Packing Hack!

When you hit a certain age, you have meds. It’s just a fact of life. And when you travel, you have to take those meds with you.

Now, you could pack giant bottles of pills, although they take up an unnecessary amount of space. If you’re the kind of person who is okay with opening several bottles of pills and fishing out the right dosage every day, maybe that works for you. It doesn’t for me. I am absolutely one of those people with the giant pill organizer that I sit down once a week and fill.

Twice a day, morning and night, I get to take a big fistful of pills – a lot of vitamins and supplements, a few prescription medications. I feel like that scene in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, where they’re having breakfast in the middle of nowhere and Bernadette’s breakfast consists of nothing but a bowl full of pills and capsules. With that organizer, it’s easier for me to remember to take my meds, and when I take them, I know I’m taking all of them.

So how do I have that same confidence once I’m on the ship? A few months ago, I ordered some pill pouches – tiny zipper bags that will each hold a morning or evening’s worth of pills. Now that we’re getting down to the time that everything has to be packed and shipped, I realized I needed to pack my meds. How do I do that in a way that won’t take hours?

I specialize in breaking down processes into their component steps, and here, there are two steps: sorting the pills into groups, and then getting them into the pill pouches. There’s really no easy way to sort the pills, but that doesn’t take a long time. The time consuming part is getting them into the pill pouches. There are big, commercial machines that will help you do that, but I don’t need to spend $1400 to do this.

Not only am I great at breaking down tasks into their component parts, I’m also great at improvising solutions from what I have at hand. Here’s what I put together.

It’s a letter-sized sheet of paper, folded in half vertically. I cut the edges 2/3 of the way to the center so that I had four flaps on each side. Then I folded each flap into a tube using a Sharpie as a rough size guide, and taped it together. I put tiny craft clothespins on the folded edge to make it stand up better, but tape would work just as well. Now all I had to do was fit the pill pouches onto the tubes and sort the pills – they’re already packed! It took less than half the time I expected it to – a little over three hours to do 240 individual pill packs, and I only used the one sheet of paper.

Now that they’re all sorted and packed, that’s one less thing I have to worry about.

Fictional Normal

I just got back from a two-week cruise. I could tell you about the surreality of no longer being camera shy (as though not having my picture taken would hide the fact that I was fat), or the subtle shifts in how I viewed my fellow passengers, but what I want to focus on is the food.

There are two types of dining on a cruise. The first is the all-you-can-eat kind (which some passengers seem to take as a personal challenge) and there is the sit-down kind. Our evening meals were all the sit-down kind with the same two servers, so we got to know them quite well. The dinner menus were normally two or three appetizer selections, a few soup and salad options, several entrees, and a few desserts. I normally ordered either an appetizer or salad, and an entree, and then dessert. Every time, I would eat a few bites of the dish and be ready for the next one. It took a week to convince our servers that this was just how I eat. I was never going to finish anything, and I didn’t appreciate being harangued to keep eating. Yes, the food was excellent. No, I wasn’t going to have any more.

At the all-you-can-eat places (the breakfast/lunch buffets and the fast-food type places near the pool), I realized that I no longer felt self-conscious about going up and getting an ice cream cone or plate of fries. I was going to eat what I was going to eat, and didn’t particularly care what anyone thought about it. I was surprised, though, at the number of people who piled their plates full at every meal, and then sat there looking miserable as they ate. If food is your comfort, shouldn’t you at least enjoy it?

Here’s where things got weird. Over the course of two weeks, I gained weight just like a lot of people do. And by “gained weight,” I mean that I was .1 pounds over my normal range. In the past, I would likely have gained at least 5 pounds while on vacation, and I would have done what everyone does: I would have stopped eating and started working out 12 hours a day. And in the past, I would have either lost none of the weight, or actually gained another pound or two. That was the reality I dealt with, and the whole time, I was angry that I wasn’t “normal.” “Normal” people didn’t gain five pounds on vacation. “Normal” people lose the five pounds once they get back. (I know this isn’t necessarily true – but in my mind, this was how it worked for everyone who wasn’t me.)

When I got back, my eating habits went back to what they always are when I’m at home, as did my exercise routine. And just like that, my weight was back to what I usually expect. I’m now what I used to think of as “normal.” But am I?

I’m starting to realize that the reality I experienced before was much closer to normal than the one I experience now. That not everyone can step back into their normal lives and lose their vacation weight in a week. But I also realize that I had been sold a lie by a commercial culture whose main aim is to get me to hate myself enough to buy endless products to improve myself. The “normal” I had aimed for was a fantasy that I would never have achieved on my own. In so many ways – from the variety of clothing options available to me to the way I do my grocery shopping – the definition of “normal” has changed radically for me. “Normal” is a fiction used to make me feel like I’m not part of the group, and that I should want to be.

I don’t want to be part of the group, especially any group whose main focus is how I look. I don’t think anyone should be subjected to that. The way to break out of that mentality is to first recognize that if your definition of “normal” comes from outside yourself – from the media or your social group or even your family – it’s fictional. Normal comes from inside yourself. Normal is where you feel healthy and comfortable in your own skin. It should never be anything else.

Monkey on a Boat: Day 6

Our first day in Cabo, we went to a dance party. Our second day in Cabo, we went to another party, and invited some whales.

Cabo is the home of that arch you see in the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie – you know, the one with the skeletons hanging from it. We sailed past it on our way out to the whale playground.

Here's the Pirate on the whale boat

Here's the Pirate, dressed not at all like Johnny Depp, in front of that arch from the movies, from where there were no skeletons hanging.

The whale boat took us really far out into the ocean – far enough out that our cruise ship was a tiny little toy boat in the distance. While the boat sped away, the crew played fun dance music and every single person crowded around the railings peering into the water as if we could summon up whales by sheer power of will.

It took about half an hour to get out to where four other boats sped around in circles, following a pair of whales. The music died away, and for a second I worried that the boat would flip over as every single person rushed to one side and hung over the railing to check out the whales.

What was great was that after a very short time, we all got good at following the trajectory of the whales and spotting where the water became a lighter shade of green about five seconds before the they surfaced. At one point, one of the whales surfaced, rolled, waved, and then dove again. I’m sure there’s a really good whale-ish reason for it, like knocking barnacles off its sternum or something, but it looked like waving to all of us on the boat.

We got back from whale watching in time to rest up for the festivities – Saturday was New Year’s Eve! After dining on lobster tails and caviar (no, I’m not kidding!), we put on our jackets and headed up to the pool. Every night, they showed movies on the Jumbotron at the front of the funnel, and tonight’s movie was Wall E. Snuggled together (it was starting to get cold!), we watched the film, then headed downstairs to where the party was just starting.

Remember that really tall room where we boarded the ship? The one with the crazy glass sculpture on the ceiling and railings around the two floors above so everyone could look down at the entrance to the main dining room?

The glass sculpture on the ceiling of the main hall

You know - this room? The only one that could accomodate enough people at once?

This is where everyone gathered to celebrate the New Year. We gathered in two shifts – an East Coast shift for those who wanted to celebrate a little earlier, and a West Coast shift for the rest of us. There were waiters handing around glasses of champagne and sparkling apple cider and the kind of adorable hors d’oeuvres that only happen at someplace run by Disney. On that little stage below, Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy – well the entire gang came out and put on a lovely dance show for us. As the time drew near, we all counted down the last minute, holding our glasses at the ready. Three – two – one – Happy New Year! Toast, confetti, hugging, kissing, dancing, more confetti, laughter, fist bumping, more confetti, more kissing, finishing off that champagne and getting another, more confetti, and then…


Monkey on a Boat: Day 5

We went to sleep Thursday night in Puerta Vallarta and woke up Friday in Cabo San Lucas. What really struck me about Cabo is the fact that, from a distance, it looks almost exactly like Phoenix with an ocean in front of it.

A view of Cabo San Lucas from the ship

The saguaro-dotted hills in the background, the color and design of the buildings, all look to me like Phoenix

In Cabo the harbor is too small for a cruise ship to dock, so we boarded smaller launches that took us in. From the harbor, we boarded a bus that took us the whopping half mile to Mi Casa restaurant, which looked like a cross between a taqueria and the site of a luau.

The restaurant had great atmosphere for a party!

The koi pond, the hanging lamps, the festive decorations and the music all made for a party atmosphere

First, we had the same kind of food that I’ve had at practically every family party I’ve ever been to since I was a little kid. Meat, tortillas, soup, rice and beans and various salsas – it was all delicious, and all the better since I neither had to cook it nor clean up afterward.

The mariachi band

I can only think that their white, gold and black outfits gave them their name. Or their smell.

Once we were done eating, it was time for the mariachis. The name of the band was Huitlacoche, although I can’t for the life of me decide why. But they sang all the mariachi songs that Americans would expect to hear, and after a little while, folks (mostly tiny people) started getting up to dance.

In between numbers, the folkloric dancers came out. When they said “folkloric,” they weren’t kidding. The first number had an Aztec flavor.

A female dancer salutes the sun in the fire dance

The costumes were a little hokey, but the whole thing was fun, especially the part where the men set their leg hair on fire. No, I'm not kidding.

Later, they did other traditional dances in other costumes in between mariachi numbers. The only thing this party was lacking was that bunch of relatives that had too much to drink and start yelling at everybody.

Finally, it was time for DJ Roberto – an energetic guy who came out and told jokes and got the crowd going. The first time he came out, we applauded, but not nearly enough, so he said very seriously, “I’m gonna pretend that didn’t happen. I’m gonna come out again and you guys are gonna act like I’m Justin Bieber!” and he marched himself offstage and then came back on again to a crowd gone wild. He posed and threw kisses and otherwise hammed it up, and then got the kids up for a Mexican version of musical chairs called the Hat Game. The kids were put in a circle and given a hat. While the music played, each child had to put the hat on, spin in a circle, and then pass the hat to the next kid. If you had the hat when the music ended, you were out.

All the kids will pass a hat around, hoping not to be caught with it

The kids are all ready to play the Hat Game. According to the Badb, the hat, an old leather cowboy hat, smelled like lipstick.

After the Hat Game, we were taught the tequila dance (the one you dance to the song “Tequila”), and then we decided to leave so that we could walk back to the dock instead of taking the bus for half a mile.

We stopped at a little shop to get some souvenirs and met Filomena and her children, who were adorable.

Peaches and two of Filomena's kids

Children all over the world are always happy to mug it up for the camera. For the rest of our visit, the little boy kept making himself available for photo opportunities.

This was more a party, not an adventure, since we didn’t need hot showers or dry clothes when we got back to the ship. But if we had needed a hot shower, the little guy we found waiting for us would have been only too happy to help:

The towel monkey we got Friday

Every night, we got a different towel animal. Today's was a monkey that we kept for the rest of our cruise.

The Pirate and I were so inspired by the towel animals that we were excited to attend the towel origami class offered on Sunday. I can now make a monkey, an elephant, a bear, a swan – you name it, and I can fold it out of bath towels. So…if this writer thing doesn’t work out, I have a fallback position.

Monkey on a Boat: Day 4

Today, we got off the boat in Puerta Vallarta. I must say that one of the things I really loved about booking the cruise was that a good two months before we set sail, we were told “Now’s the time to book your port adventures!” There was a big list of things to do while in port, and all we had to do was choose and sign up on the same website we booked the cruise.

Thursday we got up early, ate a giant breakfast, and toddled down to the bar where we were to meet up with the rest of our group for the zip lining and rappelling adventure! In Puerta Vallarta, we walked off the boat and around the corner to another boat that was like a large rubber life raft.

We wave good-bye to the big ship

We may never see these people again, especially if we're eaten by jaguars

The rubber life raft thing took us at a hair-snatching rate of speed from the Area Militar de Vallarta, where our ship was docked, south about 30 kilometers to a place called Boca de Tomatlan. We got off that tiny boat and onto the kind of trucks that you normally see in old movies transporting soldiers who are going to meet their deaths in a hailstorm of enemy fire. So, not confidence inspiring.

Our dance of joy at making it to the preserve in safety

This is the dance of joy we did just after kissing the ground once we got off the truck.

The trucks took us another 5 or so kilometers to the preserve where we were to meet our fate. On the way, we all laughed and joked about the fact that the roll cage over the benches lining the truck bed had straps hanging from it so that if we were accidentally thrown from the truck, we would end up flapping behind the truck like a pair of underpants on a clothesline, only with less dignity. Adversity makes people bond together, and we were practically a solid mass of humanity by the time we got there.

After strapping us into harnesses custom-made to ensure wedgies, chafing and complete stripping of pride, we were ready to mount the mules that would take us to the top of the mountain.

Our little kid aboard her trusty mule, headed up the mountain

The little kid was really excited about the mule ride, but her enthusiasm was short-lived.

From the top, we took a series of zip lines and sheer cliff faces to descend.

Peaches on the longest of the five zip lines

It's over 160 feet straight down if she falls, and nearly half a mile by trail to get back up. Good thing she didn't fall.

The zip lining was fine although, in the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that on the very first zip line I was so frightened that I closed my eyes and ended up getting stuck about 8 feet from the end, suspended over what appeared to my closed, terrified eyes to be a bottomless pit, and I ended up having to haul myself hand-over-hand to the platform where I was roundly laughed at by monkeys and native guides. Good thing I’d left my pride behind with the mules!

Close to the end of the zip lining was the lowering-ourselves-down-a-cliff phase. For those of you who might be interested, here is a monkey attached to the side of a cliff by ropes:

Me, coming down a wet, slippery cliff face

I never saw the waterfall because I was too busy trying to find that place where I should have put my foot and didn't.

On the last zip line, we were whisked directly into a picturesque mountain pool.

The Pirate making a splash!

The Pirate has just slid nearly 70 feet down to land in this lovely emerald pool.

After this last zip line, it was just a matter of a half-kilometer hike back to our starting point, but that half-kilometer hike took us through streams, over creeks on fallen logs, and between enormous shrubs that are probably older than I am. We were hot, soaking wet and hungry, but it was easily one of the coolest things we’ve ever done.

On the way back, the bus stopped at a tequila distillery where Peaches (who’s of legal drinking age in Mexico) took her first taste of tequila.

Peaches sampling tequila

Here's Peaches, sampling her first tequila. Of course, the first sample is the rough stuff.

We got back onto the speedboat thing, where we were whisked back to the ship via a pair of enormous rocks covered in pelicans.

A large rock, completely carpeted in pelicans.

The top 12-inch layer is pelicans. The next 12-foot layer is pelican poop.

Technically, we could have strolled through Puerta Vallarta for another hour or two before we had to be back on the ship, but all we really wanted was hot showers and dry clothes. I think that’s now my new measure of the success of an outing: if all you want is a hot shower and dry clothes, it’s been an actual adventure.

Monkey on a Boat: Day 3

I want to apologize to my laundry. For seven years now, the Pirate and I have had one of those high-efficiency front-loading washing machines that barely dampens the clothes, infuses them with just enough thin detergent that they smell good, and then barely dampens them again before spinning them to within dashing distance of dry. I apologize because that’s almost exactly how the showers on this boat work (minus the spinning bit), and it’s annoying. It looks like there’s water coming out of the shower head, but I can’t actually feel it, and at no point is my skin any more wet than it would be on a moderately humid day. I would take an actual bath, except that the “bathtub” is the size of the utility sink in our laundry room at home. Maybe I’ll let my clothes feel some vacation love by putting them in the tub, filling it with water and a little bubble bath, and giving them a nice, long soak.

I also want to go on record as saying that I have never had any use for the ocean. Yeah, yeah, I get that it provides the bulk of the world’s oxygen (but that’s not even the ocean itself – that’s the kelp in the ocean). And that it also provides some incrediby tasty fish. But it also exists just to fake me out. I sit on the verandah of the room and look out over the water hoping to see whales or dolphins or sea otters, but no. From our room, all we can see is freakin’ ocean, and if you fix your eyes on a single point you will eventually see something that looks like a breaching whale off in your peripheral vision. So you look at that spot and realize that it’s just some stupid waves. But as you stare at those, a pod of dolphins jumps just at the edge of your peripheral vision, so you look there. But it’s more stupid waves. Sea otters surfacing: more waves. Flying fish: more waves. Ocean, you’re like the father of the planet. Large, powerful, and boring as all hell.

We had boarded the boat at lunchtime on Monday, and so already knew the boat inside and out (as far as our hanging off the verandah of our room would allow). So…what else can you do? Every night, you get a little newsletter in your room that lists the activities available for the next day. On Wednesday, our second day at sea, there were 33 activities listed for “family,” 33 specifically for “adults,” 113 separate activities spread among the various kids’ clubs (there are 4 for different age groups), and 18 character appearances, movies, live band events or mini parties listed between 8:30am and midnight just on Wednesday. I’m sure you could be bored if you wanted to, but you’d really have to work at it.

Here's our kid with Belle from Beauty and the Beast

The characters hang around for a photo op, then it's back to whatever their day jobs are - Belle also works in one of the gift shops.

Some of the activities were all of the parlor-game variety: scavenger hunts, trivia contests, crafts like origami and animation. There are also tons of fitness classes, lots of dance parties, lots of athletic events (free throw contests, putting contests, soccer contests). And even if you weren’t up for a constant regime of dancing, gym attendance, etc., it was easy to work off the rich food because there are 11 decks on the ship. We were on deck 7, which was entirely taken up with staterooms. To do anything, we either had to go up 2 decks to where the pools and fitness club lay, or down 2-4 decks to where the shops, restaurants and lounges were, and we never took the slow, tiny elevators.

The Edge is the tween club aboard ship

Here's where the 11-13 year-old set hang out

By Wednesday night, we were in bed early (and exhausted), ready for our Thursday adventure: zip lining over the jungle!