The Varying Degrees of Tubing.

For family vacation this year, we went to a mountain “resort neighborhood” that might have been the most confusing place we’ve ever visited.

But that’s not what we’re here to talk about yet.

While we there, my mom, Ali, and I decided to take a tubing trip down the river that ran through the resort.

The bus was frightening just to behold. But we realized we didn’t know what Bus Fear was until we were on the tiny mountain roads in it, groaning and jolting as it failed in the long ascents, and barreling as it felt way too much like a bus-tragedy-about-to-strike while going downhill.

But before the ride, we were left to sit on the bus and consider our future. Ali looked warily forward to the metal box hanging above the driver’s seat.

“Uh, mom, what does ‘Body fluids cleanup kit’ mean?”

My mom jumped in and started listing off all the instances that could cause a spill of bodily fluids on the upcoming bus ride.

This did not help Ali’s excitement about the ride ahead.

The Mayberry-esque driver bounded onto the bus and began to count. Loudly. Pointing to each passenger as he did so. It felt very much like a kindergarten class skills demonstration.

On the first count, he made it to 34. He threw up his hands and said, “Okay, let’s try again.”

Apparently, 34 was not the number he was looking for.

He started his second round with, “Okay. I got one guy standing up.” Then proceeded to count everyone sitting down, starting at one.

This time, he got to 31.

“Hold on, y’all. I gots ta’ get some help.”

As soon as he exited the bus, all 32 passengers agreed: he never counted the guy standing up. The guy that he singled out to remind himself to count. He was gone long enough for us to do an independent audit and discover that there were actually 32 of us.

He came back with a young guy that looked as if he could count. He quickly checked off that we were all there, and sent us on our way.

Thus began the barreling and groaning.

As we reached the top of a long country hill, the driver stood up, turned halfway around, and announced loudly: “Now I know we don’t have no real air conditioning, but this here is country air conditioning!!”

Then he proceeded to dance wildly, flailing his arms about to…create a breeze? All while the bus careened down the hill.

My cautious daughter gasped and let out a tiny scream.

My Mom, in an attempt to distract Ali, asked her what her favorite part of vacation had been so far. Ali was not ready for conversation. Her bulging eyes turned accusingly to my mom and she screamed, “I have no idea but it’s certainly not right now!!”

Once the driver took his seat again, he decided it was time for a chat.

“Okay. I’m gonna go ahead and go over the safety measures so that when we get to the river, we don’t have to do it.”

He then outlined enough information to print on an 8 1/2 x 11 laminated reference sheet.

“There will be three rapids. On the first one, go right. On the second, go center. On the third, go right. Oh – and there’s a fresh tree down over the river. I’ve heard the rapids will take you right into it – go left! DO NOT GET OUT OF YOUR TUBE, and DO NOT GET OUT OF THE RIVER. The river runs through a gated community, and they don’t cotton to me comin’ to pick you up. They give two exceptions: weather and a medical emergency. If you have a medical emergency, exit to the right. If you exit to the left, there are no roads and I can’t come get you. Oh – and right after the third rapids, you need to start lookin’ for stairs on the left – that’s where I’ll be waitin’. That’s the only time you can exit to the left. If you miss them, and it does happen, DO NOT GO UNDER THE METAL BRIDGE. If you go under, you’ll find yourself in rapids that are NOT SAFE FOR TUBIN’, and you’ll have to be on the river for EIGHT MORE HOURS until you dump out into the lake and I can come get you. Got it?”

Everyone looked aghast.

So he continued.

“Oh – and do NOT take anything valuable on this trip. That includes phones. I had a man lose an $800 cell phone and I had begged him to leave it with me. This river will strip everything you care about away from you. Do you understand??”

Ali looked at me, partially horrified, partially judgey, since she knew good and well that I had my phone tucked into the top of my swimsuit.

We had talked Ali into this little adventure by promising (as the tubing employee on the phone had) that it would be a calm, relaxing float along the river – just like a lazy river! Except a real river! Neither the bus ride nor the bus driver’s ominous speech had made her feel confident in our promises.

We got out and began collecting floats and life jackets, and a worker yelled out at our bus driver, “Did ya bring any of the sticks back?”

“Naw, I forgot.”

“They woulda been real useful for the tubers! The river is movin’ REAL slow today.”

Um. Okay.

Ali grabbed a short stick for me as we got in, then I strapped our three tubes together with our life jackets. The float started off calmly, except for the 32 panicking people from our bus – everyone was a bit frightened at having everything they cared about stripped away from them.

Meanwhile, the river was barely moving. And I was doing way more paddling than I had in mind for this relaxing tube ride.

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At the first bend, we approached the first rapids. We went right, remembering our right-center-right directions. They were calm, fun, and not at all stripping away of the things we cared about.

At the next bend, the second rapids. We went center, with the same slightly quickened water pace – just enough to make Ali say “wheee!!” with no fear whatsoever (which should indicate that “rapids” was a strong exaggeration.)

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Notice the giant log my mom is holding? Yeah – she managed to steal that from the banks to help us get down this lake of a river.

We saw the third rapids ahead, right behind the freshly felled tree, and began to question ourselves. We’d only been on the river half an hour – it was supposed to be a two hour trip. Surely our trip wasn’t already over…

But there were no stairs on the left.

So we kept on floating.

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After twenty rapids that were indistinguishable in ferocity from each other and three freshly felled trees, we determined that our driver’s difficulty in counting was not limited to the bodies on the bus.

And also, it didn’t look like two hour time limit was going to happen.

Ali was done after an hour and a half. We kept trying to encourage her, telling her that any minute we’d be spotting stairs.

After another hour, this wasn’t as comforting. She had her chin resting on her fist with a blank look of death-by-boredom on her face.

So I told her, “Tubing and Canoe trips are always a little longer than you want them to be.”

She jerked up and indignantly said, “A LITTLE?!?

Just past the three hour mark, after another set of rapids in which we repeated for the tenth time “Maybe THIS is the third rapids!!”, we saw it. Glorious, glorious stairs.

And about ten feet after the stairs, we saw the ominous metal bridge that promised a waterfall and 8 more hours of tubing.

“DO NOT!! MISSSSSSS!!! THE STAIRS!!!!”, Ali screamed at us.

We paddled with all our might, little branch and big branch, and secured our spot on the return trip of what was actually the part we should have been warned ominously about – the bus ride.

On the Growth of a Man.

Noah has been busy lately, growing up and stuff.

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He’s become a puzzlingly model student (he has for his entire life held a staunch non-education policy), his imagination is running wild with ideas of commerce, and he got his first loose tooth.

He tried to play the tooth thing cool, just slipping it into conversation one morning.

“Oh by the way Mom, I have a loose tooth.”

He snarled his face into a grimace to attempt to hold the smile back.

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But I knew he’d been waiting on that development for years, desperately ripping at his teeth even at three years old, so I reacted with a level of excitement that made it irresistible for him to keep his straight face.

He began working on his tooth, night and day, wiggling and tugging, determined to accomplish this milestone of adulthood as soon as possible. There could be time found for tooth wiggling even at the waterpark.

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The milestone brought about philosophical conversations about what it meant, and I mean REALLY meant, as well.

“You can’t have kids until you lose all your baby teeth and get adult teeth.”

Way to set some goals, kid.

Meanwhile, he opened up shop. He became a restaurateur, setting up vast and detailed restaurants in his room. At one point, they were picnic tables outside a food truck, which he named “Rocket City Food Truck.” Later, he opened up a full-service restaurant in my living room floor – and yes, it stayed there for many days.

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During the Olympics, he insisted that I create themed décor to encourage more patrons to come, hence the ringed tablecloths.

Nothing made him have to bite the inside of his cheeks to keep from smiling more ferociously than for me to yell out “Hey! Table 4 needs a coffee refill! And Table 6 needs more cheese biscuits!! Table 9 isn’t waiting ANOTHER SECOND for their check!!”

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To attract a hipster crowd, he built a fantastically fancy Tinker Toy coffee maker. Not sure if it’s French Press or Cold Brew, but whatever it is, there’s some seriously snobby coffee getting made – and the kind you have to hold your mouth just right to pour.

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As I was cleaning out some stuff, I found these perfect placemats for him to decorate,

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as well as an order pad.

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…Because I’m pretty much the coolest hoarder there ever was.

His deductive reasoning is coming along nicely, too – last week, when trying to figure out why Not-Crazy-Renee didn’t answer my text right away, Noah philosophized,

“….Maybe she’s in the car…because she puts sunscreen on her kids when you don’t put sunscreen on us, so maybe she doesn’t text in the car like you do.*”

So yeah. According to Noah, Renee is a much more responsible person than me. All based on sunscreen.

* I do try not to text in the car. But sometimes when I’m at a traffic light, something has to be answered. And my father taught my children to (rightfully) fuss at me when I do. But that’s okay. They tattle on him driving WAY TOO FAST in return.

Noah has also busied himself asking me the tough questions of life, wrinkling up his nose and saying, “Mom, why do you smell like leggings?”

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And, while watching the women’s gymnastics, inquiring, “Is there fire rings in the boys gymnastics?”

No, but there totally should be, son. And they should put you in charge of Olympic marketing.

After three weeks of working that tooth with the dedication of a Hyena picking clean the bones of roadkill, Noah came in my room one morning to wake me up, got in my bed to snuggle, and said,

“Oh yeah. I pulled my tooth out last night.”

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“Wait WHAT?!? (His sister’s first tooth pull was full-on trauma. I didn’t know how to handle this casual news.) When??”

“After y’all put me to bed.”

“Why didn’t you come get us?”

“Because there was a 5 on the clock.”

“Wait a minute. So you woke up at 5am, pulled out your own tooth, and then went back to sleep?”

“Yup.”

“Did it bleed??”

“No.”

Did it hurt??”

“No.”

“Where’s your tooth?”

“On my bedside table.”

“That’s amazing…”

“I know. So I’m going to leave the Tooth Fairy a note telling her to give me a hundred dollars.”

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….The kid has a top-notch brain, without a doubt.

On Learning the Art of Theme Parking.

On Friday morning of our two mom/five kid adventure, we sat out for our first true undertaking – to Dollywood, the theme park.

I am quite inexperienced at the whole theme park thing – remember Disney? Yeah – they didn’t even let me in the front gate. So I was beyond thankful to discover that Not-Crazy-Renee is actually fantastically adept in the art of theme park planning and navigation.

I mean, I knew she’d done Disney with a baby (something I would never dream of attempting), but she hadn’t told me how good she was. She just quietly researched the park, and when we arrived that morning, she confidently said, “Okay I’ve studied the map and we need to go down Showstreet and through Rivertown Junction to get to County Fair which is where all the rides will be for the kids.”

I hadn’t even thought far enough ahead to fully realize that oh yeah – the rides would be separated by age.

Tip #1: If you’re going to do a crazy adventure, make sure that one of the moms is a planner, and has actually successfully gotten her family into and through a theme park.

But her planning started before we even left the hotel, when she borrowed a sharpie from Ali (what nine year old travels without sharpies?) and wrote her phone number on her children’s arms in case of getting lost.

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(I followed up with writing my phone number on my children…slightly smaller, on the inside of their arms, and without the giant “MOM”. But nobody ever accused Not-Crazy-Renee of not being bold. Remember the Neighborhood Package Thief?)

The phone number thing really was brilliant, and all the other moms at Dollywood kept commenting at our preparedness. However, it’s been five days and my number is still on Noah’s arm. So now it’s beginning to just look like he managed to snag some young lady’s number.

(And if someone saw the way he looks at Loulie, they’d have a pretty good guess of whose phone number he wanted to snag.)

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But Dollywood.

The rides were really fantastic. Teacups were a big hit,

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As were the bumper cars.
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Some took it more seriously than others.

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The favorite ride, but also the most complex for our outnumberedness, were the elephants.

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Here’s a Theme Park Math Problem For you:

Riders over 48” can ride alone. Riders under 48” must be with a rider that is over 16 years old. The baby in a carrier could not ride. There can only be two riders per elephant. Ali was over 48” and Noah, Jonas, and Loulie were under 48”. Plus, one adult had to stay off to hold Joshua, the baby. How many rounds had to be ridden to let everyone have a turn?

The answer is three, and the bonus answer is that Ali got three turns each time we rode the elephants (Perks for being the oldest.)

1. Adult/Noah, Ali
2. Adult/Jonas, Ali
3. Adult/Loulie, Ali

Thankfully, there were no lines that day, so this was relatively easy to accomplish. But since Elephants were the favorite, we ran this triple circuit multiple times. And sometimes, the kids waiting for their turn actually had a good attitude.

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(By the way, Noah was BARELY under 48”. If he’d been over 48”, everything would’ve been easier. Tip #2 from Not-Crazy-Renee The Theme Park Expert: I should’ve glued a one-inch foam wedge to the bottom of his shoes. I want to go back to Dollywood this weekend just to try this BRILLIANT plan.)

At first, due to my Theme Park Status of ignoramus, I was completely confused by all the different height requirements, number-per-ride requirements, and height-measuring poles. But then I began to appreciate it, because there was a ride for every situation.

Jonas got to drive a car:

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Loulie and Ali were able to ride a small roller coaster alone:

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And everyone was allowed to ride in the Bumblebee and a couple other rides alone, even Jonas and a VERY proud Noah:

IMG_4571I’ve still got the Bumblebee song stuck in my head.

We spent the majority of Friday at Dollywood, until my stamina gave out first.

We’d been awarding everyone’s good attitudes on the trip with Lego Bucks, so we stopped at the gift shops on the way out of the park for an energy pick-me-up, distributing swords and candy to the children, and delicious truffle-things to the mothers (because I am telling you we EARNED ourselves some Lego Bucks.)

IMG_4567Why yes, Noah is auditioning for “So You Think You Can Dance.” Why do you ask?

As we left, I asked Renee how much of the park we’d accomplished in our many hours there. She said about one eighth of the park. One eighth! That made me want to go back without the kids to do the other seven eighths, mostly more intense rides. But it was pretty amazing that there was a whole day’s worth of rides they could ride – it made the concept of theme parking with kids so much more doable.

(I’ve always been a little scared of theme parks. But now I know. If I can do it with two adults and five kids, I can TOTALLY do it with Chris and just my kids.)

The next day, before heading back home, we went to the Waterpark. I was even more skeptical that this would work – The odds were ever NOT in our favor.

But they had three full kid areas, plus a lazy river and wave pool.

Kid area #1 (Little Creek Falls) had two mild slides that the three oldest kids could do alone (even my very risk averse Noah (who won’t even go down the slide at the YMCA pool) went right up and did it – no coaxing required!)

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Kid Area #2 (Bear Mountain Fire Tower) was a bit more intense – there was water squirting at every angle, and a giant bucket that doused the entire play area every few minutes. I was shocked my kids were up for this one, but they were – we had to drag them out.

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Kid Area #3, The Cascades, was the best kid area in my opinion – it was bigger, yet more laid back and quieter, but still had a couple great slides.IMG_4544

One of the slides was perfect for Ali to take Jonas on, a treat that they both loved.

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We chilled for a while at the wave pool,

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Which proved to be a perfect Dippin’ Dots / Cotton Candy break for everyone.

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Renee and I also each took a turn taking Loulie and Ali on a big raft waterslide – a slide that had way too much adrenaline potential for Noah.

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But the real adventure came, ironically, at The Lazy River.

Oh, I wish there were pictures.

We had decided we could do it – Renee could hold Joshua, I could hold Jonas, and the other three could be on their own floats. But the waterfall was loud and the river was somewhat crowded – and I couldn’t figure out how to sit on my float, be able to steer, and hold a two-year-old upright. I followed Expert Renee’s lead and hefted one leg up over the float, balanced Jonas on that leg, and left the other leg hanging down with which to steer, looking very much like Leg Lamp Boat Rudder. I wasn’t sure if my legs would ever go together again.

Meanwhile, Noah decided that a REALLY FUN GAME to play on the Lazy River would be (he didn’t name it this but he might as well have ) “The Drowning Game”, where he kept flipping over backwards in the middle of his float, flailing just below the water level (even though he could totally touch), allowing a couple of seconds to go by, then jumping out of the water laughing hysterically.

And no matter how hard I tried, I could NOT get him to quit playing this game.

We took two laps around because it had taken us the time of three laps to get into the river, so we couldn’t quit at one.

Tip #3: If you are grossly outnumbered by your children, leave the Lazy River to the happy romantic couples who are only dreaming of creating offspring. No need to show them what that dream actually looks like.

Aside from the Lazy River adventures, though, the waterpark was a smashing success. Everyone had a place they could play at a level they were comfortable, we stayed for six hours and the kids would’ve stayed longer, and we left with the same number of children we possessed upon arrival.

We threw everyone into dry clothes, doled out iPads and headphones, and started the journey back to Birmingham, enjoying the lovely view of worn-out, silent, double-screening children.

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And we congratulated ourselves. Because we were CLEARLY rock stars.

(With an honorable mention to Ali, who was crazy helpful and much needed all weekend. Tip #4: Don’t travel without a kind and happy-to-help oldest child.)

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We were sure to give her many reading breaks and covertly sneaky treats that the other kids never saw. We made being the oldest totally worth her trouble.

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A couple days after returning home, Noah called me into his room to show me what he and his Daddy had built the night before at bedtime.

“Look Mom, it’s a time Machine. See? You turn this wheel and you can go back in time.”

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“Cool! Where are you going to go back in time to? Or are you going to go to the future?”

“Oh I am definitely going back to Dollywood!”

I’d call that a successful adventure.