Friday, March 25, 2016

My New Favorite Phone App, #2

I'm not a super techie girl, so when something really works for me, it's a pretty big deal.  The Pomodroido phone app was my first Favorite App pick; I still use this timer app regularly and I'm certain it helps me get more done and motivates me to stay on track.  You can read my post about this simple yet profoundly impactful phone app here.  

My latest favorite app is First5, a free Bible Study app offered by Proverbs 31 Ministries.  The name says it all:  it's a short (five minute or so) read, meant for the first five minutes of your day.  Beyond just a Bible Study, you can opt to use an alarm from within the app to wake you up that holds your phone at First5 for the first five minutes, so you can be sure to set your mind and heart up for the day with something thought provoking and encouraging.

I don't use the alarm myself, since just knowing the idea is to spend your first five minutes in Bible study instead of email or social media is motivation enough for me.  I know from experience that the days that I jump right into the media whirl never do seem to get off on the right foot.  One thing leads to another and before I know it, the morning is well beyond where I'd like to start my day.  There is, however, kind of an itch to be on my phone first thing in the morning, and First5 satisfies that in a positive way.  After I read the First5 study, I move along to other things I'm reading and it's the kick off for my Bible study/prayer time/day planning.

First5 Bible studies are substantive and thought provoking, and they offer a lovely shareable graphic to go along with each day's topic.  At the end of each post, there's also a comments section where you can leave your own comment and connect with other readers.  Study authors are Lysa TerKeurst, Wendy Blight, Whitney Capps, Leah DiPascal, Wendy Pope, and Krista Williams.  Although the study is short, it's satisfyingly in depth, and the approach of going through the Bible featuring one verse from each chapter gives you a real sense of momentum.  I heard about this app on a podcast, and I seem to remember that if you stick with First5, you'll go through the entire Bible in two years, five minutes at a time.

If you want a little more info on the day's topic, you can click through to the "Go Deeper" section for a few more related thoughts, and if having a Study Guide is your thing, that's available for a nominal price.  Daily devotions are right there for your Monday through Friday, and on weekends, there's a video wrap up discussion by the authors.

I love the sequential study, which offers familiar and not so familiar topics, along with original thought on each subject.  But my favorite thing is that using First5 gives a nod to the urge to pick up my phone first thing, all the while getting my day started in a meaningful way.  Once I click into First5, the urge to step into the technological whirl abates and I can focus on spending some time centering my heart and mind on God.

If you give First5 a try, I'd love to know what you think.  And if you have a favorite phone app, I'd love to know that, too!

Friday, March 18, 2016

He's in the Army Now

Surely every parent tries to predict what their children will be based on their interests as they grow up.  At two years old, I thought our eldest son would be a hydraulic engineer because he loved to play in the water.  When he was five, I suspected he would be a game designer because of the complex games he made, meticulously drawing pieces and cutting them out.  Then came age eight, and I was certain he'd be a video game designer since video games piqued his interest.  Around twelve, I was pretty sure he was going to be an artist, most likely famous for writing a web comic.  The teenage years rolled in and finally I conceded I wasn't going to be able to predict anything at all.

 When Ben began to talk about being a nurse, it was clearly more than just a passing interest as he spoke of the markers God was putting in his life.  I was surprised, but so proud.  I was so proud of his gentle and respectful, yet commanding demeanor as we helped my Dad in his final years.  It all crystallized in my mind when I knocked on Ben's bedroom door well after 2am one night, because his granddaddy needed his help.  Ben's response went from an irritated "WHAT???!!!" at my knock, to an enormously kind "Hey, Granddaddy, what can I do for you?" within two minutes.  That's what the best do ... they put the self aside and they address the call.

When Ben talked about joining the army, even though I'd always thought the military would be a good fit for him, it was a surprise because he'd not expressed an interest in it before, as far as I could remember.  But I thought yes, of course.  Military service is well and honorably represented on both sides of our family, with Grandfathers, Great Uncles, Uncles, and a cousin, each having achieved something akin to legendary status.  I know my son took many cues from these extraordinary men.  That's what the best do ... they take their inspiration from the best and follow the lead.

Ben grappled with the decision to go into the military pretty intensely over many days, and when he made the decision to go Army we couldn't have been more proud.  He'd be able to begin his service as a medic and work toward getting his RN while in the military.   Of course there's the scary side of  military service, but I determined from the start not think about that side of it unless I'm praying. I have yet to meet anyone who went into the service that didn't come out a better person, and I know this will be the case for Ben as well.

Since we'd already booked our February family cruise when he signed up in December, Ben was able to get a deferred enlistment.  He worked, saved his money, enjoyed spending time with his friends, time stretched out and it seemed like his ship out day would never come.  The family cruise was a sweet time of just being together without the normal at-home distractions.  When we came home, we hosted a dinner in Ben's honor with close family and friends, and everyone had an opportunity to speak encouragement and blessing upon him.  Most moving to me was what his younger brother had to say, acknowledging Ben's significant personal growth over the past year.  Since the kids were toddlers, I've prayed that our family would be a place of personal growth, and that we would recognize and allow it in each other as it happened.  What an awesome answer to prayer; to hear it put so succinctly from one sibling to another was the  g r e a t e s t  pleasure.  Then Ben's cousin brought in a little levity by thanking him for taking the pressure off their generation of the family to go into military service.  Ha!

The days prior to shipping out shifted into hyper drive and it seemed impossible that the time was  upon us.   Although I'd had the privilege of accompanying my Dad as a veteran to various military activities, it's a very different experience to see it all from the beginning, when everyone seems so young.  We witnessed the swearing in of about twenty people, and that was only one of several groups that day.  Then it was time to see our son board the bus and wave goodbye.  I'm not going to lie and say there isn't a big hole in my heart.  That afternoon I was teary at the slightest kindness, but I'm excited for the beginning of a great life experience opening up for my son, and that's the most important thing.

We watched the bus pull away, and headed home.  I did the regular grocery run and bought about $50 of junk food, and it was clear we would comfort ourselves with cookies, at least for one evening.  I wanted to tell everyone I saw, "My son just left for Basic Training" but I refrained :o)  Day Two was distracted and disjointed and I found everything to do except for what I planned to do.  Day Three I leaned into it, treated myself kindly, tossed the to-do list and organized the pantry.  My highly sensitive kid-radar is still a little off, missing a blip on the radar.  But I'm pretty sure I can trust the US Army to keep tabs on my boy.

I keep thinking back over his childhood and wonder where was the play with the plastic green army men, or the obsession with GI Joe that could've tipped me off that the Army was the way this one was going to go.  But it turns out that what I should have been predicting in those early childhood years was that my son would turn out to be high value, strong, steady, compassionate, resilient, deferential, capable, adventurous and personable.  On that I would have been 100% correct.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Live from the Lido Deck : A Family Cruise Review

When it comes to vacation, our loyalties are firmly fixed on the Alabama Gulf Coast - I've written about that here and here.  But ... for the longest time, LtDan has wanted to go on a cruise.  Honestly, cruising has never appealed to me, but when LtDan finally put his foot down and proclaimed this is the year we do a cruise, and he found an unbelievable deal on the Carnival Triumph for the whole family, well ... how could I say no?  I was excited about being on the sea, and excited to go to Mexico, and for sure happy to have nearly a whole week with the kids just having fun, but I still wasn't sure if I would really like it or not.

 A lot of the uncertainty stemmed from all the what ifs.  You know the ones.  What if our house burns down or is burgled while we're gone?  What if our car is stolen while we're on the boat?    What if we have an accident or someone gets injured?  What if our clothes aren't fancy enough?  What if we get seasick?  What if there are obnoxious drunk people everywhere? What if there's an excess of scantily clad wanton women parading in front of my boys?  (I know, I know - they're no longer "boys" - more on that later.)   What if someone steals our wallets and ID's?  What if the peddlers in the marketplace won't leave us alone?  What if we're abducted in Mexico?

Those what ifs.

I'm happy to say that none of the scary what ifs happened.  We did have not one, but TWO exciting incidents involving wallets (and ID's) left behind; one in our own car before we even made it to the boat, and one left in a taxi in Cozumel!  LtDan saved the day in the first incident and quickly took a taxi back to our hotel to retrieve the first forgotten wallet.  Ben was the hero in Cozumel when he employed his Olympic speed power sprint and caught up to the taxi just as it was leaving the parking lot.  He had to run into the street with it and bang on the side of the van to get the driver to stop.  Oh.  My. Goodness.  I'll be thanking the Lord for his kindness to us on that one forever and ever.

So again, not one of the bad things happened ... Hallelujah and Amen.

Here are our take-aways and a review of a Family Cruise to Mexico:

Take the Loop Around Downtown Houston

If you're driving to catch a ship out of Galveston and your route takes you through Houston, make sure you take the loop around downtown ... the traffic is probably not worse than any other big city traffic, but wow, if you're on vacation you deserve a break from it.  We went through downtown Houston on the way to Galveston on Friday evening but opted to take the loop (which is a tollroad) around it when we drove home.  So.  Much.  Better.  The nice thing about that was if you have a toll tag for the DFW area, it works in Houston, too - no stopping to dump coins at tollbooths.

Overnight in Galveston / Park the Car Free

Our cruise left on Saturday, and most Texas people I talked to just drive down to Galveston the day of the cruise, but that made me nervous.  I can't imagine how much more stressful the downtown Houston traffic would have been if we'd have been trying to make a boarding time (sorry, Houston people, I'm sure your city is lovely).  Anyway, we spent the night at the Holiday Inn Resort in Galveston because they offer free shuttle service to the Cruise Terminal and free parking while you're gone.  It was affordable and nice enough, and knowing where we'd leave the car was one less unknown to worry about.

YES:  Get a Valet to Help With All Your Luggage

We're a family of six, and we had five bags and six (heavy) carryons.  The Luggage Valets both when we checked in and when we came back were life savers.  Not only was it great to have help with all the bags, it was peace of mind to know they knew what to do even if we didn't.  The internet says standard tip rate is $1 to $2 a bag (or more if they're excessively heavy) and it was worth every penny of our generous tip to have someone knowledgeable help us negotiate bag check-in on the way out and customs on the way back in.

Birth Certificate & Drivers License Was Fine for ID

Please do not take my word for it and do your own research, but in February of 2016, original Birth Certificates and Drivers Licenses were fine as ID for cruise travel to Mexico.  I was nervous about this, and honestly I will probably just get everyone a passport if we take another cruise, but for this trip, I was really happy that for cruise travel to Mexico, no one hassled us at all for just using birth certificates and drivers licenses.  Again, if you're traveling, please do your own research on this - I  believe criteria will be changing soon, even for cruise travel to Mexico.


Planning fashionable cruise wardrobes for all six of us was a little daunting, but I just approached it as though we were going to the beach for a week and packed accordingly.  Like everything else these days, we saw pretty much the whole spectrum of clothing, from very very casual to dressy.  The dressy was only on the evening designated for elegant dining, and even then, there was plenty of casual attire mixed in.  I'm sure it varies from cruise to cruise, but we fit right in with our casual and dressed-up-but-not-too-much wardrobes.  My greatest regret:  not taking a hoodie to wear whilst sitting in a deck chair, sipping on something lovely and reading to my heart's content!  Although we had sunny days, the wind made it chilly.  So, if you're thinking of cruising in the off season, don't forget your favorite cool weather outerwear!

To Balcony, Or Not to Balcony?

LtDan and I booked a room on the back of the boat with a balcony - truly dead center of the boat - it was lovely!  The balcony was large enough for three chairs and a small table.  I was glad we opted for the balcony for our first cruise - I couldn't fathom not being able to step outside or at least open a window.  But really we didn't sit on the balcony much, because it was much more fun to sit on the deck with other people. You can find a place that's relatively quiet, or stake a claim to deck chairs on the Lido Deck around the pool (yes, LoveBoat fans ... the LIDO DECK :).  I'm curious to see what a stateroom on the side of the ship would be like, because those rooms on our ship had balconies, too.  We didn't indulge our kids with balconies - they had interior rooms with no windows.  At first, it seems claustrophobic, until you realize how little time you're really spending in there.  I'm not ruling out getting a balcony if we cruised again, but it's not as big a deal as I thought it would be.

What About Sea Sickness?

We had very pleasant and calm weather, except for our last night at sea when we came through some (very mild) stormy weather.  On the calm days, sometimes you feel just the slightest movement of the ocean - nothing at all to make you unsteady, and you really have to be looking for it to notice.  The night there was stormy weather (and again - it was VERY mild), we were just conscious of an occasional roll.  Even that was nothing to make you unsteady on your feet - it was just enough to make you notice, and to me, it was actually pleasant :o)  The day after we got home, every once in a while when I was sitting very still, I would feel that sway-ish feeling, which I adore.  It's like a free souvenir so you don't forget that you were on the ocean.


Oh the on board activities!  Things kicked off with line dancing on the Lido Deck and went from there.  There was bingo, an Oscar Watching Party, plenty of duty free shopping (jewelry and paintings were the big feature on this cruise), a full service spa, a gym, Dive-In Movies, Piano Bar performances, a Comedy Club, Karaoke, a casino, full cast live production shows, a danceclub, and I'm sure I've forgotten a few hundred other things.  There were lots of activities for youngsters as well, and they celebrated Dr. Suess all week long - it was pretty cute.  Every evening, our porter left a schedule of activities in our room for the next day, so we could plan accordingly.

My favorite activities were the Dive-In Movies.  We sat in deck chairs, huddled up in blankets (provided by the cruise line) and watched Jurassic World projected on a big screen above the swimming pool.  I think there were current-run movies every night, and popcorn was also provided!


Our ports of call were Progresso and Cozumel.  Before you leave, the cruise line sends many helpful emails to let you know about all the things you can do when in port.  Actually, for someone like me who's afraid of missing out on any of the fun, it made me feel a little panic-y to make the right choices and fast.  But really, at least in the off-season and on this cruise, there wasn't as much urgency as I let myself believe.  We could have waited until we were on the cruise and booked from there, even though the emails made it seem like we needed to do it in advance (please do note, however:  we were cruising at the end of February - I'm sure in peak season it's a different game).  We stayed on board the ship in Progresso and enjoyed a quiet day while most folks went ashore.  In Cozumel, we got our own taxi to the market and had a grand day of shopping, bargaining, serenades, and eating the hands down best fajitas EVER.  There may or may not have been Tequila involved.


Our greatest challenge was without a doubt communication.  Our AT&T phone network wasn't reliable enough to be sure everyone was getting our "This is Where I Am" or "WHERE ARE YOU????" texts in a timely manner.  And unfortunately, one of our phones just flat out died the day we boarded the ship.  These were huge challenges for a family of extremely independent types who are nonetheless very dependent on technology.

Next time, we'll:
  • officiate our family emergency procedures if someone can't be located
  • figure out some low-tech way of tracking everyone.  Some people brought their own walkie-talkies, and they were actually available for purchase from the gift shop.  Some people used dry erase boards or sticky notes on their cabin doors.
  • know you can ask Guest Services whether someone has gotten off or on the ship (because you punch in your door keycard when you come and go).  In one case, the info we got was accurate, in the other case, it wasn't.  But it's at least a place to start if you're looking for someone.


When you think of a cruise, you imagine sailing away from port, but what about coming home?  Never thought about that at all, myself.  How exactly do you get over 2000 people off a ship in an organized fashion?  Fortunately, the cruise line has that all figured out, and just like with boarding, you're given a set time to get off the ship.  If you're checking bags to be taken off the ship by the cruise line, you'll pack them up, tag them, and put them outside your cabin by 11pm the night before.  Then, when your time to disembark comes, you'll make your way down the gangplank and into the baggage claim area.  I imagined mass chaos, but it was remarkably organized and our bags were right there when we got off the ship - no waiting.  We got a porter (there's a line for this, and you're assigned an official porter - this is so worth it!) then we made our way to customs and immigration.  The birth certificates and Drivers Licenses came back out and it took a very few minutes to pass through.

Family Friendly Helpful Hints

  • Consider not only the dates and destinations but also what the ship offers.  Our kids were expecting a giant swimming pool, but the pools on this particular ship were adequate but pretty small compared to what they were expecting.
  • Make it a priority to make friends and establish your group the first day if you can.  Go to the meet and greets.  The kids should sign up for the Kids Club.
  • Do all the onboard activities you can.
  • Make friends with the crew - they're there to help you have fun and are great sources of info.
  • If there's nothing going on activity wise, don't stay in your room - go up on deck and hang out!
  • Don't forget to take pictures!
  • If you're going shopping, make your budget and then plan to spend it in about $10 increments.  It's a good idea to have small bills with you for the marketplace.
  • If you're going to Mexico, don't forget that haggling over the price is expected  
  • Leave your laptop at home - you're not going to touch it.  All you need is a good book :o)

Something for Everyone

There were six of us, and what made the cruise such a blast was that we all called out something different as our favorite thing.  We loved:
  • playing basketball on the deck and working out at the gym
  • sitting on the deck doing nothing (guess who that was :o)
  • dancing the night away at the nightclub 
  • filling up on unlimited food food food
  • getting to know the amazing entertainment and wait staffs
  • enjoying the sense of community

When we debriefed with the family about the whole experience, I think everyone agreed that the sense of community was everyone's #1.  Nathan put it best:  Everyone you meet is having this shared experience, so you can strike up a conversation anywhere, anytime - compare notes on the food, the excursions, the best deck chairs, whatever - you have an easy conversation opener with every single person you meet, and everyone's happy to talk about how much fun they're having.

This trip was a transitional experience for us ... we were traveling with two adult "kids" (21 and 22) and two teenagers (16 and 17).  Okay, really the transition wasn't so much for us as it was for me.  I still feel like it's my business to know what my kids are doing and when they're coming and going, but they are diplomatically and ever so gently helping me understand the apron strings are no longer necessary.  Is it okay for my adult "children" to go play basketball on the upper deck at midnight?  Well, Mom, yes.  Yes it is.  There comes a time when you have to just let your kids be who you've raised them to be.  It's hard, and it feels treacherous.  But you know what?  When you've been pouring your heart and soul into training them for twenty plus years ... they can be trusted to make you proud :o)

Our big question was how would going on a family cruise compare with a family beach vacation?  From a Mom perspective, I have to say going on a cruise was more of a real vacation.  When we stay at the beach, I still straighten up our condo, plan meals and do laundry daily.  On the cruise, someone else did the daily room refresh (and towel origami!), handled everything related to eating, and although no one did laundry, it's an option if you want to pay for the service.  If you have kids who are old enough to be somewhat independent, going on a cruise offers Mom more of a real break from the everyday.

At this point, it feels crazily disloyal to our beloved Gulf Coast annual vacation to even consider that going on a cruise could replace it.  But after such a great cruise experience, I can say we're a little more open minded to the idea.  One of the BEST things about going to the same place every year is that you get into the vacation groove really quickly, and the first part of your vacation isn't spent figuring things out.  So I think at this point, before I can say for sure whether or not I'd opt for a cruise instead of our annual Alabama beach vacation, I'm going to have to do more research.  You can find me on the Lido Deck, hanging out with Julie.

I'm sharing this post with the Grace at Home Linky Party at Imparting Grace ... 
click here to join the fun!

Friday, March 4, 2016

Family Surfing Night #16

Because we do not spend nearly enough time in front of our screens watching silly videos, we bring you the 16th edition of FAMILY SURFING NIGHT!  LtDan and I were vastly underprepared for this cut throat competition, so this is a Kids Only edition :)

Nathan tried to convince us that we were surfing too soon, that it could not have been a month since he won the trophy with his Pen and Teller Power Tools Magic Show, but he's no match for the calendar - it's time!  People are willing to go to great lengths to keep their name on a paper trophy on the refrigerator, we all know it's true.

Click }here{ if you want an explanation about what this means in our family ... otherwise, enjoy!

First up is Aaron's video, which the kids have been referencing FOR WEEKS.  Now I understand why I keep hearing "Heh-woe, Mista Cwow" ...

From Abbie, Snoop Dog narrates an exciting encounter on Planet Earth ...

From Nathan, the Dog of Wisdom.  Great stuff, here.  No seriously ...

From Ben, dissociative identity affect comes to Family Surfing Night.  Full disclosure:  the video is lengthy and we didn't watch the whole thing.  See how long you can watch it before you have to go to a darkened room and see if you can replicate the affect.  We lasted about five minutes before we had to see if we could become something we don't ...

And the winner IS ...

Snoop Dog and Planet Earth! 
 "I ain't never seen no gator bein' punked by no mongooses!"  
Me neither, Snoop, me neither.  That's why your video wins!