Where the Wind Leads by Vinh Chung

Mar 15, 2019

If I know you personally, chances are I've already recommended this book to you. For the rest of you, that's what this review is for.

Vinh Chung, the fifth child in a wealthy family, was born in Vietnam just months before America pulled out of the war and the country fell to the communists. In a matter of days, his family lost everything they had worked for years to build and accumulate--their home, their business, their savings. For three years, they eked out a living before deciding it was too dangerous and crippling to raise a family under such circumstances. They risked everything to leave Vietnam.

But in leaving, they traded one danger for another: they found themselves on a Malaysian beach where no one wanted them, then abandoned in the middle of the ocean, then very nearly capsized by pirates. Eventually, miraculously, they made it to America (Arkansas, to be exact) where Vinh's father took menial jobs to support his family. He ended up foregoing his own dreams so his children (who numbered eleven by the time it was all said and done) could have a chance. And they took that chance and ran with it.

I haven't read a story that inspired me this much in a long time.

I had three realizations while reading it:

First, I guess I knew almost nothing about the Vietnam War. And because this story largely takes place after the war, I still know almost nothing about it. But now I know that I don't know anything about it. And I can also see why it was such a controversial war.

Second, refugees must be in the top tier of brave, heroic, determined individuals. I mean, right? Vinh's family's situation was impossible. They couldn't stay in Vietnam, but they couldn't leave either. And when they finally did leave, they put themselves at the mercy of other individuals and governments and countries, and no one wanted them. At one point, Vinh said, "Once again we were powerless, unable to control our direction or destiny. The Malaysians had the big ship, and we were consigned to the tiny boats; we danced behind them like wooden puppets on strings. They could take us anywhere they wanted, at any speed they wanted, for as long as they wanted and we had no way to stop until they allowed us to." That must be such a terrifying feeling--to know that you have no control over your own life and yet realizing that the only way you can possibly make it to the other side is by giving it everything you have. And I'm not even talking about when they actually finally make it to America. That's a whole other endeavor--finding a job, supporting a family, learning a new language and culture and customs, missing family members who were left behind, encountering racial prejudices, and being relegated to the bottom of the social hierarchy.

Third, hard things are somewhat easier to handle when seen through the lens of a young child. Vinh was a very young child when all of this was happening (I think he was three years old when they left Vietnam). His memories of the hardships and tragedies they faced are very dim. He said, "I have no memory of Bac Lieu or Soc Trang or our little farm with its ducks and geese and pigs. My very first memory in life is the moment I was dropped into that warm ocean water on the beach in Malaysia." Of course, he fills in those details with memories from his parents and older siblings, but because of this emotional distance, some of the atrocities aren't as soul-sucking as they might be otherwise. And I wonder if he kept this innocent filter over the top on purpose so that the story sounded of hope rather than misery. (But still, no matter how you spin it, there are some things, like towing 293 people out into the middle of the ocean and then abandoning them with no supplies, that can't be given much of a silver lining.)

Beyond those things, the book surprised me in two ways.

First, Vinh Chung was quite funny. At first, I thought it was a little cheesy, but after just a few chapters, I found it completely endearing. Also, I was kind of amazed that he could find anything to joke about in such a dark, hopeless situation. Granted, this was written almost forty years after the fact, but still. Some might look at it and think that his humor was inappropriate given the gravity of the topic, but I think it helped ease some of the tension, and also, I think you can't overestimate the strength that having a sense of humor can give you both in the present moment and also after it's all over while you're still dealing with the repercussions. Here are a couple of examples to give you a little taste:"
"One night my mother dreamed she was in the marketplace in Soc Trang along with our entire family. Grandmother Chung wasn't there--it was a dream, not a nightmare--nor was my uncle or his family." (Grandmother Chung may have ruled the family with a bit of an iron fist.)
The humor was a mixture of slap-stick, dry, and sarcastic:
"My father couldn't wait to try out his brand-new rice cooker, but when he went to plug it in, he discovered that Singapore used a different voltage and his rice cooker would not work in America--a fact the merchants back in Singapore had somehow forgotten to mention. Oh well. At least he could listen to his boom box. Oops." 
And second, I was not expecting Vinh's story to have a deeply spiritual undertone. But it did. His whole family converted to Christianity after arriving in America as a result of some miracles they experienced on their journey, as well as a dream his mother received and also the community they found in the church they joined.

Vinh said, "There are times when an apparent coincidence is so incredible and so perfectly coordinated that it forces us to wonder whether there must have been purpose behind it." And it may have been this, more than his humor or innocence, that made this story feel so hopeful. Vinh's family was able to see God's hand in their lives, and they expressed their gratitude for it. They worked hard, they didn't complain about the unfairness of their lives, and they rose above it all in a beautiful, miraculous way.

I hope you'll give this book a try.

A Little of This and That in February

Mar 7, 2019


February: it was sweet and blessedly short. And I actually didn't take very many photos. I need to remember to pull out the camera even when the light is not ideal. But anyway, here's a little of what we were up to . . .

Canceling . . . school. On the morning of February 6th, when the house was still dark and quiet, I received a phone call from the school district saying that school was canceled for the day. I was shocked. I mean, a ton of snow had fallen during the night and was still falling that morning, but the night before, the school district had sent an email reaffirming the district-wide policy to keep all schools open regardless of the weather. In the five years I've had school-aged children, that has always been the policy, and I have driven my kids in all kinds of inclement weather where I wished I had just kept them home. A "snow day" had become this mythical apparatus in my kids' eyes--something that was tantalizing but never a possibility. So can I just tell you how truly magical it was to have them each wake up, one by one, and stumble, bleary-eyed, into the kitchen where I shared the unbelievable news with them that we were getting an official snow day? They ran and jumped around with giddy, exuberant energy. Bradley had come upstairs fully dressed and ready for the day, and so his first official act was to change back into his athletic shorts. Mike slowly and painstakingly made his way to work (it took over an hour when it's usually less than twenty minutes), only to have them cancel work a few minutes after he arrived. So he turned around and came back home, and none of us complained. It's a day we'll all always remember because I don't anticipate it happening again.


Breaking . . . a lot of phone chargers. Random, right? A few weeks ago, one of our chargers stopped working. And then, a few days later, another one died. A day or so after that, we lost another one to whatever mysterious plague was infecting all of our chargers. We finally narrowed down the culprit to my phone. Somehow, when it was charging, it was pulling from the charger at full capacity until it couldn't take it anymore and bit the dust. I thought, This could get really expensive really fast. But Mike bought a charger that can handle more volts, and I have my fingers crossed that we've fixed the problem.

Baking . . . , eating, and watching the finale of The Great British Bake Off. As has become tradition, we watched the last episode of season 8 with James and Kathy. Although we watch most of the episodes on our own, we text back and forth during the season, sharing our reactions and cravings. We make a list of bakes we want to try, and then for the finale, we come together to eat several recipes from the season and watch the final episode. And when I say "we," I mean I eat the food and watch the contestants, but I don't really do any of the baking. I'm pretty sure I should be thrown out of the Great British Baking Club as an impostor, but thankfully the other three let me keep coming. And it was a good one this time: We had Sophie's butternut squash pie, Liam's hand-raised meat pie, Liam's million dollar bars, Kate's apple cake, and Steven's stuffed smoked paprika bread. And I was so happy with the baker who won this season.


Going . . . to parent-teacher conferences. This is one of my favorite nights of the year--there's just nothing like hearing someone else brag about and praise your child. (I say this realizing that parent-teacher conferences might not always be a pleasant, happy experience if there are real struggles or issues happening with learning or behavior. But right now, things are very good, so I'm going to celebrate it.) I especially loved visiting with Bradley's teacher, who also taught Aaron and Maxwell in first grade. Since I've sat in on a fair number of parent-teacher conferences with her now, I know how they usually go: she always compliments my kids and makes a point to shine a light on their achievements. But this time, she just gushed about Bradley in a way I've never seen her do before. She loves him, and even though he is only seven years old, she sees his potential and encourages it, and I love her for that.

Attending . . . my parents' ward to hear my little sister, Angela, give a talk before she left on her mission later in the month. She is perhaps the only soon-to-be missionary who literally wrote her talk six weeks in advance and practiced and edited it multiple times before giving it. We are already missing her something fierce.


Buying . . . a new chair for Ian's room. One of my goals for 2019 is to decorate Ian's bedroom, which is long overdue. I kicked off the process by trading out the old glider we had in that room for a lovely blue rocker/recliner. The old chair had been with us for a long time. I purchased it when I was pregnant with Aaron, and I remember that it felt like quite a splurge because it was $75 from Kid-to-Kid, but it was replacing a glider that I had literally paid only $15 for in the classifieds (and which wasn't worth a penny more). Anyway, I've rocked and nursed many babies in that chair, so it was a little nostalgic to replace it, but mostly I'm just so glad to have a new chair that is both cuter and roomier to accommodate a growing toddler who still likes to be rocked like a baby.

Reading . . . books. It finally happened! The switch finally flipped, and Ian no longer tries to yank books out of my hands but will now sit still and listen to book after book after book. I knew it would eventually happen, but it was hard to keep patiently trying while he was a wriggling, writhing mess. But now he has turned into a regular little bookworm. He has a couple dozen favorites (which I'll try to share soon), and has them all memorized but still likes to hear them again and again. (And to be a little more accurate, he started liking books back in December, but I just forgot to mention it until now.) Sometimes, he will even sit through one of Clark's longer picture books, and that just thrills me to no end.


Placing . . . aluminum foil under our bed. I never could have predicted that I would have a need to put "aluminum foil" and "bed" in the same sentence. You may or may not know that we have a cat. I don't talk about him much because I actually don't like cats, and so I merely tolerate his existence. He loves to hide under Mike's and my bed, and it drives me crazy because I don't like sharing my room with a cat. Granted, under the bed is better than on the bed, but still . . . Anyway, Mike had the brilliant idea to lay down a sheet of aluminum foil under our bed, and, it sounds crazy, but it worked. The cat no longer hangs out in our room, and that makes me happy.

Handing . . . over all responsibilities for Valentine boxes to my kids. Does anyone else agree with me that Valentine boxes are one of the worst traditions ever invented? This year, both Bradley and Maxwell's teachers said the kids could just decorate a bag in class, but they were allowed to bring a decorated box if they really wanted to. I was so relieved and grateful for those teachers until my kids said, "But we really still want to make one!" And so I said, "Then you're in charge of it." And I absolved myself of all guilt. They came up with their own ideas (Aaron: tank; Max: bug box; Bradley: TV), used copious amount of scotch tape and construction paper, and I've never seen them happier or more pleased with themselves. (And as our friend, James, succinctly put it: "Nothing says Valentine's like a wasp." Ha!)


Celebrating . . . Valentine's Day in lovely, low-key fashion. We had a special breakfast (orange rolls, courtesy of the grocery store), the boys all got new books, Ian walked around snitching candy off the table like it was his best day ever, and Mike wrote me a cute poem accompanied by some framed photos from various trips we've taken over the years. I gave Mike a raved-about lemon sour cream pie that had the most disappointing crust. (But that filling in one of Mike's crusts? Would have been a winner.) Aaron went to the fifth grade Valentine dance at school and told me that he didn't eat any treats the entire time because he was so busy dancing (I almost keeled over in shock!). That night, Mike and I went to Mike's sister's house for a cozy, not crowded Valentine's dinner, and it was the perfect way to end the day.


Brushing . . . up on my Shakespeare with an adaptation of Comedy of Errors at BYU. Actually, "brushing up" implies that there was something already there to brush up on, but sadly, my Shakespeare education is woefully lacking. So the play started, and I was so confused during the first five minutes that I scrambled to read the synopsis of it in the program, and then I enjoyed it so much that I wished I could see it a second time.

Finishing . . . and beginning a sweater. I am so happy with how my latest sweater turned out. It is comfortable and warm. I love the light pink lace yolk against the plain gray body. I also made some modifications (combining two sizes, adding a few extra rows in the back, using a special technique for the stripes) that made me feel like I'm getting to the point where I have enough techniques at my fingertips that I can interchange or add them as needed to make something that looks and fits just the way I want it to. Then, not even a week after finishing it, I purchased yarn for another sweater. I didn't exactly intend to. I told Mike I was going to the yarn store for "research purposes only," but then one of the employees told me that the colorway I had my eye on was being discontinued, and so I threw down my money on the spot. I'm not sorry.


Signing . . . up for junior high classes. Yes, junior high. Aaron is going to be in junior high in the fall. I can't wrap my brain around it. I feel like I'm reliving the months before he went to kindergarten all over again, including the part where I feel completely clueless about all of the deadlines and the requirements and the forms. I'm telling you, all parents need a mentor to help them get through each new phase as it comes along.There are just so many things you don't even know you should be thinking about until it's too late. Luckily for me, I have my sister-in-law, Sonja, who is about six years ahead of me parenting-wise and our kids happen to go to the same schools, so she has been able to keep me in the know about important details and information. Even so, there was still a lot of running back and worth to the junior high and elementary school for papers and signatures and questions, but I think it's all finally taken care of and I can relax again for a few more months (before I really start to freak out).

Narrating . . . all of our daily actions. Not only is Ian the biggest copycat on the planet, he has also taken to informing all of us about what we're doing at that exact moment in time: "Mommy's wearing a blue shirt. Daddy went to work. Aaron's eating cereal, etc." We love it. His little voice is a constant companion throughout the day, and we can't get enough of it.


Cracking . . . the reading code. Not only did Ian start enjoying listening to books, but Clark is reading, actually reading. We've been doing reading lessons for many months now, so he has been sounding out words for quite awhile, but something changed this month. I can always tell when we've broken through the reading barrier, so to speak, because all of a sudden, the new reader wants to read everything in sight . . . not just the comfortable, familiar-looking words in the reading manual. That happened with Clark this month. He checked out simple books from the library. He and I read some Elephant and Piggie books together (one of us reading Gerald's words, the other one reading Piggie's). He has been reading signs. He began reading his verse during family scripture study instead of repeating what Mike or I told him to say. This is the thrilling stage of learning to read where the world is opening up. I love it so much.

Completing . . . a pair of socks! I bought a "How to knit socks" online class a year ago and have been working on the socks off and on ever since. They were a great on-the-go, in-between-other-projects project, and slowly but surely, I made progress on them until I finally finished them this month! Even though I have made dozens of other items (some of them quite a bit more complex than these socks), there's something about knitting a pair of socks that actually fit me that makes me feel like a real knitter. Step aside, Caroline Ingalls! I've got this.


Losing . . . a tooth. One of Max's top front teeth was loose for most of the month, but he wouldn't pull it out until the very last day of February. He had carefully calculated the loss of this tooth so that it coincided with his birthday eve, figuring that maybe, just maybe, the tooth fairy would give him extra money if it happened to be his birthday when she visited him. Even though it was just hanging on by a single root, he still needed his theme song ("Whatever It Takes") and a new issue of Ranger Rick to distract him while Mike pulled it out with a pair of tweezers. And his plan worked . . . the tooth fairy left him double the usual amount.



That's a wrap! What did you spend your February doing? Please share!




An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Mar 1, 2019

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If I had to choose one word to describe this book, it would be wrenching.


Gut wrenching. Emotionally wrenching. Heart wrenching.

Roy and Celestial have only been married a year-and-a-half when their lives change suddenly and drastically one night. They went to Roy's hometown to visit his parents, and their motel room door was forced open in the middle of the night and they were dragged from their bed. A woman a few doors down claimed that Roy broke into her room and raped her.

But Roy is innocent. He knows it, and, more importantly, his wife knows it. She hadn't even fallen asleep yet when their door burst open.

But the trial proceeds quickly. Unfortunately, Roy is a black man being accused by a white woman, and the timing and the circumstances are not in his favor. Roy is convicted without proper evidence. He is sentenced to prison for twelve years. (Side note: it never explicitly says that Roy's accuser is white. I assumed she was because her word was given more credibility than Celestial's testimony, but some of the women in my book club assumed she was black, so it was somewhat ambiguous. Regardless, Roy was convicted.)

At first, Celestial and Roy are unfailingly loyal to one another, pledging their devotion until either Roy serves out his sentence or his attorney (Celestial's Uncle Banks) gets him acquitted. But as time marches on, Celestial goes on living, and other things (and people) move into take Roy's place. After three years, she writes that she is done with their marriage; she has to move on; she wants to get a divorce. Except . . .months pass, and she never files for a divorce.

When Roy is finally released after five years, he doesn't know what he'll find and if it's even possible for a marriage that was still just in its infancy to be able to survive such a tragedy.

The story is told from three perspectives: Roy's, Celestial's, and Andre's (oh, I didn't mention him? He and Celestial have been friends ever since they were children. I'm sure you can guess why he's in the story . . .). Their voices are distinct, raw, and vivid. I loved the writing so much, and listening to the narration by Sean Crisden and Eisa Davis only enhanced it.

I won't pretend to know what it takes for a novel to move from best-seller to classic, or if the two are even related. But with the words still fresh enough to be ringing in my ears, this feels like the type that might last. I could see it being studied in literature classes decades from now. It just seems to have all of the right pieces to make something that's deep and mulit-layered and will keep giving each time you read it.

That said, I didn't love the ending. And not because it wasn't a happily ever after kind of ending. Celestial and Roy both move forward with their lives. Celestial's seemed natural and expected (probably because a big chunk of the book had been pointing that way), but Roy's seemed unlikely and maybe even fantastical. I'm not going to give it away here, but I'd be interested to know what you thought about it if you've read it. (As another aside, discussing this with the other ladies in my book club actually helped me resolve some of the issues I had with the ending, and I'm not as skeptical as I was when I first finished it.)

This was my book club's pick for February. We always try to select a book for this month that will have something to do with love and relationships. We've had some misses over the years, but this one was spot on perfect. Although there are some underlying themes of racism and equality, the heart of the book is about relationships and what happens to those relationships when life throws its punches.

At one point, Celestial says: "Marriage is like grafting a limb onto a tree trunk. You have the limb, freshly sliced, dripping sap, and smelling of springtime. And then you have the mother tree stripped of her protective bark, gouged and ready to receive this new addition." Part of the problem for Celestial and Roy was that their limb and trunk hadn't been together for long enough before the graft was put under extreme stress.

But back to my original word: wrenching. I became so deeply invested in the characters, and it was painful to watch all of the choices and circumstances play out and just wonder, "What if . . . ?" What if Roy hadn't been convicted? What if he had gotten out sooner? What if he and Celestial had been married longer first? What if? What if? What if?

It was those plaguing questions that kept me listening, and the unsatisfactory answers that kept me thinking long after I finished.

Content note: This is a heavy story. There is some language, including the F-word. There is also infidelity, including one descriptive scene that I chose to skip over.

Review x 2: The War That Saved My Life and Betsy and Joe

Feb 22, 2019

Guess what? The following books were both ones I picked on my own, for pure pleasure, with no expectations or strings attached. It felt so good, and I enjoyed both of them immensely.

The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
This book rekindled my love for middle grade novels. It was just so good, and I immediately put the sequel on hold, which is saying something since I'm not usually one to want to read the next book so quickly after the first. But I just really want more of Ada and Susan.

I also thought I was kind of tired of World War II books, but apparently I'm not. Ada's story begins just as Great Britain is on the cusp of joining the war against Germany. Having been confined to a one-room apartment her entire life, it is a beginning, both literally and figuratively, for Ada when her mam decides to send her little brother, Jamie, away to the country with the other school children to avoid the bombs that London is anticipating. Ada decides to leave with him. She doesn't ask permission; she just goes.

For years, Ada's mother has told her that she is worthless, disgusting, and embarrassing because she was born with a club foot. She doesn't deserve to be seen or educated. The cupboard under the sink is the place for her. For a brief few hours, as the train takes them far away from London, Ada puts that behind her as she exhilarates in her freedom. But it all comes rushing back when she and Jamie, grubby and unpleasant and her with a bleeding, throbbing foot, are not chosen by a single adult, and the teacher has to call up and force Ms. Susan Smith to take them.

The character development in this book is phenomenal. Ada's feelings are so complicated. She quickly falls in love with Susan's pony, Butter, and learns to ride him on her own. She makes friends with Lady Thornton's daughter, Maggie, and their stable hand, Fred. But her relationship with Susan is fraught with all of the feelings. She knows Susan didn't want them, and so any overtures of compassion and love from Susan are rejected. She reminds herself often that this is a temporary situation, and she won't let herself get used to Susan's attention. She has horrible flashbacks where all of the details of her previous life in London overwhelm her and make her frantic for escape. She is desperate for her mother's approval and constantly thinks, Maybe if she sees me doing [fill in the blank], then she will love me.

But slowly, her wounds heal, and she becomes capable, strong, and healthy. For Susan's part, having the children in her home begins to heal her of her own deep grief. Susan is wise and forward-thinking and reacts to the children's anger and rejection in a way that is both insightful and commendable. Ada has a complete meltdown on Christmas Eve, triggered by a gift from Susan--a beautiful green velvet dress. Instead of going to the Christmas Eve services at the church as they had planned, Susan wraps Ada up tight in a blanket and holds her until she is finally exhausted from her crying. The next morning, they go down for presents, but Jamie is sure Ada won't get anything because she was "bad" the night before. Susan says, "Not bad. Not bad, Ada. Sad, angry, frightened. Not bad." But Ada thinks, "Sad, angry frightened were bad. It was not okay to be any of those." The way that Susan was able to define Ada's outburst as actual feelings instead of making a blanket diagnosis was beautiful and touching.

This book won a Newbery Honor in 2016, and so I feel like I'm a little late getting to the party. But I'm here now, and this is going on my list of must-recommend reads.

Betsy and Joe by Maud Hart Lovelace
If pressed to choose a favorite Betsy-Tacy book, I think I would have to pick Betsy and Joe. Rereading it did nothing to change my opinion. I love this book so much.

For one thing, it has all the best scenes with Joe. You spend all of the high school books hoping for more of Joe, and you're finally rewarded in this, their senior year. By this point, he is set on Betsy and doesn't try to hide it. For her part, Betsy is thrilled. She spent the whole year previous wishing for Joe's attentions, and now she has them. Only problem is, Tony, who has always been like a brother to Betsy, now cares about her in a new way. Betsy is so happy to have Tony staying close to home and not jumping freight trains to hang out with older boys that she can't tell him she doesn't care for him in that way. But having two beaus is exhausting and anxiety laden, and eventually, Joe's pride can't handle it anymore: Either she goes with him exclusively or she doesn't. And without giving Betsy a chance to explain, he sticks out his chin in that defiant way of his and leaves her to Tony, which breaks her heart.

This series is closely tied to Maud Hart Lovelace's own life, and it makes me happy to think that all of the high school drama and festivities (the essay cup, the senior picnic, the dances), as well as the lovely home life (singing around the piano, sandwiches on Sunday, letters from Julia) were based on truth. (The one thing that isn't true? Maud and her future husband, Delos, didn't even know each other in high school, so even though Joe's character is based on Delos, their friendship with one another during that time is fictionalized.)

When Joe finally swallows his pride and Betsy finally realizes that she only wants Joe, it is in his aunt and uncle's general store in a tiny rural town. (Coincidentally, it was in this same general store that Betsy first met Joe nearly four years before.) Betsy has spent the week with friends, and her hair is straight and plaited instead of curled and puffed. Joe says, "Do you know, I like your hair straight," and Betsy thinks "if he had looked through all the poetry books in the world, he couldn't have found a better compliment." I could read this scene over and over again. I love it so much.

My other favorite scene is when Betsy is perfectly miserable on Christmas Eve because things have just fallen apart with Joe, but she chooses to put on a happy face and put her whole heart into all of the family traditions. In reflecting on the day, she says, "'It's a wonder I braced up for Christmas Eve. I'm glad I did.' She knew she had helped the family, and as a matter of fact, she had been happy. That, she realized, was because she had stopped thinking about herself." I think it's this one scene that makes the reader see how far Betsy's character has come over her four years of high school. She is willing to set aside her own personal misery for the good of the family, and that's admirable.

I don't know if I'll continue reading the series. To be honest, I kind of like to keep Betsy and Joe at this magical age where they're right on the brink of adulthood and madly in love with each other. The next two books lose a little bit of that because they have to grow up. But I might read Carney's House Party, one of the companion books to the Betsy-Tacy series, which I never read when I was younger.

A Winter Getaway to Disneyland

Feb 15, 2019


When I was a little girl, my family started a Disneyland savings jar. We taped a picture of Mickey Mouse to the front, and each time we received our allowances, we had the option of contributing a portion of it to the Disneyland fund.

But the nickels and dimes added up very slowly, and after a few months, we realized that while we were still far away from the amount it would take for Disneyland, we had enough saved to go to our favorite little amusement park just a few hours from our house, Santa's Workshop. (Plus, my parents convinced us that we would have a lot more fun at Santa's Workshop because we could ride all of the rides as many times as we wanted to whereas at Disneyland we would spend half our time in lines.) We raided the jar, had a grand time at Santa's Workshop, and, as I recall, never mentioned Disneyland again.


When Mike and I started our tradition of traveling to a warm destination each January, we always knew one of those trips would be to Disneyland. Unlike me, Mike had been to Disneyland as a kid, but just once for a day when he was ten years old. Although neither of us had a nostalgic history with the park, we still wanted to experience it with our kids. It has become something of a childhood rite of passage in America.


With Aaron approaching adolescence, it felt a little like our time was running out. Not that he couldn't enjoy it when he was older, but at ten years old, there was no question that he was still very much a kid, and we wanted him to be able to experience the magic of Disneyland with that childlike wonder still intact.

So we started planning. (Clarification: Mike planned; I offered feedback.) We booked a condo just west of the park back in June and then sat on the secret for months, never telling our kids about our January plans until we surprised them with it on Christmas morning. (We sent them on a treasure hunt which ended outside at an inflatable Mickey Mouse, and Aaron was more incredulous that we would buy an inflatable than that we would go to Disneyland.) (Fact: We didn't buy an inflatable, but borrowed it for this purpose.)


As the trip loomed closer, Mike's excitement grew at the same rate as my anxiety. He walked me through the map, showing me all of the things we would do, but all I could see were the long lines, the whiny children, and the crowds. I resigned myself to this being something I would grit my teeth through and endure for my kids, but it was not going to be the relaxing vacation of my dreams. Still, it would be a chance to get out of cold, smoggy Utah, so I was grateful for that.

Fast forward to our fifth and final day in the park. One by one, each member of the family said, "That was fun, but I'm ready to go" until Aaron and I were the only ones left standing.


The short version? I loved Disneyland.

I loved it when I did not expect to. It worked its magic on me, and I was under its spell before I knew what was happening. At the beginning of the trip, I told myself we would go now and then maybe again in eight years when Ian is Aaron's age. At the end of the trip, I was looking up the price for annual passes. That's how complete my revolution was.



The long version? Keep reading for some of the highlights, surprises, and memories.

Main Street USA
When I was a little girl, my family had a collection of Disney singalongs--short videos featuring the songs (and words) of some of Disney's most popular movies. One of them was themed around Disneyland with each song showcasing a different part of the park. I can remember watching the song with the parade down Main Street and imagining about what it would be like to be there. So maybe that is why walking under the archway and onto Main Street was like taking a page right out of my dreams. I was there! And it looked just like it did in 1992: The brick laid street and the charming storefronts with Sleeping Beauty's castle sparkling at the end. I think that was maybe my first inclination that I might actually like Disneyland. And now that we're home, the memory of stepping out onto that well-known street is one of my most beloved of the entire trip.


A third adult
A few weeks before our trip, Mike had the genius idea to invite my little sister, Angela, to go with us. She is probably my kids' favorite aunt (and they have a lot) because she's just so fun and knows just the right things to do to keep them entertained and happy. I don't think there's anyway to measure the help she gave us, but we had some indication of how truly vast it was after we dropped her off at the end of our trip. Bradley and Clark immediately started fighting, and Mike and I turned to each other and said, "This could have been going on our entire trip." Instead, I don't remember hearing those two fight even one time in the car because Angela was sandwiched right in the middle of them (probably the worst seat in the van!) and provided a (fun, entertaining) buffer. I thought she might get sick of us by the end; she probably was, but she never showed it. She was sweet and patient and wonderful for all nine days, and our trip would have been a lot less fun and a lot more miserable without her.





Being brave
Before our trip, I decided I was going to ride ALL of the rides at Disneyland, or rather, I wasn't going to turn down riding something because it scared me. I wasn't going to finally get to go to Disneyland and not ride Space Mountain or Splash Mountain or any of the other rides I'd heard people talk about my entire life. I was going to grit my teeth, hold on tight, and scream my way through all of them. (P.S. I know Disneyland's "big" rides aren't that crazy compared to other theme parks, but I am not very adventurous, so this was a big deal for me.) Overall, it was so fun to prove myself a fun mom to my kids, and they loved seeing my nervousness and telling me there was nothing to worry about. I  rode Guardians of the Galaxy (aka, Tower of Terror) with Mike (thanks, Angela!), and before we got on the ride, I said something like, "I don't understand what's taking so long. Don't you just go to the top and then drop down?" And Mike said, "Sure, let's go with that." That was the only ride where my scream was cut off mid-drop, snuffed out like a candle. I don't know if we were plummeting so fast it was left behind or if I was just too scared to let it out. Either way, I was glad when that one was over and I could check it off my list and not go back. (But our worst ride experience was probably the Haunted Mansion. We got stuck on it for ten minutes, and Ian literally went psycho and screamed his head off (not because he was scared, but he was extremely tired and did not want to go on the ride in the first place, let alone get stuck on it). I wondered, At what point does an employee come and rescue you? Because I think we were almost to that point.)




The rain
Out of our five days at Disneyland, four of them were rainy. And it was maybe the best thing that could have happened to us. The first day was a little rough because we actually thought it wasn't going to rain, and then it did, so we were a bit unprepared. (And then we lost half of our tickets and had to wait in a long line in the steady rain at City Hall to get them reprinted. That was a low point.) But we went back to our condo in the middle of the day to dry off and get warm, and from that point on, we totally embraced the rain. We all wore big blue ponchos and called ourselves the "Blue Crew." I would take rain over crowds any day, so it was an acceptable trade.




Short lines
Some people had told us that Disneyland in January is a "ghost town," and while I think we might have different definitions of "ghost town," it is true that we weren't being crushed by people, and I didn't worry about my kids being trampled by the masses. There were many rides we could just walk onto, no waiting at all. We did utilize fast passes, but sometimes,  it wasn't even worth it to get one because the standby line was so short. Bradley was able to ride the IncrediCoaster three times in less than forty minutes because of the short lines, and on our last morning there, Mike took the big kids on Space Mountain, the Matterhorn, and Star Tours in a half hour time span. That's not to say we never waited in a line. For example, Radiator Springs Racers kept closing because of the rain, so the kids and I just stood our ground in the standby line, hoping to get in, and 75 minutes later, we did. But overall, we didn't spend the majority of our time standing in 90-minute lines for two-minute rides, and that is what I was envisioning before we got there, so I was grateful to be wrong. In fact, I don't know that I could ever go to Disneyland at another time of year because we were so spoiled in the middle of January in the rain.




Food
One of the best decisions we made was to make a restaurant reservation each day we were at the park. It was so nice to have a place that was waiting just for us, especially when it was raining and we needed a little dry reprieve. The restaurants we went to got progressively fancier and more delicious (and more expensive) as the week went on. We went to Carnation Cafe (nothing special, similar to a Denny's), Wine Country Trattoria (standard Italian fare), Cafe Orleans (the best fries and beignets I've ever eaten, plus I actually loved the divisive Monte Cristo sandwich), and Carthay Circle (I'm still dreaming about the fried biscuits). Although we definitely took the more expensive route, I loved it because it gave our kids a refined experience with food they couldn't have anywhere else. We could never walk into a restaurant as nice as Carthay Circle with five kids without getting met with cold stares. But there, we were greeted warmly. They expected kids and didn't frown at the noise or the mess that comes with them. But at the same time, our kids recognized that we were in a nice place and that better manners than usual were required. They learned how to order from a menu and try new foods and wait patiently until everyone was done. It was something I never even thought of before we went to Disneyland, but I'm glad we made the decision we did and gave this experience to our kids (and ate a lot of yummy food in the process). On our last day, we didn't make a reservation anywhere because we wanted to hop around and try all of the classic Disney foods: churros, Dole Whips, mint juleps, raspberry Mickey macarons, the gray stuff, beignets (but the ones from Cafe Orleans were so much better), and grilled cheese and tomato soup from Jolly Holiday.  I know we didn't try everything (that's why we have to go back), but we made a good effort. Food will always be a big deal to us when we travel, and Disneyland did not disappoint.





Animation Studio
One of our pro-Disneyland friends recommended the animation studio at California Adventure. On a rainy afternoon, in need of a dry place, we decided to give it a try. And then we went back two more times. And honestly, if we'd had another day at California Adventure, we would have done it again. An actual animator walks you through the steps, and we learned how to draw Daisy Duck, Mickey Mouse, and Tigger. It was probably my kids' favorite non-ride thing we did. (Side note: This photo makes it look like no one else was there, but I took this at the end of the class, after everyone else had left.) (Second side note: Turtle Talk with Crush, which was in the same building, was also really fun.)


Shows
We took full advantage of the wide array of shows because they were somewhere to dry off in the middle of the day (are you noticing a theme here?). The morning we saw Frozen was especially needed because we were all feeling pretty soggy, and it literally poured while we were in the theater. It felt so good to take off our wet ponchos and shoes, munch on some warm popcorn, and watch a spectacular re-creation of the movie. And by the time it was over, the rain had slowed down, and we were ready to tackle the rides again. We also enjoyed the storytelling versions of Tangled and Beauty and the Beast and also Mickey and the Magical Map and Fantasmic.


Cars Land
If Main Street was the place where I felt transported to another time and place at Disneyland, Cars Land was the equivalent at California Adventure. We crossed the threshold and all of a sudden, it was as if we were in the movie: the Cozy Cone Motel, the one blinking traffic light, the statue of Stanley outside the fire station--it was all there, vibrant and life-size. The Radiator Springs Racers ride continued with that feeling because we didn't just feel like we were spectators (like we did on so many of the other themed rides that took us through scenes from the movies), but it seemed like we were actually a character in the plot.





Characters
When people go to Disneyland, they always post a million pictures of themselves with various Disney characters, and I always thought it was so silly because I could have cared less about seeing them posing with a person in a mask. But that was before I saw Ian with the characters, and then I totally succumbed to its charm. He was so cute! Even though he didn't have any idea who Pluto or Eeyore was, he still ran over and gave them giant hugs and big high fives. So here are a few pictures of Clark and Ian with some characters, and I'm sorry for all of the times I've made fun of you for posting similar ones. I get it now.




Tour rides
My kids called them tour rides--you know the ones where you sit in a little vehicle of some sort and take a "tour" through the scenes of a movie? My big kids turned up their noses at them (although they were still good sports and rode a bunch of them), but I  was so grateful for them because Ian was able to ride almost all of them, he and Clark loved them, and we usually didn't have to wait in any lines.



A night out
We were hardcore on our first day at Disneyland and stayed until 10:00pm because we wanted to see the fireworks. But on the other nights, I went back to our condo with my sister and most of the boys, and Mike stayed with one of them for a special night out where they got to do whatever they wanted without having to coordinate with the whole group. For Bradley, that meant riding Star Tours over and over again until he was chosen as the rebel spy. I even got my own night out on our day off from Disneyland. Our friends, the Gardners, were in California the same week as us, and so we hung out with them on Thursday. That evening, we left eight of the kids with Angela, and Mike and I took Ian and went out to eat with James and Kathy.




Beach time
In addition to our time at Disneyland, we also went to three different beaches during the course of our vacation: Laguna Beach, where the boys jumped over waves and got soaking wet; Little Corona del Mar, where we explored tide pools and watched the sun set; and Balboa Bay, where the boys biked down the boardwalk with the Gardners and ate Balboa bars (and that place literally was a ghost town). Each place was different, and the laid back pace perfectly countered our high energy on the other days.






After it was all said and done, we all had our favorite rides and favorite foods and favorite activities. Part of the luxury of going for five days was that we could identify what those favorites were for each of us and do them again, locking them into our memory forever.


One of the things that felt most important for me to do was ride the teacups. That's because I associate that ride with Mike's sister, Alisa, who passed away in 2015. She loved Disneyland. Following a particular blow in her cancer journey, her family left on a spontaneous trip and were able to forget, or at least ignore, the diagnosis for a few happy days. Our first day at Disneyland, the teacups were closed due to rain, and I'll admit, I felt a little heartbroken. But on our next day, they were open again, and as the colorful lanterns spun above our heads, I thought about Alisa. She was such an example of making memories and going on adventures as a family and truly living in the moment.



That's what I hope to do with these family vacations. They're a lot of work and money and usually have at least a couple of very unpleasant moments. But exploring a new place together creates family bonds in a unique and special way. We'll remember this trip forever and might have to go back sooner rather than later.


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