How has technology changed traveling abroad as a young person?

Hi @jordannovet. (Inside joke.)

I'm in France, and I've been thinking a lot about how travel has changed since my first trip here back in the '80s. Most French people I've spoken with at any length on this trip have asked me how I learned to speak their language. (My French is decent.) I mention that my mother-in-law was French and preferred to speak French even though her English was perfect. I mention that my kids go to a French school, and lots of people there speak mostly French. And then I tell them the real reason: When I was a teenager, after two years studying French, I spent a month living in total immersion with a French family.

I remember that summer so vividly. It was my first time in Europe, and the difference in time zones made it seem like it was California on the opposite side of the world, not China, as we'd always been told we'd reach if we dug a hole through the Earth. I was desperately homesick. I remember waking up the first several nights with jet lag and just sobbing quietly in my bed with the weird cylindrical French pillow. I wrote lots of letters home. I stared longingly at the few photographs I'd brought with me. I listened to the Cure on my walkman. I clutched the $20 calling card my parents had given me in case of emergency, knowing that desperate homesickness didn't qualify as a use case. (Calling internationally was something like $1 a minute back then.)

The family had three children, and nobody spoke any English. I remember when I first met them, they asked me how I was doing. I answered, awkwardly, "Je suis bien," even though I knew it was wrong. I just couldn't believe that real people actually said "Je vais bien" (I go fine) to say they were fine. My French host mother said very sweetly, "Tu vas bien?" and continued the conversation.

It was that moment when I realized this whole French thing was real. Nos Amis (our textbook), Madame Nail's lessons, and La Boum -- these things were all real.

A month later, I returned home and ran into Madame Nail on the street. We chatted fast and furious, like regular French people. I had definitely leveled up.

So here we are 30 years later, with Facebook, Instagram, email, and, most importantly in this context, Skype. I can talk to my friends and family every day for free, sometimes multiple times a day if I want. I can text them as if I'm right there. I have an app to tell the time difference.

I wonder how my trip would have been different, and what effect that would have had on my language learning, if I'd been able to Skype my best friends in the middle of the night instead of suffering quietly through the hours alone waiting to wake up to have breakfast with strangers in a language I barely knew. What would it be like to spend the end of every day posting notes on Facebook, chatting real-time, and catching up with what people are doing back home, as I do now on vacation?

I don't have any answers, but I'd love to hear from kids having these experiences, and how it all works nowadays.


Blog Guilt

My friend told me today about a phenomenon called "blog guilt." If I understood her correctly, it's feeling guilty about not writing more in one's blog.

I haven't had blog guilt for a while, because in my mind, over the past few years, I've merely transferred my written communications to Facebook, where my friends and family comment lovingly and I don't have to achieve the polish that I (and, perhaps, you) expect of my blog posts. Indeed, Facebook has turned out to be the perfect place for me to share my little spontaneous musings about life and cute photos of my kids that once made up most of my blog posts.

But I am a professional writer, and the blog guilt was bound to kick in sooner or later. When you only login to your blog to change your password because your Zappos account got hacked, maybe that should cause a little guilt. Or if you haven't loaded your site in almost a year except for that one time you had to fiddle with the DNS settings, perhaps a twinge of guilt over the blog's stale and neglected state is fair. And if you've ever told someone you were working on a blog post only to forget about it and then when you saw that person weeks or even months later, you avoided the topic because you knew they knew that you knew that they knew you didn't ever write the damn post, then perhaps what you are feeling is some perfectly legitimate blog guilt.

Blog guilt is horrible. And tonight it comes to an end.*

 *  This post brought to you courtesy of another post, one that is hilarious but rambling and occasionally incoherent and still doesn't have a good ending and is taking forever to edit into even self-publishable condition. That post is sitting here behind the curtain, waiting very patiently in that blog purgatory known as "Drafts," and will be published soon. Until then, at least it can inspire other posts, and thereby help this writer avoid further bouts of blog guilt.


Plants vs. Zombies, a family game

I'm a little surprised to be recommending a tower defense game about the undead for 4-year-olds, but Plants vs. Zombies (from PopCap, makers of Bejeweled and Peggle) is really very special.

For the uninitiated, tower defense games are generally pretty stressful. You have to defend your base against waves and waves of enemies by tactically arming the corridor they use to approach. These attacking hordes often escalate pretty quickly from seemingly manageable to completely flippin' overwhelming, and only the perfect balance of slow-and-steady strategic thinking with cool-as-a-cucumber tactical dexterity will prevail. Stressful, frustrating gaming experiences are not generally recommendable either for my 4-year-old or myself, or really for anybody but masochists.

Then there's the whole zombie angle. I try to shelter my children as long as possible from the mature themes in much of today's entertainment. I don't really want to be explaining what zombies are and why they want to attack our house and eat our brains. (Or more subtly, that zombies don't actually exist...yet!) Call me overprotective or old-fashioned; I just think my boys will have decades to enjoy zombie-related entertainment without my rushing them into it.

That's why I'm a little late to the party on this whole Plants vs. Zombies thing. I avoided it for years because of the tower defense angle. Then, right before PopCap put the game on sale and donated all proceeds to tsunami relief efforts in Japan (I lament not the price I paid, but that my money didn't go to the cause), I decided to download it on iPhone. And downloading anything on iPhone for myself means I'm also downloading it for Alex, my son. But I wasn't too concerned; I knew the game's cartoony style wasn't scary, and I really didn't expect him to be skilled enough to play it.

I was surprised, therefore, when it quickly became his favorite game. Sure, PvZ has PopCap's signature balance and pacing, making the game completely accessible (and highly addictive) to me. But Alex didn't seem to care much about actually playing it. What captured his imagination and attention were the game's artwork, animations, and unexpectedly lovable cast of characters. I had no idea zombies could have such heartwarming backstories, meaningful behavior patterns, memorable voices. Take Flag Zombie, who carries a flag with a brain on it, while chanting "brains." Or Jack-in-the-Box Zombie, who shivers "not because he's cold, but because he's crazy" (according to his in-game bio). Before Plants vs. Zombies, I had no idea the shambling undead could be so...cute.

So though Alex isn't particularly skilled at the game, he doesn't need to be. He just loves the PvZ experience. He has his favorite plants -- the black mushroom who is (in Alex's words) "really, really angry!" or the little potato "who doesn't shoot anything but just explodes...you know he's ready because his red light flashes." Or the purple venus fly trap "because he stays." (Alex's placement of plants leaves something to be desired, meaning most of his plants get eaten pretty quickly, so the fact that he can count on the venus fly trap to eat a zombie whole and survive for a few more paces means the world to Alex.) And those fabulous pea shooters, which he loves because... "they shoot peas." (Ah, the simplicity of 4-year-olds....) He even loves experiencing defeat and hearing his character scream "NOOOOOOO!" as the words "ZOMBIES ATE YOUR BRAINS!" flash on the screen. He can't read, but he once proudly announced to me that the words say, "You losed!"

But PvZ is more than just an accidental kiddie fave. I'm calling it a family game, because it's genuinely absorbed our entire family. With our various iPhones and iPads, I've found we can easily while away an hour or more each playing the game independently. Now, this isn't what I call healthy (hey, even quality screen time needs to be moderated), so as often as possible, either my husband or I will play the game with Alex, which he really, really loves. And when we can't play Plants vs. Zombies?

We talk about Plants vs. Zombies. (And frankly, there's no shortage of discussion topics.)

"Hey Mom, you know that black mushroom? He's a really angry mushroom. He explodes. He leaves a little hole in the ground. He's my favorite."
"Mom, why does the football zombie run really really fast?"
"If the zombies reach your house, it's OK if you have a lawnmower there. The lawnmower will get those guys."
"Remember that time I had FIVE pea shooters in a row?"

Our entire dinner conversation could revolve around PvZ if we wanted. We love to randomly yell "NOOOOOOOOO!" or pretend to eat each other's brains with the telltale "chomp chomp chomp" sound. (Even the baby loves this part.) And when one of us is particularly grumpy, making what we call the Zombie Garlic Face -- that scrunched up expression of disgust the zombies make when they smell garlic -- never fails to lighten the mood.

Occasionally I'll even find my husband and I get drawn into legitimately discussing tactics during conversations started by Alex.

Me: "I wonder what would happen if you put an entire row of garlic. What would the zombies do then?"
Nick: "You'd probably need at least two rows, but it seems like it might be pretty effective."
Me: "But how would the zombies get killed?"
Nick: "I guess you'd need a line of offensive plants on the other side of the garlic."
Me: "I wonder how long that would take to set up. Would you have enough time to get all the garlics planted?"

and so on.

I'd chock it up to our simply being a family of hardcore gamers, except that's not even true anymore. I've barely touched my consoles in a year, and even my husband practically had to hire a babysitter when he wanted to finish Assassin's Creed II. Yet there we are on vacation at a diner in New York, contemplating not the blue whale at the American Museum of Natural History, the three turtles we saw in the pond in Central Park, or the Cannonball Adderley tune we heard a musician playing the subway, but how Newspaper Zombie gets really upset when you shoot through his crossword puzzle.

A lot of the time, I feel bad about playing casual games. They're super-addictive and can eat up hours, days, weeks of your life without tangibly giving a whole lot back. Sure you have a few moments of brainless relaxation and your high score on a leaderboard, but generally you're left wondering where the time went, a vague sense of guilt haunting you. Perhaps that's another reason I avoided Plants vs. Zombies for so long. But now that I have it, I'm genuinely grateful to PopCap. This brilliant game has given our family an elusive, precious commodity: quality time together.


Kanye, keepin' it klassy

I love this new song by Kanye West, "Runaway." Love it, love it, love it.

I bought it yesterday and have pretty much been listening to it ever since on repeat -- all nine glorious minutes -- with maybe a few pauses here and there to check out some of the other songs on the album (which, by the way, I think is totally rad, start to finish). I love the piano motif. I love how the groove picks up and builds. I love the general musicality and the beat. The melody is beautiful. He sings emotionally. I can totally relate to the sentiment -- "I'm so gifted at finding what I don't like the most." I appreciate that so, so much.

But while we're on the subject of what I don't like the most, in "Runaway," it's a pretty significant part: the chorus.

Let's have a toast for the douchebags.
Let's have a toast for the assholes.
Let's have a toast for the scumbags, every one of them that I know
Let's have a toast for the jerkoffs that'd never take work off
Baby I got a plan, runaway fast as you can

I did buy the "clean" version off iTunes, knowing how profanity-laden most hip-hop is, so "assholes" is edited out in my version. (Gee, thanks guys!) I was hoping the clean version would be listenable in mixed company. (And for the record, I'm not just talking about my kids here. I'm talking about my older relatives, or more conservative parents of my kids' school buddies whom I may not know so well, as well as the precious little earbuds of the toddler set.) But I was disappointed to find that I most definitely misinterpreted the meaning of "clean."

Why did Kanye have to go with this vulgar language? It doesn't feel poetic to me, and it doesn't seem to fit with the majestic feeling of the song overall. And, as so often is the case with me and hip-hop, because the language is superficially off-putting, I find myself unable to fully digest the greater artistry of the music, in that I can't share it with those I love. I can't herald the song high and low, the way I usually do with my favorite songs. Instead, I feel like I have to enjoy it in privacy or among "understanding" ears. I find myself really wishing he had taken another couple hours to come up with different language, words that felt as sublime as the accompanying music rather than the cheap middle-school disses we were left with.

But lest you think this blog is becoming a covert arm of the NFL (No Fun League!), I should interject that I'm actually asking for feedback here. I mean, between this and not liking the Call of Duty Black Ops ad, am I just totally losing my edge? Am I overreacting? I would like to just say I should let it go and leave it at that, but the truth is, my mom shuddered a little once when we were listening to Katy Perry's "California Gurls" together, when Snoop Dogg raps about all the California girls' "asses hangin' out." And the bottom line is that I am forced to refrain from playing "Runaway" (or most of the album, really) in the car during carpool because of the language. I just wouldn't feel comfortable if the neighbor kid went home to his mom asking what a "douchebag" was because he heard it on my iPod.

I want to hear and share great, contemporary music. I appreciate that many hip-hop artists, and Kanye especially, are provocative. But how is the song elevated by the chorus harping on douchebags and jerkoffs? Especially when he follows up the jerkoff line with "that'd never take work off," I seriously find myself thinking there was no poetry there at all and he was just saying whatever rhymed, without worrying about how dumb it sounded, because, well, he's Kanye and we all know he says whatever he wants, regardless of the potential consequences. (Editorial note: I was going to write, "He's Kanye and he says whatever the f@#% he wants," but frankly, that felt lazy, and I decided to take 15 extra seconds to come up with words that might be just slightly more insightful and accurate. NOTE TO KANYE: DON'T BE LAZY.)

And that's it: His language feels lazy to me, and it makes me enjoy the song less. I know I'm holding out a lightning rod here, criticizing coarse language, which is a fundamental pillar of hip-hop. But this song in particular is so beautiful, and I love it so much, it's sad that the chorus falls back on cheap language that means I can't easily put it on my most-played playlists.

Perhaps there is a poetic vision behind the jerkoffs and scumbags that I completely missed -- it wouldn't be the first time -- and that's why I'm writing this. So, if you understand Kanye's intentions, please do share. Because I would be very happy to figure out a way to justify My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy as an appropriate carpool soundtrack.


Advertising at its best, or one of "those" moments

I recently had the unpleasant experience of watching the following television commercial with my four-year-old son:

You might wonder why my preschooler was up late at night watching adult-oriented television shows and their correspondingly mature ads.

He wasn’t. We saw this commercial at 10:30 on a Sunday morning, while he and I were playing with Legos in the family room, where my husband was watching his weekly New England Patriots football game via DirecTV’s NFL Sunday Ticket satellite feed. (OK, so local audiences on the East Coast would have seen it at 1:30pm. I guess no kids at all are watching TV with their parents at that hour, right?)

I know football itself is a barbaric sport, and the thought that anyone under the age of 80 might accidentally see that Cialis ad with the bathtubs is offensive to human dignity. But my four-year-old happens to find football on TV very boring (hence the Lego table in the family room). And he clearly isn't remotely intrigued by oldsters in bathtubs, because he’s never asked me what a four-hour erection is (for which I am grateful). The Call of Duty Black Ops commercial, however, captured all of our attention, and fast. Though I tried to jump for the remote and press pause, I wasn’t quick enough—he’d seen and absorbed the bulk of the mega-violent and ultra-realistic machine-gun fire, rocket launching, and handgun brandishing before I could do anything about it.

I understand that the Call of Duty series prides itself on mega-violence and ultra-realism. (In case you didn’t know, the last game in the series let you gun down innocent civilians as they crawled pathetically away trying to save themselves.) Generally, my track record on the whole “violence in video games” issue is clear and consistent. I’m not upset about violent video games, nor am I upset about violent ads for violent video games. I even went on live TV once upon a time to defend Grand Theft Auto in a “debate” (if you could really call it that) against Jack Thompson. (Remember that ambulance-chasing anti-video-game lawyer? Where is he now, anyway? Oh wait, I remember—nobody cares!)

But I was upset at being caught unaware by this visceral glorification of violence, and I was saddened that my little boy was suddenly and unexpectedly having to process images he is simply way too young and innocent to understand. And that is when I had one of "those" moments. The moment when you realize you’re getting older, and you’re no longer as blithely permissive as you once were. When you realize you’re a parent, and you have to be permanently vigilant to make sure your child only sees certain flavors of media when he is ready to see, discuss, and understand them. And when, for a second that lingers longer than you’d like, you understand on a very personal level all those people who do hate and fight against violent video games, who don't support their right to exist, who don't appreciate them as art or free speech.

I'm not against Call of Duty or violent video games, but I'm shocked and disappointed that this ill-placed ad campaign made me, a staunch video game supporter and advocate, briefly want to side with those who are.


Legoland, a Review

I recently took Alex (now age 3.5) to Legoland. We had heard mixed reviews going in and weren't sure what to expect. Some people rave about the place and say their mechanically- and construction-oriented kids are completely in love with it. Others say it is a sorry cash-in and nothing more than a few carnival rides cheaply embellished with the LEGO license. I'm not sure I understood this before, but now I know that both can be true, and I suppose you're very lucky if you can be the former while not being bothered by the latter. A quick rundown:

Everyone who goes there has a coupon of some sort, but from what we could tell, it ends up being about $50 a person with even the best of coupons. To me, that sets a certain expectation, and overall I would say the value of Legoland is low. But, y'know, we have a 3-year-old, so it's going to be hard to come up with a $50 experience that really feels worth it. Maybe for an older kid with more independence and stamina, the price tag would be reasonable, but for toddlers, I definitely say Legoland is overpriced.

For some reason I had this unrealistically magical notion that the Legoland rides would be somehow, at some level, made of LEGOs. Clearly, you wouldn't want to ride a real ride made out of Legos. But it would be cool if the rides at least looked like someone, somewhere wanted to even pretend they were made out of Legos. Instead, the rides are B-level, if A is Disneyland and C is traveling carnival. I'm not an amusement park enthusiast, but I did grow up in Santa Cruz with easy access to the Boardwalk. Legoland rides are like Boardwalk rides, but with a huge price tag up front -- and giant Lego pieces glued on them! Great.

We went there on a summer Friday when the weather wasn't that great, so I imagine the lines were as average as you can get. And most of the lines for any rides that seem remotely interesting were long -- we're talking 2-hours-long. When you are already thinking the rides look kinda lame, and then you hear people coming off the rides talking about how lame they were, and then you mathematically calculate that you will only be able to go on a handful of these lame rides for your $50 price tag, that's when you get upset and start posting things to Twitter and Facebook and calling your husband (who suspected Legoland was so lame he didn't even want to go on the trip in the first place and is happily at home in an air-conditioned office eating catered office food) and telling him he was right he was right FINE HE WAS RIGHT and asking what you should do about your toddler who is going to go nuclear when he realizes he will never get to ride the sky train pedal cars he's wanted to go on for his ENTIRE (as far as he's concerned) life.....

Sanity Check/Phone a Friend Lifeline
Your husband, or your Facebook friends, will then talk you down and say it's just a theme park and I'm sure they have some rides that don't have long lines and if worst comes to worst you can just get your kid something at the gift shop and eat some cotton candy and go to the crappy Duplo Village playground and the kid won't really know the difference. And I guess they're all right, and no further righteous indignation or storming of the Legoland business office and demanding one's money back is necessary. Deep breath.

Rides, continued
That's not to say there aren't some decent rides for varying ages. Alex got to drive a car and fly a plane, helicopter, boat, etc., and the lines for those toddler-oriented rides were much more manageable (10-30 minutes). The driving course was sensibly blocked off so the older kids had a more complicated course and the little kids could drive at 1/2 a mile per hour while getting stuck in walls without being terrorized. And older kids would have fun on the water rides and some average-looking roller coasters (we didn't get to ride any of the "big-kid" rides so I can't say what they're like to ride, but they didn't look that amazing). Let's just say the rides themselves should not be a motivating factor in one's trip to the park, whatever your age.

LEGO License
A lot of people want to go to Legoland because they have seen pictures of the giant Lego structures that seem pretty cool. And all I can say about that is that the structures, largely, are not that cool. Maybe it wasn't sunny enough the day we went, or maybe our expectations have been set impossibly high by, I don't know, Avatar in Imax 3D. But Legoland's Lego renderings of jungle creatures, King Tut, the Transamerica pyramid, etc. just didn't do much for me, and Alex barely noticed them. Some of them have sound effects, but they're mostly just static--no animatronics or movement, and the Lego pieces themselves seemed faded and shabby.

A note on Duplo Village
Parents of toddlers will probably be drawn to an area on the map called Duplo Village. This sounds like the greatest place on Earth for a 3-year-old, right? So great, you might even think of heading straight there upon arrival. DON'T DO IT! You have a choice when you enter Legoland, which is designed as a circle. You can go left or right. GO RIGHT. We went left on some well-intentioned but completely bad advice, and we were greeted with the shabby, broke down Duplo Village. There was this broken musical fountain thing that just seemed to frustrate and depress everyone involved in it, along with a glorified playground that paled in comparison to those found free in pretty much any other Orange County park. It was not a good first impression.

Are you kidding? I didn't touch that overpriced crap. Legoland had gouged me already on admission. They weren't also going to ruin my lunch! We brought snacks and ate at nearby Sammy's for really good pizza and salads. Highly advisable.

Most rides make it pretty easy for parents with strollers to hang out with their massive amounts of stuff while the other parent takes the kid on the ride. One ride claimed to have a 5-minute wait and lied about it, but was at least decent enough to have a play area where the kids could build while the parents suffered in the line. Bathrooms were pretty well-maintained, and of course Alex loved having a low sink and low hand-dryer, so he could achieve total independence.

Gift Shop
Might shopping redeem the trip for us? I do love a good gift shop. Legoland's had some cool stuff (Lego salt & pepper shakers, a make-it-yourself nameplate) that I hadn't seen elsewhere. But in these days of online shopping, things need to be pretty rare to feel special or hard-to-find. That didn't stop me from dropping $115 there, but I wouldn't say I was super impressed with the inventory.

I give Legoland a solid 6.0 on the old EGM scale. If you live nearby and you know what you're getting into (i.e. you have $50/person to burn or know someone with season passes), it's a decent way to spend the day. Alex had a fine time there, but he hasn't talked about it nonstop the way he does about certain other experiences. I'm very glad we stayed with friends and only budgeted one day for the place. Because you know those people who rave online about how they fly in from faraway places and drop all this money on the fancy hotel near the park and go back day after day for, like, a week? Those people I just don't understand.


Unplanned Obsolescence

My neglect of this blog hasn't been intentional. Sure, I've been busy having a baby, losing my job, and watching every episode of the various Real Housewives series. But my lack of writing here hasn't been for a lack of interest or mental awareness. Instead, I've noticed that the vast majority of my bloggable ideas tend to get forgotten before I have the wherewithal to write them down, and the ones that seem noteworthy enough to put into words end up fitting much more easily on...

Facebook and/or Twitter.

Yup. I know this is no great revelation to bloggers or readers. These blip-oriented sites where you can just blurt out what you're thinking with little elaboration, contemplation, or editing have ended up usurping all my writing. They've satisfied my need to express myself. They've made my blog obsolete despite my best intentions to keep writing.

Now, I am wise enough not to go making vast pronouncements and promises about abandoning or recommitting to this blog and its essay/prose format. Making resolutions like that almost guarantees one will fail to fulfill them. (Self-unfulfilling prophesies?) But I would like to at least acknowledge that my blog exists, if only to remind myself that I've written some decent stuff here, and that for most of my life, I wouldn't have considered true "writing" anything less than this sort of entry. Formulating complete sentences and developed paragraphs is a different exercise than Facebook's self-referential status updates (which I do love) and Twitter's truly ephemeral tweets (which I'm learning to appreciate). If I'm a writer, I should be writing here.

Just don't expect too much. As the baby starts to cry and I struggle to compose a tidy concluding sentence/paragraph before having to go pick him up, I'm reminded why the convenience of FB/Twitter made my blog obsolete in the first place. It may have been unplanned, but it is certainly not inexplicable.