Seizing It

We stood in the kitchen, eating Sunday morning biscuits and working out a quick schedule of the day–as families do–figuring out

who would drive downtown to take two boys to the matinee

who would drive up the hill to help the fourteen-year-old pick out black dress pants for her band photo

if anyone had moved the wet laundry into the dryer

if the phlegm in the lungs had loosened up

how many online assignments needed grading

what kind of matte and frame would work for the newly finished embroidery

how many of us would be attending the upcoming cross-country banquet

who would be returning the on-loan tubs of Lego Robotics tubs to the middle school

what was the plan for dinner

how was the execution of that going to happen

and at what time we might all see each other again later in the day, to debrief on various adventures in the world: the play performance, the new dress pants, the clean gym clothes stashed into backpacks, the amount of mucus coughed into Kleenex, the graded assignments, the framed handiwork, the completed banquet form, the packing up of the Legos, and the smell of focaccia baking because of course Byron was making focaccia for dinner on a day when he had turned out biscuits for breakfast.

During the scheduling discussion, I piped up that, as has been my way in recent weeks, I also intended to go for a run, buoyed by sunshine, crunching through fallen leaves. At some point in the busy day, I would park the car and stop eating the carbohydrates long enough to demand my portion of autumnal bliss.

Indeed, of late, I’ve been powered by an insistent internal voice that reminds me, “Do not take these glorious days for granted. Do not sit at the computer or walk around a store when the world outside is glowing, bursting with fireworks before it ebbs into six months of darkness. Get out there; get out there; get out there.”

That’s the conundrum of fall: it’s a time of heightened glory underscored by the melancholy of fading beauty.

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For me, the only way to deal with the melancholy that threatens is to savor the current colors and crunches, tucking images of them into my heart so that I can unfold them in February on a day when I want to gnaw off my forearm during a fit of winter desperation. In the darkest hours, I need to bolster my spirits with remembrance of times when the world was still awake, brighten my mood with the promise of future beauty.

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Packing all these feelings into a simple declaration about going for a run, I then shifted into True Jocelyn mode and unpacked the simplicity into perhaps-unnecessary complexity. I turned to Allegra–all the poor girl really wanted was another biscuit–and said, “There’s a feeling in the fall that we’re on borrowed time, that there’s a clock ticking down, so I want to be sure I suck up all the warmth while it’s still here.”

Ever the pragmatist, she responded, “Isn’t that how all of life is? Aren’t we always on a clock that’s ticking down?”

For even more insight into this amazing fourteen-year-old’s brain, I present to you the whiteboard that lives in her room. It is the home of her to-do list, account balances, and inspirational life lovelinesses.

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After taking a quick second to appreciate the girl’s point, I attempted to fine tune it. “Yes, of course all of life is basically a clock that’s ticking down. Well played, 9th Grade Philosopher. But it’s also true that sometimes we are provided with the gift of an enhanced awareness of that clock.”

Byron chimed in, as well, with some illustrative examples, but mostly, he was kneading bread dough while standing next to the apple cake he’d made the day before, so I was only able to perceive him in that moment as Master of the Carbohydrates. We can assume he said good things, though. I might have married him for his muffins, but I’ve stayed for his ability to talk smart stuff while elbow deep in flour.

When he paused to take a breath and flip the dough, I cut in, “You know, Allegra, it’s fairly common to hear from people dealing with cancer that their disease, while awful, actually has an upside in that it re-awakens them to life’s magic and makes every single day feel like the gift that it is.”

Verging on blowhard with that last bit, I felt the need to rein myself in, lest I lose her ear forever. I continued on a less didactic note: “When I was reading one of my celebrity gossip magazines a few months ago, I saw a quote from an actor named Michael Douglas–don’t worry that you’re unfamiliar with him; you’re not missing much–who has been battling throat cancer. In describing the journey he was on with illness, he said something like ‘Cancer didn’t bring me to my knees; it brought me to my feet.'”

She was listening, but she also had finished spreading jam on her biscuit, so I knew the teenager was about to bolt for the safe confines of her room and its comfortingly quiet whiteboard. I sped up.

“What Douglas means there is that having a feeling of being on a clock made him greet life with all new vim.”

Puzzled, the girl gave me a look that asked, “Vim?”

Clarifying, I added, “You know, verve.”

Tired of Mom’s constant vocabulary lessons, she slid her stool back from the counter and picked up her biscuit. I had about four seconds before she was gone.

“Like, energy and enthusiasm. He was saying that having a reminder that time is short made him bring new energy and enthusiasm to each day. That’s what I mean, too, about fall causing me feel like I need to grab all the beauty before it’s gone.”

Heading toward the staircase, the fourteen-year-old capped–and won–the conversation. “I get what you’re saying, but it still seems too dramatic. Because, Mom, all the beauty doesn’t go away when winter comes. Winter’s the most beautiful of all.”

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**This last image is one of Byron’s drawings; he drew it using a digital pen on a board about the size of a mouse pad. Himself is good at more than making biscuits. I know where his daughter gets her charms, for sure.

 

Holding a Balloon

I first became aware of Caitlin Moran a couple years ago, when her book How to Be a Woman was creating a splash. In search of a read that was smart but didn’t make my tired brain hurt, I grabbed a copy. Almost immediately, I wished it was 1985 and that I was back in my freshman year of college, a time when multi-colored highlighters were always close at hand, prepped for assiduous application to the text. Each time I ran a thick, bright-yellow marker over a particularly meaningful paragraph of Balzac or Hegel, it meant I was engaged and, even more, able to spot the important things. Had I read How to Be a Woman in 1985, I could have slapped the book closed after reading the last page and then grabbed the volume with both hands and wrung a puddle of neon highlighter onto the industrial carpet in my dorm room. Every word would have been saturated with yellow ink.

For me to get all fangrrrly about Moran is no stretch. She’s funny, talky, full of gusto, a mother to two kids. Despite her easy appeal, though, I appreciated that How to Be a Woman challenged me to consider the immediacy and relevance of feminism in a world that I had dismissed as post-post-post-feminist. As well, my reading of this book intersected with arguments being made by a college friend of mine, Robin, in her blog posts such as the one titled Wherever I Go, Whatever I Do, I Have a Uterus. It also intersected with reports from watchdogs like VIDA (Women in Literary Arts) that juggernaut publications like The Atlantic, London Review of Books, New Republic, The Nation, and New York Review of Books devote a mind-blowing 75-80% of their annual coverage to men’s writing. My brain may be tired and actively avoiding circumstances of hurtingness, but when smart voices make points with forceful words and convincing statistics, the grey matter has nowhere to hide. After some mulling, in fact, the grey matter had to accept that feminism isn’t merely an historical movement from forty years ago. It’s a here-and-now issue, and my uterus and I needed to take it off the shelf.

Not incidentally, my uterus is wondrously dextrous. Last week, it put a stamp on an envelope. Woefully, the video camera’s batteries died during filming of this event.

Because I enjoyed How to Be a Woman so very much, my hands got clappy when I saw that Moran had written a new novel, a coming-of-age story based loosely on her own experience growing up poor in the Midlands of England during the 1990s. As is true for Moran, the protagonist in How to Build a Girl is from a big, loving family, one that she nevertheless escapes during her teen years after lucking into a job in music journalism. Powered by her spirited voice, Moran’s writing here appeals to my criterion of No Brainy Hurty, yet it is appealingly full of brio–funny, thought-provoking, and incisive–and many passages made me want to elbow my sleeping husband and whisper loudly, “I just need to read these two pages out loud to you. No need to respond. Just lie there and look dopey. As you do.”

It was only the fact that Byron was a sleepwalker for several decades that kept my elbow tucked to my ribs. Actually, these days, the sleepwalking tendencies have been harnessed; it’s rare that he leaps out of bed to take a random wander around the property (sometimes a guy’s just gotta go stand in front of the open fridge for three minutes, in case someone put his car keys, or a rabbit, in there). Rather, when roused, he usually stays in the bed–while rearing up dramatically and pinning me to the thread count with an intense, brain-disconnected, baleful glare that would melt a lesser Feminist Wife.

All in all, even though I was nodding knowingly, shouting internal affirmations, and wanting to share some of Moran’s insightful passages with somebody, it seemed wise to let sleeping beaux lie. Instead, I simply reread the best passages three times and smugly noted that poor zzzz-ing Byron sure was missing out over there on his poofy pillow.

What I appreciated particularly about How to Build a Girl is that it weaves social commentary into the story line. It’s just this tendency that caused the New York Times‘ review of Moran’s latest to note, with some affection, that the book is occasionally “sloppy.” Long-time readers of this blog, and neighbors who have walked through my living room, know that I’m okay with “sloppy.” It’s sloppy, after all, that allows for asides about the postal abilities of a uterus and the potential presence of a rabbit in the refrigerator. Tight is over in Human Resources, taking messages on a tiny pad of paper. Sloppy is dancing on top of the copy machine, a half-drunk bottle of peach schnapps swinging wildly around her head, and she’s not coming down until someone cobbles together a ladder out of the goldenrod.

There are a few sloppy passages about class and poverty in How to Build a Girl that I want to copy, laminate, and hang up in my office. Then, when I have had it up. to. here with students not getting to class, or only sporting one shoe when they do get to the room, or not having the textbook by week eight, or munching pizza-flavored Goldfish for an hour while announcing it’s the only thing they’ve eaten all day,

I can retreat to my office and rediscover compassion in the laminated paragraphs sagging from the walls (damn cheap Scotch tape), in clunkily incorporated passages that remind “…the poor are seen as…animalistic. No classical music for us–no walking around National Trust properties or buying reclaimed flooring. We don’t have nostalgia. We don’t do yesterday. We can’t bear it. We don’t want to be reminded of our past, because it was awful: dying in mines, and slums, without literacy, or the vote. Without dignity. It was all so desperate then. That’s why the present and the future is for the poor–that’s the place in time for us: surviving now, hoping for the better later. We live now–for our instant hot, fast treats, to pep us up: sugar, a cigarette, a new fast song on the radio.

“You must never, never forget when you talk to someone poor, that it takes ten times the effort to get anywhere from a bad post code. It’s a miracle when someone from a bad post code gets anywhere…A miracle they do anything at all.”

Later in How to Build a Girl, after the main character of Johanna has banged around her teen years, collecting sexual experiences, applying ever-thicker eyeliner, tromping into clubs in her torn tights, she realizes her attempts to be cool and adult have, in fact, made her cruel. As Johanna reconsiders the kind of person she wants to be in the world, Moran works in a gorgeous tangent about cynicism and how it’s a way of coping with fear.

As someone who cultivated an attitude of irony through her teen years, eventually channeling it into a coat of cynicism, I had to adjust the reading lamp on the bed’s head board while reading these pages. I didn’t want to miss a word. Much of my adult life has been spent stripping away the shellac of cynicism, but I hadn’t necessarily realized that until Moran articulated it. Her Johanna, reflecting on why she had become so jaded, realizes it’s “Because I am still learning to walk and talk, and it is a million times easier to be cynical and wield a sword, than it is to be open-hearted and stand there, holding a balloon and a birthday cake, with the infinite potential to look foolish. Because I still don’t know what I really think or feel, and I’m throwing grenades and filling the air with smoke while I desperately, desperately try to get off the ground: to get elevation. Because I haven’t yet learned the simplest and most important thing of all: the world is difficult, and we are all breakable. So just be kind.”

Thank you, Caitlin Moran, for convincing me feminism still matters; for illuminating the ongoing problems with our classist cultures; for making me want to go out and buy a balloon and a birthday cake.

I’m counting down the years until I can hand your books to my daughter.

Hitting the Motherlode at Mamalode

I’ve been writing this blog since 2006 and, before that, pouring words into wild Christmas letters that took so long to read my friends were still working through them come New Year’s. All this fun writing is great. But recently, I decided to start submitting essays to a few publications, just to see what that process of writing, editing, submission, and rejection feels like.

I’ll tell you when the process feels really good: when something gets accepted.

Last week, I heard from Mamalode.com. They accepted an essay I submitted. Then they let me know it would be published on October 7th.

Friends, it went live this morning, and I’m just so happy.

Please, if you have a minute, click on the link below, and give the thing a read.

Sweet Like Sugar

Being Able to Climb a Princess’ Hair Is Pretty Ludicrous, Too

Once upon a time, two white, middle-class Midwesterners decided to invite all the townspeople to a feast called Potluck.

Listen, not all fairy tales begin with mentally-unstable witches making mischief. Sometimes they begin with swans hatched into the wrong family; hungry wolves; vain emperors; magic shoes; and, yes, middle-class white people who like to eat.

In fact, I’d argue mentally-unstable witches making mischief are all too real, particularly in tales of the modern-day workplace. I’ll take a ravenous wolf at the door any day. At least we soft little piglets stand a fighting chance against that type of beast.

Those summoned to Potluck were also issued a challenge: they were to present a dish that connected to a children’s story, nursery rhyme, or book. This was a very literate kingdom, unlike the neighboring duchy of HatesBooksLandia (a place of strapped economy, depressed citizens, and limited, ummm, how you say, word thingies).

On the evening of Potluck–an uncommonly fair day!–the townspeople gathered and entered their dishes into competition. The competitor known as Keg of Beer (based on the tale of John Barleycorn) served as a natural meeting point for discussions of weather, health, shoes, work, home repair, children, and appalling dresses at celebrity weddings. Excitement reigned, for the victors at Potluck, both young and old, would be handsomely rewarded. Two youths would win gift cards to the general mercantile known as Target. Two elders would tote home baskets of goods that would make bed-bound grandmothers far and wide wish for a visit.

Potluck proved to all neighboring duchies that where there are books, there is creativity.

And the occasional scary cousin toting a tray of poison apples.

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Robert Munsch’s MMMM, COOKIES (however, these were not made out of clay!)

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The princess and the pea “mattresses”

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The Seven Dwarfs worked in the mines. They took pasties for lunch.

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Sneetch cupcakes–ready to go through the Star-Bellied Sneetch machine that Paco made

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After feasting upon the various delights, the townspeople exercised their rights as citizens of a democracy (one guest brought the recently deposed king baked into a tasty lasagna) and voted.

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There were two categories (Best Taste and Best Tie-In to Story) and two age groups (under and over age 15). When the winners were announced, the elders received their baskets, the youths their gift cards. Darkness fell. Everyone returned to their cottages. Kindly John Barleycorn left a growler of beer for the hosts.

Some time later, this delightful tale gained a ridiculous coda.

You see, young Paco’s Star-Bellied Sneetch machine had been such a hit that he won the Best Tie-In to Story award in the Youth Division. When one is eleven, one gets special dispensation and can win a prize even as a host of the party. It’s in the handbook.

Thus, our lad had a ten-dollar Target gift card living in his wallet. After a few weeks of illness (Every good story requires suffering, all the better if it involves a weak cough, yes?), the boy, believing in the healing power of pixels, decided he wanted to invest in a new video game for himself. So we went to Target and tested the game there. The thing was very fun.

However.

It turns out he could buy a used copy of this game at a different store, for significantly less. He wondered, therefore, if we, as people who shop at Target with some frequency, would be willing to buy his gift card from him so that he could put the cash toward the used game. It made perfect sense, really.

Indeed, it made perfect sense for us to have paid for the initial purchase of the gift card and then, some weeks later, to buy that same gift card off our own child.

Speaking of situations I could never have anticipated back when I dreamed of becoming a parent.

Fortunately, the video game has made Paco feel as perky as Jiminy Cricket; we now have funds to buy the emperor new clothes from the Merona, Xhiliration, and Mossimo lines at Target; and the chain of events from having a wonderful party through paying my child for something I already bought has made me feel like Euna, the princess who laughs as she watches a mouse, a beetle, and a catfish attempt to help a man extract himself from the mud.

In other words,

we all lived happily ever after.

 

 

No Dull Boys, Not Even You, Jack

It’s not for lack of trying.

Ever since they were old enough to kick a ball, turn a somersault, and weave a multi-colored tote bag on a floor loom, we’ve signed our kids up for activities. Partly, we did this because it helped to pass some of the long hours that make parents look at the clock and think, “How can it only be 8 a.m.? We’ve made playdough, cut out paper people, walked down to the busy road to count red cars, read fifteen books, and baked cookies. Sweet Clock in the Sludge, but how can it only be 8 a.m.?” However, we also enrolled them in gymnastics, soccer, archery, day camps, ski lessons, and language groups with an eye toward that elusive thing called Personal Betterment. Basically, we wanted to give our kids opportunities to find interests, to develop potential passions, to realize abilities and affinities. As a bonus, sometimes they would whirl out of an art class, excitedly holding an off-kilter clay blob, and I would think, “Hallelujah! Looks like we can mark ‘Find Grandma a birthday present’ off our to-do list.”

There was also a long-term eye being cast to the kids’ futures as Taller People. For both Byron and me, it was extracurriculars that eased the potentially tough years of our teens. In the case of Byron, with his family having strong Norwegian and Minnesotan roots, he was on cross-country skis from the time he was four; eleven years later, his ease on the slopes led him to the high school ski team, which then took him to the off-season-training sport of cross-country running, which then opened up an understanding that he had endurance abilities, which now, in his forties, has developed into a new passion for swimming, particularly in open water. Thanks to this chain of interests, he’s approaching his mid-forties as a man who is fit, spirited, and motivated. Side bonus: he also has an enviably thick hoodie gained this past summer when he completed a 2.1 mile swim in Lake Superior, from Bayfield, Wisconsin, out to Madeline Island, and back again. Even bigger side bonus: his ability to endure has made him singularly well-equipped for life with me.

In my case, the string of extracurriculars started in elementary school, when I joined the Brownie troop, and continued when I launched into ballet and piano classes. Eventually, I played flute in the school band and learned the mysteries of a double-reed instrument one summer when I took up bassoon. Always, there was music. Always, there was movement. As I age, my every day is still full of both, for I take a few moments every evening to chassé my way over to the piano bench before hacking out some Chopin. I also continue to reap daily benefits from my primary high school extracurricular: the speech team. Once I joined forensics, I found My People, and that in itself is a significant moment in the life of the teenager. Unlike many who attended my Montana high school, My People didn’t have rifle racks hanging on the back windows of their pick-up cabs. Rather, my people wore thick glasses and knew how to ace standardized tests. In a fascinating correlation, those with rifle racks in their pick-up trucks still live in the same town thirty years later, having changed most significantly in the model of truck they drive; in contrast, the myopic test-takers busted out of town and are now scattered around the globe. They have been to open-air markets. They have tasted spices whose names they can’t pronounce. Even though we haven’t seen each other for decades, they are still My People.

In addition to community, the speech team brought me skills and insights that I draw upon every day in my adult life. Competing in speech meets showed me that I will forever be a person who has to hole up in the bathroom before standing up and speaking in front of a group of people. As well, it showed me that once I’m done speaking before a group, I will manage to be both elated and in need of a quick cry. Knowing that I function this way, I now plot both bathroom and weeping time into my teaching schedule. Further, when I’m in the classroom, standing up there feeling dehydrated, I am constantly drawing upon the training I received from those high school years in forensics. Gestures happen above the waist. I am aware of “body blocking”–that I should accompany a change of subject with a change in where I’m standing, and when I’m heading left, it’s my left foot that should start the move (and vice versa). I look my audience in their bloodshot eyes, and I modulate my voice, using a range of dynamics and tempos to engage those listeners who aren’t staring at their crotches and tapping away on the screen that they’re “hiding” in Central Genitalia. All the many things I absorbed during my career in Original Oratory (with the occasional foray into Memorized Public Address–for I HAD A DREAM, PEOPLE!) play into my current career. Without that extracurricular, I might not be a teacher. At the very least, I’d be a very different kind of teacher, one who faces the whiteboard for the entire hour, never turning around measure the impact of my words and actions. In other words, I’d be teaching math.

The upshot is that both Byron and I believe that extracurriculars are important to a young person’s development. One of our kids has conformed perfectly to her parents’ values–as every child should, without question–for Allegra loves running, skiing, photography, and writing. Having just entered high school, she’s thriving on the cross-country running team, both in terms of her strength and health but also when it comes to finding Her People. She doesn’t talk much, our girl, but she’s a rock solid teenager of admirable character, and gradually, her chatty, less-together teammates are discovering the beauty of having Allegra’s yang to their yin. In many ways, teenage social groups don’t reward peers for being people who show up on time, who have all their equipment, who have prepared a wee giftie for their secret buddies (despite never receiving any wee giftie in return), who are diligent and focused, who know the names of all 135 runners on the team, who lead with reserve but who are deeply observational. But get this: cross-country runners, as a type, do. For the young woman who lives in our house, participation in cross-country is providing her with a kind of confidence and sense of belonging that she could never get from her family or her teachers.

And then there’s *typist pauses to emit a long, weary sigh* eleven-year-old Paco. This would be a good point to take a breather, Dear Reader. Go ahead and take a second to scroll up to the top of this post and reread the opening sentence.

I’ll wait.

Waiting

Back now? Okay, then there’s Paco.

In this kid, we have perhaps the only boy on Planet Earth who dislikes moving his body. Sports? Not so much. As a rule, he also really hates group activities because, y’know, people. Even more, he wants no part of anything that involves a clock or competition. Truth be told, I understand. He is who he is, and his charms run deep. It’s just that we want him to face situations where he has to cope, deal, adjust–where he isn’t always within the safe parameters of his comfort zone (a place that looks a whole lot like a couch with a book on it). Just as importantly, parents shouldn’t be the ones to bring the whole world to their children; sometimes parents need to get out of the way so that Whole World is allowed a direct line.

Don’t get me wrong: Paco has hobbies. He reads. Also, he reads. I’m not complaining because another thing he really likes is reading. On occasion, he agrees to accompany his mother on her Walkies, mostly because she’s extremely clever and spends the walk interviewing him about what he’s been building in Minecraft and what level he’s at in Cube World. Moreover, as someone who loves weaponry, he will spend some time in the yard with his bow, shooting arrows at a target. At heart, he’s an artist; fortunately, he got the right father to feed that habit. Currently, the two of them have put in weeks and weeks making polished mud balls using a technique called dorodango. Once the project is finished, rest assured I’ll post about my son’s and husband’s balls. With pictures.

For sure, the kid is interesting. It’s just that he won’t have his photo scattered throughout the high school year book. That’s okay.

However, last week, we received an email from his school about various after-school clubs that will be running this year. Jumping out at us was mention of a Robotics club. The one camp Paco agreed to do this past summer was Robotics. Basically, with Robotics, kids learn how to write mini-computer programs and then use them to control “robots” they’ve built out of various materials, often Legos. There are battles between the robots; there are winners. Because Paco participated in the camp with a hyper-competitive friend (whose need to always be best sometimes exhausts our lad), their robot, Cutiepie, ended up winning the overall camp championship–the campionship!–at the end of the week.

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Thus, the camp brought to him programming, design, teamwork, and the thrill of victory. Since it had been such a positive experience for him, we stood in the kitchen last week, urging him to sign up for the Robotics club at his school. If he gets into Robotics through his school, he could one day be on a high school team, and their competitions are huge, held over the course of a weekend at the convention center, with cheering fans, pep bands and a festive colosseum-battle feel. It’s also possible I get my geek on when we attend the annual ‘bot battles, going a little crazy with picking my favorites and then holding my breath when they compete–which is, umm, to say: I want this for my kid.

Robotics

As Byron and I asked our boy to consider joining the Robotics club, Paco, not surprisingly, resisted. He worried that he wouldn’t know anyone else in the club, especially since his hyper-competitive friend is already in so many extracurriculars that he wouldn’t be able to add Robotics to his tight schedule. When we suggested that it’s okay to join something, even if you’re the only person you know in the room, he became even more reluctant and asked, “Why? Why do I have to do anything? School is a lot, and I like to come home.” At the same time he voiced these thoughts, it was apparent in his eyes that he wanted to do this thing; it’s just his nature to worry. Fortunately, it’s his parents’ nature to shove him past his objections and into occasional action. In such moments of cajoling-leading-to-a-form-being-filled-out, their opening tactic has historically been to become preachy.

Poor kid. All he had wanted was a quick snack before heading to the couch to read about fantastical worlds. But now. Stuck sitting at the island in the kitchen, listening to blowhard adults unleash their arguments.

Byron’s opening salvo was to mention a newspaper article he’d read the day before that noted the single most-essential time in a person’s life to take risks is middle school. While Byron didn’t have text or citation on hand, his Internet-trolling wife later discovered that the Washington Post had published the article, which points out, “…middle school should be seen as an important time to let kids begin to develop their identities apart from their parents. Who a child will become is not a foregone conclusion, and without trying a lot of new things, how can a young person truly know who she is?”

Unmoved by mentions of newspaper articles, Paco dipped his biscotti into his tea before recommitting to his stance: “I just want there to be someone I know in the club, and then I’d join.”

Inserting myself into the coercion, I announced, “No matter what, I think you need to do this club. You have no other activity outside of school. We’re going to insist on this. And what your dad just said about taking risks and how the article argues that it takes bravery to become an adult is really true. Now, having affirmed the rightness of you joining the club, even if you don’t know anyone, I’m about to undermine everything we’ve just been saying by suggesting something. Aren’t the clubs  open to grades 5-8? And isn’t your favorite person on the planet in 5th grade at your school? And isn’t his dad my cousin? And don’t I know how to send a message to Elijah’s parents? Why yes, yes, I do.”

BAM. With that idea, which basically fulfilled all of Paco’s personal criteria and let him have his own way, he was in.

As he bounced excitedly in his chair, spilling his tea and smearing biscotti chocolate onto the island, I warned him, “Okay, so we have an answer that pleases us all. However, since this process went a bit too easily for you, I’m going to need you to sit there and listen to my points about extracurricular activities and why they matter at any stage of life. Gather in a deep breath, Son, and grab yourself a piece of beef jerky, for I’m about to become seriously pontifical.

All right, so you know how I like to go running–especially out on trails?”

Cautious nod.

“And you know how I did that trail race last weekend?”

Gaze deliberately focused on jerky.

“Well, as I was running out there on those trails, throwing myself into an activity that makes me thrum but at which I’m not naturally gifted, I had a lot of time to consider what I was doing and why I do it. Here are the lessons that trail running brings to me, and do not even try to slip off that stool just as I’m getting revved up:

1) It’s okay to feel nervous. Although I move my body every day, and although I adore running on trails and have done myriad trail races, I still lost sleep the night before the race. Would I dress warmly enough? Should I wear a ball cap? Would my body rebel and decide to announce, ‘Uh, yea: I don’t think so’? Would I walk to the car when it was all over and think, ‘I could have done better’? Would my bowels decide they’d been feeling neglected and want my full focus? Trail racing reminds me that if I worry, it means I care. If I ever have signed up for something–made an agreement to be somewhere and do something–and my innards don’t send me a few messages of joy, excitement, or, yes, even nerves, then I’m not truly invested. The lesson to be gleaned from my anxiety is this: I have a limited number of decades in my life, and I should pack them with situations that make me nervous so that I can feel all the feels. Ultimately, the payoff for weathering nerves is significant.

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2) Pay attention to the details. As I ran the race out on those gnarly trails, I had to clap my eyes hard onto the roots and rocks. I needed to have a sense of what was coming down the trail–because when I’m oblivious, I get tripped up, start crushing things, and miss nuance. Indeed, if I’m not seeing the small stuff, I’m skimming across the surface of life’s magic. Even more, when I focus on details for an extended period of time, something happens to the way my brain works. When I was running that race, time passed differently, for I was unable to measure the distance. I couldn’t look at street signs and count blocks; I couldn’t see the next mile yawning in front of me. Because the race took place on particularly technical trails, I had to keep my eyes on my feet constantly, in an effort to stay on them. The second I looked up and lost concentration on the minutiae, I caught a toe, went flying, and bit into my tongue. Thus, it was essential that I train my eyes on every jutting rock, leaning tree trunk, haphazard log, half-buried boulder, and random bird carcass; blissfully, in that process, my brain became meditative. Worries about students, meetings, colleagues, family, overdue books, dinner plans, oil changes, purchase orders, unfolded laundry, putting the garden to bed, grading papers, sending emails–all fell away. There was only me, in the moment, in that place, setting down one foot, then the other, deeply absorbed by the specifics.

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3) Stay with the flow. When presented with an obstacle like a swampy puddle, I need to trust my rhythm and ability. It’s disruptive to lurch to a stop, stutter my feet, and dance around, figuring out what to do. Not only does that make me look like a three-year-old who needs to ‘make tinkles,’ it signifies I am willing to give way to indecision in a moment when action is called for, and I don’t want to be that person. I can tarry and stare at the muck before attacking it, or I can just get down to business attack the damn stuff. Either way, I’m getting past it, and I’d rather err on the side of efficiency.

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What’s more, the domino effect of indecision slows down everyone around me; it shuts down the group’s forward momentum. When I approach an obstacle on the trail, my inner voice cautions, ‘Stop over-thinking, and just take the leap. The second your foot hits the other side, you’ll feel like you own the world. Plus, once you’re over it, you can turn around and extend a hand to the person behind you.’

Joce Jumps

4) Get dirty. Somewhere during the third mile, as I hit a particularly huge patch of mud, I realized there was no way around it, so I plunged right in. I sank, and then there was sucking, and within two seconds, I was buried up to my calf. When I started to pull my foot out, my shoe started to peel off. In the past, race organizers have recommended participants wind duct tape around their shoes, to keep them on, and suddenly I cracked up at the notion of my shoe becoming a bottom-feeder while I hobbled the rest of the course with one bare foot. As I reached down and gave my shoe an assist, I giggled. Hours later, as I stood in the shower, scrubbing my calves, I enjoyed another good snortle.

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5) It isn’t about other people. The winner of this race completed the course in literally half the time that it took me. But here’s the thing: I wasn’t running his race; I was running my race. The whole endeavor was about applying effort to turn in my best performance–to see what I was capable of, on that given day, on that difficult course. If we measure our success against other people, if we define ourselves in relation to others, then we never see our own selves clearly. I can only be myself, doing my own thing. Plus, that poor guy who won the race had to stop after a mere forty-four minutes–while I, in full rock star mode, had almost an hour-and-a-half of juice in me. As the skinny, fleet-of-foot guy sat in the grass, recovering, my less-runner-like physique kept going and going. If anyone was intimidated that day, he should have been afraid of me. Seriously, he might have headed home, showered, gone out for sushi, and had a beer, and I still could have been running. When it comes to my day on the trail, I was a powerhouse of elephantine endurance, and that helps me believe I’m awesome.

6) Understand that friends come and go. During the race, I started out behind a long-time friend whom I hadn’t seen in months; we were quickly joined by an acquaintance. The first minutes of the race were spent catching up, getting to know each other, chatting easily. After a bit, the fastest of our group took off at her natural pace, and then a couple other runners fell in with us. I learned that Amy’s husband of twelve years screwed her over last year, but now she’s dating a first-grade teacher, and, man, is that different from dating a lawyer. I learned that Amy and Rita are both alcoholics. I learned that Liz is a nurse and that she knows my cousin. Then Liz took off into the woods, and Rita fell back a bit, and Amy and I carried on. After awhile, Amy fell back, too, yet in the final mile, she tore past me. Indeed, even when friends disappear from sight, there’s still every chance I’ll run into them again at some point down the path. It ain’t over ’til it’s over.

Joce Bangin in the Brush

7) Find your own space and delight in the peace. Speaking of Amy and all I came to know about her difficult and tragic life, a great motivator behind my running is the desire to get away from others. At some point, I realized I was tired of hanging in there with Amy’s litany of woes, and so I sped up, wishing her well as I pulled away. During that middle stretch, before Amy regained ground and passed me, I was by myself in the woods, unable to see any other runners. It was quiet, warm, blissful. To be in the woods alone is this agnostic’s idea of heaven. Soaking in the peace, I marveled at the beauty.

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8) Don’t forget to look up and survey the big picture. Despite my focus on every rock and root as I ran, I also made sure I lifted my face to soak in the glory of the trees. I turned my cheeks to the sun and, as it shone its face upon me–a benediction–I felt alive from my scalp to my toenails. Seeing myself as a small part of a bigger picture is profound, affirming, and rousing.

Ultimately, when we challenge ourselves on trails, plunge ourselves into races, engage in activities outside of life’s daily tasks, value ourselves enough to develop new abilities, explore the world around us with curiosity and interest, push beyond the known and comfortable,

the rewards we reap are immeasurable.”

DSCN2303With that, Paco stood up, put his tea mug in the dishwasher, and wandered out to the couch, where a book awaited.

 

Waning

The poor boy inherited his mother’s bad throat.

A crummy night’s sleep, an overtaxing day, a demanding week, and there they go: the tonsils. Swelling, scratching, kissing, and aching–tender tonsils manifest the stress.

My life has been peppered by throat ailments. They must have become more persistent in adulthood, as having my tonsils removed was never a conversation until I reached the age of 29 and talked to an Ear, Nose, and Throat doctor about the possibility. Her advice was to live with the grotty tonsils, if I thought I could weather it, as getting one’s tonsils removed as an adult is a particular kind of hell that often involves three weeks of recovery on the couch accompanied by vomiting various foodstuffs out the nose.

I decided to live with the tonsils.

Now I have this delightful pip of a son who is plagued by frequent throat complaints. To give him full credit, he upped my throat issues by also having myriad ear infections in his first five years, so many that he ended up with two sets of long-term tubes. These days, now that he’s eleven, the ears are more of an adjacent complaint when the throat turns red.

Every few months, his voice will become thick, he’ll have trouble swallowing, and it’s off to the clinic we go. There, a nice lady takes a long Q-tip and swabs his tonsils. Invariably, the quick test results indicate that, indeed, he has strep throat. This happened a couple months ago after Paco had a weekend away at a friend’s cabin; as soon as he came home and noted that the tubing on the lake had been a bit fast and rough for him, I went out and fired up the car, readying it for the drive up the hill to the clinic.

Then, this past weekend, he was invited to a sleepover. Excitedly, he packed up his overnight bag–remembering his toothbrush while vetoing the suggestion of a hairbrush because why would a person need a hairbrush at a sleepover?–before he started worrying that he would be the first one there. Then he recalled that sometimes he wakes up at sleepovers and can’t get back to sleep, so he packed a book and a headlamp. After that was some talk about who else would be attending (hopefully not too many boys he didn’t know), what they might have for dinner, if they’d watch a movie. Eventually, it was time. Bravely, he shouldered his bag NO HAIRBRUSH and set off for the party. A minute later, he had covered the thirty-five feet to his friend’s house, and the sleeping over commenced.

The next morning he returned home, tired and wan, recounting how they’d taken turns playing Minecraft on the computer, had pizza, stayed up until almost midnight, and he hadn’t had a pillow, so it was hard to sleep. Listening to this rundown, I realized suggesting a hairbrush had been silly when, instead, I should have insisted he pack his health insurance card and money for a taxi to the clinic.

Yes, his voice was thick. His throat was really hurting him. He had a fever of 100.6 degrees. He just wanted to lie down on the couch and let the ibuprofen kick in. He knew his grandma and grandpa were stopping by for a few hours on their way through town, so he would just rest until they got there.

Once they arrived, however, he stayed on the couch, eventually calling me over to whisper, “How long until we can go to the doctor?” With that, it was clear: we should just go.

Leaving Byron and Allegra home with the grandparents, Paco and I drove to the grocery store that houses a clinic with weekend hours. Knowing that the wait can sometimes be hours, we took our books.

Fortunately, there was no line. Paperwork completed on clipboard, insurance card and photo ID scanned, co-pay shelled out, rating of pain on a scale of 1-10, questions about allergies answered, it was time for the swab. Paco braced himself for the gag, got through it, and then we both marveled at the deep golden color of the gunk on the swab. My, my, but Paco’s tonsils were doing some fine work down in the mines.

Minutes later, we sat in the waiting area, biding our time until we were called in to see the doctor and get the results. Hugging his book to his chest, Paco croaked out, “My friend Ty’s mom is a doctor and won’t ever let him get his tonsils out because I guess if strep can’t go to the easy target of the tonsils, it will go into the chest, which is even worse. So that’s interesting, right?”

Definitely.

Continuing to wait, I reminded him that a sick kid gets any treat he wants, so while his prescription was being filled at the pharmacy, we could go get a milkshake or a smoothie or a blended unicorn or a hot cup of magic.

The boy next to me, the boy who almost looks me in the eye these days but who has the softest skin I’ve ever touched, shook his head. “No, thank you. Nothing sounds good right now.”

Then I told him I had more ibuprofen in my purse and that he was due for another dose.

The boy next to me, the boy who offers back rubs to his parents and makes fried-egg sandwiches for his sister, shook his head. “No, thank you. I want to wait until we get home so I can use a cup to drink from when I wash it down.”

Wanting to make him feel better, to take the edge of a pain I empathized with, I offered, “I can go buy you a water right now, and you can use that. It’s like drinking from a cup, and the sooner you can get ibuprofen into you again, the sooner you can start to feel a little bit better.”

The boy next to me, the boy who just learned to throw a frisbee this summer and who works very hard on folding origami figures of Star Wars characters, shook his head. “No, thank you. I just want to get the test results, get the antibiotics, and go home. I just want to go home. I would like to be home now.”

My heart crackling a tiny bit, I hugged his head to my shoulder and said, “Oh, pup. You’re just barely hanging in there, aren’t you?”

His head nodded against my shoulder, and his hands–managing somehow to look woebegone–slowly stroked the cover of his book as he whispered, each syllable dripping slowly out of his thick, red throat,

“I’m

dis

in

te

grat

ing.”

Why You Not Date Me?

I desperately wanted a boyfriend.

Starting in about fifth grade and then picking up momentum in sixth, seventh, eighth grades, it was all the rage to “go steady” with someone. No one ever asked me to go steady, save one brave boy (a foot shorter than I) who whispered his request across the aisle during math in 6th grade. Inexplicably, I became paralyzed and stared straight ahead at the blackboard instead of acknowledging his words. Although I didn’t understand my own behavior at the time–and doesn’t that sum up adolescence, really?–my adult self guesses that his general air of geekery didn’t fit into the inflated vision I had of what my life would look like if I had a boyfriend. His elfin presence at my towering side wouldn’t boost my social status. Plus, I’d probably drop my instrument case on him during band and crush him into nothing more than a small spot of grease next to a music stand. The whole thing didn’t bode well. So I ignored the one and only request to “go steady” that came my way.

My closest friends went steady with boys named Eric, Jay, Michael. They flipped their hair, walked the halls of the school with their boyfriends, passed notes in class, stood next to each other outside on the black asphalt after lunch, shared a seat on the bus for field trips. They got kissed. They made out. They had a sense that they were worthy commodities. They were able to believe in their value on the open market.

Unfortunately, that’s what going steady did for pre-teen girls in the 1970s and early ’80s. Maybe it still does.

Because it was tacitly accepted in my group of friends that I wasn’t a viable commodity, I became everyone’s wingwoman.

Need a friend to stuff a note into Jason’s locker? “Could you, Joce?”

Need someone to keep an eye out for teachers while you wander around the corner of the school to do some clutching at each other? “Could you, Joce?”

Need someone to call Tom’s best friend and find out if Tom likes Lori? “Could you, Joce?”

Want to make cookies to give to your steady on the day of his big 8th grade football game? “Could you come help, Joce?”

There’s a particular kind of melancholy that lives inside the wingwoman. To be cast as a supporting player when my most fervent hope was to be the star of someone else’s show, well, that was a grinding kind of diminishment.

It would take some years and 104 nights of tears before I realized the key to everything was to become the star and author of my own show.

Here’s the thing: even though I was full of wish and want and sad and happy and bravada and fear, even though I had all the emotional chaos of adolescence swirling around inside me, beneath all that noise,

I actually though I was pretty great. I was smart. I understood sentence boundaries. I had good hair. I could shoot a basketball and play H-O-R-S-E. I liked heavy metal and The Village People and The Knack, all in equal measure. I could replay the highlights of each week’s Love Boat episode and really probe the subtext. I was easy-going, full of bon homie.

Thus, I lived in a state of cognitive dissonance. My most basic self believed I was lovely. Yet the world seemed at odds with this perception–seemed, on some days, to delight in hacking away at any small confidence I might have. The end result of this dissonance wasn’t anything profound. Mostly, the end result lacked subtlety. The end result was me, always wondering,

WHY NO ONE WANT TO DATE ME?

If we examine photographic evidence from the period, the fact that no one wanted to date me becomes even more puzzling.

Family024

The curlers indicate that this young woman cared about her appearance.

The presence of a cat at her feet indicates that even prickly creatures were comfortable in her presence.

The large-framed glasses indicate a young woman who wanted to see the world.

The random bits of crap everywhere indicate that she was engaged in higher-order thinking.

The Stars-‘N-Stripes sleeping bag draped casual indicates a love of country and warmth.

The plaid footie pajamas indicate a well-developed sense of personal style. This was someone who took joy in texture and softness. She was a bit of a charming Peter Pan in her refusal to grow up entirely.

The television tray to her right indicates an openness to cocoa.

The black cable cord running across the orange carpet indicates she was hip; this minx was with the times. This girl watched MTV and had something to say about both Martha Quinn and Nina Blackwood.

This young woman had foresight and a sense of “everything in its place.” She always kept a waste basket close at hand.

SO WHY NO ONE WANT TO DATE ME?

Like you, I, too, am flummoxed.

You will continue to be confounded, as you examine this next bit:

Family025I was a young woman who was watched over by angels, Jesus, and a little lamb who looked like a white poodle.

There is evidence here, as well, that it was not only the cats of the world who sensed my inner kindness. Doggies also knew I was good for a cuddle.

The stacks of clothing on the back of the couch indicate I already had a sense of housewifery. While sipping at my cocoa, I folded the laundry.

The rough brown Army blanket covering the back of the couch hints at frugality and a kind of toughness. This young woman was no pansy.

Most importantly, this young woman had a mitten. And a mournfully poetic gaze.

WHY NO ONE WANT TO DATE A POETIC GIRL WITH A MITTEN, PLAID PAJAMAS, CURLERS, A DOGGIE, AND ANGELS WATCHING OVER HER?

Ultimately, the lessons of adolescence were that the world is a confusing place, and there’s no explaining taste. I find myself grateful for photos from that time so that I can reassure myself of what, deep down, I knew to be true:

I was a prize.

 

Scrapbookin’ the Road Trip: Page the Final

After visiting the Great Sand Dunes, we continued to drive through Colorado, towards Wyoming. Before we could really gun the car and head north, however, we needed to pull over for gas. And Jocelyn might have needed a bag of beef jerky. As is her way.

As soon as we turned off the engine, we glanced out the window–and saw this:

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And this:

DSCN2068Plus, a bunch of other runners dragging llamas went by. Part of me wanted to shrug and act nonchalant, like this was the stuff of every Saturday. Most of me wanted to shout “What in the holy mother of pack animals is going on here?”

Turns out it was “Burro Days.” Which apparently means “Llama Races.” Of course.

Well fueled by fossils and jerky, we continued to drive. Getting around Denver took insanely long. My overriding impression of the population centers of Colorado, both from living there and from traveling through, is that there are too many people, and all those people are driving cars around, and it is just frustrating and blech. I just don’t want to spend that much of my life sitting in a car, watching the same light turn from red to green to yellow to red to green to yellow to red to you get it.

Providing the perfect counterpoint to the traffic of Colorado is the wide openness that is Wyoming. As we neared our destination for the evening, Guernsey State Park, the terrain began to look more and more like Home to this Montana girl.

Dear The West: You can give me all the browns and beiges and taupes in the spectrum, and I’ll find them dazzling.

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Dear The West Some More: You can also keep painting the sky with pastels every night.

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Because we were doomed on this trip to have terrible nights’ sleep in campgrounds, the lovely Guernsey tent site offered up eleventy kajillion bugs, rampant cow manure smell, and coal trains running along nearby tracks from, um, Sleep O’Clock to Wake A.M.

Fortunately, our tired selves were restored the next day in South Dakota–a state with plenty of its own natural beauty but which, inexplicably, has tried to up its appeal by schlockifying every possible pull-over.

Case in point:

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Fortunately, as much as I thrill to a beautiful landscape, I also lurves me some schlock.

And twist cone soft serve featuring half vanilla ice cream and half lemon-lime sherbert. You know, as ice cream occurs in nature.

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We needed a sugar infusion so that we could be at the top of our energies whilst viewing a major American attraction. See it, off in the distance?

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Here’s another hint:

Four by Four

I’ve seen Mt. Rushmore at least a handful of times, if not more, and every time it’s moving and majestic, and I’m not one to get soppy over presidents, except for the first time I saw Barack Obama on Jay Leno, way back before the presidency was on his radar. Watching Obama work the interview, I turned to Byron and said, “I would date that man. You are invited to come along.”

After a night’s rest in a real room with real walls, our whirl across South Dakota continued to fluctuate from fake crap to majesty and back to fake crap again. That is to say, we stopped at the legendary Wall Drug. While I’ve probably been there at least fifteen times, the kids didn’t remember our last time through, as they were too young. Paco was very excited to try Wall Drug’s famed “free ice water”; gulping down his first swallow, he clutched at his throat and cast about for a place to spit dramatically while yelling, “YUCK. That water is terrible! There is no water like Lake Superior water!”

The only way I could calm him down was to pose him and his new l’il-cutie-fluffy stuffed bison in front of its inspiration.

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In the meantime, Allegra had found a girlfriend. She’s a quiet girl, our Allegra, but I got the sense these two could sit side by side on the porch for decades, exchanging only the occasional, “You cold? You need sleeves yet?”

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After bolting from Wall Drug, we headed into the Badlands, a place where one can stare at the earth and think about them fancy striated Fourth of July Jell-O dishes that Aunt Mabel likes to bring to the family gathering.DSCN2177

We pulled over multiple times in the Badlands; after about the first five stops, the kids lost interest and energy for getting out of the car and staring at beautiful erosions. By the end, we were hard pressed to peel them out of the back seat, away from their books (Allegra ended up reading almost ten books on the trip).

There are worse problems to have.

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So those of us with the will got out of the car repeatedly and applied our best oooohs and ahhhhs to the landscape.

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After exiting the Badlands, we pulled over at a sod house that has been restored. I really wanted our family to stop here because my grandma Dorothy was born in a sod house on the family ranch in Montana. When I was in junior high, I had an assignment in biology to collect as many wildflower specimens as possible and compile them into a labeled collection. One Sunday afternoon, we walked around the ranch with Grandma, picking wildflowers. She saw flowers I didn’t even know how to notice, and she knew the lay person’s name for almost every one of them. At one point, casually, she gestured across an open expanse at a caved-in-looking hill and said, “That’s the sod house where I was born.”

So, yea, I wanted the kids to get a feel for their great-grandmother’s beginnings. Plus, I always like a chance to bring history to life.

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On our last evening of the road trip, before our last long day of driving, we stopped in Mitchell, South Dakota, to meet up with my aunt Geri and uncle Gale. It was fitting that we stopped at Culver’s on the last night of our trip since we had spent the first evening of our trip (in Austin, MN) having Culver’s with a loved one as well. Thanks to Culver’s and its amazing frozen custard, we were given the sense of coming full circle.

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After a night’s sleep in Sioux Falls, we pushed our way to Duluth the following day. One of my favorite moments of any trip away is when we pull up to our house and crack open the doors of the car, for the smells of pine and water are distinct markers that we are Home.

A few days after our return home, Byron finally finished the blackwork embroidery (his first) that he’d been experimenting with throughout our journey.

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He’d stitched a picture of the second night of our trip, when we’d camped in Nebraska. Plagued by a fearful thunderstorm, we’d all huddled in the blacked-out campground bathrooms for a couple of hours in the middle of the night. Look at our little tent there, getting battered by the elements!

Ultimately, our weeks on the road confirmed what my heart already knew:

If I have to huddle anywhere for an extended period of time,

my husband, son, and daughter are the people I want to be leaning against in the darkness.

Scrapbookin’ the Road Trip: Page Six

I’ve gone to the top of the Empire State Building and climbed all the many stairs inside the Statue of Liberty.

I’ve toured Jefferson’s Monticello and Washington’s Mount Vernon.

I’ve pressed my nose against the glass to peer into Julia Child’s kitchen. I’ve seen the top hat Lincoln was wearing when he was shot. I’ve seen the original Kermit the Frog.

I’ve had astonishing hot chocolate at Sahagun in Portland, Oregon.

I’ve driven through a redwood tree in California.

I’ve stood on top of a 14,000-foot mountain.

I’ve seen long expanses of White Sands at that national monument in New Mexico.

I’ve driven down Going to the Sun highway in Glacier Park. I’ve seen mudpots, geysers, and up-close bison in Yellowstone.

I’ve gazed upon enormous faces of presidents at Mount Rushmore.

I’ve gaped at the purple striations of earth enlivening the landscape of North Dakota in Teddy Roosevelt National Park.

I’ve smelled Spam being made.

I’ve gaped at the Columbia River Gorge.

I’ve gone to circuses of note in Baraboo, Wisconsin, and in St. Louis, Missouri.

I’ve romped in the Pacific and Atlantic.

I’ve meandered around the Freedom Trail in Boston.

I’ve had my car break down near Lake Coeur d’Alene.

I’ve seen the Dodgers play the Orioles.

I’ve been propositioned in Reno, Nevada. I was twelve.

I’ve shuffled through dark caves, bravely ignoring bats, so I could stare at stalactites and stalacmites and, in the case of the Mark Twain Cave in Missouri, so I could picture where Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher had adventures.

I’ve seen lots and lots of “tits” in New Orleans. I’ve worn heaps of beaded necklaces around my neck as I’ve ogled the bacchanalia that is Mardi Gras. I’ve stood quietly, still half drunk, at 6 a.m. and watched an African-American seventy-year-old man push a broom outside a bar, cleaning up the previous evening’s carnage.

I’ve driven east to west through Texas and thought, “Well, I surely am glad I have this book on tape to listen to.”

I’ve pushed my baby on a swing in the Grand Tetons.

I’ve stared at the rushing waters of Niagra Falls and contemplated the mindset of someone going over the flow in a barrel.

I’ve been to Disneyland, Sea World, Legoland, Six Flags, Valley Fair, Reptile Gardens, Ripley’s Believe it or Not.

I’ve driven down San Francisco’s crooked Lombard Street.

I’ve been taken on a personal tour of the Universal Studios lot in L.A. I’ve seen Norman Bates carrying a corpse to a car.

I’ve seen sea lions sunning themselves.

I’ve laid on a blanket at dusk at Wolf Trap and listened to a soprano get her high C on.

I’ve seen the Rockettes kick up their heels at Radio City Music Hall.

I could go on. And on.

I have been very, very lucky to see myriad beauties and sights across these United States. Do not mistake me: I am deeply aware of how fortunate my life has been, and I am continually grateful. What I want you to understand is the larger context of my next statement:

The Great Sand Dunes in Colorado are one of my favorite sights I’ve experienced in the U.S. The place is incredible.

SONY DSCThe Great Sand dunes are the tallest dunes in the United States, and the combination of sand and water (a creek flows during certain months of the year, providing a place for waterplay, too) against the backdrop of the Sangre de Cristo mountains makes the place unique.

SONY DSCI will concede that a big part of our enjoyment of the dunes came from a perfect alignment of everything.

SONY DSCOn the day we visited, it wasn’t too hot.

SONY DSCIt wasn’t too cold.

SONY DSCWe went late in the afternoon, when the light is softening and illuminating.

SONY DSCEach member of the family was in the right mood.

SONY DSCNo one was scared.

SONY DSCNo one opted to sit in the car.

SONY DSCNo one said, “This is boring.”

SONY DSCRather–

SONY DSCwe took off our shoes,

SONY DSCand climbed,

SONY DSCand slid,

SONY DSCand ran,

SONY DSCand shouted “Hey, try this; it’s so cool!”

SONY DSCAnd every two minutes, the whole place looked different again.

SONY DSCThe landscape was therapeutic,

SONY DSCperfectly suiting everyone’s mood,

SONY DSCoffering up something like a balm after days in the car.

SONY DSCThe sand blows towards the mountains but can’t get enough lift to get OVER. So it rests.

SONY DSCAnd as we dug,

DSCN2017and followed meandering trails of footsteps,

DSCN2020and pretended we were Bedouins in Morocco,

DSCN2022and marveled at the softness of the sand between our toes,

DSCN2026and considered distance and perspective,

DSCN2032and agreed to stage a few mock senior photos,

DSCN2034and photo bombed each other,

DSCN2039we had the purest kind of fun.

DSCN2040In the story of my family’s life together,

DSCN2043this is a chapter of perfect joy.

DSCN2050While the sun got lower, and our feet got sandier,

DSCN2056the daddy got to romp with his growing-up children again,

DSCN2057the mommy, who is married to amazement, got a full dose of glory,

DSCN2060and the eleven-year-old felt perfectly safe,

DSCN2062and the teenager dropped her guard,

DSCN2064long enough to hold her brother’s hand on the walk back to the car.

 

Scrapbookin’ the Road Trip: Page Five

The day we left Albuquerque, we headed towards the town of Taos–a place known as an “artists’ colony” and as the location of actress Julia Roberts’ ranch. Mostly, it’s a town of stores hoping to sell tourists wind chimes, junk to put in their gardens for decoration (should the garden itself fall short of appeal), and cedar-scented soaps.

Little-known fact: if you say “cedar-scented soaps” ten times, really fast, your lips end up feeling loose and blubbery.

Our main aim in Taos was to visit the pueblo: “Taos Pueblo is the only living Native American community designated both a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and a National Historic Landmark. The multi-storied adobe buildings have been continuously inhabited for over 1000 years.” 

SONY DSCThe Red Willow people still inhabit these buildings and are, as one might guess, open for business.

SONY DSCFortunately, the commerce that takes place in the pueblo feels very intimate and personal, as members of the tribe run shops in their homes, and everything they sell is handmade by that individual.

SONY DSCEach store/home we ducked into felt quiet and cool, and the inhabitant was sitting, usually at work, ready to answer questions and explain both items and culture. To a person, the Red Willow people were impressively without artifice or agenda.

That evening, to the Facebook Nation, I reported a vignette of an interaction that had particularly moved me:

The Pueblo woman sat in a storefront in her home, her hand and voice steady as she painted a piece of pottery. Full of peace, she told us, “My son Jeremy–the one in the picture there–was the easiest of my three kids. All he wanted to do was make pictures out of little dots with his pen and ink. He would make a painting, and I’d hang it in the store, and it would sell the next day. People would come back to buy more of his drawings, his paintings. He never wanted to go to college; he just wanted to make pictures. Now his sister? When I see her coming, I duck under the table. She is all waa-waa-waa. She was on the road that night, heading to the same event. But Jeremy didn’t make it. He was 23.”

We left the store with some of his work in hand.

SONY DSCThat night, we camped in Taos, nestled, as is our way, amongst the RV campers. One last time, I enjoyed a sunset run, this time up and around country roads and residential areas, moving through areas of rundown trailer living to areas of upscale homes, conjuring, as I panted, the lives held within. At one point, as I passed a particularly hard-scrabble estate, I imagined a man named Marty who had lost his job at the gas station some years back and who has never gotten back on his feet; it is only his three pitbulls and the promise of a new tattoo that bring him joy these days.

The next day, we headed towards Colorado, but along the way, we stopped a couple more times in New Mexico. First, we pulled over at the bridge that crosses the Rio Grande gorge. A man with an offensive voice and negligible guitar-playing ability spends his days there, busking, eking out a living–as do a crew of people hawking their wares. So we (but not Paco!) stared at the gorge, and then I bought a chunk of lapis lazuli for a necklace.

SONY DSCOur last stop in New Mexico wasn’t planned. But how does one simply drive past houses like these?

SONY DSCAs we whizzed by, I spluttered, “Wait, what was that? What were those houses? HUH? Was there a sign up for it? Is it something we can stop and see?”

They are called Earthships, and yes, we could stop and–for a small fee–watch a movie about their construction and benefits.

SONY DSCEarthships are billed as “radically sustainable buildings,” for inside the adobe walls are stacks of old tires, rammed full of dirt. As you can see from the photos, the use of empty bottles and aluminum cans plays a prominent role, too, as those cultural discards function as “bricks” to build interior walls that allow light through.

SONY DSCAn un-trumpeted side benefit of living in an Earthship is that one’s house looks like the dwelling place of hobbits.

SONY DSCTo be honest, there’s a vague feeling at the Earthship headquarters of “cult,” but that’s mostly because it’s a group of passion-driven young people who are strongly in favor of choices that reject the mainstream. Cult away, Young Earthshippers. If I ever find the money and drive for it, I would absolutely, unquestionably build an Earthship. In an Earthship, there are no utility bills, and the things have been built all around the world, so they are not location specific. In a northern climate, the exterior walls are covered with cement rather than adobe, but it still provides all the benefits of warmth and sustainability.

SONY DSCWhat recommends Earthships even more is this: Paco–our kid who is not an easy sell–LOVED this place and these homes. He was transported.

SONY DSCI managed to refrain from buying a t-shirt in the gift shop, however.

SONY DSCClever water-use systems within each Earthship home make it smart and easy to grow plants and vegetables. Paco had to get out his little camera and take lots of pictures of this ingenious system, in fact.

DSCN1996Get this: Allegra, who is generally a “yes to everything” kind of person, sat in the car. She was profoundly uninterested. There are so many moments when I can look at one or the other of my kids and think, “Wow. What a weirdo.”

DSCN2008Eventually, we bid the Earthships a fond “Catch you on the flip side, Cool Cats!” before heading into Colorado. As I drove, Byron carried on with his special road-trip project:

DSCN2070Because the car is too bumpy for him to draw in, he decided to try out “blackwork,” which is a style of embroidery that uses–DUH–black thread. He passed hours in the car making up his own designs and picture, and he didn’t even bleed or poke his eye out.

The Universal Laws of Road Tripping use exactly those criteria, in fact, to measure the success of a venture.

Put another way: Byron won the Road Trip.

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Next up: a visit to one of my favorite places I’ve even been in the U.S.–perhaps the world.