From Valentine’s Day to Mother’s Day

When I was a newlywed, every thing that my husband did or did not do was a direct reflection of his love for me. No pressure there.
But I had jumped into a delicate situation. My new husband was a widower and the cause of his late wife’s death was tragic and unexpected. It was a movie with an unhappy ending and I arrived to help pick up the pieces.
The problem was that I thought I was stronger than I actually was. I wanted to be the helper that flew in on a cloud of fairy dust to sweep all the hurt feelings into a manageable corner of their hearts. I hadn’t anticipated that my own heart wasn’t as solid as I had come to believe.
It’s not until you are in a safe place in your life, that you are really able to survey the actual damage you may live in. Damage from the past that you may have unknowingly carried with you from relationship to relationship, be that friendships, romances or family.
My damage involved bad decisions, incorrect childhood interpretations and parents that did the best they could while moving across the world to find that safe harbor for themselves and their daughter.
On the first Valentine’s Day I shared with my new husband, I was still trying to find my way across the tightrope of my life with the safety net that my new husband’s love had unexpectedly provided me. At that point, I hadn’t even really known this was something I needed – nor that it was even there.
Once the euphoria of this handsome man loving me had started to wear off, I started to feel like my old self. My old self demanded proof that my partners and friends actually loved me because I had been tricked before.  My old self believed all my damage made me unlovable. Plus, I was also stepping into the shadow of the unshakable love between a dead woman and the man who had fiercely loved her.
When my new husband gave me a generic pink necklace he had bought off the internet for our first Valentine’s Day, it was all the evidence I needed that, indeed, he did not really love me, that he would never look at me in the same way he looked at his first wife in the pictures I had found, that I deserved the second class love I was getting as punishment for my past mistakes.
A Shattered Love Story


Now, my new husband had no idea why his gift sparked the outrageous lecture about thoughtful present selections and lazy gift-giving. All he knew was he gave his new wife a gift and she freaked out was unhappy.
It took a while for me to see how unfair I was being, how the feelings I was reacting to had nothing to do with him but were the ghosts of people long ago. I had to walk on  that tightrope for a while and fall many times and realize he was still there and I was still okay. We were still okay.
Today, 10 years later, I woke up to a completely unplanned Mother’s Day. It was the first time he hadn’t orchestrated a huge brunch for all the mothers at our house because his sister would be coming into town next weekend and Kyle would be home from college. So, he postponed his annual tribute to the moms in his life with his cooked eggs, fruit and salmon until next weekend.
So instead, this year, I got to sleep in, read a little in bed and receive the little handmade gifts that my children thoughtfully made for me. Somewhere around 10, he realized he had to go to the grocery store to buy ingredients to make breakfast. And then I got to sit in silence and write about this memory I had and the realization that came with it.
And this is the realization: My husband doesn’t have to go big anymore to make me feel big. I don’t need that constant proof that my husband loves me. After all these years of me falling, of us figuring out how to talk to each other, of us saying the worst thing we can think of and having the other still be there, after all these years of building together the patchwork of our love and mistakes, I already know.
My perfect Sunday view



My perfect peeps


Love of Flying

When I was in college, I read an assigned book in my women’s psychology class,  written by Erica Jong, called Fear of Flying.

totally not about flying

She used flying as a metaphor for the limitations we put on ourselves. I’m not saying I don’t do that anymore but I do it a lot less than I used to at the age when I read it.

I’m not sure if I can alter the metaphor and proclaim that I love to fly but why not? It’s my essay. I do love to fly, literally, and sometimes, during those journeys, from that experience, and the ones that follow, I get to fly metaphorically too.

view from an airplane
a new view

The best thing about flying is that I get to see new places, that I get to meet new people, that I get to see them living in a way that’s different from what I’m used to. I get to explore parts of the world that are completely unfamiliar, yet, I find, are still connected to me, the very existence of our lives miraculous and finite and a complete mystery, even though we think we know.

our waiter in Estonia
Israeli Shuk

Leading up to that moment is exciting too. I don’t love to pack because the mood I’m in when I fill my bag won’t be the mood or circumstances I will find when I arrive at my destination. I do the best I can between the fighting kids and my domestic obligations and know if I forget something, I can always buy it wherever I am.

forgot your bra? no problem!!!! there’s a store for that and more….

As long as I’m sticking to a nice pace time wise, even the drive to the airport is a treat because it brings me that much closer to the excitement already building in my middle.

The airport, usually hectic, maybe a little confusing, between all the lines and which is the shortest or moving the fastest and will get me through security that much quicker and will they be in a good mood and let me keep moving or will they detain me and make themselves feel powerful for that moment. And yet, you hear about the threats they’ve actually stopped and you feel grateful, even though you know you’re not one of them.

The world inside an airport is it’s own little world, not quite here but not there either. Calories obviously don’t count because you’re flowing in the land in between and calories can’t find you. Or so you tell yourself as you munch your extra crispy French fries followed later by a visit to the Coffee Bean for foamed sugar to top the gluten-full hot sugar before you get on your plane.

doesn’t count….new math

Walking down the hallway onto the ramp that extends to the fuselage of the plane, you know you’re almost there: the vessel that is your conduit to lands beyond. You arrive to the seat meant just for you, to take you on your adventure and you try to cram all the things you brought to distract yourself from the long flight into an area meant for a toddler but you make do and clean around your new home and rearrange a bit of the furniture as you settle in and hope that your new neighbor won’t be an actual toddler.

Finally, the push-off. This is the last time you’ll see your city and that’s ok. You know it’ll be there when you’re ready to return. If you decide to return.

The wheels slowly turn down the runway jockeying for position in the line-up. Finally, the ding overhead sounds and flight attendants are warned to strap in and the plane starts hurtling forward, but you don’t see where it’s going, only the things that are passing by and that’s ok as the force of gravity pushes your lower back into your chair and the ground beneath gets bumpier and the roar of the engine pushes every other sound out of the cabin and suddenly the ride is smooth and now it’s your butt that is being cradled as the metal transport tube pulls your body away from the ground and into the air, into the unknown, into the awe and wonder of discovery where there is no fear.

fear of flying

I’m Sorry For Your Loss


My Hero                                      06/08/1941-10/27/2016

Please don’t say you’re sorry for my loss or give me your condolences. You don’t have to say anything. I’ll still be where I am and feel the suck of my soul regardless of these words you use, which are society’s assigned phrase to help not the grieving but the dispassionate deal with the grieving.

They are generic attributes of the most heartbreaking and fundamental part of our lives and are an insult to the grieving. They say you are distant from the pain. They say you’ve chosen to remain apart and not open yourself to connect, even for a second, with that part of life that rips the most precious people from your world.

If you do want to help, even a silent touch or a heartfelt hug is better than the meaningless banter of those hollow words. Just say you’re so sorry. That’s enough to let me know, even if you don’t feel my pain, that you wish I wasn’t feeling it either.

If you go even deeper and tell me what a good daughter or mother or friend I was, then you’ll be forced to share in my pain of knowing how simple it would have been to have done more and maybe, if I had, then he’d have been happier and made a bigger effort to get stronger and fight to heal his body and chase the demons from his mind.

If you say I was lucky to have had him at all, you would be right and I could feel the gratitude in that. His memory is my reality and right now it’s less a blessing than a feeling of emptiness that it’s now just a memory.

I wish we could take it all back, Papa, and you could be here again.

Family Passport photo leaving the USSR

7 Tips For A Fun 11th Anniversary…or…how not to mess up a romantic weekend

If you’ve been married for longer than a minute or are even dating someone for more than 6 months, you know. Relationships take effort. You have to really work at “Happily Ever After”

or at least we do.

When we got engaged, we would have monthly “meetings” over dinner where we would share what was really important to us as a couple and a family. Yes, these were my idea. I wanted to go into our future with recognized intentions. It sounds more spiritual than it turned out to be.  Most of our dinners ended up in tears (mine) when we came at topics from such differing perspectives. He was a single, widowed dad and I was a single, fun-loving girl. He was a Republican and I was a Democrat. How could this ever work?

However over 11 years, we’ve had our battles, our breakdowns and have grown to understand each other in ways I never thought possible coming from the chaos of my Russian Jewish immigrant family. We have started out own traditions which include Secret Dates (when we have the energy) and have grown strong as a couple rooted in our individual passions.

In the spirit of our Secret Dates, we also plan Secret Anniversaries, where we take turns putting together the celebration and don’t tell the other until we set off. Last year, for our 10 year (no pressure there), I bought a trip from our school fundraiser to Barbados. That was pretty epic and I will have to share about it one day.

This year it was his turn and he planned a getaway to Lake Nacimiento.

I had never heard of Lake Nacimiento. Turns out, Lake Nacimiento is an 18 mile long man-made lake created by the completion of the Nacimiento Dam in 1961. It runs along the Nacimiento River and is just north of San Luis Obisbo, and a part of Monterey County. It’s many arms and tributaries have earned it the nickname Dragon Lake.

Lake Nacimiento Map
A Medieval Perspective

We both like to camp or rather glamp and we both love the outdoors, so this was perfect.

Lake Nacimiento at Sunset

However, I’d like to share 7 tips to make your trip as fun as possible if you too decide on a romantic getaway to celebrate something.

1. Find a cell phone and wi-fi reception free location.

I’m sure this wasn’t his intention when he booked the trailer where we stayed for four nights but that’s what it ended up being. This will force you to really talk and interact instead of escape every few minutes into virtual reality. It will either help you fall deeper in love or motivate you to find a good couple’s counselor upon your return.

Playing Games
playing games without screens

Speaking of trailers, the best are numbers 2 and 3. They are the newer ones and have a view of the lake.

2. Bring music.

Don’t forget you can’t use Pandora or Spotify so load it up on your smart phone.  We brought our portable bluetooth speaker. It helped camouflage the noise from our partying neighbors.

It's a party
It’s a party

3. Rent (or bring) a boat.

Not sure how it is during the rest of the year but we when went in July, it was hot.

I know how he feels

The water was about 80 degrees.

Lake Nacimiento Stats
the lowdown

People brought jet skis, giant blow-up rafts shaped like swans, pizzas and whales and stand-up paddle boards, like the one we borrowed.

paddle boarding at Lake Nacimiento

But a boat allows you to really explore the vastness and nooks and crannies of the lake.

boating at Lake Nacimiento

I only ran into one sandbar.

4. Get Out of Your Comfort Zone

Let’s face it. We’re adults and really what do we have to prove? We are who we are. However, maybe we’re more than we thought. Don’t limit yourself or your potential. They’re just excuses.

Yep that’s me.

He did it too.

It looks much higher from the top.

5.  Find a Secluded Spot.

Make him get off the boat with the cozy cushions and have him sit with you on the shady hill overlooking the water with rocks under your butt. It’s romantic. I swear.

boating on lake nacimiento
who me?


romance at lake nacimiento

6. Bring Wine for the Campfire.

Every occasion could be improved with a good red.

wine at lake nacimiento
roughing it
wine at lake nacimiento
he prepared every meal

However, don’t try to improve each other’s parenting techniques after a few glasses.

campfire at lake nacimiento
is it hot in here?

7. Go Wine Tasting.

Paso Robles is only 20 minutes away. We went to the amazing castle, the setting for Tooth & Nail Winery, where we were spoiled by our host, Troy. We went straight from stand-up paddle boarding in the lake into the city. I may or may not have rinsed off the lake.

Tooth & Nail Winery at Paso Robles
storming the castle

Troy went into detail about the origins of the winery which is only a few years old. We only wanted to know because the wine was so good and the labels so jarring.

Tooth & Nail wine labels

I believe winemakers who have the confidence to name their wines something outlandish like The Glutton and The Fiend must have a good product. They’re willing to color outside the lines unlike the proper houses that turn out underwhelming wines.

The artwork on the bottles are from historical wooden etchings.

bottle at Tooth & Nail winery

A great band I would have paid money to see, if I had heard of them before that afternoon, Moonshiner Collective, played in the outdoor area overlooking the moat.

I really liked them. They all got hugs before we left.

And where did we go, you may ask. Well. I didn’t think it was a very good idea to come to Paso Robles for the first time and not explore at least one more winery. So I gave the Uber guy an address. I blame it on Yelp.

The review said amazing Pinot Noirs. I should have noticed it was written in 2007. The little store-front was nothing compared to the castle we had just left. We did however discover a great restaurant and by that time, we needed more than just cheese and crackers.

food at Paso Robles
it’s not Denny’s


Though I had never heard of Lake Nacimiento before my husband told me we were going there, it seemed like everyone else had. Seeing all the kids and families, I felt a little guilty not having brought our boys but oh well. A good reason to come back.

So, save me the work for next year when it’s my turn to plan again. What was your favorite, romantic vacation?




Shakti Fest: An Untypical Girl’s Weekend

A shorter version of this article appears in Yogi Times.

I thought I was tough. I was sporty and strong in the unremarkable gym sort of way. When I took my first yoga class, it was a level 2/3 on a VHS tape. A measly level 1 beginner class didn’t sit well with my self-image but I wanted to learn the poses before I did them in front of people. I grunted and groaned and fell all over my living room then put the tape away for about a year. I needed yoga on so many levels back then and had no idea why.

Since then, I’ve embraced the journey through many phases of my practice and even started attending retreats and yoga festivals. Last year, I discovered the Shakti and Bhakti Festivals at the Joshua Tree Retreat Center and they lifted my practice and awareness to a whole new level. Bhakti Fest was started as a promise fulfilled by founder Sridhar Silberfein to his guru, Swami Satchidananda when he introduced the holy man to the largest crowd ever assembled on American soil at Woodstock in 1968. Silberfein said someday he would gather just as many people to practice yoga and sing Kirtan music but in a spiritual, drug and alcohol free environment and forty years later, he did just that. Shakti Fest is Bhakti’s sister festival and translates to mean a celebration of the feminine divine. Since Shakti Fest is always held around Mother’s Day, it’s the perfect excuse for a girl’s weekend or a chance to introduce yoga to the family since kids under 12 are free. So far, though, I’ve always taken the girl’s weekend option.

Both times after my festival experiences, my body felt clean and strong and my mind felt connected to those around me, despite the fact that we were all so different. I was sure that everyone needed yoga and I began to wonder if the reason the yoga masters continued their practice after so many years was a key to the secret of its power. So, I decided to ask.

There are three yoga halls at the Joshua Tree festivals, only one of which is indoors. When the sun is still nestled between the desert hills, Yoga Hall 2 isn’t as hot as it later becomes. The sky is dazzlingly blue and the cotton clouds encourage hope that the temperature will stay on the mild side. The morning brought us beautiful Hemalayaa.

Hemalayaa owning the joint

She was all sparkle and shimmer radiating from a grounded spirit. Her energy commanded we discard our perception that we are all somehow divided and unite in our beauty no matter what we looked like. At the end of her class, we were all dancing, as a Kirtan band played behind her on stage, with her recipe to discovering our creativity and discarding our baggage through Kundlini-dance yoga. There was screaming involved and it could have felt weird outside of this spiritual haven but on that day, for a few minutes, we sparkled right along-side Hemalayaa. I asked her later why she does yoga and she said, “So I can show up every single day. So I can get rid of the B.S. and get to the Bhakti.” Bhakti, according to some websites, is the essence of love and devotion. The theme of her class was transformation; getting rid of what’s blocking you through breathing, dance and movement to get to your full potential “like we were six years old again.” Her tip to beginning a practice: “The journey of yoga is a vast one with many layers and places to find depth and connection with oneself as well as the divine…Find many teachers, not just one. Find your mentors, teachers and guides, to be in your fullest, richest experience of life.” You can experience the magic of Hemalayaa at Shakti Fest in her classes (with Live music by DTO of Buddha Music Group) Saturday May 13th and Sunday May 14th at 3:30 pm – 5:00 pm

One thing about both Shakti and Bhakti Festivals is they are very popular. If you want to take a class with a well known yoga teacher, you have to have a strategy. Sometimes your strategy doesn’t work out and you’re forced to find another class and fortunately the festival is full of them. That’s how I discovered Yogrishi Vishvketu.
Blue skies threw the sun’s heat soaked rays around the dessert’s open air studio. We gathered on our mats trying to find spots hidden from the blaze above. Sand dunes, with pockets of sprouting cacti and joshua trees, greeted us as we relaxed into our spaces. We were back at Yoga Hall 2, though the “hall” was comprised of a music stage and an overhang covering the practice area with a translucent fabric. My girlfriends and I had no idea what to expect, so when a little man in monk’s garb appeared before our group and started to talk about making little bee noises, we just went with it.

Yogrishi making little honey bee sounds

Yogrishi’s soothing voice, coated in a sweet Indian accent, chuckled between irreverent words. He told us that the moan we make when we are in pain and the moan we make when we are in pleasure are almost identical. In yogaspeak, making this sound is called a mantra. Yogrishi says this sound sends a signal to the mind for healing. I actually found myself trying to adopt this into my practice for weeks after his class. He spoke about the true path to happiness and told stories like the the one about the bunny and the cockroach who are both looking for it. I decided true enlightenment has to include humour. He told us true love has to be based on truth. “What is real can never be taken away and what is unreal can never be kept.” I asked him at the end of class, why he does yoga. He responded, “To be normal,” and he laughed. Realizing I wanted more, he elaborated: “To continue to be normal and continue to be connected to my higher self, to be compassionate.” Well, I loved that and after I got home I looked up his ashram in the Himalayan Mountains and dreamed of going. He holds a PhD and is the founder of Akhanda Yoga, which is a holistic approach to yoga that includes teachings and meditation in every class. His tip for beginning a yoga practice: “Pay attention to your breath.” Personally, I think that’s for an advanced practice. He is coming back to Bhakti Fest on September 7, 2017.

Besides yoga, the Bhakti and Shakti Festivals are full of things on which we wanted to spend money. Vendors from around the world brought outfits we wouldn’t find on racks in Big 5, foods that nourished our body while making our senses jump for joy and jewelry that is priced far below the uniqueness of it’s quality. We took time to explore their offerings between classes and lectures. Fueling our bodies with clean nutrients for an entire weekend, elevated our moods which contributed, I’m sure, to our shift in consciousness. When you feel good physically, your mind is more open to process new experiences.

Suburban moms, Rachel Russell, Rina Nehdar and Lori Calabreses enjoying the scene at the food court

There is a staggering amount of workshops and lectures held throughout both festival weekends. Presentations range from creating sacred relationships to removing the blockages that past experiences have caused us. There are workshops on chanting, healing and dance. Gender divided sessions in the Women’s Lounge and Men’s Tent address topics of a more private nature that become a forum for discussing our collective, more personal experience. We wandered into a workshop on Tantric Sexuality that involved staring into the eyes of a stranger for the longest minute of our lives and the feathery touch of rose petals. We sat in on a talk by Radhanath Swami who told ancient stories about devotion and overcoming obstacles.

Radhanath Swami Inspiring us

Each left our brains buzzing pleasantly with the gift of exploring ideas that we didn’t have time to think about in our real world.
We ate our meals in the courtyard in front of the Main Stage where musicians performed from morning until late into the night. We brought beach chairs and left them with the understanding that others are free to use them until we need them again. I had never appreciated Kirtan music because it always felt foreign and disconnected from my experience but with the great variety suddenly available, I was able to appreciate some of the artists. I bought a CD by Sean Johnson & The Wild Lotus Band to listen to while I worked.

We finished our yoga day with a journey into the world of Mas Vidal, master yoga teacher and ayurvedic practitioner who has just written a book on both called Sun, Moon and Earth: The Sacred Relationship of Yoga and Ayurvedic.

Mas Vidal at Bhakti Fest photo by Mas Vidal

With the fading sun and the darkening sand dunes as his backdrop, he walked around us while we froze in poses of his choosing, head clean-shaven, imposing, toned figure wrapped in genie-styled, peach colored pants and a black tank top. He shared about life from his empowered perspective. He told us “Bliss is your birthright” and it sounded fair so we believed him. He told us, as we held chair pose far longer than normal, that initially our environment is more powerful than our will but then our will becomes more powerful than our environment. He shared a tip about our most natural action, our breath. In Ayurvedic medicine when you breath in, your stomach should go out and when you breathe out, it should go in but, he explained, when people have experienced trauma, they do the opposite. I tried to see what my natural inclination was but it was to hard to tell since I was judging myself.
I asked him, after he sang to us at the end of our strong class, why he practices yoga. “I do yoga to realize my spirit is one with all of existence,” he answered. His tip for someone about to start a yoga practice: “Make it simple, make it convenient. It should work easily into your lifestyle.” He also recommends spending time with someone who already has a yoga practice so you could learn from them and have a partner to share your discoveries.

Both Mas Vidal and Hemalayaa will be back in Joshua Tree for Shakti Fest, Mother’s Day weekend, May 12-14. They will be joined by many yoga teachers including Mark Whitwell, Shiva Rea, Kia Miller and Saul David Raye. Musicians from all over the world like Trevor Hall, Jai Uttal and Krishna Das will add a soundtrack to the festivities. Gurus and Swamis will join the gathering as workshop speakers to share the wisdom of their experiences and save us the heartache of having to learn their lessons the hard way. Reverse osmosis water will be available to all with a refillable bottles.

There is on-site housing and camping but we’ve always rented either hotel rooms or houses through Homeaway or Airbnb. It’s nice to be immersed but it’s also nice to get away.

The beauty of the yoga and music festivals is that they allowed us to explore many more teachers and styles than I was willing to commit to financially at home. It exposed us to music, food and a culture outside of our suburban bubble. It opened my mind to possibilities I didn’t have time to think about as a busy mom, classroom volunteer and in between chores writer.

Shakti and Bhakti Fest is the opportunity to wake up and come back to ourselves. It’s also an opportunity to give back since part of the ticket prices are distributed between five charities. For more information or to join us there visit

A Spooktacular Holiday at the Great Wolf Lodge

It started in the lobby. A big black spider clung to the ceiling, its sharp fangs hovering over the little guest’s heads, an eerie spiderweb covered the entire front window. This sight alone would have turned any sensible creature to a pile of mush – if this spooky spectacle wasn’t crafted entirely of balloons.

A giant balloon spider at the Great Wolf Lodge Holiday Spooktacular
Try stepping on that thing

“Is that more balloons than anywhere?” asked 6 year old Knox. “I don’t know honey,” I answered, wondering about the world record for balloon exhibits, “but it sure is a lot!”

The giant wolf den into which we had stepped this past February, when the Great Wolf Lodge first opened its doors in Garden Grove, CA , was now transformed into a mock house of horrors with decorations designed to bring smiles instead of fright to young and old alike.

Multi-hued spiders crawled along every wall.

Great Wolf Lodge Holiday Spooktacular spiders everywhere

A haunted house mysteriously appeared in the back of the lobby.

Haunted House at Great Wolf Lodge Holiday Spooktacular
no solicitors allowed at this creepy mansion

Pockets of decay lay in every nook and cranny.

chills at Great Wolf Lodge Holiday Spooktacular
it was contagious

Even the wolf ears had changed colors.

Yet, we discovered even though our favorite lodge had transformed to celebrate the fall season, all the fun we had first fallen in love with, was still there.

After sitting in Friday traffic, the boys decided to investigate the newest exhibits later and wasted no time in throwing their luggage into their den,

Wolf Den at the Great Wolf Lodge Spooktacular
pups peeking out their fav wolf den

donning their ears and racing off to seek soggy adventures!Great Wolf Lodge Spooktacular water park

After our last foray into the Great Wolf Lodge, many have asked what the appropriate ages are for the different activities there and what are some of the restrictions.

The restrictions have more to do with height than age. There is a handy guide, as you walk into the water park, that puts adventurers into color categories.

taking measurements at the Great Wolf Lodge Fall

They are then given a wrist band that alerts lifeguards and attraction hosts whether they are tall enough to appreciate the various slides and adventures around the waterpark. Kaleb is over 48 inches tall so fell into the green category, which meant he could do anything there, while Knox was pushing yellow but still within that range. He sported a yellow wrist band, which showed he was taller than 42 inches. The wrist band saved on time since the hosts didn’t have to measure him before every ride. The yellow designation meant he could go on every attraction except the Howling Tornado and Wolf Tail. So that just meant, I had to go on the Howling Tornado with Kaleb.

Great Wolf Lodge Fall Spooktacular Howling Tornado

And how was it? Glad you asked…..

The only other thing Knox couldn’t do was the Wolf Tail and since I did it last time, I didn’t feel like I had anything left to prove and didn’t want to wait in that long line again. Or so I told my kids 😉

The waterpark stays open until 9 pm from Friday to Sunday but we hadn’t had any dinner, so we wrapped it up shortly before then, showered off,  put on our jammies and had a late buffet dinner at the Loose Moose which thankfully stays open until 10:00pm on weekends.

Loose Moose at Great Wolf Lodge Spooktacular
brothers in ears

I was impressed again by the creative and healthy options offered by the restaurant.

Loose Moose at Great Wolf Lodge Spooktacular

They were impressed again by the dessert.

dessert at Great Wolf Lodge Spooktacular
I give it a 9.5

We went to bed way past our bedtime so didn’t get a chance to start our next day with the free yoga class the resort offers in the lobby.

Free yoga at Great Wolf Lodge Spooktacular
wolf tree asana

Not to miss out on that great way to begin our day, we decided to do yoga in our room before breakfast.

yoga at Free yoga at Great Wolf Lodge Spooktacular
ears off for downward facing dog

Besides free yoga, there’s a whole array of free activities offered daily to guests of all ages. It really is an amusement park that you can sleep in, as the assistant General Manager, Diana Harrison described the resort.

I got a chance to meet Harrison and tour the various rooms on the property and also learned about the various holiday and winter themed activities that the Great Wolf Lodge will offer its guests for the next few months.

Turns out we arrived the exact weekend when the lodge first started celebrating Howl-O-Ween! From October 1-31, the whole lodge fills with spooky scenes and trick-or-treating begins every night at 5pm ….but more on that later!

There are various rooms available at the lodge. We stayed in the Wolf Den,

Great Wolf Lodge Howl-A-Ween Wolf Den
resting their howls


which is perfect for a family with two kids as the boys have their own space where they can chill out with their own TV and animals that come to life when you wave the magi wand at them and the adults have their own little retreat and don’t have to hear those cute little sounds all night.

For families with three or more children, there is another themed suite called the KidsCabin .

Great Wolf Lodge Howl-O-Ween Kids Cabin dsc_0118

And if that wasn’t enough, during the winter holidays, there is even the option of having a Christmas-themed suite for families who still want to celebrate Christmas but are far from their tree.

Great Wolf Lodge Howl_O-Ween Winter Suites dsc_0115 dsc_0116

I didn’t see where the Chanukah themed suites were but I guess a menorah is more portable than a tree.

There’s even options if you’re traveling with grandma and grandpa…or with family that snores!

Santa will arrive at the lodge the weekend after Thanksgiving on November 26, offering him a chance to eat his turkey with Mrs. Claus. The wolves, Wiley and Violet will accompany him in their convertible car. That day is sure to be howls of frozen fun!

After yoga and breakfast, daddy took the boys for a while so mommy could enjoy some down time. There is an outdoor area that is perfect for those who need a little escape from the chlorinated air inside the water park and is also perfect for toddlers and babies.

Great Wolf Lodge Howl-O-Ween
lots of outdoor fun

Great Wolf Lodge Howl-O-Ween outdoor area

In this outdoor area, there is also a bar and a place to order lunch that doesn’t involve fried meats or breads topped with cheeses. In other words, this area is perfect for all ages.

Great Wolf Lodge Howl-O-Ween drinks
treats for everyone
Great Wolf Lodge Howl-O-Ween
everyone’s happy

When the boys came back, we all dove back into the water park and got a chance to have some thrilling family fun.

Great Wolf Lodge Howl-O-Ween River Canyon Run
a family that slides together…..
Great Wolf Lodge Howl-O-Ween
I brought my own jack-o-lantern


Daddy and Kaleb decided to try out their surf tricks on the Wolf Rider Wipeout. Knox wasn’t tall enough to ride it on the surfboard but he could have done the boogie board.

Daddy went first.

He didn’t do as well as the first time he tried it.

Kaleb braved the current too.

I think he did better than Daddy! Daddy might need a little more practice.

We splashed around in the lazy river Crooked Creek….

Great Wolf Lodge Howl-O-Ween Crooked Creek
feeling lazy….

Great Wolf Lodge Howl-O-Ween

The boys got a chance to practice their America Ninja Warrior skills at Big Foot Pass, which is open to all heights and ages.

Great Wolf Lodge Howl-O-Ween Big Foot Pass
Great Wolf Lodge Howl-O-Ween Big Foot Pass

Great Wolf Lodge Howl-O-Ween Big Foot Pass
I made it!

Great Wolf Lodge Howl-O-Ween Big Foot Pass

They chilled on a floating log in Chinook Cove.

Great Wolf Lodge Howl-o-Ween
taking a breather….

Then they wanted to get their sports on, so shot some baskets in a different area of the same “cove”.

Great Wolf Lodge Howl-o-Ween score!
three points!

Life vests are available for anyone that wants them.

Great Wolf Lodge Howl-o-Ween life jackets

One area they didn’t explore but looked fun for those who are still growing into their height was the Cub Paw Pool.

Great Wolf Lodge Howl-O-Ween Cub Paw Pool
mini paradise
Great Wolf Lodge Howl-O-Ween Cub Pool
adventurers in training (pants)

We could have spent the entire day and night in the fun water park but we had Halloween business to attend to in the dry parts of the indoor amusement park. The entire month of October, all the hotel areas transform into a mock haunted house with a trick-or-treating trail that begins at the haunted house in the lobby every night at 5pm. The path goes through seven haunted stations where the pack members (aka the employees) live out their own fun childhood fantasies by bringing them to life for your kids, says Harrison.

Great Wolf Lodge Howl-O-Ween

Great Wolf Lodge Howl-O-Ween

The kids get candy and activity books. But who says kids get to have all the fun?

Great Wolf Lodge Howl-O-Ween Trick or Treating
may the force be with you!

And we weren’t the only ones who got in the spirit with the kiddos…..

Great Wolf Lodge Howl-O-Ween
tonight dark and light are united

The haunted house will be remodeled after Thanksgiving into a Gingerbread House, and the lobby will transform into Snowland. Families can sign up online to eat a private meal inside the Gingerbread House for only $10. The Great Wolf Lodge donates all proceeds from the special venue to Ronald McDonald House to support families with sick children.

After going through all the stations, the boys wanted to seek their fame and fortune by taking on one of the MagiQuests that was included in the Paw Pass we got.

Great Wolf Lodge Paw Passes
It really is a good deal

Battle stations are spread throughout the hotel….

Great Wolf Lodge Paw Passes MagiQuest
Knight Skywalker and Prince Kanobi

They loved their quests and it’s an activity that’s good for kids and teens. The younger ones can have their own, shorter, adventure with the Clubhouse Crew, stuffed friends they can build at the Creation Station.

Also include in our pass was a bunch of souvenirs the boys got to take home and show to their friends at school.

Great Wolf Lodge Paw Passes Glitter Tattoos
leaving an impression


The leather bracelets, included with the Pass, were cool but the Great Wolf Lodge band is still on Knox’s wrist. He refuses to take it off. It’s going on three weeks now.

Great Wolf Lodge
Don’t talk to me about germs please

When their sentences, weeks later, begin with, “Do you wish you could live at the Great Wolf Lodge forever?” you know you’re going back.

Things I noted:

  • The floors in the waterpark are new and less slippery. Last time we saw a woman take a big slip and we wondered how long it would take for them to make a change….not long at all!

Great Wolf Lodge

  • The lifeguards are more observant than any I’ve ever seen.
Great Wolf Lodge Guard
on duty
  • We ran into two families we knew from home. Kids loved that.

Great Wolf Lodge

In fact, people can come from the surrounding community and dine or have drinks there even if they’re not guests of the hotel.

  • Although we were all fine and spent HOURS inside the waterpark each day, it’s important to take breaks if you have asthma or other respiratory issues. Luckily, there is a ton of fun options.
Great Wolf Lodge Howl-O-Ween
showing their true identities

From Rocker to Soccer, could this mom do minivan?

Well….to be honest, I’m not sure what a rocker I really was. I did date a couple boys who were in bands when I was in college.


Does that qualify me? But I was never a crazy Courtney Love type. Well. At least not THAT crazy. Though that’s a pretty high standard.

courtney love
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
However, I am reminded here that we shared that 80s peroxided hair and bangs look.

Regardless, I did spend a lot of time at the beach….

silly beaches
silly beaches
….and thought I was pretty cool.

One thing I did not think was cool was minivans. Even today I think, to drive a minivan, is to pack it all in. Good bye good times, good bye spontaneous adventures, good-bye (semi) cool girl.

Yet, my kids have been begging me for a mini-van for years.  Begging. WTH?

I don’t understand. My surfer-girl SUV isn’t good enough for them? Didn’t they realize their mom would have to give up that part of herself that still believed she was edgy and young to drive that mini-van? Didn’t they know I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to that girl who still looked forward to the unknown and dreamed about the future with her girlfriends, all driving around, looking for parties and cute boys? No. No, they didn’t. All they know is they want to be comfortable while their chauffeur drives them to their myriad of activities.

Driver! To the ice cream store!!
Driver! To the ice cream store!!
Last week, Toyota offered to loan me a car to see if my back-to-school routine would be simplified with a brand new vehicle. Not sure our commute to school could get any easier, as we walk, but perhaps it could be more enjoyable as we do all the other things that little boys with active parents like to do. They gave me a choice of cars and my conservationist inclination was to try out the Highlander Hybrid SUV as that was on my short list when I bought my last car in 2009, my roomy and economical Honda Pilot. However, I thought of those doleful brown eyes, besieging me for that big box on wheels and I opted for the 2016 Toyota Sienna.

Turns out the gas mileage, which I thought would be dramatically different between the two models was actually closer than I expected. The Sienna minivan gets 18 city and 25 highway, while the hybrid Highlander gets 27 city and 28 highway. A difference, yes, but worth the extra ten grand for the hybrid? Not sure.

Has it really come to this?
Has it really come to this?
First thing I noticed was that the gadgets placed around the car were actually helpful.

easy access
easy access
I always wonder, in my actual car, if the light switch I move from one side to the other is 1)turning all the lights on all the time, or 2) just when the car doors are open or 3) turning them completely off. This takes one thing off my mind. And I love that I can open the side doors so conveniently and not have to remind my kids to watch the cars parked next to us!

More Good Stuff

I don’t have time to read an owner’s manual to operate a car and this one, I found, is intuitive enough not to need to do that.

The dashboard reminders are really helpful for a busy, distracted mom.

At least someone is paying attention to the details
At least someone is paying attention to the details
And when it comes to this…

oh oh
oh oh
It’s still got my back…..


We don’t want to have to have the kids pushing the car into a gas station now, would we? Though that would be a Facebookable moment.

On Day 2, while the kids were in school, I had an assistant help me test out the car.

It's roomy back here!
It’s roomy back here!
The third row folds down easily with one/two combo straps to make a lot of space in the trunk area.

Here, Lily is making sure the windows work properly.

Yep, I think they work
Yep, I think they work
On Days 3 and 4, I put on my official soccer mom uniform and drove the whole family (no Lily) to Kaleb’s soccer tournament. By this time the boys are in full crush mode with the car.

If they could write love letters to it....they would.
If they could write love letters to it….they would.
Knox: Say it’s great. Say it’s the best car that you ever went in.

I don’t know what it is about this minivan. It doesn’t seem that different from my SUV on the inside except that there is, actually, a whole lot more legroom everywhere. The leather seats were plush and cozy, really more like a recliner than a car seat.

Taking a snooze
Taking a snooze
There are PLENTY of cupholders. There are cupholders in cupholders. Which is perfect for when you bring friends and everyone is thirsty because they’re playing soccer in 100 degree weather.

It actually can seat a combination of 10 big and little people.

(don’t try this at home)

Make My Life Easier, Please

Some great mom perks include easy smartphone integration so you could listen to the music stored on you phone or a streaming device like Pandora. You can call all your peeps through a seamless voice command system.

The guidance system is fantastic. We were able to easily navigate to a coffee place when we had to arrive at the soccer tournament at the god-awful time of 7:30 on a Saturday morning. No owner’s manual required for any of it.

lots of options
lots of options
There is a great middle console that is enormous and could hide things in dubious neighborhoods while you run in to get your coffee.

camera? what camera?
camera? what camera?
There’s even a large section to drop your purse right below that middle console, instead of throwing it into the abyss of the backseat or the passenger seat (but you do have to take the purse with you so your car doesn’t get its windows smashed  in said dubious neighborhood).

The video monitor for your backseat theater includes a wide screen monitor, Blu Ray format, and wireless headphones.

We’re not big wireless people because of the uncertainty of developing brains and radio frequency transmissions being blasted into them, so we wouldn’t use this feature much. There is an option to plug in wired headphones and have a very similar experience, minus the risks but this one time, I let the boys go at it.

The climate control is also very easy to operate . In my Honda Pilot, I feel like we’re always guessing (after 7 years you’d think we’d just know) how to operate the backseat heaters and cooler to adjust the temperature to a different setting than the one we have upfront. In the Sienna, everything is clearly marked.

a no brainer
a no brainer
On the way back from the soccer tournament, we had to stop by the grocery store because we were out of everything. All three rows were still up and we also still had our chairs and umbrella in the back. Yet…..

plenty of room!
plenty of room!
the wide and deep trunk contained plenty of space for all our stuff. That was a huge improvement over my Pilot and would have come in very handy when I had had to choose between stroller and groceries back in the baby toting days.

The middle console has a very large flat area which is the perfect place to put your french fries when you can’t wait to eat them until you get home.

room for all the essentials
room for all the essentials

During the week, the minivan took me from Zumba

still not sure….
to date night with my husband at Dodgers Stadium and everywhere in between.

toyota sienna minivan
falling in love….
By the end of the week, I could really see the draw. Ego aside, this was a very practical and roomy car, which scores a fat 10 in the family department. My SUV may look cooler (to me) but you should have seen me this morning trying to cram my groceries into its back, with a bunch of my husband’s surf gear still there, even with only two of the three rows up. Irritation over my husband’s procrastination to move said gear for more egg space wouldn’t have happened with the minivan that left us last week.

bye bye minivan!
bye bye minivan!
Before it left, the kids had a few rituals they had to carry out to make the parting a bit easier……


Well. There you have it. In a nutshell, why we make those sacrifices for our kids.


Splashtopia! A Guide to Family Fun at the Omni Rancho Las Palmas Resort & Spa and the Palm Springs area


Photo provided by Elizabeth Hanson
Photo provided by Elizabeth Hanson

In August, my family and I had the awesome opportunity to go to the Omni Rancho Las Palmas Resort and Spa in Rancho Mirage, CA. If you don’t know where that is, it’s right outside Palm Springs.

It is affectionately known as Splashtopia by many families in Southern, California and beyond.

In a nutshell, it’s both super fun and enormously relaxing.

The resort itself is set on 240 acres and includes a full service spa, 2 acre water park, a 27-hole golf course, and 444 guest rooms.

I went with my three boys and husband, so I have to admit that I did not set foot in the spa. I wish I did, however, as it includes 20,000 square feet of facial treatments, massage and body treatments, hair, nails, make-up service, and more fun stuff. It also has a separate pool. But I will have to come back someday on a girl’s weekend.

What drew us there was Splashtopia. It is a dream for both kids and parents. For the older ones there are two, 100-foot waterslides, a 425 foot lazy river and a pool to swim around in.

slide into paradise - photo by Elizabeth Hanson
slide into paradise – photo by Elizabeth Hanson

Here is a fun video featuring the waterslide.

where being lazy can be fun - photo by Elizabeth Hanson
where being lazy can be fun – photo by Elizabeth Hanson
peaceful night - photo by Elizabeth Hanson
peaceful night – photo by Elizabeth Hanson


For the little ones there is an actual sandy beach and a play zone with fountains and sprinklers for them to splash around in. The other great aspect of the beach is that it included a shaded seating area. I definitely appreciated it as when we went in August it was hotter than hot!

a desert beach getaway - photo by Elizabeth Hanson
a desert beach getaway – photo by Elizabeth Hanson
kids wonderland - photo by Elizabeth Hanson
kids wonderland – photo by Elizabeth Hanson


A few facts about the resort that you might find helpful.

I’m including a few little details here just in case you are considering Splashtopia for your family.

  • Kids must be 42” to ride the slides. And let me tell you, they are fast!
  • They don’t allow outside food and drink. However, I saw many families bring in snacks for the little ones. We did too and tried to make it not too obvious. As we spent the entire day there we also bought food from the Splash Grill.
  • They have food at the pool from their Splash Grill. It’s ok, not fantastic. It includes things like burgers, fries, sandwiches and fruit plates. The pricing is what can be expected at a resort. There are cocktails and other alcoholic beverages for the adults.
  • The main pool is open from 9 am to 10 pm with lifeguards in attendance. The lazy river and slide close a little bit earlier at 9 pm and also has lifeguards. In my opinion, it is so hot there in the summer that spending the entire day at the pool is the best way to go.
  • The Splash Grill is open from 10 am to 8 pm.
  • All of the hours I have given are for April through August and differ the remainder of the year.
  • There is a changing table for babies in the women’s restrooms and NOT the men’s restrooms. I find this a bit of out of date as today’s daddy changes diapers too.
  • Internet is free. Bring your own movies on your Ipad as they cost $17.99 plus tax if you order one in your room.
  • A pull out bed costs $35 extra nightly.
  • There is a separate adult only pool.
  • The resort offers daily activities for kids as well as nightly music.
  • Golf and tennis are free June to September.
cool evenings - photo by Elizabeth Hanson
cool evenings – photo by Elizabeth Hanson
What are the rooms like?

We stayed in a room that was not off the pool. It costs a bit less and only required us to walk about 2 minutes to get to the pool. The room was clean and big.

The only thing I wished it had was a place to hang up swim suits. There are not ample hooks in the bathroom. And I don’t know about you ladies, but I have more than one suit!

Eating at the Resort

There are several options for eating at the resort if you want to dive in and not explore the surrounding areas.

The Splash Grill is the restaurant that you order from while playing at Splashtopia. It has kids meals, sandwiches, burgers, tropical drinks and a variety of other things. I thought the food was ok. It certainly wasn’t bad, but it was far from gourmet. It’s more pricy then eating out, but the advantage you get is not leaving the pool. That was worth it to us. Sandwiches are $14 to $16, smoothies $8, salads $12 to $15, and alcoholic frozen drinks $12 to $13.

We did not eat in the main restaurant Blu Ember. I asked other families about it and everyone seemed to like what it had to offer. They have a kid’s breakfast that got rave reviews from the children I spoke to. They serve nutella and that made quite an impression. Kids under 12 eat for free at dinner time with the order of an adult meal. Main meals are $24 to $39 each. Even with our kids eating free, we could pay less off the resort.

There is also a Palms Cafe similar to a Starbucks or Coffee Bean and an R Bar that we did not go to.

photo by Elizabeth Hanson
photo by Elizabeth Hanson

In our opinion Palm Springs has so much to offer in the way of restaurants that we preferred to venture out. This, of course, was much less expensive than eating at the Resort and frankly, I preferred the food options much better. Within minutes of the resort is every food chain you can imagine as well as many other great restaurants.

Fun Things Nearby
outside wildlife - photo by Elizabeth Hanson
outside wildlife – photo by Elizabeth Hanson


If you can tolerate the heat, The Living Desert, is a must see. It is one of the most impressive zoos I have ever seen. The giraffes have over 5 acres to roam on as do the cheetahs.

cheetahs living large - photo by Elizabeth Hanson
cheetahs living large – photo by Elizabeth Hanson
living desert cheeta
prowling – photo by Elizabeth Hanson


There is a whole program of Zoo Talks that you can hear as you visit various sections. The speakers are well informed and clearly love their jobs.

tell me a story - photo by Elizabeth Hanson
tell me a story – photo by Elizabeth Hanson


What I love the most about this zoo is that all of the animals have ample space to roam around. I won’t give you the whole list of animals, but in addition to giraffes and cheetahs there are snakes, amphibians, coyotes, gazelles, big horn sheep, bobcats, and more.

For those of you that are in love with miniature trains, the zoo has a Wild West miniature train track which is very impressive.

putting around - photo by Elizabeth Hanson
putting around – photo by Elizabeth Hanson

They also honor memberships from several other California Zoos. As we are Santa Barbara Zoo members we got a nice discount.


The Palm Springs Air Museum is a mecca of World War II airplanes. It is also air conditioned so you don’t have to worry about beating the dry heat.

taking off - photo by Elizabeth Hanson
taking off – photo by Elizabeth Hanson

Even if you are not an airplane buff it is worth visiting. Their list of war birds is very impressive and includes a C-47 Skytrain, a P-51 Mustang, a corsair, a Thunderbolt, and a ton more impressive aircraft from both the Pacific and European Theater.

Upstairs in the library, you will also find flight simulators to try out.


We didn’t go to The Palm Springs Aerial Tramway on this trip, but we have gone in the past. It is a fantastic view. Once up top, you can hike around or stay inside and eat at the restaurant.

If you are afraid of heights, you should know that it is both steep and high. The tram is solid though and feels very secure.


Overall Impression

Palms Springs is a great place to visit. We miss it already!

Splashtopia was so much fun that we definitely want to go back. My entire family gave it a big thumbs up. My husband said he has never felt as relaxed after a vacation.

You can sign up to receive special deals at the Omni’s website.

You can also check Groupon. We got 50% off our room there. If you get a Groupon, keep in mind that it doesn’t include taxes and resort fees.

Elizabeth Hanson is the mom of three fantastic little boys that she has the pleasure of homeschooling. You can visit her blog to read her musings on natural living.