The Gift of Travel: Choosing Experiences Over Gifts

We’re a little over two weeks past Christmas and I’m wondering … now that the tinsel has settled and stockings are put away, how was your Christmas? More specifically, how many of the things that were purchased for the purpose of gift-giving are still giving pleasure, usefulness or entertainment?

The Christmas aftermath

That’s something that, as parents, Mike and I have struggled with over the last couple of years. We’ve never been big buyers, and we don’t have an extended family dynamic that encourages excessive gifting, and still we find ourselves in mid-January wondering how it all added up. Despite our valiant efforts to be mindful in our holiday shopping, it still seems like too much. It still feels as if some of the purchases were duds, left to collect dust or take up space until they move on to Goodwill or a garage sale.

This past Christmas we decided to go in a different direction: we would not be filling the space under the tree with gifts. In our family tradition, Santa delivers a special gift and fills the stockings. All the other presents come from Mom and Dad. Some years we tried the “Something you want, something you need, something you wear, something you read” tradition. Other years we tried to stick to a strict budget. As we’d reflect on Christmas weeks or months later, we always noticed the same thing. One or two gifts held their power as something beloved or useful, and the other gifts just drifted into the background with all the other stuff you accumulate but don’t love. Beyond the time and energy (neither of which are in full supply during the holidays) shopping for these gifts took, it just felt wasteful. And not good.

Inspired by Amy Clark of MomAdvice and her “Choose Your Own Adventure” travel package she and her husband put together for her kids last year, we decided that in lieu of gifts we’d put that money towards travel – and let Elena and Eli pick the trip. We sat down with them over Thanksgiving to let them know that there wouldn’t be the traditional pile of gifts under the tree this year. Santa would still visit, but Mom and Dad were planning a fun family gift instead. We left it at that and they seemed content.

In the meantime, Mike and I narrowed the myriad of possibilities to three different types of trips: New York City, Southern California, and a Caribbean Escape. Using Canva and PicMonkey, I created a “travel brochure” to present to the kids on Christmas morning. Inside a binder they found the ground rules (they had to come to an agreement on the trip together – NICELY, travel arrangements would be made once a destination was decided, specific trip excursions may be modified as plans were solidified, etc.) along with a description of each trip and the kinds of things we might do and see.

Choose Your Own Adventure Travel Binder Christmas Gift

I have to say, it seemed to go over very well. They read over all the trip details with great interest and took their time deciding. We had several discussions about the pros and cons of the different destinations. They quickly eliminated New York City from the running, but took two days to decide between California and the Caribbean. It was so interesting to observe them listening to and negotiating with each other (Elena was leaning toward California and Eli was keen on the Caribbean). For the most part, Mike and I stayed out of it, other than to offer some additional information we thought might help them make a decision. This was their gift, their trip, and we wanted them to have the final say. In the end, they agreed on Southern California.

We’re so excited to begin planning our trip! We think we’ll spend about a week there, concentrating on the Los Angeles/San Diego area. For those of you that have been, we’d love your advice and suggestions! There’s so much to decide. When is the best time to go? Do we visit Disneyland even if we’ve been to Disney World twice? Where should we stay? But this is just one of the many things I love about gifting travel over material things: beyond the time we spend together as a family on the actual trip, we’re spending lots of time together working through the planning process. It really is the gift that will keep on giving, long after the trip is over.

Choose Your Own Adventure Travel Binder Christmas Gift

I really hope this is a tradition we can continue. It blows my mind that Elena will be in high school this fall, and that we really only have four more years to easily travel as a family. I want to take advantage of this time as much as possible, and see the world with the people I love the most.


The Short List: October

Expecting the Colts recap? As much as I’d like to skip it after yesterday’s atrocious game against the Saints, I promise I’m not. I’m just doing it a little differently this week. Look for a post later this week. Until then, amuse yourself with something a little more positive today: The Short List for October.

Miami University Mergers at Upham Arch

Disclosure: This post contains a few affiliate links.

A couple of weekends ago Mike and I took the kids to Oxford, Ohio for the day. Oxford is the home of our alma mater, Miami University. It’s where we met and got engaged, so the town and campus hold many special memories in our life’s story. We’d taken Elena when I was pregnant with Eli, and thought it was time to return. It was the quintessential fall day on campus: warm with a crisp breeze, golden sunshine, the leaves just beginning to turn. We ate and shopped in Uptown, then biked through campus, showing the kids where we lived when we met (a co-ed dorm!), went to class, and a very special spot: where we got engaged.

Miami lore says that if you kiss under Upham Arch, you’ll end up marrying that person. I don’t know how true that is, but Mike is the only person I kissed … under the Arch.

Miami University Redhawks Hockey

We capped off our visit by taking in a Miami Hockey game. Miami Hockey means a lot to us as well. My roommate in college dated one of the players for several years, so I have fun memories of hanging out with him and his teammates and cheering them on. Mike spent many hours at Goggin Ice Rink, both playing hockey and broomball, as well as working as a referee. It was such a fun day with the kids, strolling down memory lane and watching the Redhawks win against last year’s national champs, Providence.

The kids couldn’t believe it when I told them that in our day, if we wanted to use a computer to send an email or browse one of the 20 sites just debuting on the World Wide Web we had to physically walk to a computer lab. So archaic! Thank goodness times have changed … whatever would we do with ourselves without it?! On that note, here are a few things I’ve been enamored with this month, none of which require a trip to the computer lab.


I can tell it’s fall, because I’m spending way more time on the couch in front of the television than I do in the spring and summer. I haven’t latched onto any of the new fall shows, but we’re glad that our old favorites are back, including Big Bang Theory, Modern Family, and The Good Wife. So far Modern Family has been underwhelming, but Big Bang Theory is killing it. I’m a little pouty at The Good Wife. They keep taking away my favorite characters. (Will and Kalinda, mainly. I’m really hoping Finn Polmar comes back to sweep Alicia off her feet.) I’m rewatching Spike Lee’s documentary When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts. Between reading two books about Katrina, as well as various pieces on the 10th anniversary of the storm, I wanted to revisit this powerful work. It’s very good, but tough to watch.


You guys: I’m reading the most fun, fluffy, can’t-put-down book that I’ve read in a long time. The Royal We is the story of Bex and Nick. She, an American studying abroad. He? Well, just a prince and Great Britain’s future king. It tells their love story, from their carefree days at Oxford, their years secretly dating out of the public’s eye, to their impending royal wedding. It’s clearly inspired by Will and Kate, but it’s anything but a cheap knockoff. I’m not ashamed to admit I’m smitten with all things royal, and this book is feeding my obsession!

On the non-fiction front I’m reading Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. It’s a fascinating look at how smart phones and other technology have changed the way we connect and talk with each other. Right now I’m in the doom and gloom part, where you realize just how much we’ve retreated from true human connection. I think next up is panic about the next generation, but I’ve heard that by the end of the book Turkle gives readers strategies for fighting back and reason for hope. You can definitely expect a dedicated post to that book when I’m finished.

The other books currently on my nightstand? Wildwood by Colin Meloy (still reading with Eli), I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution by Rob Tannenbaum and Craig Marks, Did You Ever Have A Family by Bill Clegg, and Middle School Makeover: Improving the Way You and Your Child Experience the Middle School Years by Michelle Icard.

Two other books have been getting lots of love in our house, for very different reasons. The first is On-the-Go Fun for Kids! by Amanda Morin. When the kids were smaller, I used to keep a little bag packed in the car with activities and distractions for short road trips and restaurant waits. They’ve (mostly) grown out of that need, but I’m still always on the lookout for ways we can pass the time in the car, at restaurants, and in waiting rooms without all of us having our heads stuck to a phone or iPad. This book is perfect for that! It’s divided into sections by where you find yourself: the car, planes and trains, hotels and vacations, waiting, and shopping (with a bonus section for work-from-home days). We’ve used it over and over again and haven’t gotten close to doing even half of the activities. I especially like that it’s well-suited to a wide variety of age ranges, from littles all the way up to tweens and teens. I imagine our copy will be in tatters by the time we’re done with it.

Joe Journeyman Colts Illustration

The second book is Joe Journeyman. It’s the first in a new search-and-find series with a fun twist: it has an NFL theme. Joe (a fictional character) is the only person to ever play for all 32 NFL teams. The book takes you along as Joe and his friends travel from one NFL team to the next. Each team Joe visits comes with a list of things for you to find. The illustrations are big, detailed and fantastic. Eli is just getting into sports-themed books, and he’s spent hours gazing at the illustrations. I appreciate the NFL theme, of course, but what I really love is that the author, David Bazzoni and artis, Jed Bruce, are local. They’re donating 10% of all net profits to support Joe’s Kids, a nonprofit pediatric rehabilitation facility serving children with special needs. In addition, a portion of the profits will also benefit local children’s hospitals throughout the country. Both books would make great gifts or worthy additions to your own personal library.


I’m on a big cider kick right now, both the alcoholic and non-alcoholic kind. I’ve been buying jugs of cider and mulling it, then storing it in mason jars. I love it as an afternoon treat or in the evenings. To mull it, I just toast a stick of cinnamon (broken into pieces) along with a few peppercorns and whole cloves. I pour in a half gallon of cider, add a couple of tablespoons of brown sugar and a strip of orange peel (if I have it on hand). I simmer it for 30 minutes, skimming off any foam that rises to the top. Sooo good.

If I want some kick, I turn to ciders of the adult variety. My sister brought me some Austin Eastciders Original Dry Cider from Texas. I haven’t looked much locally, but if you can get your hands on any Vandermill Ciders from Michigan, they’re fantastic as well. I really like the cider from Stella Artois, too, which I think you can find just about anywhere.


If you’re a Colts fan looking for stories beyond game stats and recaps, I highly recommend the Colts Roundup blog. As part of our partnership with the Colts for their best tailgate contest, some local bloggers are contributing some tasty tailgate recipes to the site. It’s more than recipes, though, and I just love the pieces local writer Heather Lloyd does for the site, such as her “20 Things” posts about players and fun stories like Todd Herremans’ locker coffeemaker.

If you need a chuckle, check out these 20 People From Famous Paintings Who Literally. Can’t. Even.

This Fall To-Do List is so me. Especially the part about thinking corn mazes are a fantastic idea … until 10 minutes in.

What’s on your short list of favorite things right now?


The Big Summer of Small Adventures

Disclosure: This post is part of a yearly series in partnership with Netflix. As a member of the Netflix #StreamTeam, I’ll be sharing ideas throughout the year on some of the best Netflix titles to stream with your family. The content, as always, is whatever streams through my own mind! In addition, this post contains affiliate links. Hope you enjoy!

In just three weeks we’ll be swapping our lazy summer mornings for early morning breakfasts, backpacks and the bus stop. I honestly have no idea where this summer went. It seemed like yesterday I was preparing for an anti-boredom summer, fretting about how to fill the weeks that lay ahead of us. Now? I’m fretting that there isn’t enough time left to do all the things I wanted to do.

There was so much buildup to last summer’s big European adventure, followed by the trip itself, that we spent the last few weeks of summer at home simply enjoying home. We were adventured out. This summer was tricky in a different way: how to have a summer that feels adventurous, without going too far away from home? We all crave adventure in our lives, whether we realize it or not. For some of us, figuring out a new route to the grocery store is adventure enough. For others, it’s climbing Mt. Everest. While you’ll never catch me climbing a mountain or jumping out of an airplane, I need to seek out adventure by exploring and pushing myself just a little bit outside my comfort zone. As much as I love to travel, both near and far, I have to push myself to leave my summer comfort zone: bed, home, library, pool, home. Rinse, lather, repeat.

Two-thirds of the summer is behind us, and as I look back I realize we’ve had lots of small adventures that, when taken together, form one big, happy summer of adventure. I can save the fretting for something else. (I’m genetically wired to always be fretting over something. If nothing seems obviously fret-worthy, then I fret about that.)

What does a summer of small adventures look like?

When going out on a Friday night means pulling your chairs and grill into the street ... love my 'hood.

It looks like block parties that start in the late afternoon and last through the wee hours of the night. It looks like kickball, circles of camping chairs, fireworks, and kids running around with flashlights.

Summer Concerts

It looks like summer concerts, and rejoicing in the fact that you can now enjoy live shows with your kid that isn’t The Wiggles.

Youth baseball

It looks like trying a new sport, and realizing that you actually enjoy watching your kid play certain sports (sorry, soccer).

Michigan Blueberries

It looks like picking something other than strawberries for a change, and discovering that every single supermarket blueberry you’ve ever had has been an imposter.

Girls Rock! Indianapolis 2015

It looks like rock and roll, and coming to grips with the fact that you now share a home with an electric guitar and an amp.

Elena Six is 13

It looks like having a teenager in the house, and coming to grips with the fact that there will be eyeliner. Lots of eyeliner which adds an additional 20 minutes to the departure timeline of any other adventures.

Praying Mantis nymphs

It looks like hatching praying mantises. In your habitat, not theirs.

Pier Point Beach Michigan

It looks like swimming in Lake Michigan, and realizing you’ve been horribly misguided in your disdain for any and all bodies of water that aren’t oceans.

Nicey Treat

It looks like finally trying that popsicle place, the one you’ve been avoiding because you hate trying to park in the neighborhood it’s in.

Paper Towns Tour John Green

It looks like standing in line for hours in the blazing sun to meet your kid’s favorite author, and being secretly glad for the excuse to do so, because you love him to death, too.

Rocket 88 Doughnuts

It looks like coming up with an idea like the Doughnut Tour of Indy, just so you have an excuse to eat doughnuts all summer long. It’s for the kids!

DollyBrook Resort Michigan

It looks like taking in sunsets while roasting s’mores, because there’s nothing more adventurous than saying no to the dirty dishes and the laundry and saying yes to sitting outside.

Are your kids fans of How to Train Your Dragon’s Hiccup and Toothless? This summer, Netflix is sending them on a new adventure in the brand new original series Dragons: Race to the Edge. Available only on Netflix, your favorite characters are soaring beyond the borders of Berk in search of new dragons. Did you know that How to Train Your Dragon was a book series before it was a movie and TV show? It’s fantastic summer reading, perfect for going on adventures in your imagination.


If you have kids that aren’t into, or have moved beyond dragons, stream these adventure-filled movies instead. For the elementary set we love Hook, National Treasure, and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. For teens (I still can’t believe we’re there), try Jumanji, Stand by Me, or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

What adventures, big or small, have you been on this summer?

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