Week Three

31 Mar

It’s 10:42 p.m. on Tuesday, March 31. The second day of the third week we’ve been #TogetherAtHome. Except somehow it feels like it’s been forever!

Over the weekend, I felt a bit out of sorts. As it turns out, two weeks is the amount of time I can hang out with my family nearly exclusively at home and not be crabby. Two weeks on vacation? Easy peasy. Two weeks at home? Not so much.

We’ve taken about a million walks, which is actually really nice. Michaela and I have used chalk to draw pictures and write inspirational messages in front of our house. I planted some gardenias. I bought a six-pack of Corona (I haven’t touched it yet but am looking forward to savoring them!). Mike’s done a lot of yard work, which desperately needed to be done. Michaela has been working on school stuff, watching videos, doing lots of video chatting with Nana and Papa, and making lots of art.

We’ve gotten takeout once a week or so. We’ve gone to the store a few times. I’ve gone into the office once a week (and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future). Each time I go to the office, I stop at the Starbucks drive through my chai latte it’s a little bit of much-needed normalcy.

I spent a few minutes last week writing notes to some of my colleagues across the state, to tell them how much I appreciate their work. It felt really good to spend some focused time on gratitude. I highly recommend it! Going to try to work that into my schedule each week.

Mike said he’s getting used to things slowing down. He’s always wanted to homeschool Michaela, so here’s his chance.

Work, as I wrote before, was incredibly intense for several weeks. Then it calmed down and was more manageable. This week is back to nuts. I have to say, though, I am so proud of all the work my organization is doing for kids. Even on my busiest, most stressful day, I know my work is making a difference and that’s pretty amazing.


21 Mar

We started sharing information about COVID-19 with local schools in late January. At the time, it looked like yes, a novel (new) coronavirus, but also like less of a big deal than the regular old flu, which was going around our region.

“You should ask your children’s schools about their plans for school dismissals or school closures. Ask about plans for teleschool,” Nancy Messonnier, a CDC director, said during a press briefing on Tuesday. “I contacted my local school superintendent this morning with exactly those questions.”

In February, that changed. When the CDC director made her remarks, it was without giving education officials a heads up, or any guidance. So for many, it was like going from zero to 60, with freaked out parents and employees wondering what the plan was.

After the press conference, when my phone buzzed in a group chat of school PR professionals around the county with word of what had been said, I knew the shit was going to hit the fan, if you’ll excuse the expression. In Sacramento, I emailed someone on my team and our nursing coordinator, to get them going on some messaging and planning.

Things just exploded from there. I became the leader of a group of people working on schools’ response to COVID-19 (if you’re familiar with the National Incident Management System, I was/am the incident commander).

All of a sudden, we were crafting even more messages to local school district superintendents and charter schools, giving them updates on the situation and providing templates they could customize to communicate with their community. I was fielding dozens of media questions and interview requests. I was pulling people together across my organization, to get them working on plans and resources for districts, but also for our own response. Gotta have continuity of operations for us, too! I was prepping for press conferences; taking calls from district and school leaders with questions from the medical to the mundane; liaising with public health; and more. We expanded our communications to include not only district and charter school leaders, but also private school and preschool leaders because of the scope of the situation.

(I want to be clear that I’m super lucky to work with a great team of people. I was/am able to lean on one member of my team for a lot of writing and website updating, our school nurse coordinator is fantastic and is/was a delight to work with, and we have a coordinator who has been doing an amazing job running the pandemic planning process. As things have evolved, the number of people helping has grown.)

Things built and built and built. For a long time, there were no known cases of COVID-19 in San Diego County. Then there were cases, but it was clear how they were acquired. Because there was no known community spread, the guidance from public health was that there was no reason to close schools. After all, for A LOT of children, school is the safest and best place to be. Some people were pretty upset about that. I got a lot of emails and calls and messages through social media from people who were very angry that schools were still open. I’ll be honest– many/most of those people were coming from an incredible place of privilege. I’m not sure why they didn’t just keep their kids out of school of they were so worried (actually I do know why– they didn’t want to get unexcused absences, which is lame), but I didn’t say that to any of them. I tried to explain the facts — public health, who we’re working with very closely, wasn’t recommending closure, and many kids depend on schools for meals, safety, supervision. It didn’t really help; I had one parent continue to harangue my with multiple emails a day. Oh, and I was bombarded by messages from friends and acquaintances wanting insider information about if/when schools were going to close. It was… not helpful.

And I worked and worked and worked. Hours and hours and hours. Every day. It was incredibly stressful.

In the middle of all this, I had to go to the doctor to get a TB test, which is required for my work. When I was there, they took my blood pressure, which always runs a little high. This time it was really high, repeatedly. They told me I needed to take it at home, and come back in a week to have it checked in the office. I did and it was high. HIGH. Like, dangerously high. When I went into the office the second time, they were worried I was going to have a major medical issue and put me on blood pressure meds right then and there.

The pressure continued to build. Eventually, local schools decided to close. That was good, in that then the specter of closure that had been looming was at least confirmed, but also difficult.

Our team put together a pandemic response plan for schools that basically had four phases: prevention (focus on getting people to wash their hands, stay home when sick, etc. so the disease doesn’t spread), preparing (what needs to change and how if there are cases or if schools close?), response (we have cases or we’ve closed, now what), and recovery (how do we get back to normal?). The decision to close took us out out prevention and really depends on how well we prepared, because it’s time to respond to this new phase!

Part of what’s so challenging about this is that the situation is so fluid and fast-moving. Our medical knowledge about the disease kept increasing, and therefore our guidance kept evolving, too. (For example, at one point, people were to stay home if they have a fever of 100.4; a day or two later, it was 100. Or, another example, at one point, the guidance was people should self-quarantine if they had been to a CDC-designated Level 3 country, then it was Level 2 or 3, then it was 3 again, and now it’s Level 3 but the countries have expanded to include all of Europe.) Then you add in the political stuff — lack of leadership at the federal level, governance by press conference, dueling egos — and it’s even harder to remain proactive, not reactive.

And for my organization, as I’ve mentioned, we have to worry not only about our own operations, but also supporting all the schools in the region. So it’s two big buckets of work, all of which needs to be done yesterday.

Now that schools are closed, we are focused on helping mitigate loss. Trying to keep kids fed. Trying to keep them learning. Which is easier said than done, frankly. If you’re reading this, you’re probably pretty privileged (lord knows I am). You have internet, you have a computer, you have some sort of means. But many of our families don’t have internet access (or physically can’t because they live in areas in the backcountry with no service), or don’t have a computer, or don’t have the ability to work from home. So what do we do for those families, for those kids?

We closed our offices on Wednesday. Only people whose work must be done onsite are to work from the office. Everyone else is remote. So I worked from home Wednesday and Thursday, and went in for about five hours on Friday for command center-style meetings with our leadership team and local school districts. Then I went home and worked some more, ha ha. (Mike very helpfully reminded me of my habit, when I worked from home for a previous job, of working all the time. I’m trying to set some boundaries and be intentional about not doing that now.)

Michaela is now learning at home. On the first day of homeschool, she did a media interview with our local NBC affiliate about how that was going. Mike made her an amazing schedule that keeps her focused. She has done a couple of Zoom meetings with her teacher and classmates, and I think she appreciates the chance to see their faces. It was tough because Mike had shoots on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday (thank goodness, since so much of his work has dried up due to event cancelations), so Michaela was on her own more than we would have liked, but she is a total trooper.

The governor had a press conference last week and said he hoped he was wrong, but he doesn’t think schools will open again this year. That set off a whole new flurry of worries and inquiries. And that’s basically how it’s been. Try our best to plan, then react to some external force, then try to plan some more.

We’ve told schools it’s premature to commit to a reopening date, and to plan for an extended closure. The better everyone can do at social distancing, the sooner can get back to normal. That’s pretty much where I’m staking my hopes. I want Michaela to be able to go back to school. I want to be able to go to a local restaurant and enjoy a seated meal. I want Mike to be making awesome videos for cool events. So everyone: wash your hands and stay the f*** home!

Um… Jan.-Feb. 2020

21 Mar

I haven’t written here since Dec. 30, 2019. Remember 2019? It seemed like it sucked and 2020 couldn’t help but be better. Except so far 2020 is a flaming dumpster fire (not to be confused with a flaming car fire, which I experienced in 2019).

I need to write a full post about COVID-19, but I also don’t want to miss memorializing January and February 2020. Here are a few highlights:

Our family made it through another season of Girl Scout cookie sales. Michaela exceeded her goal, which was 350 boxes, largely thanks to pounding the pavement and booth sales. Mike was a super champ, taking Michaela door-to-door multiple times. It’s Michaela’s favorite part of Girl Scouts, which I find totally fascinating!

I went with a couple of friends to a book reading by Isabel Allende. I love her books, and she was delightful. Eccentric and honest and lovely. It was a really fun evening, and I can’t wait to dive into her new book.

Michaela went to Junior Achievement’s Biz Town for a school field trip. Each student applies for their top three jobs, is assigned one, and then all the students go to this virtual city to participate in the Biz Town economy. Michaela was a veterinarian. Mike, who chaperoned, was assigned to help at Jack in the Box (which serves popcorn, not burgers and tacos).

We went to Colorado in mid-February for a long weekend of fun in the snow. We went to Winter Park and tubed, did a horse-drawn sleigh ride, and took a snowcat tour, among other things. It was great to spend time with Nana and Papa. I felt like the weekend was a good reminder that we should do it more often! I hadn’t been to Colorado in years (even though Michaela goes every year for a week or 10 days).

February 24-25, I went to Sacramento for a convening about the census (I’m leading some work on behalf of K-12 schools to encourage participation in the census). On the 25th, I was in a breakout session when my phone started buzzing that a director of the CDC said it spread of COVID-19 was inevitable and that people should call their schools to find out their plans. And with that, my life totally exploded.

A Look Back

30 Dec

It’s so crazy to think of all the changes the last 10 years have brought!

On Jan. 3, 2010, we were in the thick of renovating our first house together. Michaela was about three weeks old, and we were about a month away from what should have been my due date.

feel like the last 10 years have been a blur. So much of it has been wrapped up in Michaela’s accomplishments and achievements and milestones. I’m happy to say we’ve managed to raise a pretty good kid in the last decade. There are too many examples to link here, but I’ll just say that Michaela is kind and sweet and smart and brave. Her kindergarten teacher predicted Michaela would be valedictorian. I guess we’ll see at the end of the next decade.

We moved out of our first house and into a new one that was, at the time, the cheapest house we could find in the neighborhood where we wanted to live. I loved the house but it was on a busy street, so we moved about five years later into our current home, which backs onto a canyon and has the best neighbors ever.

We’ve traveled a ton, including trips to Japan, the Philippines, Costa Rica, and Europe (just me and Mike) plus European cruises (just the three of us, and with our nephew), a Panama Canal Cruise, and multiple Mexican Riviera cruises (with Mike’s mom and stepdad when Michaela was about 10 months old and most recently this spring with Mike’s dad and stepmom). We took some great domestic trips, too– also too many to mention!

Mike’s worked really hard growing his business. I’m so proud of him! When he quit his job 10 years ago to stay home with Michaela and do freelance video on the side, we never would have dreamt that he’d end up with a successful business that also allows him to volunteer once a week in Michaela’s classroom. He even served as Room Dad for a couple of years!

On the career front for me, I earned accreditation in public relations, which is sort of like becoming a CPA for accountants. I’ve had two jobs in the last 10 years. I’ve spent the last seven at my current job, and while it has been rough at times (understatement of the year?), I really do love my work.

We’ve lost a number of loved ones, specifically Grandpa George, Grandma Ede, Grandma Shirley, Great Grandmother McCall, Grandma Pat, Mike’s best friend Elree, and Rey, the best dog ever. Fortunately, Mike’s mom and my mom, who battled colon and liver cancer respectively, are doing well and not on that list.

Mike and I each turned 40, three years apart. Because as old as I am (and sometimes feel), he’ll always be older!

I got into yoga, and working out with a trainer, and cooking. I also was unmotivated and didn’t do those things. So basically, life.

Oh, and I’ve written about 580 blog posts.

Happy new year! Here’s to a great new decade!

Christmas 2019

30 Dec

We (Mike) told Michaela Santa isn’t real several months ago. He didn’t beat around the bush with it and Michaela seemed to understand what he was saying.

That’s why it was a surprise when, on Christmas Eve, Michaela was insistent that we put out cookies for Santa and carrots for the reindeer. She made a lot of comments about Santa coming, and they seemed sincere. Mike and I were left whispering to each other, “does she think Santa is real? Even though we told her? What’s going on here?!?”

After Michaela went to bed, we did all the things parents do, like eating the cookies and nibbling on the carrots, as well as, in Mike’s case, assembling a new bike.

Michaela woke up on Christmas morning excited to see the new bike waiting for her. She confessed that she’d gone to that bathroom around 3 a.m. and saw the bike was there, so she knew Santa had been there.

We had a lovely day, opening gobs of presents, eating Mike’s homemade-from-scratch-knockoff-Cinnabon cinnamon rolls (and delivering some to our neighbors, too!), having brunch with family (my brother and parents, and Mike’s mom and stepdad, who were visiting from Colorado), and having dinner with a family friend who is stationed at Camp Pendleton while his family is in Montana. It was a great day, but one that didn’t resolve the “does Michaela really believe in Santa Claus” mystery.

A couple of days after Christmas, Santa came up while I was driving Michaela home from a friend’s birthday party. I casually said, “Some people know that Santa isn’t real but still like to believe. Do you know anyone like that?” And she confessed that yes, she fits that bill. Then we had a lovely talk about how fun it is to be surprised with big presents, and that it’s fun to be the magic for other people.

The best part was that Michaela confessed that, after the presents had been opened on Christmas and she went to the garage to sharpen some new colored pencils she got (she asked for a pack of pencils that come in different flesh tones; gotta love my multicultural kid!), she saw the bike box in the garage. She swore me to secrecy, told me I couldn’t tell Mike, because she didn’t want to ruin the magic for him.

Hope your Christmas was similarly beautiful!

Head in the Sand

20 Dec

The father of a girl in Michaela’s class died this week. As far as I know, it was unexpected. It would be sad any time, but I especially feel for the girl because it’s right before Christmas, and I would imagine those two things will forever be entwined for her.

I asked Michaela how she was doing with the news. She said she wasn’t sure how to feel. I asked her if it made her scared that her dad would die, too. Michaela, in a classic example of compartmentalization, said, “I prefer not to think about it. If I think about it, it will make me sad, so I just don’t.” I told her I understood that because I’m the same way, but if I’ve learned anything in my 40 years on the planet, it’s that it’s better to acknowledge your emotions and find a healthy outlet for them. She thought about it for about a millisecond, reiterated her desire to ignore it, and then changed the subject.

She’s so my kid.

Interview with a 10-Year-Old

12 Dec

Five years ago I interviewed Michaela, and I thought it’d be fun to see how her answers have changed.

How old are you? 10

What’s your favorite color? Light blue/baby blue

Who’s your best friend? Claudia

What’s your favorite snack? White Cheddar Cheez-Its [For the record, I’ve never seen her eat these.]

Where would you like to go to on vacation? Hawaii

Why Hawaii? Because I want to see their crystal-clear beaches.

What’s your favorite toy? My favorite toy or my favorite thing to play with? I really like adult coloring books.

What’s your favorite thing to wear? Waffle weave long-sleeved shirts.

Who’s your favorite Disney princess? What about cartoon character? Because then I’d say Horrid Henry.

What’s your favorite book? Junie B. Jones Aloha Ha.

Which is your favorite myth? I like the one about the snake-y things that Hercules kills and dips the arrows in. [The Hydra.]

What’s your favorite song? “Better Place” by Rachel Platten.

What’s something you’re really good at doing? Drawing cats.

What’s your favorite thing to do outside? At the Lake Murray Park, there’s a green thingy that spins around. Known as a merry-go-round. But those things are supposed to be dangerous. You sit down and have an adult push you, even if they don’t want to, because you force them.

What’s your favorite restaurant? The one in Japan with the sushi that comes right to your face because you order it.

What’s your favorite game? Playing cats with Claudia.

Who do you love? Close family plus Claudia.

Why? ‘Cause they’re nice. And Claudia likes playing cats and parents are the best doctors ever. PS: I’m sick right now, so that’s why.

What do you love about Dad? Snuggles.

What makes you happy? Family and cats.


8 Dec

It’s been just under two weeks since my car caught on fire. In spite of some pretty heavy guilt, I felt like I’d been doing a good job moving forward. I’ve called insurance and the DMV and we’ve begun the hunt for a new car. One of the things on the related to-do list, though, was going to the salvage yard where my car had been moved, in order to remove my personal items.

I dragged myself to the lot, which is practically in Mexico. (San Diego friends, it’s in Otay.) I had called ahead to find out what I needed to do when I got there, and Mike armed me with the extra keys so I could get into the trunk. After checking in and signing some papers, the person working there told me to wait outside and they’d bring the car around.

A few minutes later, this giant front end loader thing came speeding down the rows of cars. My car was on its lift, being tossed around as the larger vehicle zoomed by. The driver set it down and I was able to approach it.

From the back, it looked like my usual car. A beautiful shiny red color. They’d taken the license plate off the back, which was unsettling. I’d hoped to retrieve my alumni license plate holder. More than that, though, it felt like an erasing. Like, it was just a dream that it was my car, that I owned it, that it got me and my family so many places for so many years.

From the front, it looked even worse than I remembered. Both sideview mirrors had melted, Dali-like. The whole front, where the paint melted off during the fire, was an eerie orange. The metal had rusted. The engine compartment was a twisted mess of melted wires and components. Someone at some point put a plastic sheet across where the windshield would have been if it hadn’t exploded.

If the outside was shocking, the inside was a hundred times worse. It smelled awful. A smell I’ll likely never forget. The smell of burned plastic and smoke and soot. all the stuff that had landed on the ground after the fire was out had been scooped into the inside of the car by the tow truck driver, so there was a weird mix in the front seat area of 1) stuff missing because it melted and 2) stuff that didn’t belong there, like broke glass and burnt plastic pieces.

Even the stuff in the backseat was wet. Michaela had asked me to retrieve couple of things that were here in the back seat, but they weren’t salvageable.

I pried open the trunk and considered my options. My “go bag” for work was in there, full of the stuff I’d need to do my job in the event of a countywide crisis. It felt a little ironic to pull that out of the trunk, but I did. Some of the other stuff I left, and some I took.

It was really overwhelming. I was surprised at how emotional I felt. I guess it truly hit me, looking at the car now that some time has passed and I wasn’t in the thick of it anymore, how bad the fire was and how much danger we were in.

That was a couple of days ago. Today, though, I got a call from the woman who took the girls to safety while the fire was raging. I called her that night, to say thank you, but got her voicemail and hadn’t heard from her since.

She refused to let me do something for her, though I offered. She and her mom were leaving the hospital, where her mom, who has cancer, had undergone a biopsy. She said they were driving the other way when they saw us and the car on fire and noticed that everyone else drove on by and didn’t stop. She said her mom had had a car catch on fire once, and she was afraid the car was going to explode, so she decided to make a U-turn, to come help us.

The lady said Michaela was so brave and did such a good job trying to calm down her friend, who was practically hyperventilating. She said Michaela was poised when she called Mike, and that he was very reassuring as he talked to Michaela. The woman said Michaela is very special and is going to grow up to be an amazing person, and that it was due to me and Mike as parents.

It was fascinating to hear what the situation looked like from the outside. And of course it was touching to hear her perspective on Michaela. It was also a great reminder that we can all be good Samaritans, and of the difference someone can make in your life.

Scary and Lucky

27 Nov

We got back from our Costa Rica vacation yesterday. Mike had a shoot today in Orange County, so I planned to paint part of the entryway (Mike wanted to put the Christmas tree in there but he wanted to paint if first; since he was gone today, I offered to do it) and then take Michaela to see “Frozen 2.” I knew she’d have more fun if we invited a friend, so her friend Angie came over to hang out and go to the movies with us.

When we got in the car to go, the car started shaking in an extremely violent way. I don’t know how else to describe it. It was shuddering and there was a weird sound. I turned it off and waited a minute before turning it back on. That time, there was no shaking or noise, so we headed off. The movie theater is only 6 miles from my house, so I figured it’d be fine to drive there. After all, if we got out of the movie and the car wouldn’t start, Mike would be home and could come look at it or we could call AAA.

We were about halfway there when we started smelling something. It was faint and I wasn’t 100% sure it was coming from my car. I drove a little more. Then I started seeing smoke coming out from under the hood. We were petty close to the theater, though, so I kept driving. I was pulling off the freeway when dark black smoke started pouring through the vents in the dashboard. My light was red, but I squeezed through the cars to make a turn off the offramp and pull over to the side of the road.

Once I pulled over, I had the girls get out of the car and get away. The car was smoking pretty badly. I popped the hood, thinking I would give it a minute and then lift up the hood to see what was happening under there. It was then that I saw flames under the hood. (I now think doing that probably introduced oxygen that fed the fire; if, God forbid, I’m ever in that situation again, I definitely won’t pop the hood.)

I called 911. They dispatched police to set up a perimeter and fire to put out the conflagration. The fire quickly went from something relatively small to really big.

A couple of Good Samaritans stopped. One was a woman with what I assume is her elderly mother in the car. The lady gave me her phone number and took the girls a block or so away, so they’d be safe and could calm down (they were freaking out, and understandable so). The other was a man who offered to help, but there wasn’t anything we could do except wait for the fire fighters.

When a police officer came to check in, I explained that the girls had gone with a stranger and asked if the police could dispatch something to find them. They did and, I learned later, called Angie’s mom.

It felt like it took forever for the fire fighters to arrive. When they got on the scene, they sprayed the car with water and some special foam. The air smelled terrible as the metal and plastic burned.

The fire captain asked me some questions and walked me over to the car once the first was out so I could retrieve anything salvageable. There wasn’t much. A pair of gloves and glasses out of my glove box, and my change purse and toll roads transponder from the center console. I couldn’t get into the trunk because the battery was dead and that’s how the key fob works.

The captain told me to call my insurance company because they’d probably want my car to go to a specific place, especially if they’re going to investigate the cause of the fire. I really hope they do– it’s killing me not to know why this happened. The only thing I can think of (and it sounds weird) is that rodents got under the hood and chewed on the wires and that caused a short that caught on fire. Because the car was in great condition and has been maintained very well.

I was on hold with the insurance company for a long time. It was raining and I didn’t have a jacket or umbrella (there was one in my trunk but I couldn’t open it) and it was pretty sucky. When the insurance people finally did come on the line, I could hardly hear them because I was so close to the freeway and the traffic zooming by.

Angie’s mom had driven to pick up the girls, and she grabbed a rain jacket and an umbrella for me, which she dropped off. That helped a lot, as did knowing the girls were safe and in good hands.

The insurance company said it’d be about 30 minutes for a tow truck. When the tow company called, they said it would be an hour. I walked the couple of blocks to the mall where the theater is and grabbed a hot tea to try to warm up and calm down. I was feeling pretty numb, literally and figuratively.

The tow truck driver called to say he was on the scene, so I hustled back to the car. He’d already gotten it hooked up, so all I had to do was thank him profusely and send him on his way. Mike arrived from Orange County about 10 minutes after that and took me home, where I promptly lost it.

I feel super lucky. Lucky that we were able to get off the freeway, lucky that we’re all safe, lucky that losing my car like this isn’t a catastrophe, and lucky that we can afford to get a rental car and to buy a new car. But it’s still such a weird, intense, scary, guilt-inducing experience. I keep thinking of the “shoulddas” and “shoulddntas.” I should have known something was seriously wrong with the car. I should have told the girls we’d go see the movie another day. I should have waited for Mike to get home to look at the car. I shouldn’t have driven it.

It’s a lot to process.

We’re back!

27 Nov

We returned yesterday from our trip to Costa Rica, a beautiful country with very nice people, a lot of really cool animals, and varied landscape. It was amazing!

We took a red eye flight from San Diego to LAX to San Jose, the capitol. Got in around 7 a.m., picked up our rental car, and began our adventure. Mike did all the driving throughout the trip (he rented a stick shift, which I can’t drive), for which I am terribly grateful. We didn’t have any colones, so stopped at a small store where we could use our credit card to buy drinks and chips for the road. That didn’t quite tide us over enough so we went to a restaurant and had out first gallo pinto, a typical Costa Rican beans and rice dish, before driving to La Fortuna.

La Fortuna is a town at the base of the Arenal volcano. We stayed at a pretty resort called Montana de Fuego (Mountain of Fire) in a “superior bungalow” that faced the mountain and backed onto the jungle. After putting our stuff down and taking a quick nap (we’d been awake FOREVER), we wandered around the hotel and hit the property’s thermal pools before changing into hiking clothes and setting off into the jungle.

We hadn’t gone very far when we came to a split on the trail. One way was the Sendero Perezoso, or Sloth Trail, so naturally we took that. We walked along a little more and I spotted something moving in the trees. IT WAS A SLOTH! I SPOTTED A SLOTH! Within only a couple of hours of being in the country! The funny part is, I didn’t have my glasses on so I couldn’t see it very clearly. I zoomed in with my phone and took a picture and sure enough, it was a sloth. We were all thrilled, and I was bestowed the nickname “Animal Spotter.”

The next morning we went for a horseback ride through the jungle. We’d planned on riding to the volcano, but it was super foggy, and frankly, I’m so glad it worked out that way! Our guide, Alex, got us all on horses. Mike was on Canelo, Michaela was on Gina, and I was on Maya. Alex rode Payaso, which funnily enough was the name of the first horse Michaela ever rode– a sad, skinny horse on the beach in San Felipe, Mexico. Alex gave us a brief lesson and then we were off. It was my first time ever on a horse, and Michaela’s first time doing a real ride. Midwestern/Coloradan Mike had ridden before.

Even though we were riding and nominally controlling our horses, Alex was really the one in control. He would make a certain noise and the horses would go into a trot, and another noise and off we’d gallop. My butt was so sore!

We rode to the river — and into the river! — and saw howler and capuchin monkeys on our ride. It was a really cool way to see the countryside, and a great adventure for all of us. Definitely one of the highlights of our trip.

The next day, we drove up to Arenal, the volcano. We hiked through the primary and secondary forests to a spot where you could see all the lava rock from previous explosions (the volcano hasn’t been active since 2010). We hiked back down on a different route, passing a 400-year-old tree and seeing an acuti, which is basically a ROUS. Seriously, it’s 6 pounds! We also saw a coati, which is an adorable anteater-like mammal, and a number of capuchin monkeys that were hanging out and playing over our heads. Capuchins are cute but apparently they’re very dangerous. They’re smart and mean, and Alex warned us that they can kill you by wrapping their tail around your neck while trying to steal your food. He wasn’t kidding. So when we saw the monkeys and it looked like they were coming down from the trees, we hauled booty out of there.

Michaela enjoyed the hike up until the point she slipped in a mud puddle and got her favorite skirt tremendously dirty. I tried telling her it would be a funny story someday, but she wasn’t having it.

When we got to the parking lot, we found that we were the only car and that everyone had gone home. Turns out the park closed at 4, not 5 as we thought. The gate was locked with a chain, so our options were busting through it, leaving the car and hiking out, or… something else. Fortunately, a car drove by and stopped. I explained our situation and he told me he’d go find a national park employee, but we’d need to be patient. Surprisingly, it was only a few minutes later that a parks employee came to open the gate and we were on our way. Disaster narrowly avoided!

I am convinced I jinxed us, though, because someone had asked me “how are the roads in Costa Rica,” and I said there were much nicer than I was expecting and that driving had been pretty easy. So of course on our next long drive, we drove for 90 minutes on rutted, bumpy, unpaved roads. Our Rav 4 did a good job, though, as did our driver.

The next morning we left La Fortuna and headed to Monteverde, a town home to a famous cloud forest. Mike had booked us into a hostel, which he and Michaela were really excited about. I was a little less excited, though I was happy he’d gotten us a room with a private bath. The place was nice, though, with very friendly staff and right in the middle of town. While we were settling in, Mike spotted a girl who looked around Michaela’s age and encouraged Michaela to talk to her. The girl, Soli, was an 11-year-old French Canadian traveling around Costa Rice with her mom for a month. They hit it off in spite of a language barrier and played card games in the lobby that night before we all went together on a night tour of the rainforest.

The idea behind the night tour is you can see creatures that are active at night. This particular night was very rainy, so we didn’t see much, but not for lack of trying from our guide, Ronald: a couple of tiny frogs, a lot of bugs, some birds, and a green viper.

The next morning we went to the national park and did a guided tour of the cloud forest. It’s at a high elevation, so there are lots of clouds (as you’d expect from the name), which makes it cool temperature-wise and leads to a lot of biodiversity. Our guide was very knowledgeable and took all of Michaela’s questions seriously. We saw orange-kneed tarantulas, bats, lots of birds, and beautiful plant life. At the end of the tour, we went to a coffee shop across the street from the park entrance where they’d set up hummingbird feeders that attracted several different kinds. We got drinks and were watching the birds when an acuti went strolling by, chill as can be. We also stopped by the gift shop, where we met a woman with impeccable English who was an amateur sloth fanatic. She told us all about sloths and about where to find them near our hostel. As it turned out, that night when we were driving back to town, we saw her walking home. Michaela and I hopped out of the car and she walked us around to help us see more sloths. While we didn’t see any, meeting Dulce was another highlight of our trip for me because she 100% lived up to her name (“Sweet” in English).

The next day, we gave Soli and her mom (Line, pronounced “Lean”) a ride to Puntareans, a town on the Pacific coast. We actually had been there before; that’s where our Panama Canal cruise stopped when we did that trip a few years ago. I had been a bit apprehensive about sharing the car with random strangers but it was really fun. Especially when we shared the little bit of French we know, which includes the chorus of the French language version of “Frosty the Snowman.” Gotta love un bonhomme de neige!

From there, we continued south along the coast. We made a stop at Crocodile Bridge, which goes over the Tarcoles River. As the name suggests, there are crocodiles that live near the bridge. We’d visited it on our previous trip, so we knew there were clean, free bathrooms in addition to crocodiles.

There was a definite change in the climate as we drove down from the mountains to the coast. When we arrived in Manuel Antonio, our next stop, it was hot and humid. Mike had gotten us a two-bedroom unit at a place in Quepos, a town outside the Manuel Antonio National Park. It had a pool and a big kitchen, so we stopped at a store to get breakfast foods. We headed to the beach for sunset and holy cow, was it gorgeous!

By that time, though, we were all tired and hungry and over restaurants. We went to the store again and grabbed fixings for dinner. The grilled cheese (American cheese product and Bimbo white bread), soup from a packet, and steamed broccoli was one of my favorite meals of the trip. We ate on the patio of our house and then Michaela took a dip in the pool. It was lovely.

We woke up the next morning to howler monkeys in the trees outside our house, and then to six giant macaws squawking and flying around. We had a leisurely breakfast of scrambled eggs, toast, bacon, and orange-carrot juice before heading to the national park.

Manual Antonio National Park is home to several beaches as well as forest, and since we (well, Michaela) were tired of rain forest, we packed for a beach day. A big bottle of water, some fruit (including the most delicious pineapple I’ve ever eaten) and cookies, towels, and sunscreen, plus a souvenir towel we bought that looks like a Costa Rican bill (currency).

Playa Espadilla Sur was a relatively empty beach with a lot of shade trees, so we set up camp there. While we did, we saw a giant iguana lumber by. Mike and Michaela headed into the water, and I joined them, too, for only for a bit (long enough to get hit by a giant wave!). I mostly sat on the sand and read my Kindle, which is my idea of a great vacation activity. After several hours of that, we were all hungry for lunch so walked through the park, where we saw some tremendously aggressive capuchin monkeys (I swear one looked like he was going to kill us) and another sloth!

After we left the park, we had a quick bite on the beach. Literally. We sat at a table on the beach and drank smoothies and shared ceviche and chips and guac. Another great vacation activity in my book.

We hung out at the house more, Michaela went in the pool, and we went out to a nice dinner. Then it was off to bed and, after another delicious homemade breakfast, off to San Jose.

We stayed about 30 minutes away from the airport at a small hotel called the Trapp Family County Inn. There were no singing siblings or Nazis, but it was a cute property. When Mike punched it into the map, the address was something like “400 meters west of the soccer field.” Costa Rica is still working on actual addresses.

We dropped off our stuff and then took an Uber to the Mercado Central. A hallmark of any Watson international vacation is a trip to the market. It’s always fascinating to see what is sold there, how it’s organized, what the locals eat/buy/do there, etc. We had lunch at a 126-year-old soda, or Costa Rican diner, before going through the market. Then we took a walking tour of downtown San Jose, which isn’t my favorite city but grew on me over time. We visited several parks, walked past the legislative building (called the Blue Castle) and through a great street art exhibit, and then made our way back to the market so we could get Michaela some souvenirs. She’s very choosy and she wanted something specific from a stall we’d visited. The problem was, it was nearly closing time and some stalls were already closed and the place was pretty bug and we weren’t 100% sure where the stall she wanted was. It was very tense, but we found the stall and they were still open; then we needed to pick the perfect matching keychains for Michaela and her bestie Claudia. There was a big basket full of wooden keychains with animals painted on them, but we couldn’t find matching ones that had animals we’d actually seen. Because it would have been lame to get dolphin keychains for the girls when we hadn’t seen them in real life on our trip, you know? Fortunately, Mike came through with two sloth keychains and we were all able to breathe a sigh of relief.

We went back into downtown to wait for traffic to die down a bit before going back to our hotel. It was our last full day in Costa Rica, so we splurged a little bit. Mike stopped into a bakery and bought a pastry, Michaela popped into a frozen yogurt place and got a fro yo with toppings, and I… Well, I went to Starbucks and got a full-fat milk chai tea latte. I can’t help it! I don’t drink coffee but I love those, and it was the first Starbucks we’d seen in the entire country. I remember thinking to myself, “Why would I never go to a McDonald’s in a different country, but I’m happy to hit up Starbucks?” I don’t have an answer for that, but as I contemplated the question, we soaked up the WiFi and used the clean, free bathrooms.

After we Uber-ed back, Mike wanted to go get something to eat. It was dinner time and we had to wake up at the crack of dawn the next day to return the rental car and get to the airport, and none of us wanted to eat in the hotel restaurant. He found a highly rated soda near the hotel so we headed there.

This place was in the front yard of a lady’s house. It was on a neighborhood street and when we got there, there were a couple of people waiting for a to-go order. As Mike, Michaela, and I tried to decide what to order, I noticed a giant cockroach crawling along the ceiling near our table. Michaela saw it and freaked out and Mike grumped at her to ignore it and not make a big deal out of it. It was at that point when the roach decided just being there wasn’t the most gross thing it would do. No. The most gross thing would be to FLY DIRECTLY AT US. This giant insect made a beeline first for Mike, then for Michaela, then for me. Michaela was crying, I was trying not to scream, and Mike was, well, not terribly surprised as Michaela and I hopped up and got the eff out of there.

We’d passed several McDonald’s while we were downtown and I made an executive decision that we were going there for dinner. Yes, we did the lame thing that we never do. The prospect of going to another restaurant in someone’s front yard was just too much.

We hit up Mickey Dees, where Michaela got a Cajita Feliz (Happy Meal). She was fascinated because there was a birthday party happening in the sala de fiestas (party room). “Who has a party at McDonald’s? It’s 8:30 on a weeknight!” So Mike and I got to explain to her that 1) when we were kids, people had parties at McDonald’s and 2) McDonald’s is a classic American food that is kind of special for people in other countries.

The next morning, we were up and at ’em. Dropped the car off, took the shuttle to the terminal, got on our first flight (San Jose to LAX), hit the lounge at LAX for some free food and drinks, flew from LAX to San Diego, and took a Lyft home in terrible traffic. It was a long day, but the trip was totally worth it.

Pura vida!