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.


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

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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.”

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.”


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.

SONY DSC And we took some time to hike around and admire how thin the air was.


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


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.


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.


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!”


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.


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


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.


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

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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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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


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

tunnel bun

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


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


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


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


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.

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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!


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.


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.



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.


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.


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



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


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.


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.


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!


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…


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:


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.


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.

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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:

Bored Kids

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.


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.


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.


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

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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.


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?


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.


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.

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Coffee Break

I’m feeling very fortunate. During these busy summer months when finding even ten minutes to sit down and write seems impossible, I’ve been lucky enough to have a fine writer named Shelly become a Facebook friend. Shelly has been wanting to share a story of something that happened while she was traveling–yet she hasn’t wanted to publish it in her usual place. Put differently: this particular bit of writing needs a different audience. That’s where you come in, Gentle Readers. So take a minute to get comfortable, pour yourself a cup of java, and kick back to enjoy Shelly’s story.


Women in white head coverings and long black robes parted from the middle of the road languidly, too involved in their conversations with their walking companions to divert their attention despite the steady forward movement of our tour bus.

“This Druze village is typical of the way the Druze live here in the Jezreel Valley,” our urbane Israeli guide shared. “The Druze are an offshoot of Islam, having broken away in the 14th century, and they have some beliefs that are unique only to them. For instance, you can only be a Druze if your father was a Druze. Men are still the only authority in the families, and they believe in reincarnation. If there’s not an available baby for a recently departed soul to enter, they believe that a soul can find other resting places, even animals, until a newborn is available.”

My teenaged daughter looked at me, raising her eyebrows and distending her mouth in mock horror. I put a finger over my mouth, to suppress any inappropriate levity from the both of us. This was our fourth morning in Israel, and long days and little sleep thinned my usually sturdy social filters.

The bus eased into a parking spot near a small restaurant overlooking a river. “Mom, I think Grandpa would have enjoyed this place. Look- they have all those old men outside,” she said as she tapped the window and gestured towards their group on the steps. “He would have been right in the middle of them, matching them story for story.”

I nodded, even as I shook my head a little. Had it actually happened? Was he really gone, or did I dream it? My father in law, stubborn, prickly, often at odds with his own daughters, had always had a special place for me. I am not a coffee drinker, but he’d always have the blackest of the black coffee ready when we visited, seasoned with a couple of liberal dashes of Tabasco, the whole concoction his favorite daytime drink. Although I never drank it, he would set the cup down in front of me at the kitchen table as we all pulled up chairs and say loudly, “Drink! It’ll put hair on your face!”

His sudden passing two weeks before we left for Israel was still surreal. The guide’s instructions interrupted my thoughts. “We’ll have an hour for lunch, or shopping, whichever you prefer, but we have a tight schedule, so don’t be late!”

I pulled my purse onto my shoulder as we filed down the bus stairs. I grabbed my daughter’s arm on a whim and said, “I don’t think I’m going to eat lunch. I just can’t take more falafel right now. You go ahead with your friends and I’m going to wander into a couple of these little shops.”

“Ummm, ok,” she shrugged. “Meet you back at the bus?”

“Yes- right on time,” I assured her. “See you in a little bit.”

I wandered into the closest shop and aimlessly moved from rack to rack, touching the silky scarves and even hefting a few of the colorful purses, but none held my interest. My thoughts were still entangled with my father in law’s passing and the guilt I felt about not visiting him for several weeks before he was gone. I resolved to do better by our other relatives when we returned home.

I continued down the street until I neared the group of elderly men my daughter had pointed out from the bus. The smoke from their unfiltered cigarettes and their hearty laughter masked a small, dark storefront, possibly a grocery store. I squeezed past them, interested to see what a Druze market held.

My eyes worked to adjust from the dazzling sunlight to the windowless, shadowy interior. A young Druze woman, in the standard black robe and white head covering briefly glanced at me, looked back at the clerk she was talking with, and then swung her head back to me again. “Ah, there you are. Welcome!” she said in heavily accented English. “Are you thirsty?”

“Uhh, well, I would like to buy a Diet Coke,” I explained, having already spotted them in a cooler near the door.

“No, no. Here, we family. Come, come, sit.” She gestured to a small table at the back of the store. “I’ve got coffee ready, our good, black Arabic coffee. None blacker anywhere!”

I clutched my purse tighter to me and looked back to the front door. “Oh, uh, thank you,” I stammered. “I’m not a coffee drinker. Never have been. I do appreciate it. I really need to get back to my bus, though.”

“No, no, just a little visit, before you leave. Achmed, bring the coffee!” A small boy about seven, thin legged and wearing red shorts, came in shyly with a cup of coffee he set on the table.

“Come, come, we’ve been waiting!”

The hair on the back of neck snapped to attention as she reached into her robe. I stepped slowly backwards, my breath caught somewhere in my chest.

“See, see, we have what you Americans like, eh, Stevia?” She held a small container of Stevia. “Coffee is good for you, good, you learn to like it, eh?”

I exhaled in tiny, quiet bursts and shook my head.

She looked at the table. “Achmed, all of it! Go ahead, bring it out, come on!”  She looked me in the eye and slowly smiled. “Just like you like it!”

I was already out the front door and bounding down the street to the bus before the bottle of Tabasco Achmed fumbled onto the table had quit spinning.

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My Year as a Nanny: Tending Mary Jane

“Looks like they had a good time last night,” I thought to myself, pushing the pipe, bag of buds, and lighter behind a lamp in an effort to conceal them from the children’s view.

The last thing I needed in my job as a nanny was the task of explaining to my charges, “When Mommy has a PhD, and Daddy is an executive in a big building downtown, life can get very stressful. Sometimes, at the end of a long day, they just need to tuck you guys in and then kick back with some reefer. Repeat after me: reeeeee-ferrrrr.”

As much as I didn’t care one way or another how the adults who wrote me a cheque for $200 each week–$155 after taxes (Incidentally, that came to $5 large American dollars for each hour of watching their two children–the going rate in 1989 to have a private liberal arts college graduate wipe magna cum laude from one’s children’s behinds)–spent their evenings, I also didn’t feel comfortable picking up their paraphernalia and stuffing it more completely out of sight. If I did that, then I’d have to explain, in code, at the end of the day, “Hi, welcome home from work. Kevin took a short afternoon nap, so he’ll probably go down early, and Lila sang out loud during her entire hour of quiet time; it was adorable. She made up some hilarious lyrics to ‘I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.’ Oh, and by the way: I ook-tay our-yay ipe-pay and aggie-bay of ot-pay and put it in the ashing-way achine-may.”

So I merely tucked the items out of view and then fired up the television so the kids and I could enjoy our allowed half-hour of screen time that day in the form of our favorite pre-8 a.m. program: Maya the Bee.

(A stunned-looking Maya wonders where her pot went. Best guesses have it that her pal Willy the Bee had himself a big smoke in the hive.)

A half hour later, we turned off the tv and headed upstairs to blow bubbles, make towers of blocks, play an interminable game of Chutes & Ladders, read four books, and walk up and down the block.

That got us to 8:11 a.m.

Truly, hours with small kids can move at a glacial pace, making the brain space out and drift aimlessly. The highlight of the whole thing is snack time.

Pretty much, taking care of young ‘uns is like being stoned without having to inhale, really.

At the end of that day, ten hours after I shoved the weed behind the lamp in the basement, I headed home, eager to make some Ramen and collapse in front of the television with my roommates, rule-free, for however long we chose. In contrast to the daytime, those evening hours flew by.


The next morning, when I let myself into the house where I nannied, the mother caught me for a quick minute in the kitchen. Sheepishly, she alternately rushed and stuttered,

“So…yesterday…we…left…some…thingsyoufound…in…thebasementwhichwasawhoopsie…and…well…ifthat’saproblemjustsayso…we…don’t…want…any…issues…so, um, sorry about that. Are we okay?”

My answer came easily, “We’re totally okay. As far as I’m concerned, your kids are well loved, your lives are awesome, you guys are great, so nothing beyond that is my business. No problem.”

Relief spread across her face, but she remained silent for a beat. And then:

“Oh, good. I’m so glad. Uh, actually, as long as we’re on the subject, uh, we’ve been having trouble lately finding a supply. Our former source dried up.”

Taking a deep breath, the PhD-mother-of-two who wrote me a cheque for $200 every week braved the true question:

“So, I don’t suppose you know anyone who would be able to help us out with that? We were thinking at your age that you might know someone who could keep us supplied?”

In response, I murmured something about asking around and seeing if anyone knew anyone. Then I watched her drive off to her job as a psychologist, and my hands went to work warming up Eggo waffles for the kids, but

my brain spent the next hour marveling that

the person who cares for the kids makes less than

the person who peddles the pot.

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Becoming a Badass

When I first started blogging in 2006, I learned to make the rounds of other people’s blogs. As we do.

First, I read one person’s blog, and then I’d click on the comment of one of the readers of that blog and be taken to his/her blog, and so on and so on and so on. Over time, I figured out which blogs appealed to me and, over even more time, I started to develop relationships with a few of my fellow bloggers. That community then transferred to Facebook, where I’ve gotten to know multiple bloggers in a way that feels even more real and immediate.

In fact, thanks to reading blogs and friending up on Facebook, my family was given a free place to stay in Connecticut a couple years ago when we took a road trip to the East Coast. For several nights, blogging pal and Facebook friend Meredith and her family extended huge hospitality and allowed us to have a few days in New York City without paying NYC accommodation prices. We took the train into the city from her place and then returned each evening–most memorably, one night to a bottle of scotch she’d left on our bed as a gift.

Yea, she’s rad like that.

At any rate, when I met Meredith face-to-face, she was confident, kind, fabulous. It surprised me, then, that she jokingly mentioned not loving her weight, as it was higher than it had been earlier in life. This also surprised me, for in my view, Meredith looked perfectly perfect.

What we in the world see so often differs from what’s going on inside the heads of those around us, though.

In the time that’s passed since Meredith and I met, as I’ve watched her challenge herself to a place of change, I’ve gained even more admiration for her. In fact, I asked her to write something that chronicles what she’s achieved in recent months.

*drumroll, please* Therefore, Readers, I ask you to welcome Meredith and her story of change.

Here is her story:


My exercise journey.

For starters, I have always been very content with sitting, hanging out, relaxing. And snacking. Chillin’ and snacking. And drinking. Chillin, snacking, and drinking. Yah, really. But, one day I realized I wasn’t content. My body would wheeze as I climbed stairs, shoulders would hurt just hanging curtains, mowing the lawn was too big a task, and a simple walk on a trail was exhausting. My body size increased little by little over the years, and I didn’t even really notice. Until, I noticed. And then I stopped and really took a look. I needed a change. I had already taken control of my digestive issues (celiac and dairy intolerant). I’d given up gluten and dairy – with that, my system was doing better – it was time I started exercising. This was scary because I’d never really intentionally worked out. I mean, I had an elliptical, but that was just for hanging clothes on. And I had sneakers, but they were just to wear when walking the dog on the front lawn.

For my 40th birthday I decided to do a Warrior Dash. The Warrior Dash is a 5k race over mixed terrain with several obstacles including lots of mud, water, and fire. When it’s done you get a free beer and a big turkey leg and enjoy the party. It was exciting sounding. I spent all summer building up to run just two miles. It would take me 24 minutes on a good day to run 2 miles and I needed my inhaler, a lot of water, and my husband who would run with me – encouraging me. It was a hard summer filled with tiny milestones that made me feel I was doing something. Some days my kids would get involved and run with me. While I was slow and plodding I felt I was doing something good. I did the Warrior Dash with family and friends and yes, it was loads of fun! Then winter hit and I did nothing but hang out and hibernate all winter.

By spring I was ready to practice running again to do another Warrior Dash, and maybe a local 5k too. I was demoralized at how hard it was for me to build up back up to one mile again and how winded I was and how slow I felt. It took me 45 minutes to run a 5k. I remember a friend of mine laughing jokingly about it. I was surprised at how personally I took it and had bad it made me feel. I didn’t want to be that wimpy and slow. I remember thinking I needed more work and more encouraging friends. That fall I did the Warrior Dash again with family and friends, and again it was a blast. Winter came and I put away my running shoes. I bought P90X for my husband and some days we worked out together – I gave up by March, my husband kept going.

A month after I turned 42 I decided I needed something more. That November I joined a Crossfit gym for their introductory package. I didn’t make it through all four weeks. It was hard, I couldn’t squat, I couldn’t do a push up; heck, I couldn’t do most of it. Everyone was nice, and very encouraging. I had panic attacks at the thought of going. I made excuses. I quit. I thought to hire a personal trainer. I quit after my introductory classes too. Not because he wasn’t good. He was. They gym wanted way more money than he was worth though, and I was doing a number of the same moves Crossfit had done.

The holidays came and went, winter turned to spring, and my family signed up for Warrior Dash again. I went for a run. One mile almost killed me. With tears in my eyes and an inhaler in my shaking hands, I thought I would have to cede to the muumuu and let life pass me by – this was too hard – I should just give up, accept the fact that I’m middle aged and not supposed to be pushing myself this hard. My sweet husband talked me off the ledge and after a couple puffs of the inhaler, a glass of water, and a talk, I was still not ready for the muumuu. He joined Crossfit in June – a different one fromwhere I went. A better one, he said. He and my son went to the “on ramp” classes and finished.** By July 4th he convinced me to start the on ramp classes too. I couldn’t finish the workout in my first intro class. I was so embarrassed I didn’t want to go back. But I did go back. I finished the intro classes, learned all the moves, and even met some very nice and encouraging people. After one excruciating workout, we had to finish with a 100m run. I was the last person. I don’t remember who it was, but one Crossfitter joined me; she actually ran with me, encouraging me every step. While my mocking nature wants to say something snarky or jokingly dismissive, I can’t: I needed that at that very moment and I will always be super appreciative of her actions. When I finished the 100m, I fought off tears and vomit – I had pushed myself pretty hard, and for the first time I felt great.

The rest of that summer I did Crossfit. My husband was right; it was a better one. My coaches were 100% committed to making sure I was doing everything right and constantly reminded me to breathe. It seems I forget to breathe when hyper-focused and moving at the same time. I thought I was going to die or throw up a number of times. I needed a sandbag on my feet to do sit ups, and rowing 500m was like 500 miles. Running 400m might as well have been 2 miles, push-ups were modified on my knees, box jumps were step ups, and barbell work was just the bar. To an outsider – I looked SUPER wimpy. From my perspective I was giving it all I had. My body loved and despised what I was doing to it.

My 43rd birthday came and went along with another Warrior Dash, only this time, I didn’t train for it, and I beat my previous year’s score by 15 minutes. I was bowled over. It’s coming up on one year at Crossfit, and this weekend I’m doing the Tough Mudder. I’m no skinny Minnie, I still eat junk food, (gluten free/dairy free junk food), and have the “occasional” recreational beverage, but the muumuu is definitely not in my immediate future. I can now do tons of sit ups without help, run two miles without the inhaler (I’m still not a fast runner), row 500m without breaking into a drenching sweat, lift barbells with some weight now, and even climb a rope half-way up. I can do yard work, climb stairs, and hang curtains and workout now.

I have no plans on being Miss Crossfit America, or competing in the Games, or even deadlifting 200 lbs. BUT I do plan on hiking, skiing, kayaking, doing yard work and running fun mud runs – and that takes wind in your lungs, and muscles in your arms and legs to carry you through it all. So, while I still get a little anxiety before going to work out still, and I argue with myself that some things are “just too hard,” that doesn’t mean I’ll be giving up any time soon. I like how I feel when I’ve given my body exercise.


**On Ramp is Crossfit speak for intro classes. All boxes (Crossfit speak for gym) have an intro period where you are introduced to all the movements used in Crossfit mixed with workouts designed to ramp you up to being able to jump into a Crossfit WOD (Crossfit speak for workout of the day) at the end of your intro period. Every box varies in how many classes are required before joining their regular workouts. All boxes have their own personality too – not all are equal. If you are interested in Crossfit, I suggest going into several and meet the owners/coaches to find the best fit for you.

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I bet your’re a book reader.

That is: like attracts like, and I am a book reader, and you are here.

So we are readers, yes?

I’ll go even further and guess that, because love of reading is innate in us–or because we learned it as a joyful or comforting habit in childhood–we are well attuned to the gifts that books bring. For me, I know that during lonely periods in my life, I still had the companionship of books. I know that a three-hour delay at an airport, instead of making me to groan with dismay, causes me to think, “Yay! More time to read!” I know that the absence of a book, when I have free time, creates anxiety. I feel unprotected, exposed, even vulnerable without a book on hand.

As well, at least half of what I know about people has come from books. In reading stories and meeting characters, I have been given insights into humanity’s motivations, foibles, and vagaries. In reading tales set in foreign lands, I’ve gotten to know the world. In times of stress or confusion, books have clarified. Handing over a well-loved book to a friend or family member feels like we’re about to take a trip together.

In what is only a minor overstatement, I assert this: Books mean everything to me.

I want to hug all of the books, all of the time.

That’s why it can be so difficult to teach non-readers. When students proudly proclaim that they don’t read, I realize there is a chasm between us, a values disconnect so profound, a lack of sympathy so jarring…that I may not be able to bridge our differences. To put a finer point on it, the frustration I feel with non-readers makes it so that I sometimes don’t care to build a bridge to these callow youth who wear their puerile disregard for the written word like it’s a nose piercing worthy of comment and admiration.

This feeling of “Why do I even try?” was reinforced last semester when a male student made a loud announcement in class that he had never read a book and never intended to. After he spoke, my heart stopped for a moment. It had to stop so it could catch its breath and recover the will to beat. As the class looked on, many of them nodding in agreement with him, I responded honestly, “You have to know you’re hurting my heart up here. This makes me so very sad. Could we try this, though? Could I buy you a book? My gift? I’m not talking about some fancy book that is painful to read. I’m talking about a book that I really think you would enjoy–maybe a graphic novel? Or something about playing pool? You’re a competitive pool player, right?”

He stared me in the face, blinked once, and said, “Don’t even bother. Didn’t you hear me? I. don’t. read. books.”

And while I wanted to clip out, “And. you. don’t. talk. to. your. English. teacher. like. that, you ignorant buffoon who doesn’t belong in college,” I managed a more civil reply: “But you could. My point here is that you could, and so I’d like a shot at showing you how great a book can be.”

Blinking again, he responded, “Nope. I don’t read books. Save your money. I’d never read it.”

So, well, there’s that illustrative moment which will have a permanent place in the annals of my inspirational teaching history, most likely in the chapter entitled “Students School the Teacher.”

However, when I teach a literature class–those cherry classes that keep English teachers from spending the last twenty years of their careers with their arms wrapped around themselves, rocking in the corner of the classroom–the whole point of the class is to make students read. It’s then that I realize I am, in truth, power hungry, for I LOVE to make them read, especially if they don’t want to or if they have never explored the pursuit before.

My all-time favorite literature class to teach is the Introduction to Literature: The Novel course. It’s one thing to read essays or short stories in other types of literature classes, but in the Novels course, I get to increase the reading load significantly, and in doing so, I get the chance to unlock the world of reading for The Reluctants in the room.

It’s heady stuff, that power.

During the class, we read seven novels in fourteen weeks, which means they’re reading half a novel each week, roughly 160-200 pages.

Yes, a few drop out. But, surprisingly, most of them hang in there; retention rates are comparatively high. Yes, a few of them acknowledge that the reading load is intimidating. But most of them just shut up and drop their heads into their books, either through excitement about exploring new worlds or through a fear of the quiz and everyone-must-participate discussions. So they read.

Because I realize this is a rare chance to transform non-readers into readers, I stay away from Thomas Pynchon. There is no Heidegger. We don’t delve into Finnegans Wake. The books I choose, and they vary term to term, are fairly mainstream, yet they still qualify as literature. The books take work, but students don’t end up with beads of blood dotting their foreheads.

At the end of the semester, I send out a take-home final exam with four questions on it. The first three deal with analyzing character, plot, setting, and point of view, and then the final question is a “softball”–but one that yields the most interesting responses, answers that I tuck into my heart and take with me into the next classroom, into the next semester, into the next face-off with a disinclined pool player.

Below are two such responses, shared with the students’ permission.

The question:

Often times, fiction traces the personal journey and growth of a character. Of the novels read this semester, which character’s journey has the most resonance for you as an individual? Why? (Incidentally, if you aren’t familiar with the word “resonance,” there will never be a better time for you to look it up.)

One student wrote:

Of all the characters that I have met this semester, the one that I felt closest to was Little Bee. When we met her, she had survived a terrible ordeal. She was in survival mode, and spent an awful lot of time figuring out how she would kill herself if “the men came”. While I have never been in a situation like hers, I have been in an extremely abusive relationship. This relationship only lasted two months, but the abuse didn’t end when the relationship did. He stalked me for a year, and used his power over me to continue to hurt me and control my life. Even when he eventually went to prison for 4 years, and I was technically safe, I found myself making escape routs in my head, and planning what I would do if he showed up. She handled it better than me, continuing to live her life the best she could. I wish I were that brave. My post traumatic stress disorder turned into agoraphobia with panic, and I stopped living life for awhile. Years have gone by now, and I’m still not who I was. I learned some good things, and still have some ghosts that haunt me. But reading Little Bee, I saw a part of me in her.  I had experienced the constant terror of thinking you would be found at any moment. We are both survivors of violence and feel the effects on a daily basis. It’s my favorite literary connection, and it’s one of the truest. Little Bee says something that will stay with me always.

I ask you right here please to agree with me that a scar is never ugly. That is what the scar makers want us to think. But you and I, we must make an agreement to defeat them. We must see all scars as beauty. Okay? This will be our secret. Because take it from me, a scar does not form on the dying. A scar means, I survived…Sad words are just another beauty. A sad story means, this story teller is alive. The next thing you know, something fine will happen to her, something marvelous, and then she will turn around and smile (Cleave, 9).

I had never thought of the emotional and physical battle scars I had that way, but she was right. Survival is beautiful, and so are the marks we get when fighting for our lives, no matter what that situation may be. We read Little Bee right as I was finding myself again, which is probably why I connected with her so much.


Another student wrote:

Snow Child was the novel that resonated the most for me. I was really brought into the emotional life of Mabel. Having been in a very dark place in my life where there seemed to be no hope and no way out I felt strongly connected to her. I am a recovering addict and there were many times in my life that I felt like there was no way out. That I would not be able to stop and desperately wanted to change my life. Fortunately, like Mabel, a miracle happened and I was saved from the pit. I know longer live in fear and regret. I have a full life. I don’t have to wake up at 3:00 in the morning filled with anxiety, knowing that again that morning I would not be able to not drink and use. I was a prisoner in my own life. Mabel’s character expressed that same feeling when talking about the winter to come and the demons that haunted her. She knew what was coming, she did not think she could face another day like that. On the upside, the both of us received divine intervention and not only survived but thrived. Every day upon waking I realize I am not physically sick. I won’t have to take a 40 of Miller Lite in the shower with me in order to stop shaking and start my day. I have a place to sleep and roof over my head, a loving family in my life and true friends. Then I look at my dog. He rocks. Another blessing given in sobriety. A biggy, I am getting my degree. Like Mabel I am finally happy. For that I am truly grateful. That novel stays with me. It was truly magical, and easy to lose myself in;

The sun was setting down the river, casting a cold pink hue along the white-capped mountains that framed both sides of the valley. Upriver, the willow shrubs and gravel bars, the spruce forests and low-lying poplar stands, swelled to the mountains in a steely blue. No fields or fences, homes or roads; not a single living soul as far as she could see in any direction. Only wilderness.

It was beautiful, Mabel knew, but it was beauty that ripped you open and scoured you so that you were left helpless and exposed, if you lived at all. She turned back to the river and walked home. (The Snow Child)


So I read their final exams,

and I get a little misty at these glimpses of their burgeoning Readerhood,

and I wish them a lifetime of comfort from books.

Then I smile

and welcome them to the fold.

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