Sunday, July 7, 2013


Being here in "the Mormon Motherland" means that we get to see lots of friends. Today we visited with Janae, my MTC companion and dear friend for more than a decade now. She is also here visiting family, so it is pretty great that our trips coincided.

We spent the morning visiting with the kids played. Her kids are funny, cute and brilliant. I wonder where they get that... Anyway, I had so much fun having an actual conversation in person, and I loved every second of it. We need to stop living thousands of miles away from so many people we love.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Down Day

If you were wondering how the kids are holding up on the trip so far, I'll tell you. The kids are tired. Tired to the bones. They've been on the road for a week and a half, they've stayed up hours past their bedtime pretty much every night, and we've even switched a time zone just to compound their suffering. It must be so hard on them; they don't have their food, their beds, their toys, their routine, their house, or anything else that is familiar. Annie is taking it the worst, and will now only allow people in our immediate family to touch her. Rachelle is a trooper, but you can tell it's wearing on her. Stellan is grouchy and irritable, which is completely understandable.

So we've decided to take it easy today. We planned no major excursions, just a couple of fun short trips the kids would enjoy. We spent the morning at the park, which even Stellan liked, despite his best efforts. We did lots of building with toys at Grandma and Grandpa. Then we went out for ice cream with the cousins at Leatherby's. It's been nice. I hope the kids start settling down soon. I'm beginning to feel pretty guilty about dragging them along on this grand adventure.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Happy Anniversary To Us!

When we lived in California (for the first 7 anniversaries), we spent most of those on the road. We would complain every year that it was some family event in another state or some other obligation that would keep us from having our dream anniversary night together. Then we had kids, and also moved away from California, our families, and the obligation to go to every little family event or friend's invitation. We didn't know how good we had it!

Now that we're far away from all those people and events, we miss them. Also, we miss having relatives who will watch our kids (for free!) on our anniversary. We took so many things for granted, we were so young and so foolish! This year, we're back in the West and we're enjoying an anniversary especially because we're on the road.

Matt and Adrianne decided to spend the night at Kevin's parents' house with us after the pool party yesterday, and we have spent the whole day with them. After a brief stutter in our perfect day caused by a locked door with a missing key and a short visit from the locksmith, we headed out for pupusas and a movie. (We saw one of 20 movies Tom Cruise in which Tom Cruise plays someone with the name Jack.) The kids were at their cousins' house, and they ended up having a sleepover. So then we headed back to Kevin's parents' house for a game night. Don't underestimate the rarity of a true game night if you don't have kids. We spent a beautiful Utah evening on the deck with my beloved brother and his wife, Kevin's parents, lots of grown up fun and gaming, and even a bottle of Squirt (my favorite soda which is not available in the East).

Yep, it was pretty much a perfect day. Happy anniversary, Kev! Here's to many more. And to our kids: we love you lots, but thanks for giving us a day off. (That goes for the team of relatives who made that happen, too!)

Thursday, July 4, 2013

4th of July Pool Party

Kevin's uncle and aunt, Dan and Marge, hold a legendary annual 4th of July pool party every year. Somehow in 11 years of marriage, we've never managed to attend the pool party. Until this year. Was it worth traveling across the country just for this one event? You better believe it!

Kevin has a bunch of super awesome cousins (not to mention siblings) who were in attendance. We also convinced my brother Matt and his wife Adrianne to join us for the day. It was pretty much perfect; the kids got to play with their cousins, we grown ups sat around cool in the pool, we all ate some really tasty food (including homemade ice cream and also homemade root beer), and I even got to witness the traditional cannonball competition. Sadly, Kevin didn't even come close to winning this one, mass wasn't on his side.

We ended the night in the driveway watching a heap of fireworks with cute kids spilling all over everyone's laps, enjoying being together and celebrating the day and the event. Needless to say, we'll all sleep pretty well tonight!

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Dinosaur National Monument

Our latest adventure has been one of my favorites of any trip ever. We met Kevin's sister Renae, along with her husband Norm and their three adorable kidlets, in Vernal, UT to spend a couple of days at Dinosaur National Monument.

I've known dinosaur nuts my whole life, but have never considered myself a nut. An enthusiast, certainly, but I never really understood what drives someone to obsess over creatures that died out millions of years ago. Now I get it.

One of the visitor areas at the monument includes a quarry full of fossils. The park built a two-story gallery around the wall so that people can see, and in some cases touch, the bones up close and very personal. I was almost brought to tears as I thought of the history of the planet literally laid wide before me.

We also went on a short hike with the kids back to the main visitors center, giving my kids the chance to experience the Utah mountains firsthand. They chased lizards and found fossils; they climbed rocks and found shady nooks. Today has been one of the most amazing days of my life, and I loved being able to share it with my family.

Bonus story: speaking of nuts, we met a few on the trip. But they weren't dinosaur nuts; in fact, they'd probably best be termed anti-dinonuts. We were outside the quarry while we put on sunscreen and filled up water bottles before our hike and we overhead a man talking with this family. It was clearly not a family talking together, there was a definite patriarchal vibe. He was telling the others about how obvious it now was that dinosaurs aren't real, but that they are a colossal hoax perpetrated by the government. The point of the hoax is to generate revenue and to trick the godless, according to this expert. Wow. He turned it over to the kids for questions, who jumped in with their own versions of possible conspiracies. Interestingly, he vehemently asserted that the moon landings were factual; I'm not sure he's the kind of person I want on "my side" of the moon landing "debate". Again, wow. Just wow.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Day Trip To Vail

While we were with Lara, she took us to Vail for the day. Kevin and I were blown away with how gorgeous this part of the world is. Everything is green and bright and the temperature is perfect and I can't say enough nice things about it.

My kids were fascinated and consterned by the water in the river. The idea that this water was recently melted snow was so foreign to them that they didn't believe it until they felt it. Then they believed.

We enjoyed walking down the village road, playing at the pirate ship playground, splashing in the fountain, and a picnic lunch at the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens (the world's highest botanic garden). Did I mention it was completely beautiful? I wish we had more time there, we didn't even make it to the nature center at the Gardens. We'll be back, and we'll spend more time there. How could we not? It's hard to say no to perfection, even if it is halfway across the country.

Cousin Lara and Family

We got to spend a couple of days with my beautiful and amazing cousin Lara and her husband and sons. They live about an hour outside of Denver in the mountains near Vail, and we had such a great time with them!

My kids were so relieved to be in a "kid" house - they've been on the road and with mostly grown-ups or in "grown-up" places like motels for almost a week now. They could finally make lots of noise, play with toys, not get too worried if they spilled their kid snacks, use a stool to go to the bathroom, throw tantrums, and have the time of their lives with their cousins.

Trevor and Christopher were very good sports about sharing their toys and their space and their snacks. Lara was the perfect hostess, and we had a great time catching up and comparing our lives in very different places. Again I ask myself, why oh why do we live so far from Colorado?

Trevor gets bonus points for being a super trooper. He broke his leg a few weeks ago, and is in a very heavy duty cast. He scoots on his butt all over the house, up stairs and down, keeping up with the other kids with very little exception.

Thanks, Lara, for having us! We really enjoyed you and your family, your home and your hospitality. We hope to see you again soon!

Monday, July 1, 2013

Colorado Is Beautiful

Once we headed out of Denver proper and towards my cousin's house in Edwards, we saw something new - mountains! Big rocky cliffs, layers of sediment, mountains!

After literally thousands of miles of flat, plains, flat and more flat, and after 5 years of living in Florida, mountains are not something we take for granted.

In addition to the topography, the landscape is incredible! We are driving past rivers, lakes and streams, with bright green hillsides and wildlife everywhere. Kevin and I can't stop talking about how beautiful it is here. Why don't we spend more time in Colorado?

Museum Report: Denver Museum of Nature and Science

For me, the Denver Museum of Nature and Science is a great combination of a newer hands-on kid-friendly volunteer-enriched science center and the classic diorama-taxidermy natural history museum.

Expedition Health was particularly interesting. At the beginning of the hall, you fill out your personal information on a touch screen, and then a card prints out with a bar code and your info. As you go from display to display, you can check your pace, your heart rate, and any number of quantifiable physiological characteristics. At the end of the exhibit, your card is printed with all the data gathered throughout the exhibit. But mostly my kids liked the side room for young children with manipulatives and a slide.

The kids also loved the Discovery Zone, geared at young children. There were activities for all the kids, although 6-year-old Stellan burned out pretty quickly. And it was pretty busy; we had to wait in a line to get in.

The gem and mineral hall was breathtaking. It's set up to look like a mine (this is Colorado, after all). Not only is the collection vast and varying, but the specimens are spectacular. Even the kids had to grudgingly admit that is was pretty cool.

Obviously we went to the Space Odyssey. Although the exhibits are fun and of course feature the best and most exciting topics you could possibly cover (is my bias showing?), the most impressive thing was the sheer number of volunteers. The DMNS seems to have a vibrant and very active volunteer force. Their volunteers are engaging and informative, and do a variety of demonstrations and interpreting of exhibits all over. We did not visit the planetarium, since there weren't any appropriate shows for the kids during our visit. I have been to the Gates Planetarium in the past for a conference though, and it's very cool.

DMNS also features one of the best gift shops we've seen, and both kids made purchases here after long deliberations and sampling.

We loved the museum, and Kevin and I wish we could have seen more of it. Consider taking the kids for half a day, then ditching them and seeing the rest on your own! 2 thumbs up from the Cooks.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Museum Report: Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge

Question: When is a chemical weapons research facility not a chemical weapons research research facility?
Answer: When it's the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge!

Just outside Denver is a wildlife refuge that was once a chemical weapons manufacturing site in WWII and through the Cold War, and was later transitioned into a wildlife refuge in the post-Cold War haste to decommission weapons and also to clean up the environment. Now it's 15,000 acre wildlife preservation area with a visitor's center and interpretive trails, fishing, a photo blind, and lots of cool animals and plants everywhere. Swords into plowshares indeed.

We loved this place! The visitor's center was small but so great. They had some exhibits chronicling the history of the facility, complete with hazmat suits and homesteading costumes for kids to try on, dioramas, a gift shop and exploration backpacks visitors can check out (I'm a sucker for that kind of stuff).

There was also a fully stocked classroom which was open to the public when not in use for actual school groups, etc. This was a pleasant surprise, as generally rooms like this are locked or carefully supervised by volunteer staff. They had a reading area, some games and blocks, tables set up with activities and coloring, an impressive library and education guides for teachers. My kids loved it and would have stayed for hours if I had let them.

But we couldn't stay inside on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon in the middle of a nature preserve. So we hit the trail and went for a walk by the lake. We saw tons of cool wildlife: deer (including a mother with two fawns), prairie dogs (which really do pop up and say "yip" when you startle them), birds birds and more birds, and bison. Yep, bison. This trip is so cool and we're only 3 days in. We many never come home.

Everyone in our family gives this two thumbs (and maybe even an extra toe for good measure) up. Highly recommended!







I prefer to be positive, but sometimes even if you sugar coat something, all you have is a thin layer of sucrose. We left Kansas City, MO in the late afternoon, and drove late into the night until we arrived in Hays, KS. The next morning we left early and didn't stop until Denver, which is a few hours into Colorado, but those hours in eastern Colorado were still pretty much Kansas. We tried to come up with some fun roadside attractions, destinations or landmarks, but even the Internet couldn't save this day. Most sites with travel tips had a big donut for roadside detours, and many even advocated just getting through Kansas as quickly as possible.

To make matters worse, we were driving due west into the sunset. So we let the kids watch a movie and then turned off all electronics so they could go to sleep. However, they pointed out that the sun was still up, so it wasn't bedtime. We promised them the sun would go down soon. But you know what? It didn't. It took about two hours for that sun to set. Curse you, counterspinning Earth! We did get to see some wind turbines, though. Lots of wind turbines.

Thank goodness for the Adventure Bag! I had packed a duffle bag with toys and games to entertain the kids at rest stops and the like. We had kites, soccer balls, cones for building obstacle courses, special treats, all kinds of random stuff. And I never did let the kids look inside it to see the full contents. They loved the surprise of having us pull something fun out of the Adventure Bag. It's amazing how recharged everyone feels after a 20-minute game of tag or a quick water gun fight. I recommend this one for all families on long road trips, it saved our bacon in Kansas. And I'd also echo the advise of many other travelers - get through it as quickly as possible!

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Museum Report: Union Station Kansas City

First, to be clear, we went to Science City at Union Station without knowing it would be complete madness. We didn't realize that the day of our visit was the day of the Union Station Maker Faire, a huge event with hundreds of exhibitors and thousands of visitors. It was crazy, wall-to-wall people and machines, buzzing, whirring, humming everywhere. It did not help that our children were finally as tired as they had every right to be after being on the road all day more than once, motel room nights and a week's allotment of PB&J crammed into 2 days. They were completely overwhelmed, and I couldn't blame them.

We were very impressed at the start of our adventure here when, before we'd even walked through the doors, we heard the two guys from up on the grand stand and got really excited. So we stopped to watch their demonstration (they're the Diet Coke and Mentos guys, if you didn't know) because our kids love Diet Coke and Mentos experiments. Unfortunately, we waited in the hot asphalt parking lot as they talked and talked for at least 5 minutes and there was still no demonstration happening. I looked at the program and realized they'd been scheduled for a 45 minute presentation, which we were only 15 minutes into. So Kevin and I made the call to head inside instead of wait. I wish we could have seen their whole show, but some things just aren't doable with young kids who have been trapped in a car for several hours.

We tried to wander through a couple of galleries, but it was so busy that we couldn't stay long in each one. We tried the areas for younger children, but the noise of so many people followed us everywhere. It might have been a complete bust. Lucky for us, the day was saved by some pyrotechnics and a captivating staff demonstration. This guy was great - he lit dollar bills on fire, he launched two liter soda bottles 30 feet in the air, he had a crowd of over a hundred in the palm of his hand. Once he was through, the kids were ready to enjoy themselves for the last hour or so of our visit.

Also of note here was an important addition to our family. We had told Stellan and Rachelle they each had $25 to spend on whatever they wanted (excluding candy) at museum gift shops for the duration of the trip. So when Rachelle came running over with a sparkly pink and green stuffed sea turtle, I crossed my fingers that the price tag would read under $25. Luckily, it was only $18 (Stellan was very into the math of this whole spending money thing and could itemize every purchase made by both kids in full detail), so we let her blow the bulk of her cash only 3 days into the trip. Rachelle instantly named her turtle Annie and will now never parted from her sweet turtle.

In the end, I'd give Science City one and half thumbs up. That might have been different on a different less crowded day, so perhaps we'll have to come back and try again sometime.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Cindy and Tasha!

One of my major goals for this trip is to see every relative (sibling, parent, grandparent, cousin, aunt and uncle) I have, so that has basically determined our route.

The reason we came to Springfield was to see my cousin Tasha and my aunt Cindy. We have always lived pretty far from each other, and we don't get to see them very often. It had been 5 years since their last trip to California, and since we aren't even in California to see them on their next visit, we decided to take matters into our own hands to see our nearest family.

We met them at Tasha's house for an evening of delicious barbecue, catching up and a rousing game of Apples to Apples. It was so great to hear what they are doing, how they've been, and just enjoy our time together. I will say that the time went by too quickly, so I was relieved when we decided to meet the next morning for breakfast at Aunt Martha's Pancake House before we headed out. Caramel pecan pancakes with the gang before we have to say goodbye? Yep, it was even better than it sounds.

Tasha, Cindy, thanks for having us! We love you, we miss you, we hope to see you someday soon. Thanks for making us feel so welcome, thanks for living somewhere so beautiful and fun, thanks for the memories.

Museum Report: Discovery Center of Springfield

We loved the Discovery Center of Springfield! It was the kind of museum my kids could visit twice a week and never get bored. Four floors of exhibits and we barely even saw two and a half. The kids built towers, bridges, airplanes, waterways, ramps, and parachutes. The girls loved the preschool area, and Stellan quickly became obsessed with a spinning exhibit. Let me explain it: there was a big flat metal disk that spins like a record player; visitors can then balance small wheel-like discs on their edge to make them rotate perpendicular to the "ground plate". If you do it right, once you let go of the standing wheel, it will continue not only to spin on its edge, but revolve around the plate. Once you've got a few of those wheels revolving, you can try rolling a billiard ball across the plate. It was Stellan's favorite exhibit of the entire trip.

The entire Cook family rates this one two very satisfied thumbs up. I only wish we lived closer!

Bonus story to reward you for making it to the end of this post: We were all on the first floor in the preschool room when Stellan mentioned he needed to go to the bathroom. Since Kevin had just taken Rachelle, it was my turn. Stellan and I headed to the second floor, and got sidetracked by the aforementioned exhibit. As we were enjoying it, I was chatting with a museum employee named Matthew. He and I were discussing this and that when we heard the intercom: "Attention parents: are you missing a little girl? She is blonde and three years old." Matthew and I looked at each other and laughed, as we talked about the crazy things one hears over the intercom at a museum. Half an hour later, Kev and the girls made their way up to find us. Imagine my surprise when he told me the missing girl was our very own RaRa. She had sneaked out the heavy glass door trying to follow Stellan and me, unbeknownst to Kevin, Stellan or me. She lost sight of us quickly and got herself lost, then found by a staff member. Oops. It was a good lesson to learn early on in the trip, and one we didn't repeat for the remaining 6 weeks.

Museum Report: Springfield Conservation Nature Center

Although it's not an ASTC facility, I couldn't resist a stop by the Springfield Conservation Nature Center. My instincts were spot-on, this place is fantastic! The exhibits inside are perfect for all ages, but my kids particularly enjoyed the puppets in the hollow trees and all the drawers with hidden fun things inside. The docents were very friendly and helpful.
Then we stepped outside into a beautiful sunny morning in the Ozarks for a hike along the trail to Lake Springfield. It was breathtaking; we saw deer in the woods, watched cute little frogs, saw plants we'd never seen, heard more different birdcalls than I could count, and watched the turtles and fish swim in the lake.
This is a really great spot for anyone with an interest in local flora and fauna, and the price is definitely right (free!). 2 enthusiastic thumbs up from the whole Cook family.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Museum Report: Pink Palace Museum

On our way through Memphis, we stopped at the Pink Palace Museum. This museum is kind of a blend of local history museum, art museum and traditional natural history museum. It wasn't our favorite museum; the kids were bored and asking to leave within 10 minutes. I don't have many glowing things to say, so I'll just quote Stellan, who perfectly synthesized every kid ever's perspective on museums: "I don't want to go a museum where you look at things; I want to go to a museum we you do things."

That said, they did really enjoy the 2 animatronic dinosaurs. They were mesmerized, in fact. Witness below.

Road Trip, Day 1

We made it to Missouri!

It took 17 hours, which isn't bad considering that Google thought it should take us 12 hours. We left super early, drove past Florida, through Alabama, Tennessee, and Arkansas, and finally made it to Springfield.
On the way, about 6 hours in, we couldn't resist stopping at a sign that said to exit to see the "longest natural bridge east of the Rockies". It was beautiful - green, woodsy, cool caves, bridges over the creek. The kids enjoyed a chance to stretch their legs. We had a great time exploring and had a tasty picnic lunch to boot, the first of many, many PB&Js at a roadside table.

Our next stop was Memphis for barbecue at Central BBQ and a visit to the Pink Palace Museum. The food was good, the museum reports will each get their own post along the way. Of course, there were lots of potty breaks, gas stops and snacks between home and here. We drove nearly 900 miles today, and it feels good to be done with driving for a couple of days.

The kids are exhausted. This motel room looks like heaven. I hope the kids will let us sleep in, but I'm not too optimistic. If today was any indication, the rest of the trip is going to be pretty smooth sailing; the kids are troopers, love seeing new things, visiting new places, eating snacks in the car, and of course watching their favorite movies. Bring it on, road trip!

On The Road!

We're off! 6 weeks on the road, to California and back. The car is loaded (and a bit more than that), the kids are pumped, it's 4:30 AM and it's nothing but adventure ahead. Adventure, loads of family and friends, and stops at as many ASTC-reciprocal museums and science centers as we can along the way. No sleep until Springfield, MO, y'all!

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Kite Flying

We flew kites this evening on the beach. Not only were my kids adorable (as witnessed by the following photos), but Kevin was a hero. Twice. 
The first time, Stellan had buried his kite string handle in the sand, but it came loose. The handle then blew away until it hooked onto Rachelle's kite, and then startled Rachelle so much that she let go of her string. The two kites sailed away until the string on Rachelle's kite caught the cable that designates the dune restoration area boundary. Kevin hustled over and grabbed the kite that was holding the other kite, now impossibly high off the ground, and saved both kites without destroying the restoration project.
The second time, sweet RaRa just forgot she was supposed to keep holding on to the kite string and let go. Kevin chased it patiently until he got it back.
To keep herself busy because no one gave her a kite, Annie ate a lot of sand. And she toddled all over chasing us as cute as can be. I finally coerced all three kids into a single photo frame in an effort to get The Perfect Family Photo. That went about as successfully as you can imagine. I did at least get one photo of all three kids with their faces towards the camera. I'm going to call it a victory.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Who Gave the Baby a Milkshake?

It might have been me. On the plus side, we know she's not ready for her own milkshake yet.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Rachelle Is 3

How did it happen? When did my baby girl manage to circle the sun three times? My sweet RaRa is such a special, spunky, funny, charming, bright, creative, loving girl. She loves to dance anywhere, anytime; she sings, especially if it's a song from "Mulan"; she laughs non-stop all day. She plays make-believe with her Minnie Mouse and Daisy dolls, she jumps back and forth between Stellan and Annie depending on who offers her more interaction and entertainment, she is still my best cuddler.
She is also 3. That means that she knows what she wants, and if she doesn't get it, she will make her displeasure clear. She is strong-willed and independent. (I don't know where she gets that.) She is fearless and adventurous. She is so smart and quick to pick up on whatever you were trying to hide. She is hilarious, and wants to share her joys with the world. She is friendly and quick to make new friends.
Rachelle at age 3 is a constant wonder. I don't doubt she's going to give me a run for my money, but at the end of the day when we tell stories to each other cuddled in her bed together, it's all worth it. I love you, precious girl!

Kevin Rocks At Volleyball

This is apparently news to some people, so I will just make sure we're all clear on this. Kevin is a very good volleyball player. He is also a great volleyball coach. He misses his days on Team Condor back in Santa Barbara, but he now coaches the 53rd Wing EWS volleyball team. (Good luck coming up with a good cheer for that one.)
They recently played in the championship game of the intramural league on base at Eglin AFB. Sad to say that they did not win, at least they came in second.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Look Who's Forward Facing!

Annie is now too big for her infant seat and will be riding in a big girl booster seat for the next several years. She was so excited to see where she was going that she giggled in the car all day long.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Soccer Season Is Over

Stellan had a great soccer season. His team played well, only lost 1 game, and had a great time. Stellan turns out to be a pretty good defensive player and surprised me with some strong strategy as well as skill. But mostly he liked the trophy.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Fun In the Sun

We've been having fun with our friends, trying to suck the marrow out of spring before the summer kicks us in the teeth with its heat and humidity. So we've been at the beach, at the park, at the bayou, anywhere we can. Plus, Kevin and Stellan enjoyed the Father & Son campout. (We girls watched Newsies and grilled salmon.)

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Powerpuff Rachelle

Thanks to Netflix Instant Streaming, my children have fallen in love with the Powerpuff Girls. In fact, as I was telling Rachelle a bedtime story, she jumped in with her own personalized casting of the Powerpuff Girls. Roles are as follows:

Rachelle: Blossom
Daddy: Bubbles
Mommy: Buttercup
Stellan: The Professor
Annie: The Mayor

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

May Day

This is not a distress signal. It's our annual May Day Sundae Party. As kids, our parents asked us if we wanted to create our own family tradition. So we decided we wanted to have ice cream sundaes for dinner as our tradition. The next "holiday" we could think of was May Day, and so a new tradition was born.
Now with a family of my own, we're happy to carry it on with our children and our friends. And their children. No one looks like they're complaining...

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

We Heart Grandma & Grandpa Cook

We love it when people come to visit us, but there is no visitor more exciting than a grandparent. The Cooks managed to arrange their trip so that they could be here for Kevin's birthday. It was so fun to spend the week with them. We had tons of springtime fun, including strawberry picking, exploring the wilds of Alabama and of course the beach. I also really appreciate having extra cameras around because, as you are now probably aware, I'm much worse at taking photos with three kids than I was with just one kid.
We love you, Grandma and Grandpa! Come back soon.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Happy Birthday, Kevin!

Kevin had the rare pleasure of hosting his parents for his birthday. We had so much fun shopping for him together, planning together and also, most importantly, making him a super amazing shark piñata together.
If you have ever wondered how one makes a super amazing shark piñata, follow these 33 simple steps below (or just cheat and go to the photos at the end):

1. Get some liquid starch.
2. When you have visited 3 different stores in search of liquid starch and find that apparently the demand for liquid starch is nonexistent.
3. Text a bunch of friends and get a tip on one last store you haven't tried yet.
4. Buy some liquid starch, for reals this time.
5. Contact someone who might still subscribe to an actual print newspaper and see if you can get some newspaper from them.
6. Good luck with that last one.
7. If you eventually find someone who reads a paper made from real paper, and acquire some leftover paper from them, tear it into small strips.
8. Find an old metal coat hanger and bend it into a loop.
9. Carry around the house at the same time as you are carrying your 1-year-old baby. Don't notice when she fish-hooks herself with it.
10. Finally hear a loud yelp and she tries to remove the fish-hook by pulling it further into her cheek. Remove it, console her and promise yourself to think like a parent and a crafty person at the same time, even it if kills you (and hopefully no more of your children).
11. Blow up one big balloon as you hold it inside the coat hanger loop so that it inflates until it is tight inside the hanger.
12. Attach a pointy party hat to one end of the balloon.
13. Drape your balloon/hat in newspaper dredged in liquid starch.
14. Find a dry but hidden place for it to dry in your yard.
15. Realize you live in Florida and nothing outside can ever be guaranteed to stay dry. Make your best attempt and continue.
16. The next day, repeat steps 13-15.
17. After your balloon/hat/paper has dried and hardened completely, create fins and a tail. Some high quality cardstock will work well.
18. Oops. All out of cardstock. A used cereal box will suffice.
19. Attach fins and tail with crafting glue.
20. Are you serious? Have you even met me? I couldn't find crafting glue in my house if you planted it there. Use duct tape instead.
21. Cut a small hole in the top and fill that sucker full of bouncy balls and noisemaking party favors. And a couple of candies for the kids.
22. Seal the hole with more duct tape.
23. Paint the entire thing in a shade I like to call "shark/barf/blue-gray".
24. Notice that the side fins are now drooping and curling.
25. Affix a complicated system of pulleys and levers to keep fins level and straight. Use nothing but floss.
26. Make cute eyes and a fierce mouth out of paper.
27. Glue them, if you've got glue. But probably just school glue. See #16.
28. Keep it hidden somewhere in your garage because it is raining cats and dogs outside. Maybe inside that bike trailer you've never used.
29. Reveal it proudly to an ecstatic husband and very excited children.
30. Hang it (remember that coat hanger it's been wrapped around?) from the clothesline in your garage and hit it repeatedly with a wooden stick.
31. Realize you may have used one or two too many layers and that this wooden stick isn't cutting it. Hand your small child a metal baseball bat.
32. Let your husband do his worst. Wait, is that a small crack?
33.As it finally breaks open, watch the whole thing seem to explode as the bouncy balls hit the cement garage floor and bounce back up while the toys are still falling. Marvel at the colors and sounds and wonder why people ever use boring old candy in piñatas.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Fitness Challenge

Stellan's school held a "Fitness Challenge", which was sort of like a Jog-a-Thon but with big inflatable slides and obstacle courses and annoying pop music. We came to cheer him on and I dutifully took some photos for any doting grandparents and other interested parties.

Friday, April 12, 2013

International Dinner

As a fundraiser for Girls Camp, I stole an idea from our ward in Hollywood and we had an international dinner and auction. The main idea is that people from the ward bring food from different parts of the world and sell that food to everyone that comes. Food suppliers are encouraged to dress the part and bring decor from whatever region of the world they are representing.
Kevin and I made enchiladas from scratch, so naturally we had to come dress appropriately. Please enjoy these photos of our "Mexican" family. Rachelle was particularly enamored of her pretty pink sombrero.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

In Which We Visit the Renshaws in Baton Rouge

Since relocating to the South, we've felt somewhat isolated from friends and family outside our local community. Our families are thousands of miles away, and any other Southern (in heritage or location) pals are also a good day's drive away. So we were excited when a family we knew in Santa Barbara moved to Baton Rouge. Only 5 hours away, the Renshaws became our nearest out-of-town friends.
So naturally we felt the need to invade them. Their sons are close to Stellan and Rachelle's ages; in fact, Stellan and Carter were babies together in SB. So we invited ourselves over for a weekend.
We had a great time exploring the swamp (this was a truly Southern excursion), at the playground (where Stellan first learned to swing himself), picnicking outside the temple, visiting the Louisiana Art & Science Museum, snacking on the banks of the Mississippi River, and playing in the yard. Kevin was also introduced (somewhat trepidatiously) to vegan food. Mad props to Hilary for winning him over. (To put it in perspective, his mother says that Kevin is living proof that you can live to adulthood without ever eating a vegetable.)
Tyler and Hilary, thanks so much for having us! We had so much fun with your family, and it was nice to share our common experience as strangers in a strange land. We anxiously await hosting you here soon!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Intrepid Comet Hunters

As the Stay-At-Home Momstronomer, I've been very busy trying to show anyone and everyone Comet Pan-STARRS. The Emerald Coast Science Center arranged to have me come to a public viewing on the dock outside the center. Tragically, no one came. Even more tragically, the comet had moved so far north that it wasn't visible for more than a moment or two before it disappeared behind the high-rise condos.
Luckily, my family is very supportive and came along. The cometwatching was a bit disappointing, but evening adventures are always a welcome treat to my kids.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Happy Birthday, Annie!

My sweet Annie is one year old. She is such a funny little girl. Annie is very independent much of the time, but she balances that by regularly shunning anyone but her mom and dad, whom she clings to regularly for reassurance, comfort and the occasional snack. If you don't spend much time with her, you probably don't know her very well. She is very guarded around strangers, but showers her family with copious grins, of both the sweet and the troublemaking variety. She is into everything anyone ever leaves out, especially if she thinks it's edible.
We love her so much and we have enjoyed this first year of her life so much. You make us so proud and happy, Anniecakes! Keep it up, big girl.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Family Night At Fudpucker's

I snagged a Groupon for a discount on dinner and games at Fudpucker's, a local establishment with a restaurant and an arcade (and some gators just for giggles, because, hey, this is Florida after all).
So we went out for Family Home (or Out?) Evening. The food wasn't great, but the kids did have lots of fun using all the tokens.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Gregorys Come To Town

We have availed ourselves of the Gregory family more than once when travelling to Atlanta and have pushed the limits of their hospitality by barging in on them and eating all their food, playing with their toys, messing up their puzzles, losing their airplanes in the woods, forcing them to watch football and even obliging them to pull their high chair out of cold storage on multiple occasions.
So we were thrilled when Carrie and her kids decided to come spend a quick weekend with us. We made them dance in front of strangers at our ward's Valentine's dance, took them to the armament museum, and made what might be considered an ill-advised trip to the beach in very cold and windy weather. Please peruse the slide show for photographic evidence of the kids' determination to enjoy the beach despite our warnings.
Thanks for coming, Carrie. I hope your kids remember it fondly and that time heals the memories of near-hypothermia.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Trampoline Time!

There are many things to love about living in Florida. But one of them certainly has to be jumping on the trampoline in short sleeves on Groundhog's Day Eve.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Matt Got Married!

My baby brother, whom some of you may still think of as little Mattie, got married to a lovely woman named Adrianne. We were lucky enough to get to participate in their sealing in the Salt Lake City temple, and then attend two separate receptions (one in Utah, one in Georgia).
I am a little overcome with the idea that my baby bro is now a married man. His wife is so sweet and funny, and we sisters are so happy to welcome her to our sisterhood. But I still can't believe he's grown up enough to have done such a grown up thing. Luckily, marriage hasn't changed him much. (Yet.) He's still his same hilarious, exciting, fun-loving, caring, up-for-anything, loves-my-kids-because-he-knows-at-least-one-of-them-is-almost-his-carbon-copy self.
Thanks for doing something so grown up we had to fly across the country to witness it, Matt! We had so much fun with you, your new family and our new and improved family. Also, thanks for letting RaRa get her boogie on.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Cookie Jar Goes To Australia

Subtitle: The Biscuit Jar On Holiday

We went to Australia. Even though the trip was a month and a half ago, I still get a thrill saying that. When people ask how our trip was, I can feel myself glowing as I tell them how amazing it was.
In short, we went to see a total solar eclipse, and while we were there, we dove in the Great Barrier Reef, visited the rain forest, went to the outback, hiked, swam, ate, drove, and cajoled our kids all over Queensland. Our group included me, Kevin, Stellan, Rachelle, Annie and my moms, Karen and Martha.
We took just under 3,000 photos, all of which can be found in a slideshow below. Just kidding.
Instead of one long travelogue, I've split my telling of our tale into a bunch of bite-sized chunks arranged thematically instead of chronologically. Some include the trip from the perspective of different family members, others are tips on how to travel en masse with kids, and then there are posts about specific events.
Take your time. Don't read them all at once. Visit a few times in the next several days and only read the posts that interest you. You won't hurt my feelings; my New Year's resolution was to get all 15(!) of these posts up by today, but that doesn't mean I hope you resolve to carefully read every word of each one.
As you read it, I hope you can feel our still-fresh enthusiasm for the awesomeness of Australia and our trip there. It's one of the biggest accomplishments of my life, and one I'll always be proud of. We planned it, we did it, and I'm pretty sure we avoided being ugly Americans for the most part. So happy New Year to you, from the world-traveling Familia Cook!

Beautiful Things To Make You Jealous

Although the following posts are chock full of fun photos, I've made a short slideshow of a few that will make you wish you came along with us to Australia.

Total Solar Eclipse!

About 6 years ago, I attended a lecture of the Santa Barbara Astronomical Unit at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. The lecturer, Craig Prater, was a friend, and he gave a talk and slideshow about taking his family (including 2 young children) to see a total solar eclipse in Egypt. At the end of the talk, he encouraged everyone to see a total solar eclipse at least once in their lives. Then he showed a map of all the eclipse sites for the next 20 years.
When I noticed a flag over the Great Barrier Reef, I knew that this was my best chance to convince Kevin. I went home and pitched the idea. He went for it. We started saving a little every month for our trip to Queensland to see a total solar eclipse over the Great Barrier Reef. We mentioned it to lots of people and invited them along. You, dear reader, may have been one of them!
For years we talked about it, and it seemed so far away and so unreal. But eventually is was 2012 and we realized we were really going to make it happen. My moms had decided early on to join us, and they were game. With the invaluable help of my globetrotting Auntie Beeb, we made plans, paid deposits, purchased airline tickets and couldn't believe it was really happening.
Well, it did happen. We went. We saw the eclipse. You may have heard that it was overcast in many parts of Queensland that day, including very near us. We scouted several viewing locations the day before so we could pick the one with the best weather the next day. At 3 AM, we decided that the best spot was probably going to be at the beach a block and a half away from our vacation home. Kevin left at 4 AM to get a spot, and it was a plum spot: right in front of the playground, on the beach. The kids and I got there at 4:45 and Stellan and Rachelle immediately made themselves at home. There were already around a hundred people gathered there on the esplanade, many with fancy cameras and telescopes.
By 5:45 when the eclipse started, the beach and street were full of people from all over the world. Languages and accents everywhere, but all of us there for the same unique experience. There was some cloud cover and we all worried. But about 40 minutes into the eclipse, the sky was mostly clear.
We watched the moon pass in front of the sun with our eclipse glasses on, seeing the sliver of sunlight get slimmer and slimmer. Then, totality. The beach went silent for a heartbeat and then erupted in cheers and applause. For almost two full minutes, it was as dark as dusk; stars were visible in the sky, as well Venus right next to the sun. There was a strange blue glow to the light around us, and the reflection off the sea was otherworldly.
Eventually the moon passed the sun completely and we saw the "diamond ring," which lasts for a moment and which we did not capture on film. But trust me, it was breathtaking. The sun slowly returned to its normal glow and size, and people slowly filtered away.
Was it worth it? Was it worth all the expense, all the time, all the planning, all the trouble, to get 7 people halfway around the world for 2 minutes of a total solar eclipse? Yes.

Great Barrier Reef

Snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef is the second coolest thing I've ever done in my life. It is hard to describe how amazing it is to discover an entire world under the surface of the sea. Basically, it's just like you see on nature documentaries.
We chartered our own boat for a day and headed out on the reef. Being on our own schedule and agenda was very helpful. Stinger suits in place, we braved the waters. The kids even jumped in for a bit, although they didn't really have much interest in snorkeling.
Here are photos of that trip. (Kevin's photos from his live-aboard SCUBA trip are on a different post.)

Kevin's Amazing Photos of the Great Barrier Reef

Please just watch the slideshow. That is all.

The Rain Forest

Many people do not realize that Queensland is home to the oldest rain forests in the world. We visited several, and they were so beautiful.

Everything In Australia Is Trying To Kill You

Australia is a beautiful place. Beautiful and savage. You can admire the beaches, but watch out for crocs, box jellies and blue ringed octopus in the water. You can sightsee in the rainforest, but beware the hundreds of venomous snakes and spiders, huge cassowaries and again, crocs. By all means, dive in the Great Barrier Reef, but wear a stinger suit (basically a full-body rash guard to protect against jellyfish), don't touch certain corals because you'll break out in an itchy rash, and watch out for sharks. Here are some of our favorite photos of deadly things.

Tips For Traveling With Kids

If you choose to take your young children on this trip, here are some tips from our adventures that you should learn from:

Krissie's Australia

What can I say about the trip? It was amazing. Obviously I'm biased. I dreamed it up, I planned it, I led the charge. My favorite part was the total solar eclipse, but I have to say that the Great Barrier Reef was also incredible. I love that I got to share the trip with my family. I love that we actually did it. I love that we'll always have our memories and our stories and of course several thousand photos.
When I think back on the trip, I have the feeling of little Annie on my back, squealing in excitement. I hear Rachelle singing a song as she runs off, probably in the wrong direction. I see myself talking to Stellan about why whatever we're looking at is unique and special. Kevin and I finish every sentence with "... in Australia!"
(We're grilling Australia! We're pumping gas by the Australia! We're taking eating mango ice Australia!) I have the constant comfort of knowing that three other adults are there helping with the kids, and that it's OK for me to take a breath and enjoy the moment.
Here are some of my favorite moments not recorded in the other dozen or so slideshows that I also put together:

Kevin's Austalia

"I got to go diving and drive a big boat." That's what Kevin has to say about his trip. "Did I mention on the Great Barrier Reef?"
His photos from his overnight SCUBA trip are in another post, for you to ooh and aah at. They are breathtaking. But I will add that he was also Superdad on the trip: able to swim with any kid anywhere, navigate strange lands on the wrong side of the road, unafraid to eat crocodile and other native delicacies, feeling at home in the land of his famous ancestor, Captain James Cook.

Annie's Australia

Annie was our easiest kid on this trip by far. She loves the baby backpack and rode happily in it and the stroller for miles and miles. She's easy to feed, can sleep pretty easily when she needs to and would stop crying just about anytime I picked her up.
That said, she's something of a mama's girl. Well, she loves Daddy too. But if one of us isn't holding her, life is pretty much over. Granny made it her personal mission to win her over. It took just about the whole two weeks, but it finally worked. The whole time we joked about the pair of them: Granny and Grrr-Annie.
She's one lucky baby. She's nursed in more exotic locations than many people will visit in their lives. And on airplane, she got a bassinet while we had normal seats. The bassinet hooks on the front of the bulkhead and was big enough for her to lay in quite comfortably. She slept, well, like a baby for almost the entire flight from LAX to Auckland and back. She was definitely flying first class while the rest of us were in coach.
Here are some really adorable photos of my sweet Anniecakes:

Rachelle's Australia

Taking Rachelle with us on this trip was the hardest decision we made. We knew Stellan was old enough to remember it, and since Annie is nursing, she was definitely coming. But it's basically insanity to take a two and half year old on a trip like ours. Lucky for her, I'm a softy. I knew that once she was old enough to realize she was the only one left behind, she would never forgive us. Well, at least not until she had her own two and a half year old child. So we took her.
I won't lie, it was challenging for all of us. She has a short attention span, was barely potty trained, is prone to regular tantrums and doesn't like keeping other people's schedules or agendas. Her midday naps were tough to accommodate, although they were always necessary. In the end, I don't regret it. And she's just so stinking cute, I hate being apart from her anyway.
Some things about two-year-olds are easy. She loves to dance and sing, and can be cajoled out of a bad mood almost 100% of the time with an interjection of "Bringing Home a Baby Bumblebee." In fact, that song may be the soundtrack of our trip. She is small enough to pick up relatively easily and could always be strapped in the stroller in a pinch. This was a regular and very real threat to her. Also, she's always looking for a good time, so we did our best to provide one.
Her favorite part of the trip was definitely the beach. In fact, she keeps asking to go to the beach now that we're home, not realizing that the South Pacific in the summer is much more pleasant than the Gulf of Mexico in winter. She also really enjoyed the pool in our yard and would beg to swim morning, noon and night. And she loves the plush baby crocodile she got at the croc farm gift shop. She sleeps with it every night and plays with it all day. I love the way she says it - baby cah-wock-a-dile. Now that we're home, she's got a whole crocodile family with existing plush animals.
Here are some of my favorite photos of her:

Stellan's Australia

Stellan had a really great time on the trip. Once he figured out that everywhere we wanted to take him was amazing, he was a very good sport about going along. He loved seeing lots of exotic animals and couldn't get enough of the beach. He also really liked the boat ride out to the reef, but didn't enjoy snorkeling on the open sea at all. Now he talks about the trip like it's no big deal, like every 5-year-old flits across continents just to hand feed kangaroos and watch crocodiles feed.
He also managed to have fun just hanging around our house; when you've got lots of space, some fun balls and a pool at your fingertips, life's a constant party. He did well with a limited diet (they don't have applesauce, he hated Australian honey hut Cheerios and he found the yogurt selection unsatisfactory) and was very good about understanding that everything wasn't like it is at home. He was very good on airplanes and mostly pretty good at airports.
I will say he was starved for peers on the trip. Being stuck with a two-year-old as his primary companion wasn't easy and we spent lots of time talking about how great our babysitting swap would be when we got home. (He loves "Kid Night", as we call it, because 9 kids all at once is basically his idea of heaven.) He loved spending time with his grandmas, though, and misses them lots now that we're so far away.
Here are some of his best photos of the trip:


We had overnight layovers in Auckland, New Zealand, on our way to Australia and also on the way back home. Even though we had less than 18 hours from when we left the airport until we had to be back each time, we did our best to take advantage of our time there. We wish we'd had more time there, because it was truly beautiful.

Adventures in LA

On our way to Australia, we had a one-day layover in Los Angeles each way. On the way there, we had lots of energy and were lucky enough to have Grandpa Steward and GrandMaggie drive down from Santa Barbara to spend the day with us. On the way home, we were too jetlagged to want to do much, so I have spared you photos of us looking bedraggled in a motel room.