My accidental vacation


I have never been a fan of vacations. Why would I need a vacation from my life if I like my life?

Also, I’m a fanatic about routine. After years of obsessive research about what makes people happy, I have determined that self-discipline is the key to happiness. And self-discipline is really difficult, but not in the context of routine. So I love routine and I hate vacations because they disrupt routine.

So I was surprised when the Hampton Inn offered me free nights in any hotel if I would write about it. After all, it’s not just that I don’t like vacations. Also, I’m the person who wrote about why I think travel is a waste of time, and one of the most popular posts on this blog about vacations is why it’s okay to work during vacation.

But now that I am basically raising farm boys, I am careful to take them to the city so they know what it’s like. Digression: I have heard that one of the biggest problems the Ivy League has with attracting kids from rural America is the rural kids with high enough test scores simply can’t handle living in a city – yes, New Haven counts as a city to a farm kid. So while you are sending your kids to SAT tutors to get your kids into college, I’ll be sending my kids to ride NYC subways.

So, back to the hotel. I used the free offer this week to stay in the Skokie, IL Hampton Inn while I was at Suzuki cello camp with my son. That’s right. This is my idea of vacation for my kid. He’s only six years old, so he doesn’t know other kids are going to Disney World.

We do five hours of cello lessons during the day, and then we come back to our hotel. And I have to say, he totally loves the hotel.

The whole day is very structured for my son. So when we come back, I let him do whatever he wants until bed time.

First we swim.

Then he tracks pool water through the lobby to get some lemonade and a cookie. The hotel staff is totally kid friendly, though I can’t help wondering if someone told them to be extra nice to us.

When I lived in New York City, I didn’t ever cook a meal, which is normal for NYC. But on the farm, I cook three meals a day. And like I said, I like routine. So I asked for a room with a kitchen. I had grand plans for nice dinners, just me and my son (and Melissa for one night). But he reminded me that I told him he could choose what we do after camp, and he chose peanut butter & jelly. Every night.

He practices after dinner at home, so we did that here, too. It’s amazing how if you tell a kid that practice is every night, and you follow through with that plan, then the kid doesn’t think to get out of it even though he’s played already for five hours.

I’ve been thinking about this all week – how routine is the most powerful tool for creating self-discipline. But I find that when it comes to myself, I lack the self-discipline to stick to the routine that would increase my self-discipline.

I’m better at routine when it comes to my kids.

By bedtime, I am exhausted.

All week I’ve been thinking I’m going to write a blog post after I put him to sleep. Because I love my job. And I feel disoriented on days when I don’t do it.

But, look. It’s been a week since I posted. I find that if I lay down with him for a book before bed, there is no getting me out when the last page is read.

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  1. Madeleine
    Madeleine says:

    Unrelated: I heard you on CBC’s “Spark” yesterday and couldn’t stop laughing, you just had this total Penelope voice and just kept saying “It’s so annoying! I can’t stop being annoyed by it”
    Loved it, you always offer a straight up no bullshit answer, you remind me of my Dutch friends.

  2. Samantha
    Samantha says:

    Love the pic of your son jumping on the bed! :)

    And yeah, routine and self-discipline are good things. I’m still working on both of ’em and I’m older than you.

  3. Deena McClusky
    Deena McClusky says:

    Owing to all the time I spend thinking about, writing about, and talking about music, I couldn’t help but wonder whether you were familiar with the band Apocalyptica. If you are not, they are a group of classically trained cellists turned metal rock gods. I would wager that your budding cellist would be absolutely fascinated by them.

  4. Jaclyn Vesci
    Jaclyn Vesci says:

    Adorable. Great Pictures!

    Surprising how calm and relaxed this post feels compared to most of the previous ones. Maybe vacations really do put us in a different mindset, for better or for worse. In this case, I would say better.

  5. Barbara
    Barbara says:

    Routine and self-discipline … as Samantha says, I am also working on it! I used to think that routine was a killer and tried to hide self-discipline in my cupboard. But with the years I have to come to cherish routine (what! me!), I still love to go on a holiday but it takes me weeks to get back to my daily schedule, procastinating, disregarding to do lists or writing new (and neat) ones.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and those lovely pics of your son, what a tangible tribute of love.
    Have a lovely day,

  6. Kay Lorraine
    Kay Lorraine says:

    I absolutely love, love, love the photos. Thank you so much for sharing this great kid with us. Peanut butter & jelly each night, plus jumping on the bed. How can anyone not love this kid?!!

    Please tell your son that someone in England thinks that he totally rocks!

  7. Aisha - Fitness Motivator
    Aisha - Fitness Motivator says:

    I agree, this post seems so much calmer than the rest.

    I do think vacations put you in a different frame of mind, you just feel more relaxed and stop worrying about the “normal” stuff in your life that you worry about – or at least, that was my experience on my most recent vacation.

  8. dl
    dl says:

    You’re so right about kids and routine. It gives them confidence and security. They know what’s coming and when, and they know what’s expected of them. It gives them a sense of control, all the while knowing the adult is still there taking care of them.

    Yet, how smart you are, Penelope, to also recognize that after five hours of demanding scheduled time, a kid does need some release.

  9. Amy Parmenter
    Amy Parmenter says:

    First, love the pics! I mean love.

    Second, I’ve been wanting to blog about routine myself. I think it should be spelled ROOT-ine. because doing it makes me feel rooted. Like every morning – every morning – i go to mcdonald’s for a diet coke and plain biscuit before i do anything else. However, today I noticed a new post from Penelope. So, I read that first.


    Amy Parmenter
    The ParmFarm

  10. Harriet May
    Harriet May says:

    I love routine too. But I am so bad about it. My ultimate motivation to stick to a routine is to keep my weight down (isn’t that the same thing as happiness?). All through high school–forget sleeping in–I was the kid that would wake up sometime before 7am to go running. It didn’t matter if it was school or vacation. In fact, during school holidays if I didn’t get up and go running I would feel completely disorientated, which is probably exasperated when you go to boarding school and they tell you where to be and and what time to be there every second of every day and then you have extra long vacations so all the foreign kids can travel home (I was basically a foreigner since school was in the UK and home was in the States). As soon as I went to college, with the lack of a schedule and the requirement to be self-sufficient and self-disciplined, I totally crashed. I couldn’t even limit myself to clubbing three times a week. It was four or more. So of course I was hungover and I didn’t run and I slept through classes and I gained weight and I lost control.

    Ever since then, I’ve been struggling to reclaim a routine, any routine as long as it involved running. You are definitely right that self-discipline equates to happiness. But I can only stick with running if I think of nothing else that day until it’s done, and slowly I’ve begun to add more good habits (reading, writing) and limit the bad ones (TV, snacking, online shopping).

    Ok so I still online shop too much. Ok and I get sucked into multiple episodes of Keeping Up with the Kardashians. Hey, this self-discipline thing is not easy.

  11. Kathy Berman
    Kathy Berman says:

    Hi–I love your posts bout your life and although I m 70, I would love being one of your kids. The Greeks believed education to be one person helping another person to discover herself/himself.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I love that definition of learning. Well, for a second I love it and then I remember all the ancient Greek teachers using this definition of teaching to justify sex between teachers and pupils. But I can put that out of my mind…


  12. kirk
    kirk says:

    Hey–great! To add to the digression, New Haven is one of the most dangerous cities in America per capita, according to rankings released last week–who’d a thunk it?

  13. Jason Ennis
    Jason Ennis says:

    Routine is great until it isn't. Like anything else in life there must be a balance. If someone is too fundamental about routine then they'll plan the perfect day, every day; when that plan is not met they are unhappy. Life never meets your plan perfectly and it never will.
    So routine can create unhappiness if it's taken too far. The antidote is doing things occasionally to balance out our habits with new experiences, like your vacation. This makes us appreciate the routines and the comfort they provide while learning to stay flexible.
    I think the key to happiness is flexibility. Never think that things are simply black and white, right or wrong, this and that. Stay in the middle.

  14. Kent @ No Vacation Required
    Kent @ No Vacation Required says:

    This part really caught my attention:

    “I have never been a fan of vacations. Why would I need a vacation from my life if I like my life?”

    I, in a very biased way, think it’s the most powerful part of the post. A few years back, we made the decision to pursue a “no vacation required” life – one where we love life every day and don’t need a vacation.

    Well, after a few years at it, the results are in. It’s an awesome way to live.

    OK, enough of that… The picture of your son practicing is very “the making of a master” and will, I’m sure, show up later in his life. Like in the PBS special on him.

  15. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    “I have never been a fan of vacations. Why would I need a vacation from my life if I like my life?”

    I am a devoted traveler–I love seeing new places, meeting new people, experiencing situations that only happen when I am out of my element. But I found, interestingly, that when I recently moved from Dallas to Chicago–a city I love and have wanted to live in forever–that my travel urges have subsided considerably. I still enjoy travel when it happens, but no longer have the furious craving to get away that I had when I wasn’t happy with my life in Dallas.

  16. Sandy Coury
    Sandy Coury says:

    Loved this post. Covered 2 important things: 1) the importance, goodness and comfort of routine and self-discipline and 2) how to have a great time with your kid on vacation. Great pics!

  17. Kate Evans
    Kate Evans says:

    What a great shot of your son jumping on the bed! It sounds like you had a great trip.

    I love the idea of living a “vacation unnecessary” life, but for me, that still includes travel. I love photographing and writing about new things in new places. Maybe I am delusional, and I certainly haven’t reached “vacation unnecessary” status yet, but so far, I just can’t imagine being happy with my life without new travel experiences.

  18. Kathryn C
    Kathryn C says:

    I wanted to tell you that your writing really helps single people (ie selfish people like me) who aren’t that excited about having kids and getting married; you make the mom & family thing look fun and doable because you maintain who you are and pursue your personal goals while having a family too, which most moms don’t do. That’s the scariest part for single people to grasp….I feel like what makes me “me” will be gone if I pursue the family route. Your life, and stories, really prove me wrong. Thank you

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Melissa! Melissa took all the photos. I love them too! And, speaking of Melissa, I just made a Who is Melissa page. You can get to it from the bottom of my sidebar.

      • KateNonymous
        KateNonymous says:

        I thought she must have! By the way, I think the photo of you and your son in the pool is wonderful. It is the most beautiful picture of you I’ve seen yet, and there are some excellent pictures of you.

        I have to say, though, that it sounds like you developed a “vacation routine” on this trip–you still had structure, just a different structure from the farm.

  19. Maria
    Maria says:

    Thank you for this wonderful post! Loved the pictures, too.

    Your thoughts have really resonated on me. I has taken me 4 years in therapy to grasp how the lack of routine throughout my childhood years has troubled my life ever since I went to college (and became a lost and dysfunctional adult). I think you’re really doing well for your kids. Thank you for sharing.

  20. Amy Vachon
    Amy Vachon says:

    Hi, Penelope! I’ve just been a lurker of late, but I just had to write to “right on!” about having a life you love so much that you don’t need to escape it on a vacation. If we need Paris to feel romantic, or Argentina to get in the mood to tango, a life-rearrangement might be in order. That said, I’m packing right now for our own week at Suzuki camp! Seems we have the same love of routines, and same after-dinner practice routine, in our house. And off we go to a lovely week of lessons, group class, theater and orchestra for my 6 year old and 8 year old (both violinists). I’m loving it! Best, Amy

  21. Kari
    Kari says:

    Jason – I thought the same thing. My boys just turned 18 and 15…. miss those days when just hanging out in a hotel with mom was the most fun part of the vacation. Sigh.

  22. Tatiana
    Tatiana says:

    “But I find that when it comes to myself, I lack the self-discipline to stick to the routine that would increase my self-discipline.”

    YES! YES! YES!

    I thought I was the only one! I don’t have any habits because I lack the self-discipline to keep doing it. I can do something forever, and then stop doing it and totally forget that I was ever doing it in the first place. Some might say that I’m not very present, but I just don’t form habits very well. I have to really want that habit but sometimes I just can’t seem to do it.

    So I’m glad I’m not alone in this!

  23. Gabrielle
    Gabrielle says:

    They have so much energy, don’t they? I love how you’re having him go to cello camp. He’ll get so much more out of that than going to Disney World.

    When I read to my girls, I spend a few extra minutes cuddling with them b/c it’s so relaxing so I hear ya about not wanting to get back out of the bed.

  24. Tzipporah
    Tzipporah says:

    So that’s what all the cello tweets were about. Structure and free play – sounds like a perfect combo for a vacation with a child.

  25. JML
    JML says:

    This morning, I came across the following passage in Martin Gayford’s Man with a Blue Scarf – a book about sitting for a portrait by Lucian Freud.

    “LF tells the story of Augustus John’s son Caspar who in later life became Admiral Sir Caspar John, First Sea Lord. Someone once remarked to him on the contrast between his career in the Navy, and the rackety bohemian milieu of his father: “To be a painter’, answered Admiral John, ‘requires enormous discipline.’

    ‘I always thought’, says LF, ‘that an artist’s was the hardest life of all.’ Its rigour – not always apparent to an outside observer – is that an artist has to navigate forward into the unknown guided only by an internal sense of direction, keep up a set of standards which are imposed entirely from within, meanwhile maintaining faith that the task he or she has set for him or herself is worth struggling constantly to achieve. This is all contrary to the notion of bohemian disorder.”

    I like this because it really underscores the courage self-discipline requires (and not just for an artist, but for anyone). And after reading this post, I thought I would share.

    I also like the photos. There is really nothing like those tender, playful moments with your child. Parenting can be so challenging and demanding, but it’s those moments that make it so incredible.

  26. Chris M.
    Chris M. says:

    Lovely post, but I can’t relate at all to this part:

    “I have never been a fan of vacations. Why would I need a vacation from my life if I like my life?”

    I love my life and my home. I also love traveling — just spent the 4th of July holiday in Mexico, in an incredibly beautiful and almost desert beach with coconut trees and turquoise sea. I would not want to live there, but 4 days in that paradise was just what in needed to recharge the batteries. I’m happy to be home, but I wouldn’t exchange traveling on vacation for anything in the world.

  27. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    What this post lacks is a video (with audio) or podcast of your son playing the cello. I think it would have been really nice to have his music playing while reading the post!
    All the photos are really good. I have favorites for different reasons so I can’t pick just one.
    As for your routine – you sacrificed your routine so your son could have an even better one. That’s a good sign of a good parent.

  28. Diana
    Diana says:

    Great pics! Makes me wonder if Melissa came with you to the Hampton to take pics or did you leave her with the Farmer?
    Your son is a darling and I am looking forward to meeting him when I come to Wisconsin for my Farm Vacation next year, where I will work in the garden, drive the tractor, and learn to make goat cheese!
    I like what you said about routine and how it breeds self discipline. I think that is right on.

  29. GingerR
    GingerR says:

    I think I’d phrase it that children from rural areas who’re qualified for Ivy League schools don’t necessarily like living in cities and take their smarts to nicer places!

  30. Janice Alvarez
    Janice Alvarez says:

    Absolutely love the photos of your son practicing and jumping on the bed!

    We’re glad he loved our hotel. Someone did mention a “travel writer” was staying with us one morning, but as you may have read from other reviews, we really do just have a bunch of friendly folks!

    We look forward to welcoming you again someday.

  31. Annabel Candy, Get In the Hot Spot
    Annabel Candy, Get In the Hot Spot says:

    Why travel is a waste of time? Why it’s okay to work on vacation?!

    That’s nutty. So very glad to read that you took a vacation, got out of your routine and stopped working:) I would have definitely booked a room without a kitchen though and I look forward to reading about how absence makes the heart grow fonder next week:)

  32. Maria Killam
    Maria Killam says:

    And I always post on my blog when I’m on vacation, I never understand when bloggers say they are going away for 2 weeks, see ya! I think posting when I’m away just makes my blog even more interesting. Your blog definitely beats us all on interesting though!!

  33. Wendy Lieber
    Wendy Lieber says:

    I agree totally. I just realized this in the last few years. I love routine and structure and have to plan my “veg out” time. Then and only then can I do it. Otherwise I do it but don’t think i should be doing it so fret about it and feel bad, guilty that I’m not being more productive. Thanks for the post. Very sweet!

  34. TK
    TK says:

    I’ve wanted to write to you every week since I started reading your blog about six months ago — soul sisters. I can honestly say you’ve managed to make me laugh, cry and chuckle with each episode.

    OMG 100 reason why I write to you… but I’ll start with one. First never ever say no to vacations… vacation’s recharge the thought process and expose you to new thoughts. I’ve been restoring my 210 year old house in the Husdon Valley for the past 100 years (at least it feels that way) but I’ve traveled around the world looking at old historic homes and feel inspired when I get home to what I should do. Yeah – I know if I stayed home I would get a lot more done. But eating my way around the world is what life is all about. I’ve taken my daughter to every state in the USA, plus 4 countries, visiting local communities and historic sites. Most people wait till they retire from the grind of employment by why not live life today. All this plus commuting over two hours a day to the big city to work an 80 hour week. LIFE IS GOOD.

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