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.

 

Scrapbookin’ the Road Trip: Page Four

After our first few days in Albuquerque, my sister returned to Denver, and my brother returned to work. Fortunately, our niece Sofia got to stay at my brother’s place for most of our visit, which meant we lucked into a bonus third child for our final few days in New Mexico. Because Sofia rarely has a thought that goes unexpressed, and because her thoughts are a trip, our family hooted, gasped, and looked at each other with expressions of “Whaaaaa?” at Sofia’s continual flow of observations.

When a person is very talkative and very random, that can either go really wrong or really right. With Sofia, it goes very right; she is a perfectly charming loon, really. One might think she resonated with me in particular, as she filled up all the silences, thus giving me a break from that duty (It was a few days into our visit that Sofia noted, “Isn’t it interesting, Aunt Joce, that Uncle Byron is pretty quiet, and Allegra hardly talks, and Paco doesn’t talk much, but you talk all the time?”). However, the entire family found her to be a perfect peach.

On our first day with Sofia as Bonus Child (this was Day 10 of our road trip), we drove 20 minutes outside Albuquerque to a museum of folk art called Tinkertown, a place that bills itself as “an eccentric collection of Americana.”
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The Tinkertown website tells the story of its founder and creator like this:

“Ross Ward was born to paint, carve and tinker. As a boy growing up in the Midwest, he was captivated by the tiny villages, farms and circuses created by ‘spare time carvers.’ His own miniature world began with circus figures carved while in junior high school – now on display at the museum. He began carving the first figures for the turn-of-the-century general store in 1962.

Ross carved and built his folk art environment as a hobby for most of his adult life but he was even more prolific in his artistic endeavors of painting, etching, drawing and sculpture. A self taught artist, he was a show painter for carnivals for over 30 years, traveling the country painting on all the major carnival shows and in winter quarters from Texas to Florida.”

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Pretty much, I could revisit Tinkertown every week and see something new every time. The place isn’t big–it’s essentially a wooden house–but it’s so packed full of junk and stuff and explosions of nostalgia that it felt impossible to absorb all the details. It goes on my all-time list of Great Things I Have Seen.

SONY DSC In addition to the carvings and scenes that fill the house, there also are Ye Old Fashioned games and machines that allow visitors to spend their quarters.

And who doesn’t love a miniature freak show?
SONY DSC When we got to the room containing the sprawling circus scene, I took one glance at the colors, lights, sub-scenes, stories within stories, textures, and layers and turned to Sofia to tell her, “This is exactly what I imagine the inside of your brain looks like.”

“Oh, THANK YOU,” she squealed in response.

SONY DSC While I could include another hundred photos of Tinkertown, I’ll spare the time-pressed reader and move on to the next fabulous part of our Monday: when we hit the Ranch Market, a place that specifically caters to the Hispanic population in Albuquerque and, for us, felt like a quick side-trip to Mexico. Our aim at the market was to grab a few boxes of sopapilla mix, some bags of hominy for posole, and a round of agua frescas to for the group. Agua frescas are refreshing fruit drinks poured over ice, basically made up of muddled fruit, water, and sugar. There also is a flavor called “Jamaica,” which is made with hibiscus tea, and our very favorite, the Horchata (rice, almond, cinnamon, very much like a melted Snickerdoodle cookie in flavor).

SONY DSC At the end of Day 10, I drove up to trails at the foot of the Sandia Mountains and had a gorgeous run. To end such a wonderful day under such a wonderful sunset was a gift.

SONY DSC SONY DSCOur second day of having Sofia has Bonus Child was Day 11 of our trip. We hung out at my brother’s place for much of the morning, letting everyone relax. The girls attempted back bends, something Sofia was able to achieve but which is already a childhood memory for Allegra.
SONY DSC After lunch, we headed to the Sandia Tram and crammed ourselves into a hanging car with 20 strangers. Then we swayed gently as it toted us up to the peak.

SONY DSC On the peak, the goofy girls were put into a human stockade.

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We also had some time to wonder where Allegra and Sofia get their tendency towards goofiness.

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Paco, as is his way, represented the sensitive-natured souls of the world. He really hates heights, as did his father until he got a job in his twenties requiring that he teach a ropes course and, as part of that, demonstrate a fall and how to recover from one. Since then, Byron does okay with hanging high above the ground. Paco, though? Not so much. He was full of nerves during the tram ride and reported at the top, “My hands and feet were wet with sweat. My feet were sliding around in my Crocs.” As the rest of us teetered towards the overlooks on the top of the mountain, Paco shied away and stuck his head into his book. ‘At’s my boy.

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He also managed his nerves on the ride down the mountain by transporting his brain elsewhere so that he could ignore the altitude, the vistas, the sway of the car. If nothing else, we’ve forced him to develop a few coping skills in life, so, um, there’s that.

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On our final day in Albuquerque, we four plus our Bonus Child headed to a locally famed shop called Rebel Donut. As was also the case with Tinkertown and the Ranch Market, Rebel Donut was a place Sofia had never been. It was a delight to drag her around her own city and show her worlds she never knew existed.

Because Albuquerque is where the cult-favorite television show Breaking Bad was set and filmed, there are all sorts of Breaking Bad sights scattered throughout the city and all sorts of shout-outs to the program. Rebel Donuts does its Breaking Bad tribute in the form of a “Blue Sky” donut since the methamphetamine cooked and sold by the main character, Walter White, was renowned for its purity and blue color. Sofia knew none of this, having never seen the show, when she ordered a Blue Sky donut. She just liked the look of the thing. It only seemed like fair auntly duty to explain blue meth to my niece, so I gave her the back story on what she was eating.

A few bites in, her lips coated with sugar and blue, Sofia announced, “I never knew meth could taste so good!”

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After our carbo-loading, we headed to Albuquerque’s biopark, a place featuring local flora, an aquarium, and a very cool butterfly enclosure. I could have spent hours watching the butterflies, particularly the huge blue morphos that feel like bats on the wing as they swoop by. It’s hard not to flinch, in fact, when they brush past a person while on a tear.

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Here, two blue morphos, one with an injured wing, hang out on a rotting banana.

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Another highlight of the biopark was the children’s area, a place with imaginative play spaces, including a very cool slide.

SONY DSCIt had been such a fantastic visit to Albuquerque, not only in terms of seeing local attractions but, more importantly, in terms of the hours of laughing at Sofia’s observations, appreciating her sister Cres’ self-possession and maturity, having dinner at their mother’s house and reconnecting with my sister-in-law’s life, and talking into the wee hours with my gracious, thoughtful brother, that our entire family drove out of the city the next day with a happy sense of “Wheeeeee!” helping to power the car on its northward return.

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In the next post, a look at various houses of the American Southwest.

 

Scrapbookin’ the Road Trip: Page Three

For Days 7 and 8 of our road trip, we were joined by my sister, Kirsten. We had just seen her in Denver, where she lives, together a few days earlier, but then she had stayed behind to do some training for her job as an elementary teacher (specifically, for her newer role as a “lead teacher”) while the rest of us drove down to Albuquerque.

Once her training days were over, however, Kirsten drove down to join us for the weekend. Thus, even though we weren’t seeing much of our niece Cres during those days since she was putting in hours at her job as a lifeguard, we did get a Family Group Feeling going.

SONY DSCFirst, we took a hike in the trails at the foot of the Sandia Mountains. I thrum to the landscapes of the American West so strongly that my fourteen-year-old finally had to forbid me from shouting “I LOVE THE WEST” every five minutes. Many people struggle to see beauty in scrub and yucca and beige punctuated by taupe, but to me, my heart never beats more easily than when I’m surrounded by such textures and colors. There is something about the conditioning of our youth, isn’t there, that disposes our eyes and hearts to just. feel. right. in certain places? For me, a child of scrub and yucca and beige punctuated by taupe, New Mexico’s arid vistas feel like a very welcome kind of coming home.

SONY DSCBefore this summer, it had been almost eleven years since my brother, sister, and I had all been together in the same place at the same time. Put another way, as much as I was excited to be in the West and to get my legs scratched up by cactii, I was even more excited to tromp around in the same space as my siblings, with our kids bouncing off each other.

Here, my brother’s younger daughter, the imp named Sofia, externalizes her general joie de vivre. At the end of our trip, the day after we parted from Sofia, Allegra–a reticent person by nature–noted in a campground bathroom, of Sofia, “I didn’t expect to miss her so much. I mean, I knew I’d like her because she’s my cousin and all, but I had no idea I would love her so much. I wish she could come home with us forever.”

SONY DSCPaco, another taciturn kid, also got into a happy swing with Sofia’s vibe; on some level, both of my kids realized their cousin provides a lovely counterpoint to their reserve.

Paco also got into a happy swing with kicking tumbleweeds. Observe in this photo how he clutches to his chest a spray bottle of cold water–one of our strategies for helping him cope with the heat.

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The next day we all converged on Petroglyph National Monument, which is described thusly:

Petroglyph National Monument protects one of the largest petroglyph sites in North America, featuring designs and symbols carved onto volcanic rocks by Native Americans and Spanish settlers 400 to 700 years ago. These images are a valuable record of cultural expression and hold profound spiritual significance for contemporary Native Americans and for the descendants of the early Spanish settlers.
SONY DSCAs we walked along the rows of etched rocks, it all felt too accessible, too vivid. It felt like everything we were looking at was actually graffiti hacked into the stones by today’s youth trying to fool tourists.

SONY DSCThen again, I’m not sure today’s youth favor these types of symbols. My sense is that they, in general, trend more towards a “cock ‘n balls” aesthetic. Plus, the effort required to hack a drawing into desert varnish is substantial, and I think we all know kids today can hardly be bothered to pull up their trousers, much less apply concentrated effort to artistic vandalism.

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I don’t genuinely feel that negatively about today’s youth. Quite the opposite. I’m fairly enamored of today’s youth. It’s just that I like to try out being crochety to see how it feels.

Pretty boring, pretty fast. That’s how being crochety feels. Any attitude that is based on one issuing negativity from a stance of superiority–as a means of unfairly lumping together a group of people–gets pretty boring, pretty fast.

That’s why it’s only fun to be crochety about blowhards.

And carnies.

Slacker students.

Negligent parents.

People who make paintings of unicorns and Peter Pan.

Members of the Tea Party.

The male members of the Supreme Court.

Football fans who dress up in team regalia.

Dog owners who let their pups off leash in public places.

Slow Internet.

Bitter ex-spouses who denigrate each other in front of their children.

Clowns who refuse to get into a VW bug because “It’s too full.”

People who spit on the sidewalk.

Drivers who honk to say “Hello!”

But other than that, there’s no reason to be crochety because it gets really boring, really fast.

SONY DSCOnce we had sweated our way through the pretty rocks, we headed into Albuquerque’s Old Town to do some t-shirt shopping and have lunch.

We found a few things besides t-shirts, of course.

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SONY DSCDid you all take a moment to admire the sheen of sunscreen and sweat on my clavicle in that sombrero photo? I am still so cold from this past winter that I embraced the sheen and thanked New Mexico for offering up temperatures that were a literal 110 degrees warmer than February in Duluth.

Naturally, a break from the heat can be nice, and since the air conditioning in my brother’s apartment doesn’t work so well, we headed over to my sister’s hotel room that evening for a Game Night.

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I have many memories of playing games with my sister and brother. My brother was hardcore as an opponent when I was growing up; to this day, I still shake a little bit when I agree to a game of Monopoly or Risk because with him, we played by the rules, and we played until the game was over. Thanks to him, I have well-developed gifts at losing as quickly as possible in both Monopoly and Risk. I can go bankrupt in under half an hour, in fact, once I tire of passing GO and collecting my $200. Similarly, I learned to fail in table-top warfare rapid-like, ceding control of Kamchatka before Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom came on tv Sundays at 7 p.m.

These days of breathing the same air as my sister and brother were the whole point of our road trip, in fact. When there are people in the planet who have known you since you came out of the chute and since your very first game of Chutes and Ladders, the feeling of being with them cannot be replicated by anyone else. We may not see each other all that often, yet we know each other intimately.

That’s the thing about siblings, in most cases: we are with each other from cradle to grave. Certainly, there are estrangements, deaths, traumas, and separations that can interfere with life-long connection. But when the Universe allows, siblinghood can be a great gift.

Because cradle to grave is powerful stuff:

Our siblings push buttons that cast us in roles we felt sure we had let go of long ago – the baby, the peacekeeper, the caretaker, the avoider…. It doesn’t seem to matter how much time has elapsed or how far we’ve traveled. – Jane Mersky Leder

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Our siblings. They resemble us just enough to make all their differences confusing, and no matter what we choose to make of this, we are cast in relation to them our whole lives long. – Susan Scarf Merrell

Family008Sibling relationships…outlast marriages, survive the death of parents, resurface after quarrels that would sink any friendship. They flourish in a thousand incarnations of closeness and distance, warmth, loyalty and distrust. – Erica E. Goode

Family007We know one another’s faults, virtues, catastrophes, mortifications, triumphs, rivalries, desires, and how long we can each hang by our hands to a bar. We have been banded together under pack codes and tribal laws. – Rose Macaulay

Family011Certainly, people can get along without siblings. Single children do, and there are people who have irreparably estranged relationships with their siblings who live full and satisfying lives, but to have siblings and not make the most of that resource is squandering one of the greatest interpersonal resources you’ll ever have.–Jeffrey Kluger

Family012If parents are the fixed stars in the child’s universe, the vaguely understood, distant but constant celestial spheres, siblings are the dazzling, sometimes scorching comets whizzing nearby.–Alison Gopnik

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We know that young babies, as they become capable of moving voluntarily, will share. They will share food, for instance, with their siblings and with kids that are around. They will sooth. If they see somebody else in pain, even the youngest of toddlers will try to reach out and pat the person.–Paul Bloom

Family015It snowed last year too: I made a snowman and my brother knocked it down and I knocked my brother down and then we had tea. – Dylan Thomas

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It was the sibling thing, I suppose. I was fascinated by the intricate tangle of love and duty and resentment that tied them together. The glances they exchanged; the complicated balance of power established over decades; the games I would never play with rules I would never fully understand. And perhaps that was key: they were such a natural group that they made me feel remarkably singular by comparison. To watch them together was to know strongly, painfully, all that I’d been missing. – Kate MortonThe Distant Hours

Kirst and Joce and GeoffSiblings are the people we practice on, the people who teach us about fairness and cooperation and kindness and caring, quite often the hard way. – Pamela Dugdale

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We were a strange little band of characters trudging through life sharing diseases and toothpaste, coveting one another’s desserts, hiding shampoo, borrowing money, locking each other out of our rooms, inflicting pain and kissing to heal it in the same instant, loving, laughing, defending, and trying to figure out the common thread that bound us all together.–Erma Bombeck

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Older siblings… the only people who will pick on you for their own entertainment and beat up anyone else who tries.–Anonymous

Family005Siblings: children of the same parents, each of whom is perfectly normal until they get together.– Sam Levenson

Family018Your siblings are the only people in the world who know what it’s like to have been brought up the way you were.– Betsy CohenFamily004

There’s a sort of sibling moratorium when you’re establishing yourself as an adult. So much of your energy has to be focused on other things like work and kids. But when people become more settled, siblings tend to regroup because now you’re building a new extended family.–Jeffrey Kluger

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There was something about the people you grew up around, the ones you’d seen throughout your childhood, the folks you couldn’t remember not knowing. Even if the past was a complicated mess, as you aged, you were just glad the sons of bitches were still on the planet.

It gave you the illusion that life wasn’t as fragile as it actually was–and on occasion, that was the only thing that got you through the night. – 
J.R. Ward

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People talk about the happy quiet that can exist between two loves, but this, too, was great; sitting between his sister and his brother, saying nothing, eating. Before the world existed, before it was populated, and before there were wars and jobs and colleges and movies and clothes and opinions and foreign travel — before all of these things there had been only one person, Zora, and only one place: a tent in the living room made from chairs and bed-sheets. After a few years, Levi arrived; space was made for him; it was as if he had always been. Looking at them both now, Jerome found himself in their finger joints and neat conch ears, in their long legs and wild curls. He heard himself in their partial lisps caused by puffy tongues vibrating against slightly noticeable buckteeth. He did not consider if or how or why he loved them. They were just love: they were the first evidence he ever had of love, and they would be the last confirmation of love when everything else fell away. – Zadie SmithOn Beauty

 

And that’s another reason this recent road trip lodged deeply into my heart.

It let me touch, once again, the people who are my first evidence and who will be my last confirmation.

Scrapbookin’ the Road Trip: Page Two

By Day 6 of our road trip, we were ensconced in my brother’s two-bedroom apartment, our home for the next week. My brother, Geoff, was exceedingly gracious and made us feel relaxed and at home. In other words, he handed us locally made beers and showed us how to use the remote control so that we could watch Property Brothers. Additionally, he had taken a few days off of work so that we could do some exploring together, and he had arranged with his wife (they are separated) to have their younger daughter, the one with free summertime hours (the older daughter, Cres, works as a lifeguard), to stay at his place during our visit.

Our first day trip all together was to Bandelier National Monument. Even though Geoff lived in Albuquerque some years back and now has been living there for the last year, he had never visited Bandelier. His interest, coupled with the fact that our dentist in Duluth recommended the place heartily as she probed my gums with a sharp instrument, made it a must-see. A bonus was that Cres had the day off from work and was able to accompany our meandering group.

Here’s how the Wikipoodle summarizes Bandelier:

“Bandelier National Monument is a 33,677-acre (13,629 ha) United States National Monument in New Mexico preserving the homes and territory of the Ancestral Pueblo People. Most of the pueblo structures date to two eras, in total from 1150 to 1600 CE.”

The subtext to this description is that Bandelier is a place of: 1) ancient homes accessed by ladders; 2) dust; 3) heat; 4) prickly plants. Thank you, Bandelier, for bringing together four of my favorite things all in one place!

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This business of climbing ladders all day? Seriously hard work. That’s why I’m going to enjoy revisiting these photos when I’m 80-something: so I can marvel at what I once was able to do.

There were a couple places where several ladders followed each other, making both the ascent and descent into experiences where I had to give myself pep talks. These pep talks consisted of repeated chantings: “Just one more rung. Just one more rung. Just one more rung. Don’t look down. Just one more rung.”

SONY DSCEven more interestingly, my niece, Cres (age 16), was giving herself exactly the same pep talks.

Between that commonality and the hours of chit-chatting we had as we wandered around the place, I felt like she and I would’ve been happy friends, even in Ye Old Pueblo Tymes.

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I daresay all we womenfolk in the family would have been easy with each other in any era. Need to borrow a cup of maize? No problem, chum.

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I was struck by how much the cave homes and cliff decorations were like what we had seen while living in Cappadocia (in Turkey). No matter where people were on the planet thousands of years ago, they were making the best possible use out of the resources they had at hand–and I really like being reminded that cultures continents of miles apart were essentially using the same tactics to survive.

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After climbing the first ladder or two, Paco was done. Fair enough. He doesn’t like heat, and he doesn’t like heights, and if I get to be scared of squirrels and chipmunks, he’s entitled to his sensitivities, too. Thus, we took turns when it came time to do the longest climb–four ladders, each taking us higher and higher. While Byron and Geoff went off to do that climb, the rest of us took a break on a log.

During the break, everyone’s personality had a chance to shine through.

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While Paco recovered from the heat, niece Sofia took the chance to play with her sister and cousin Allegra’s hair.

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I also find that a log in the woods is an excellent place to open a beauty shop.

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Sometimes my customers are skeptical about my work–but then they see the final product (a herringbone braid!) and book their next appointment before leaving the salon.

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When finally the female contingent (plus my brother, doing the massive four-ladder climb for a second time) had its chance to ascend, we just kept going until we reached Heaven. There, we met God. She gave us a few messages to bring back to Earth. First, She would like everyone to stop insisting that it’s only the threat of Her judgment and the promise of Heaven that make people behave. She would like to emphasize that even without Her existence, human beings have it within themselves to Do the Right Thing simply by virtue of their own ethical natures and innate moral compasses. Finally, she would like humanity to know she’s relaxed considerably on that Graven Image policy, so go ahead and engage in idolatry, guilt-free. Get a stick; do some whittlin’. Fashion a wooden Simon Cowell for yourself. God doesn’t care.

In addition to God, you know who else I saw that day? A really strident park ranger.

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The funny thing is that Byron really was a park ranger, back in the ’90s, at Mesa Verde in Colorado. His ranger hat is protected and coveted, as is the copy of National Geographic that he appeared in, when that magazine came to take photos.

Look at Himself, twenty-one years ago, back when he was a Fresh-Faced Young Thing not yet aged by life with children and Jocelyn!

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Although kids age a person, they also are damn cute when they’re no longer hot, and the threat of climbing ladders to great heights has gone away. In other words, Paco was much restored that evening, back at my brother’s apartment complex…

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Call me perverse, but I like to end a hot, dusty day with a run in the desert. Not too far from my brother’s place is the John B. Roberts Dam, a spillway built to deal with the flooding that might occur every hundred years or so in Albuquerque. More importantly, the dam is famous as a shooting location for the television show Breaking Bad; it’s where the characters of Walt and Jesse both stand as they await pick-up by “The Extractor.” Fans of the show might, therefore, find this image familiar:

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Beyond the famous wall of the dam, there is the dam itself, which comprises a warren of looping trails that work their way up to the Sandia Mountains. It’s a magnificent place to go for a run. Although signs warn of rattlesnakes, I was raised in a rattlesnake neighborhood, so I’m well able to convince myself them stomach-sliders are more afraid of me than I of them.

Yet I squawk when I see a chipmunk. Go figure. I am Ridiculousness stuffed into a sack of skin.

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There could not have a been a better way to end a fun day at a national monument with all-too-little-seen relatives than to go for a run in a dusty dam. I padded through the cactus, toward the mountains, under the softening sun. A tumbleweed rolled across my path. Then a roadrunner zipped by.

And I remembered: the very best travel is accomplished on foot.

Scrapbookin’ the Road Trip: Page One

One of the greatest gifts my parents passed to me was a love of travel. With some time, money, and will, a person can hop in the car, on a train, into a plane–and go see stuff. When I was growing up, due to having aunts, uncles, and grandparents spread across some northern states, our summers were full of drives across South Dakota from Montana to Minnesota and back again. Then, because my dad was a professor, he would often take classes or study with other voice professors during his summer break, so one summer we spent some time in California, another year we were in Denver, and then there were some weeks in Manhattan when I was two, plus a memorable entire summer spent in Charlottesville, Virginia. So many of my memories are littered with trips to Oregon, where many of my mom’s cousins lived, or stopping in Oxon Hill, Maryland, or tootling up to Victoria, B.C., in Canada–’cause, heck, that way we could visit Butchart Gardens! In addition to all that, there were trips around my home state of Montana so that we could buy cherries near Flathead Lake and drive the Going-to-the-Sun highway in Glacier Park. With these values of “go see as much stuff as you can” defining our family, it was an easy choice for me to go live in Denmark the summer before my senior year of high school, and it felt like a logical choice for me to drop out of high school (I’ll get that GED one of these days) so as to go on tour with my dad’s college choir when he took them around Europe at the end of my senior year of high school. Because my parents supported the notion that seeing the world is crucial to being a well-developed person, I was on a bus that went through Checkpoint Charlie in 1985, mere years before the Wall fell. I still remember the tension and nerves we all felt as men with guns boarded our bus and demanded to see our papers while their colleagues ran mirrors on sticks underneath the body of the bus.

Exploring new places is so much more than “Ooh, look, a pretty cathedral.” In my childhood household, the lessons gleaned from travel were worth going into debt for. My parents didn’t make heaps of money, but they knew how to take out a loan and stretch a dollar.

When I left home and went to college, I embraced the lessons about travel’s importance and folded them into my heart, as did my siblings. My sister did multiple semesters in Mexico while she was in college, becoming fluent in Spanish and, ultimately, a bilingual teacher. She served two assignments in the Peace Corps (in Belize and Moldova–thus providing me with even more memorable travel adventures when I visited her), along with teaching for two years in Guatemala after the climate of No Child Left Behind diminished a teacher’s ability to respond to her student’s needs. My brother’s career as an officer in the Air Force took him to Japan and Portugal and on remote assignments to Turkey, South Korea, Honduras.

We three kids grew up with parents who weren’t afraid to toss us, no seat belts required, into the back of the blue VW so that we could chug away from the house for a few weeks. All the better if there was a ghost town to visit along the way.

It is no surprise, then, that I love to go see stuff. I love to break out of the normal, to disrupt usual daily routines, to explore all the subtleties of my man Mark Twain’s words: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

Even more, it is now hugely important to me that my kids see stuff. Being able to drag them around and make them stare at things is a joy in my life–even when they are moody, broody, reluctant, or sullen. I’ve become the unfeeling mother who hollers, “Suck it up, my dear chicks. It’s good for you.” Long-term readers may recall this photo from our year of living in Turkey and traveling to Europe from there, a photo in which the kids manage to make the Louvre look like it’s nothing more than an empty room that’s been whitewashed with Boring:

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Forcing my woebegone children into the Louvre was worth it, simply for the years of giggles I’ve gotten from this photo.

In short, I’m all about appreciating the glory of taking a trip. Thus, the fact that our family managed to swing a recent road trip has been one of this year’s delights.

Know this: It takes a deep love of travel to get a person to leave her house smack dab when the garden’s strawberry patch was just starting to yield its fleeting annual bounty.

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A mere two days into strawberry harvesting, we turned the patch over to the care of neighbors and turned the nose of our trust Kia southward. Our goal? To spend two-and-a-half weeks road tripping through America’s West, with our farthest point being Albuquerque, New Mexico.

I only took 1,500 photos or so (sometimes three or four of the exact same rock!). The next few posts on this blog will contain highlights. When I’m eighty, I hope to return to these posts and get misty over Good Times, back when I was still able to clamber around rocks and sand.

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When we left Duluth, we drove four hours south, to the home of our great friends Virginia and Kirsten. Although Kirsten was off having some days of vacation with a friend, Virginia was very much in residence. After hugs all around and admiration of each other’s general good health (all things being relative, as Virginia is on chemotherapy for the cancerous tumors in her pelvis; despite this, her hair looks lovely, as does her garden, both of which are signs of vigor), we accompanied her to the local dog park, the creation of which she was instrumental in. She also took us out to dinner at Culver’s–famed home of The Butter Burger–and delighted every last one of us with her quirks and wit. You see, the Culver’s dining room was recently re-designed, and Virginia has Notes. Each time she eats at Culver’s, which is fairly often, she digs in her purse for her stash of various pens and pencils to fill out comment cards about the ways that the new design could be improved. For example, partitions were put up, so now there are sight line issues, which is a problem because everyone in Smalltown, MN, goes to the Culver’s to check out everyone else (“We old folks are here to spy on each other…”). So Virginia writes out her suggestions under a slew of aliases, using all sorts of different inks and handwritings. When she leaves the Culver’s, however, the jig is up, for she carries the entire stack of comment cards up to the counter and hands them over to whichever acne-ridden teenager happens to be working the register.

On the evening of our visit, she handed her comment cards to a fifteen-year-old lad whose naturally curly hair was being forced into submission by both his hairbrush at home and the paper hat perched upon his head. His name tag read “Calvin.”

As she exited the restaurant, Virginia leaned in, confidentially, and announced to us, “Clearly, Calvin is in love with me–so tongue-tied whenever I approach.”

SONY DSCOn Day 2 of our road trip, after Virginia’s formerly abused rescue dog, Nadoo, had a chance to take a shine to Paco (although she generally stays away from people, Nadoo spent our evening there leaning nervously against Paco’s arm, ultimately putting her chin on his leg), we drove through Iowa and into Nebraska. The highlight of our time in Iowa was a stop at a Verizon store, where we invested in a mobile hotspot so that I could use the hours in the car each day to teach and grade my summer online classes. The highlight of Nebraska, and highlights were few and far between, was some time spent wandering around Omaha’s Old Market area.
SONY DSCThat evening, still in Nebraska, we found a family-friendly campground near Grand Island. Although several of us (Pick me; pick me!) are reluctant campers, it’s dramatically cheaper for a family of four to rent a campsite for a night, so I listen to my own advice about travel and suck it up. Unfortunately, my poor camping attitude was not improved when huge lightning storms moved in during the night and forced us all to huddle in the campground bathrooms from 4:00-6:00 a.m.

When we took down our “bug tent” (not our sleeping tent but, rather, a structure that allows us to be made less crazy by insects before bedtime) the next morning, this is what the ground beneath it looked like:
SONY DSCDay 3 was spent getting the hell through endless Nebraska and, finally, hitting Colorado. Our plan had been to camp in the yard of one of my college friends, but she had come down with a stomach bug the day before and warned us of the public health hazard that was her household, so we decided to stay healthy and camp elsewhere. It was a good choice for several reasons. First, her area was hammered with rain and hail all that night, and second, we ended up driving into the mountains and finding a site at the state park outside of Nederland, Colorado. This location scratched our “mountain” itch and, fortuitously, was one area that didn’t experience torrential rains that night.
SONY DSCThen again, we hadn’t planned on camping at altitude, so we were ill-equipped for the cold. Each of us had a single bed sheet in which to sleep, and then we had two light blankets along. The towels we packed were used as blankets, too, but still, I was freezing. So this hardy camper slept in the slightly warmer car, sitting up in the front passenger seat.

When the sun finally arose, gloriously, Allegra stumbled out of the tent, her body realizing that it had gone from Nebraska-flat to 9,000 feet in under 15 hours. She was dizzy and lurching and had to spend some time just sitting at the picnic table as she acclimated.

Later, though:
SONY DSCDay 4 of the trip saw us driving down and out of the moutains into Denver, where we had a campsite booked at Cherry Creek State Park which is, amazingly, a lovely oasis of green acres (and a reservoir) smack dab in the midst of urban Denver. Byron had signed up for an aquathon in the park that evening–speaking of challenges at altitude.

SONY DSCThe aquathon consisted of a one mile swim followed by a 5K run. The genetic freak that is my husband came in fifth overall. I was winded just watching him.

My sister lives in Denver, so we spent the afternoon with her. Here she is, watching the aquathon. She’s also gifted at cheering for strangers.
SONY DSCByron runs the 5K:
SONY DSCEarlier that day, before the aquathon, Kirsten had taken us to her favorite Denver bookstore, The Bookies. I’ve been to this place before and loved it, but this was the rest of the family’s first time. The store is staffed by retired teachers who want nothing more than to share their passion for knowledge and books. By the time a very dramatic salesman (I suspect he used to teach theater) had summarized and brought life to all the books in the young adult section, Paco had two new reads clutched under his arm. I got my head turned in the adult fiction section, and even though I didn’t buy a book right then, I am now plowing my way through the most-excellent recommendations I received there. The Bookies RULES.

We finished out Day 4 by meeting up with my brother and his two daughters. They had been visiting our great-aunt up in Cody, Wyoming, and were headed back down to Albuquerque, so they stopped to spend the night in Denver before our family and his would caravan our way down to New Mexico in tandem.

Before the evening of Day 4, when we all went out to dinner together, we hadn’t seen my brother or his family in almost eleven years. There will be a separate blog post, shared elsewhere, telling the story behind that. What’s important to know here, however, is that I’ve always loved my brother and gotten along with him swimmingly. To have this time with him, and to get to know his smart, charming daughters, brought gladness to my heart.

At any rate, on Day 5 of our road trip, my sister had a school training she had to attend, but my brother, his girls, and our family all did a tour of the University of Colorado-Boulder, just to give Cres, my brother’s older girl, a taste of the campus since she’ll be a senior this next year.

Can you all feel my heart flip around as I look at this photo of Cres and her first cousin, Allegra, walking side-by-side?
SONY DSCRandom factoid: the University of Colorado-Boulder (the football team is The Buffaloes) recently spent some millions to build a buffalo-shaped swimming pool. I am totally the wrong audience for this factoid, as I stand and look at it thinking about hungry children around the world.
SONY DSCHere are my brother, Geoff, and his younger daughter, Sofia. There is a separate post coming about Sofia, too. She deserves her own space.
SONY DSCAfter our tour of the university, we all piled into our cars and drove a few hours south, to Pueblo, Colorado, where we stayed in a hotel. There were flash-flood warnings in the Pueblo area that night, so I’m amazed we hadn’t planned to camp.

As the first handful of days had already proven: wherever we went, we were Rainmakers.

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Stay tuned for my next post, wherein we will experience ladders, roadrunners, and good beer.

 

A Princess, Some Peas

I was nestling into bed one night when my boyfriend observed, “Look at that grin. You never smile bigger than when you’re lying down in the bed at night.”

At that point, although I didn’t yet have the perspective to see it, I was wading through my least-favorite decade of life: my twenties. Before my boyfriend–that difficult, lovely, angry, generous, wounded man–pointed out that I smiled every night, I’d never noticed the easy joy I felt when slipping into bed each evening. I’d never consciously realized that climbing into bed gave me permission to shed the day, turn off my brain’s lights, retreat deep inside myself. Of course, I knew that beds can be havens, places where life’s best releases take place, oases of comfort. Naturally, I also knew that climbing into bed didn’t necessarily assure that the day would be shed or the brain’s lights would shut off. Some nights, even surrounded by the forgiving softness of the bed, I would feel tears slipping down my cheeks and running into my ears. On such nights, I would watch the clock through the dark hours, lonely, anxious, nervous, unable to find peace.

However, for the most part, the allure and promise of the bed are fulfilled. As attorney Johnny Cochran once quipped, “When you need to rest your head, the quest ends with a beautiful Bed.

Over the course of my life, I’ve lost count and memory of all the beds that have brought smiles to my tired face. Pictures remind me of a few, like the crib that held me during my earliest months.

Crib

As this photographic evidence proves, I didn’t start out as a smiley bed person. Early days taught me that when it comes to sleep, I LIKE MY SPACE, PEOPLE.

A few years later, my sister and I shared a room, sleeping each night in our parallel Big Girl beds. Does anyone else wonder about the symbolism and significance of my always sleeping under a Russian balalaika?

Bed003

If nothing else, it explains my love of potatoes, vodka, and grim suffering.

At some point, those beds migrated to a bedroom down the hall. My strongest memory of my time in that room involves falling out of bed in the middle of the night, awaking rudely, full of screams and cries, as my body hit the floor. It would be thirty years before a bed would again betray me so profoundly, and in the latter case, the bed that failed was an air mattress with impressive packaging and a slow leak.

After my sister and I moved down the hall, our previously shared space morphed into the den, a place where my dad would nap in his recliner while the television broadcast episodes of “Family Feud” and “Wheel of Fortune” in front of his dozing eyes.

Once adolescence hit, my sister and I both wanted our own rooms, and so she stayed upstairs while I moved down to the basement and into a new bed.

A water bed.

I didn’t actually have a private room in the basement, but we cordoned off one end of the orange-carpeted “rec room” with screens and a tall armoire, and that space became my bedroom for several years. In that faux-walled space, I spent one afternoon calling the local radio station a hundred times, trying to win Billy Joel tickets. In that bedroom, I had an ear infection so fierce that my only recollections of that night are a warm washcloth on the side of my face, my parents’ concerned faces looming above me, and my mother’s body crawling under the covers with me as I sobbed through the slow-ticking hours. In that bedroom, my friend Lorri woke up early one morning after sleeping over, surfed a wave out of the queen-sized ocean of water, and sat on the floor reading a book while I continued to dream about helping Kelly, Jill, and Sabrina escape from a women’s prison on Charlie’s Angels. Just as my brain had me hand-cuffed to my fellow undercover private detectives, running across an open field while barking dogs chased us, Lorri—in the waking word—soundlessly watched two white mice emerge from under a table and nose around, looking for crumbs from a Twinkie. Fortunately, Lorri found them cute; had I been the one sitting on the floor reading a book, my rodent-fearing self would have shouted for the nearest warden to come toss me into his prison, a place where I would ingratiate myself into the white-girl “family” and beg the alpha female, Red, to make the others provide mice protection in exchange for my smuggling eye shadow into the joint inside my multi-talented private parts.

Then, when I was fifteen, my brother headed off to college, which meant his bedroom and water bed in the basement—a real room and a twin-sized bed—were poachable. Triumphantly, I propped my stuffed Fozzy Bear on a shelf and ticky-tacked my Journey posters to the wood-paneled walls. Each night, our two poodles would hop up onto the bed with me, and we’d all gurgle around for a few minutes before they’d pin me under the covers with their bodies. Fortunately, the dogs were out of sight, and my heavy clogs (much like Sabrina Duncan might have worn while piloting a plane) were near at hand late one evening when a scorpion wandered into my room. No idiot in a crisis, I snatched up a clog and bashed the scorpion a few times; once it stopped moving, I left the corpse moored under the shoe, started shaking, and ran upstairs to find my dad. When I told him I had just killed a scorpion, he was doubtful, but when he came down and examined the evidence, my mild Finnish father was amazed to the point that he cut loose with strong language: “Well, would you look at that.” Although my ears were already on fire, he punctuated his outburst with a firm “Huh.”

When I left home and went to college, the beds were longer and lonelier, host to “sleeping it off” and study sessions. On a series of industrial mattresses that had supported scores of students before me, I learned of Balzac; I watched the ceiling spin after drinking seven Long Island Ice Teas; I encountered the writing of Thomas Mann; I woke up surrounded by buddies from my floor acting as alarm clock by singing their special “Good Morning, Jocelyn” tune; I plowed my way through Shakespeare’s lesser-known plays; I listened to the Cowboy Junkies on repeat through the night; I sat agape as I read about female circumcision; I considered Howard Hawks as a cinematic auteur; I tried my first bites of Ramen noodles.

Post-graduation beds were similarly clinical, in that they showed up in an assigned room, whether it was a rental in Minneapolis or a former hotel-cum-graduate-student housing in Idaho. Over the years, I sat on these beds and watched Chuck Woolery facilitate the “Love Connection,” and I woke up in such beds with a swollen jaw as I experienced the first bouts of TMJ problems. Occasionally, a table was set up next to the bed, and guests would use the mattress as a bench while they ate fettucine and shared tales of past indiscretions. One graduate school pal, an Italian-American from Rhode Island, his body creating a dip in the edge of my bed, shoveled food into his mouth while simultaneously re-enacting the moment he jumped out of an apartment window, landing in a dumpster, to escape an angry husband who had come home early and discovered my friend making a cuckold of him with his wife.

When I finished graduate school and got my first full-time teaching job, I celebrated my “arrival” into the working world by purchasing a futon. I slept on it in the rickety cottage I rented behind a drug dealer’s house (the only place in Colorado Springs I could afford on my new salary), I slept on it in my apartment in the divided-up Victorian, it lived in the guest room in a more suburban rental, and eventually my boyfriend and I drove it from Colorado to Minnesota and tossed it onto the floor of the only house for rent in August of 1996 in Austin, Minnesota.

A handful of months later, the futon softened our fall as a couple—no longer did he remark on my smiles at bedtime—as we cried and cried and cried our way to break-up while reclining on the floor. Even eight pillows and a feather bed couldn’t cushion us from that necessary pain, and after he moved out, I took to sleeping on the couch and falling asleep to the company of late-night television voices.

Just more than a year later, I lay in the smoosh of that futon on the floor, waking up, when Byron crawled into the room on his knees, holding a plate of pancakes and a woodcut by artist Betsy Bowen. The evidence was clear: yes, I would like to marry such a man.

By the next day, I was pregnant. After some months, we got married, bought a house, lofted the futon up onto a frame; it was a “real” bed—one with legs, up off the floor. The rub was that Byron had built the bedframe to suit his 6’ 3” frame, not mine, which was eight inches shorter and getting rounder by the day. I struggled to hoist my bulk up onto the mattress, often getting a running start before beaching myself on top. Once aboard, I’d struggle all night to get comfortable on the futon, to find a spot where my aching hips could relax. Then one day I came home to find seven inches had been sawed off the legs of the bedframe, and a new mattress had been delivered. Impending parenthood finally moved our bed habits out of the ‘70s.

More recently, now that parenthood is old hat, we bought a new bed. In this case, the issues weren’t the aches and pains of pregnancy but, rather, the aches and pains of aging. We needed a bed that would provide good company as we grow old. The problem was that my hips and shoulders wanted a soft marshmallow cloud at night while Byron’s back required a more board-like surface, causing him to head downstairs some nights and sleep on a piece of fairly rigid foam. Although we were harmonious in every other way, sleep needs were making divisive demands.

We needed a diplomat to solve our problem.

The answer we arrived at—the diplomat–was even more cheesy than a water bed.

We went to the Sleep Number store in the mall, a place where the salesmen wear nametags advertising, “My name is Norm. My number is 45.”

If you’re not acquainted with the Sleep Number System, you live a wonderfully sheltered life, and my guess is that your garden and bookshelves are more full than your DVR. Basically, the Sleep Number System divides a bed so that it each side can be controlled or “set” by the person who sleeps there. The bed is plugged into the wall and runs off a compressor. There is a remote control.

The entire idea of the bed makes me cringe.

With the Sleep Number, Byron is able to make his side of the mattress to a high numbers so that it’s very hard, and I’m able to set my side of the bed on the low end of the scale so that it’s very soft. One time, Goldilocks stopped by when we weren’t home and nearly broke the damn thing before she declared it “juuuuust right.”

When we first got the bed, Byron’s setting was at 70, and mine was at 35. Given time and bodily changes, though, his number went a bit lower, and mine tipped a smidge higher. In recent months, my setting has been closer to 50. So has his.

Despite ourselves, we met in the middle.

The whole number thing feels a bit ridiculous, yet the ability to adjust the feeling of our “landing pad” each night so that it is responsive to nuances of mood and body makes each of us smile as we tuck in.

SONY DSC

So does the occasional presence of Paco’s stuffed Ducky Mo-Mo.

At its best, bed should be a place of joy, release, conversation, departure, relaxation, and fun. They are one of life’s best theatres, as was demonstrated a few weeks ago, when, early one morning–too early, before the birds had begun their rousing twitters–Paco drifted into our bedroom. Soft and fluffy from sleep, his body fighting strep throat, he clutched at his head and said, “My ear hurts so much. I can’t sleep. It hurts so much.”

When the kid who has had approximately thirty-six ear infections in his life along with two sets of long-term tubes in his ears complains of such pain, sleeping parents come to with rapidity.

While I found him some painkillers, Byron dug in the closet for the heating pad, and eventually, we got the ailing boy back to bed.

As we all resettled into the dark hours, sleep was elusive.

I lay there, eyes open, worrying. Was he getting an ear infection? The doc that day had said his ear looked okay. Did we need to take him to the clinic in the morning? Was he developing a fever? Was he awake in his room, alone, in pain? Should I go in and check?

Then I felt Byron’s hand move across the bed, our shared bed, and settle into the dip of my waist. I lay there, letting my eyes drift shut, comforted. That hand on my waist reminded me. Everything was going to be fine. That hand on my waist assured me. This little pain was nothing in the larger scope of life. We were safe. Warm. Fortunate.

That hand on my waist.

It was an intimacy without peer.

I flipped my pillow over, laid my cheek down on the cool fabric, stared out the window by my face, and smiled at the rising sun.