aimed at adult friends in fandom who wanted an eclectic weekend. The organizers of the 2005 Worldcon, Vince Docherty and Colin Harris, asked myself and Stefan Lancaster to run the children’s program. This terrified most sane thinking parents in fandom. We ran Young Adult Fun Activities (YAFA). It was fun!  Iain Banks, George R. R. Martin, and Robin Hobb all participated!  We chopped up a car and even played with liquid nitrogen! There was a program item entitled ‘Where will the Future of Fandom Come From’—to everyone’s surprise, except the panelists’, we invaded from the back door bearing water pistols!  It was very rewarding.

After YAFA we ran Chaos Space Pirates in 2006, gave Aussicon ideas in 2010, and ran Reno Kids 2011, ChiKidz 2012 and Rangernauts this year. I think being able to run the program of a moving event like Worldcon consistently and consecutively is really helpful.  It allowed a build-up of team and resources.

GM: What would you say is vital for making a successful kid’s track program?

AM: Willingness to have fun, be a bit goofy and enthusiastic yourself, and be genuine about what you’re doing. Kids know who’s real with them, and they see right through people who aren’t genuine.  There’s also a lot to say for being organised and prepared.  We (James and I) come days early to prep ahead of time.  We have a great team each year that we are so grateful for that we couldn’t be successful without!  Everyone works so hard to paint, build, and even test… just to make sure things can be played with (and even broken, LOL) right away!  But, that is the BEST part!  The KIDS are what matter!  THAT is what is vital for making a successful Kids’ Program.

JB: Real support. Financial support really helps. The Worldcons make funds and world class participants available while giving us a great location and space. Kids’ Program is not a 2nd class stream, in actual fact to most Worldcon Chairs it is one of the most important. It’s a 5,000 person event and we are looking after 200 children, but it is still a cherished part of the convention.

©2013 John O'Halloran johno@tyedye.org
A stack of duct tape as tall as herself! (Photo: John O’Halloran)

A good Team is vital. A big one, it is exhausting. Planning, as Alissa says, everything must be ready. You cannot fail children, or run out of duct tape.

Listen. We did ‘Make Lightsabers’ nine years ago. The kids loved it. It never gets old. The best items we did this year were based on ideas, or successes and the feedback from children themselves.

If it seems or sounds dangerous, that is great, especially if there is a danger, but obviously the risk is managed.

Be flexible with the kids, while maintaining discipline and order. They are individuals, so everything is not for everyone, but a ‘Give it 10 minutes and see how it goes’ or ‘would you like to help me’ can carry children into something they subsequently enjoy. Be very relaxed, it is meant to be fun.

Would ‘YOU’ enjoy it? If Alissa or myself would genuinely enjoy an item, there is a good chance it will work. So, in a way we vicariously live through these kids, which is better than thinking like an adult and imposing what you think they might like.

GM: What worked particularly well at LSC3? What would you have done differently?

AM: Again, the team of people that supported our program was great. We had some returning staff members and some excellent new volunteers this year.  I think part of the difficulty we always have is that people don’t know that a separate program for kids is available.

JB: The Lead Pouring [with the artist Guest of Honor] was very successful, the warning that the molten metal will remove flesh from the bone got everyone’s attention. Frankenstuffies continues to be hugely popular, and the plush toy massacre was fun. The rockets propelled by pressurized air and water was good, too.

The best item was no doubt Astronaut Cady Coleman, accompanied by Scientist Tracy Thumm and Engineer Heather Paul: a full NASA team. They were fantastic and looked at the Lego Space Station and Ships the children made. We also had Corry L. Lee, a experimental particle physicist, and Lt Kate Zurmehly (US Army) for that item, and that made it quite the line-up. An amazing group of role models, and having them engaging with the kids was fabulous.

RN Frankenstuffie 4
Proud owner of a Frankenstuffie. (Photo: Alissa McKersie)

GM: OK, I have to ask: Frankenstuffies?

AM: Absolutely! What we do is we take stuffed animals and dismember them…yes, we cut them up! We actually try NOT to do this while the kids are around. Last year, a friend of mine and I did this at home in Phoenix because we had the time and the transport to Chicago…this year, we did it in the room, the day before the con started. If you ask our Team (Gaye will tell you especially), we had some traumatic events that day! So, for the activity, the kids can grab whatever pieces they want and stitch together their own Frankenstuffie! And we use embroidery floss, so it’s more visible, like Frankenstein! What they come up with is unbelievable! Some kids are very traditional, and some kids are so imaginative! The variety is so cool to see!

GM: What sort of feedback do you get from the parents and the kids?

AM: I am still getting emails from parents from Renovation that wish they could be coming each year! Every year that we are running a Kids’ Program, I hear from parents and kids alike “then we WILL be there,” or something to that effect.  Several parents have said to me that they enjoy the programming for the kids, so they volunteer for more activities (which is always nice, as we need more parent volunteers!) But the BEST feedback for me are the big hugs I get at the end of the convention from the kids that say, “this was the best part of my convention”!

JB: A lot of it is instantaneous. It is rather incredible. From mannerly thank yous to requests for hugs, one can see the happiness. Parents are always just grateful, and many are supportive and get involved. I have to be honest and say we had nothing but great feedback this year. But that is because we have a massive team, and the unseen people, like the Chair, Randy Shepherd, getting the NASA team; or the facilities team, Helen Montgomery and Joyce Lloyd, making sure we have un-damageable aluminum tables; it all makes it work, and the resulting positivity is really amazing.

GM: Do you have any final words of wisdom for those who might be thinking of tackling this sort of thing at their own conventions?

AM: Remember, Worldcon is a five day on-going event, so it’s a bit of an anomaly.  James and I spend the entire year working on it in various capacities.  I don’t know that another convention is going to be that intense.  However, that being said… I think we both have a blast at Worldcon, regardless of the intensity!  So, bring scifi (or whatever your convention is about) to kids, be genuine and enthusiastic about it, and like I said in the very beginning… be willing to have FUN!!

JB: Have a good team. We had Mary Miller, Scott Hipp and Gaye Ludwig, Joy Bragg-Staudt, Corry L. Lee, James Shields, Lia O., Linda Welzelburger all helping us, and we recruited some teenagers who turned up, and they were superb, too.

Yeah, have fun. Each evening I ensured I enjoyed the vast social scene, partied, danced. or attended amazing ceremonies, and that breaks up the continuous assault of children! Don’t worry too much about things, like girls love slot cars and train sets and boys like to make scrap books and dragon wings, make the stuff available and let them play where they like.

©2013 John O'Halloran johno@tyedye.org
The 2013 Rangernauts team with NASA astronaut Cady Coleman. (Photo: John O’Halloran)

How to Geek a 5K

Five K run, Halloween costumes
X-wing pilot and Skywalker-in-Training! Cathy and Steve Greskovic found great 5K costumes. Photo by Fran Wilde

Last weekend, I ran my second 5K. The first time, three years ago, I ran by myself. This time I ran it with one of my best friends, which made the race even better. Know what will make it superb next year? Costumes.

The race I run takes place during Rehoboth Beach’s annual Sea Witch Festival… which may be one of the geekiest beach-Halloween festivals on the East Coast. Seriously: A pitch-perfect handmade Jawa and Gonk droid team (droid made of Rubbermaid bins, no less) won the parade and perhaps the universe, plus many more DIY costumes.

DIY Gonk Droid and Jawa in the parade. The Sea Witch Festival features many DIY costumes, but this little one walked the whole parade route on gonk feet. And looked utterly amazing. photo by Fran Wilde

The race, sponsored by the awesome Seashore Striders, is similarly outfitted, with several of my favorite costumes from this year below. There were pirates too, and skeletons, Vulcans, two great Teenage Mutant Ninjas with DIY shells (turkey roasting pans), superheroes galore, and a Bo Peep from Toy Story who ran in full dress. Batman and Batgirl sprinted past, on their way to victory while we were still headed for the turnaround, which was totally okay.

Here’s hoping next year I get it together to make my own costume, taking major inspiration from the folks below. In the meantime: Woo, we made it to the finish line!

Group costume: DIY Octopus legs! Heather Bevan, Lindsey Gibson, Gwen Rash, Wendi Potter, Becky Brown, Carol Middleton, and Charlene Pagan found their costume inspiration on Pinterest. photo by Fran Wilde
Powerpuff Girls Knee-highs and Tutus! Lyandra Emmanuel, Trish Ingram, Candice Savoy, and Nicole Nicholson. photo by Fran Wilde.


Butterfingers! Part Two: Road Testing iPad Covers

Earlier this summer I wrote about some of my favorite covers for the iPhone – now it’s time to give the iPad some love. (No iPads were harmed in the making of this post… though I did drop one by accident once or twice…)

Let’s kick things off with:

The iGuy by Speck

Courtesy: Speck

Design-wise, I adore this cover. It’s clever and hilarious – I can’t tell you how many people stop us and ask about it when they see it. Have you ever handed your child your iPad (you don’t have to admit it out loud, it’s totally fine, you’re safe here…) and spent the entire time on edge about them dropping it? If you want full toddler protection – this is the cover for you. It’s durable, soft, and sproingy. (Yes, I think that’s the appropriate word to use here.) The arms serve as comfortable handles your child will have no problem gripping and hanging on to. Remember above where I said I may have dropped an iPad here or there – yeah – this would thankfully be the one that I dropped. And it bounced on one of the arms, and then bounced on the face of the iPad (cue me sucking in my breath and cringing in that way one does when a gadget drops) and it was fine.  Boooiiinnnggg!

This is a great cover if you’ve upgraded your iPad and given your kids the old one as “theirs.” It is not a cover you can pop in your purse and it takes up a lot of room in a backpack, so if you’re traveling on a plane, this may not be the right case for you or your child.

As an aside – I’d like to mention that even though the iGuy is designed to allow you to take pictures with later versions of the iPad, we shoved an original iPad in that sucker and it worked fine.

FitFolio by Speck

 Courtesy: Speck

Speck has a line of super stylish iPad covers in their FitFolio line that I road tested while I was working in an office for a month or so. I love the designs they offer – my favorite being the grey retro boom box one. This cover is extremely light and tight fitting, with a magnet in the cover to put your iPad to sleep and gently wake it up when you need it.

I loved how easy it was to throw this in my purse or tote – I felt confident that my iPad was fully protected, and asleep. My one issue with this cover is standing the iPad when you fold it over – often the iPad would slip out of the notch in the cover and slam down. It happened so often in meetings that I had to stop trying to prop the cover up in a standing position, and resort to folding the case in a triangle underneath.

Speck Wanderfolio

 Courtesy: Speck

I was intrigued by the idea of the Wanderfolio—aka iPad case as wallet—idea because I dream about paring down my life, but it never seems to happen. I wrote about how much I loved the Speck wallet case for the iPhone – so this seemed like the logical thing to try for the iPad.

When I get a new purse, I start out by streamlining all the things I carry, but alas, eventually, I end up with 3 random colored crayons, a stick and a rock from the park, a 2-month-old Trader Joe’s receipt, 14 lip glosses that I will never remember to use, a discount card to the Koreatown Galleria, and a parking ticket somehow littering the bottom of my bag. (Full disclosure – I just now looked in my purse and these are all things I actually found in there. RELATED: I need to clean out my purse. ALSO RELATED: I should pay that parking ticket. SOMEWHAT RELATED BUT VERY IMPORTANT: Always remember to put change in the parking meter.)

The Wanderfolio keeps you honest – it’s not that easy to overstuff it, though you know I tried. The design is slim with and without things in the pockets of the generous wallet area. Inside you’ll find two large pockets, two medium pockets, and two small pockets in a section of the case that snaps shut to keep everything secure.

I had some kind of mental block using this case as a combined wallet and iPad cover. Maybe it’s because I am so in love with the ease of my wallet iPhone cover, which feels less cumbersome to me. But let’s face it – carrying around your iPad is cumbersome. You just get used to it. I found myself using this case with the wallet part empty because the lining inside is EXCELLENT for propping up the iPad. No slippage. No embarrassing WHAPS! during important meetings, with me sheepishly re-propping up my iPad. To me, that’s a huge selling point for this one.

But you still, as it turns out, have to carry a purse, since, uh… where am I supposed to put my keys?

Griffin Elan Folio – Cabana


So you’re looking for a cover with some verve? Want something feminine and neutral all at the same time? This cover is quite durable with a classic look.

This cover is not my style at all. No, really! Remember that I often have rocks, sticks and rogue crayons in my purse. But it doesn’t stop me from appreciating the color and clean lines of the design. This is the kind of cover that some amazing art director would put in a photo shoot for a magazine as set dressing – like for an article titled “She Works Hard For The Money!” or “Daily Beauty: Casual Friday!” Of course there would be a model in a super stylish outfit awkwardly clutching a facing-out-baby while she dials a phone with a pencil in her other hand. And on her desk is an iPad propped up with this very cover on it. The light streams in from the window. And that office looks so stylish, so breezy and clean that your heart fills up with hope that your life can feel this good if only you buy this cover.

Xdoria Smartstyle


If you’re just looking for something simple, no bells, no whistles, no gimmicks or bonuses, then this is a great cover for you. This is a no frills, good, solid iPad cover. The craziest it gets is a small embellishment on the cover, separating it from the Apple store magnetic covers; a quite nice little  design detail. This cover was the lightest of the bunch, and a great all-purpose, don’t notice me and my iPad kind of cover. It does what it’s asked to do – protects the iPad, wakes it up and puts it to sleep with a magnetic cover, and doesn’t add bulk. You can’t go wrong.

The Props Power Case by Digital Treasures

Props Power Case 1

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I fall into bed at night, exhausted, then wake up in the morning, pull out my iPad and realize I’ve forgotten to charge it. Hello 5% battery life! This would be no big deal if I could just, you know, plug it in and leave it to charge up as I went about my business. Unfortunately, I often use my iPad for work, and bring it everywhere I go. So I don’t have that luxury.

Enter the Props Power Case.  I can’t tell you how many times this 12,000 mAh battery came in handy as I road tested this case. It’s surprisingly light for something that packs such a power wallop! I really loved this case the best of all and am still using it as my regular every day accessory. This is by no means a light load– when you pop this in your purse, you really FEEL the weight. But knowing that I have back up battery power whenever I need it is worth it – it suits my work on the go lifestyle.  And it’s especially important to me to have while traveling.

Hope this helps you narrow things down a bit. It’s hard to believe there’s an entire industry built around personalizing our i-devices. I still marvel at things like this, because I still have all of my LPs, and remember when the 8-track would click off in the middle of the song so it could switch tracks.