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On the Road Again

On the Road Again

How was your spring break?

Fifteen and I packed our bags, scratched the kitties’ ears, and headed out on the open road for a Spring Break trip. As I said to someone recently, “I’m the kind of poor that means I can pay for a new dishwasher or go traveling with my daughter, and I’ll pick the latter option every time. It’s easy enough to wash the dishes.” It was sweet and easy to leave dish duty behind, too.

The first stop was Grinnell, Iowa, where the recently opened Hotel Grinnell welcomed us to their boutique accommodations fashioned out of an old junior high. Attention to school-oriented details make the hotel whimsical—an apple on the desk, the black metal furnishings reminiscent of lockers, the paper on the pad lined like lettering pages from elementary school. We enjoyed dinner with Eighteen and while Fifteen took her first official college visit of her brother’s school, I spent downtime in the hotel.

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The Hotel Grinnell

Downtime isn’t exactly in my vocabulary. It’s a novel experience. Aside from flooding the single-serve coffee maker trying to heat water for tea, I wasn’t entirely sure what to do with myself. I was reminded that easing out of one’s daily routine and relentless to-do lists and detaching from responsibilities aren’t easy tasks. But they’re important, and I left home looking for the right blend of adventure and relaxation.

Some of our hotels were more mainstream than others. In Chesterfield, Missouri, The Courtyard Marriott was on one of those streets that looks like anywhere USA. The next day, when the admissions officer at Washington University suggested that homesick students go to the mall, I thought about why we like and build these streets of plenty—familiarity. Comfort when we’re outside of our comfort zones. But the true delight of the recently renovated Marriott was the chance to spend the evening with an old friend.

The woman I’ll call “Mimi” and I met in graduate school. She was one of two graduate advisors to my teaching preparation group, and later she and I were on a committee together. After graduate school she would be in a position to hire me for a summer gig at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival; we hadn’t seen each other since. At dinner Friday night I was able to remember for her something she said that I have carried with me ever since about her happiness. It was a lovely reunion.

Saturday started with a perspective look at Washington University, St. Louis, where I was ready to enroll by the time we left the admissions talk and headed out on tour. Fifteen was less enchanted, but we agreed the campus was pretty and the school is appealing. We next enjoyed the orchids at the Missouri Botanical Center and walking the grounds on a warmish day. Then it was time for tea.

The London Teahouse had just one table available at 3pm. Pots of tea and a three-tiered tray of delights in the lovely flower-filled Hyde Park room were just right. We left with full tummies and six ounces of “Naughty Vicar” to brew at home. That evening found us in the Tudor-style Seven Gables Inn, a 1926 Irish Inn with framed art on the walls and dark wooden floors in the rooms. Two steep flights of stairs up, we found a delightful room with a view of the courtyard. The Inn had oodles of charm and is in a lovely, walkable neighborhood in St. Louis. We enjoyed ramen for dinner around the corner and snuggled in for the night.

We opted to make the Arch a drive-by as it was starting to snow. We were headed for Memphis, home of the famous Peabody Hotel, where ducks swim in the lobby fountain from 11am to 5pm, and were in time to witness their march to the elevator that carries them to their penthouse suite. The Peabody is not only whimsical, it’s elegant and stylish and the service is without compare. The concierge spent an hour helping us print and submit scholarship application forms for Fifteen’s summer exploration, even making a trip into the dining room to find us with the confirmation email she received.

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Always four females and a drake–the ducks spend three months thrilling the crowds at the Peabody and then return to the farm. There is no duck on the menu at the Peabody. 

Memphis was a wonderful surprise—a city that is easy to navigate and brimming with energy. We toured Rhodes College, famous for a number of aspects of the education they offer and frequently atop the list of prettiest campuses in America. It lives up to its reputation. The Memphis Zoo is right across the street, so we headed there after the college to marvel at the animals. Our feet tired, it was a treat to return to our hotel where, in perhaps the swiftest scholarship decision in history, Fifteen found an email rewarding our work the day before with a substantial investment in her summer plans. We celebrated with dessert from the hotel bakery—oh were they good!

The next morning we were off to Graceland. One former Memphis resident told me, before we left, “Well, you can skip Graceland.” Another said, “Of course, you’ve got to go to Graceland.” I’ve been in the latter camp ever since Paul Simon released his album of the same name; if Paul Simon wanted to see Graceland, so did I. Fifteen and I had listened to a wonderful collection of Elvis songs between St. Louis and Memphis. She observed that the songs were short and catchy and nice to listen to. We were ready to learn all about Elvis.

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“For reasons I cannot explain/some part of me wants to see Graceland”

And we were truly panicked, for about fifteen minutes, when it seemed we were stuck in the hotel parking garage. And then we were unbearably happy throughout the tour where Fifteen’s favorite room was the jungle room, complete with shag carpet on the ceiling. Looking up at the mirrors on the staircase ceiling, she said, “If Eighteen is an eighties teen-film star, then I’m a seventies girl through and through.”

“Really?” I asked, “Why is that?”

“You raised me on Abba!” Did I mention that we both loved Elvis’ sparkle-studded jumpsuits and his flashy cars?

We left Graceland with sparkling pen key chains and a sense that we were definitely on an adventure. Even as the impetus of our trip was glancing forward, beginning the conversation around Fifteen’s college journey, more than one stop was a glance back. Lambert’s Café (the home of the throwed rolls, where we caught a roll but did not stay for lunch), was a feature from a family car trip when I was six. Hot Springs, Arkansas, has stayed in my mind ever since I saw billboards for it on a graduate school trip to visit a college friend in Little Rock. Every day was just the right combination of travel, hotel, exploration, and, yes, downtime.

Some of our adventures were decidedly less planned. We didn’t plan, for example, to go to the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, but we found that it fit nicely into our itinerary and offered a fascinating look at the history that I lived and came just before Fifteen’s arrival on this planet (the story of how we all met William Jefferson Clinton in our pajamas is family lore). We didn’t plan, until we walked out of our tour of the Clinton library, to find the perfect place for cappuccino and ice cream, but we found that, too. Nor did we plan, between Memphis and Arkansas, to set foot in Mississippi, bringing the total states I have yet to visit in my lifetime down to eight. But after Graceland, we couldn’t resist the opportunity to drive ten minutes south and dine at a surprisingly good rapidly expanding fresh-food chain called Newk’s.

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Hard to photograph but wonderful to explore!

Some of the sweetest moments of travel are those unplanned surprises. Sometimes the surprises are significantly less sweet as when we were headed north from our Mississippi lunch, just slowing to merge onto one highway from another, and suddenly saw a mattress launch from the back of a trailer and flip high into the air heading for our lane. It was one of those moments when everything slows down, and I could categorize the responses in my brain. I watched the mattress lift up and flip, considered its possible landing trajectories, and was able to swerve just enough so that it landed inches to my left and I didn’t collide with the car on my right. The people towing the trailer had reacted swiftly, too, pulling right off the road to retrieve their bed. The people to my right gave way, slowed, and navigated the emergency such that no one was hurt (although I suspect the mattress suffered some road rash). My daughter heard me hurl the F-bomb for the first time in her life, and we shook and nervously chattered for the next ten miles. After that, it became an excellent story—that time we nearly got killed by a mattress—and something of a nightmare as I have rehashed the event and the what-ifs more than once both waking and sleeping.

It was an unplanned event of our trip and life in general that my phone rang one evening with the distressing news that a very good friend’s purse had been stolen. I was distraught that she had been so violated and dismayed to think of the hassles she would have in securing her identity and attempting to replace the contents, both valuable and invaluable. She was distraught because she was on cat duty during our absence and her means of access to our house were in her purse. Oh, yes, that’s a problem.

I wonder now if thieves have any regard for the ripple effect of stealing one woman’s purse? In this (as, I would suspect most) case, police are involved in the crime report, insurance agents in the property claim, the business outside of which the burglary took place in securing their premises for their patrons, the banker officers and credit managers in safeguarding her identity, and on and on. For just my piece of the experience, as we traveled, I had to ask my back-up cat care friend to step in. When it turned out there was no key in my lockbox, I reached out to the neighbor with a house key, but she texted back from her spring break in France. Finally I sent a key overnight via FedEx, all to be certain that my four-footeds would be fed. Again, once the anxiety settled, we ended up with a good story from the road.

As Fifteen read and I drove along, watching for signs of spring, I mused about perspective—maybe it’s an obvious truth that all over the world there are people going about what they do, earnestly, some with bold ambitions and the best of intentions, some with selfish inclinations and the most harmful of results. Travel brings us face-to-face with all of it—the big and the small, the luxurious and the necessary, the markers of the past, the fulfilled intentions and goals, the way our actions reverberate in the world, and the surprises and how we handle them.

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Just the car for our next road trip!

If you’ve read all the way to the end, thank you—we made it home without further incident, with another happy reunion with a dear friend, and without, yet, a college of choice. The laundry done and folded, the cats soothed, Fifteen was ready to pack the car and head out again. The next great family college-search road trip will likely be summer 2018. I, for one, can’t wait! Happy Spring Equinox, with all my love, Rxo

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My Funny Valentine

My Funny Valentine

Wha?? You’re letting it go?

When you move, it takes time to find new light switches in the dark. Everything is so new that it’s comforting to cling to the belongings you’ve brought with you. But even the perfect car for your old life might not fit as well with the travel requirements of your new world. Thus it was that I fell distinctly out of love with the Volvo wagon, a tank of a car purchased when my peeps were small to keep us safe in the bustling traffic of Bethesda, MD. I’m something of a serial monogamist when it comes to cars. The Volvo’s replacement?

The sales lady didn’t know it, but it was love at first sight when I saw the cool vanilla PT Cruiser with 12,995 miles on the odometer. The car had been a rental in California, no doubt leased by enthusiastic visitors at LAX who thought it would be fun to drive a convertible down to Mexico. As a result, over the course of the first couple of years I owned it, the car had an array of mysterious mechanical problems we blamed on bad Mexican gas, but they were miraculously covered by the warranty and I didn’t much care. More than a few people commented on the booster seats in the back; my peeps enjoyed tooling around in the car with the top down as much as I. With the upgrade to an auxiliary plug, I stopped constantly listening to classical music, a hold-over I had adopted when pregnant and driving a respectable yuppymobile, and reconnected with the music I loved growing up.

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Our last date in the sun, Valentine’s week 2017

I drove that car more than 100,000 miles, year-around, through more than one challenging winter storm, once getting stranded by slick roads with my daughter on a wintry night when the car desperately needed new tires. I drove it as far east as Athens, Ohio, and as far west as the Omaha zoo. Together we went north to Mankato, MN, for yoga teacher training nine times in every kind of weather and made countless trips south to pick up friends from the airport … but mostly I drove it to and fro, from dropping my son at TaeKwonDo to picking up my daughter from dance, from the grocery store to the yoga studio, from home to the coffee shop for writing time. When the warranty ran out, I found a mechanic who kept it running, who seemed to understand that the car was more than transportation for me.

I retired it for pleasure use only when I bought the Orange Dart in 2013 and hauled it out of retirement when Seventeen became a licensed driver. Sometime around then, my constant spate of car troubles became blog fodder, eye-roll-worthy updates on Facebook, and the source of more than one giggle and many-a grimace when I referenced my fleet of erratic cars in conversation.

The Dart is its own story, a brief fling with an unreliable machine. In its own way it served and the lessons I learned are the stuff of another essay. We said farewell to the Dart in December and hello to the handsome new Beetle named Mercury on the last day of 2016. A new love for a new year meant I had one too-many convertibles. What to do with the Cruiser?

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With just 1542 miles on it, Mercury rolled right into my heart … our first date: the Starbucks drive through on 12.31.16. And yes, it was warm enough to test it with the top down and the heated seat on!

The weather turned freakishly warm in February. I got the car out, mindful that it needed to be driven, and took it to the full service car wash. Every time I drove that car it felt like my escort, a loyal steed, my chariot of nuts and bolts. As if giving my squire voice, one of the car wash employees opened the passenger door, crawled halfway in, and interrupting himself while inquiring what they might do for me announced, “You are SO beautiful.” I told him he had just made my day as I left my baby in his care.

When the top dried in the sun, I dropped it for the last time and drove, enjoying the sunshine and remembering so many happy trips. Once, after a successful black-belt test, when Seventeen was just Ten, the sun was setting in fiery reds and dark clouds scattered fat raindrops on our victory lap home. I remember Ten testing his voice, yelling “promotion skies,” his celebration the last of his post-test adrenaline. His sister in her cow-spotted booster seat pumped much tinier fists, her fine blonde hair blowing in the breeze.

On this, our last date, I parked the clean Cruiser by the lake near my house and took more pictures of it than I needed. Top up, top down, doors open and closed. My favorite shows water just beyond the dash as though the car might actually be about to launch, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s long lost cousin.

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Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s long-lost cousin–I do believe my Cruiser could take me everywhere!

The next day I posted my car on Craig’s List, photos, TLC needed, and all. Within twenty minutes I had a very interested potential buyer. By the time I went to bed there was a slew of inquiries, but the very interested buyer was scheduled to come the next afternoon and everyone else would have to wait.

In a series of events that underscores my faith in the universe, the buyer, a couple in fact, had lost a PT Cruiser in an accident just a week before. When they arrived in their rental to look at my car, they had just picked up their insurance settlement. My car sat waiting for them, glistening in the sun on my driveway. Although I showed them it’s ailments and infirmities, they were focused on the positives—it was their favorite car, a great color, and they had never owned a convertible. The new tires and a new battery meant they weren’t perturbed by the broken glove box or quirky back hatch. They drove it for about five minutes, arrived back and announced, “sold.” We shook hands on the deal and they went off to procure cash.

While I waited for them, I took the plates off the car and worked on cleaning out my garage. The youngest of four neighboring children arrived, a little girl in her Girl Scout sash, her father trailing her and dragging a wagon full of cookies behind him. I never buy Girl Scout cookies because once I start eating them I can’t stop (what’s in those cookies?), but the day felt like a day for spreading good will, so I bought two. My car’s new owners arrived and they bought four boxes of cookies on the way in the door to sign the paperwork. In a manner of minutes I had a brand new-to-me pile of cash and they drove off, the husband trailing his happy wife in her new-to-her convertible. I wonder if she ate any cookies on her way? A fan of snacking and driving, I certainly would have.

Happy New February Moon—with Valentine’s Day in the rearview mirror and spring glimmering around the corner. May you find that all is well in your world as you launch new explorations. As ever, Namaste, Rxo

Ad-Venture Capital

Where are you going this time?

Long before there were Minimalists (visit them here) who traveled the world with fifty-one things and before Marie Kondo (http://tidyingup.com) sparked joy with her life-changing magic of tidying up, George Carlin (enjoy the video) famously pinged our devotion to stuff. In his routine he mentions needing a place to store such important items as our “fourth-grade math papers.” I’m guilty of moving school papers of mine that date back to third grade more than 2300 miles over 42 years and through six houses (not to mention storing those same pages with my mother for eons). I’m equally guilty of rarely looking at those papers, although when teaching the boy until recently known as Sixteen, now Seventeen, about taking notes for class a couple of years ago, I reached into my box and found a perfect example of what I was talking about in my philosophy notebook from college.

That specific collection of school papers is corralled into one storage bin. Not so well filed are papers from Seventeen and Thirteen’s school experiences along with files of my first full-time job search, pages of creative writing from before there were computers, and financial records, some dating back thirty years. In the unfortunately accommodating storage area of my basement, it’s all too easy to stack in bins and crates what my mother years ago named “scream boxes”—those collections of things or papers that tumble together into a tangle to be sorted some other time.

Looking through the basement in preparation for this year’s garage sale, I found I’ve got a mix of scream boxes and organized packets. Ignoring these, it felt really good to skim out items from the basement we aren’t using, and set them, along with things from every room in the house, out in the garage at the beginning of May. Strangers came to look over our things and few left without purchasing something. You have really nice stuff, one person told me. “Now, you have really nice stuff,” I smiled back, handing her change and a bag holding her treasures.

The garage sale was the most lucrative I’ve ever had, but of course it’s the human interactions that I remember the most. There was the lady who has recently become a mutual funds investor who started talking to Seventeen, giving him advice about life. In short order they were exchanging email addresses, because investing is something he loves to talk about and he has acquired a surprising wealth of knowledge already, even if he’s still working on accumulating actual wealth. There was Larry who readily dispensed his version of life advice to my son: “Work with this,” he said, pointing to his head, “not with these,” and here he wiggled his fingers.

More than one person asked Seventeen about his accent. Born in Maryland and an Iowan since five and a half, his intonation is sometimes a little surprising, but he doesn’t have an accent. It isn’t the first time, he told me; he’s been asked about it at school.

The most hair-raising and smile-inducing visitor to our garage arrived in a shiny silver Jaguar that likely cost more than will Seventeen’s first year of college. Seventeen and I were leaning out of the garage to gawk at the car as he walked up the drive, “Did I park funny?”

“No,” I told him. “We were just admiring your car.”

Seventeen said something affirmative and enthusiastic in response to which the stranger looked straight at him. “Do you have a driver’s license?”

“Yes.”

“Take it for a spin,” he tossed the keys to Seventeen and added, as an afterthought, “Is that okay Mom?”

Off they went down the driveway together where the Jag’s owner showed Seventeen how to adjust the mirrors. I caught my breath as the big car purred away, my son at the wheel.

“Awww, Mom,” the car’s owner walked back up my drive, “don’t worry. I have plenty of insurance. Every boy should have an opportunity to drive a car like that.”

As his story unfolded, it turned out the owner of the Jag had grown up on a car lot, driving all kinds of luxury vehicles. He had, he said, been driving Jaguars for thirty years.

What seemed like an eternity but likely only a quarter of an hour later, Seventeen brought the car back, grinning from ear-to-ear. The owner, too, looked pleased, having given the kind of gift that stories are made of. He strolled off to climb back into his machine, one of our few customers who left without making any purchases.

For two and a half days our belongings left in the arms of strangers. Reactions around the house were varied—watching from the window Ninety-One said she felt a little like she was being robbed. But when she made her way out into the garage, she found the items there had lost their emotional energy and she was glad to see them go. Seventeen is practical—anything he doesn’t want to take to college should be turned to cash. Thirteen spent a happy hour spreading the contents of scream boxes excised from her room a few years back around the basement, discovered a packet of glitter, and proceeded to sparkle her hair, clothes, and the basement floor. Her contributions to the sale itself were few.

In three days we easily divested ourselves of any number of things we no longer use, with a healthy balance going to charity and resale shops over the next two weeks. The experience offered so many gifts: the house feels lighter, brighter, and more welcoming, easier to navigate and to consider what’s still here; I spent a weekend in my garage with Seventeen, enjoying his company at the beginning of what is his last summer at home before he leaves for college; and we put into the bank a tidy sum toward our summer family adventure, the memories from which are sure to be much more precious and important than any knickknack or unused bowl.

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The delight of a list on which everything is crossed off! This one represents hundreds of items donated, retired, or recycled … and my exploration of the plural of trellis shortly after I worked the broken pieces of ours off the house and down to the curb.

May is a month like December, a whirl of activities, concerts, recitals, and endings. There’s a big commencement in our world—Seventeen’s graduation from high school this weekend. So while May took me away from writing as much as I’d like to, it is presenting me with plenty to write about. Look for the inevitable post about my graduate soon and thank you, as ever, for sharing the journey with me, Rxo

Kindness Counts

What else can go right?

One minute you’re singing along to the radio, the volume a little too high, and the next you turn it off because your twelve-year-old daughter has climbed off of her bus and piled into the car with all of her school day bits and pieces and you don’t want to miss anything she reports in the precious few minutes it takes to drive down the hill, up the circle and into your welcoming garage. A scant hour later, your sidekick—now decked out in one of her bright blue leotards, ballet pink tights, her hair coiled into a bun—tumbles back into the front seat and you scan to make sure she’s put on enough outer wear for this day when the low is fifty degrees below normal. She hasn’t, really, but rather than fuss at her you turn up the heat a little and seeing the yellow streak of your son’s high school bus zip by down the hill, you rev the engine just a little in order to pick him up, circle back up to drop him near the warmth of the house, and head back out, glancing down at the electronic clock to register whether you’re really going to maybe be on time for dance for once.

And that’s when you notice that there’s no clock.

In fact, there’re no lights at all. The heat still works, the dash is lit up, but the stereo is nonresponsive. The Bluetooth button on the steering wheel elicits no response. Pressing the button off and on and pushing all of others have no effect. At dance you turn the car engine all the way off and on again, because it’s a computer after all, and still nothing. Your daughter leans her head toward you for a kiss and lightly bounces off, and you wince a little because you know this is the day she has to wait an hour after her class releases in order to accommodate your teaching schedule, but she’s got a book and she claims she doesn’t mind. As you’re driving away you notice the next thing: the odometer is flashing even as the miles mount. You call your service advisor, his name and cell phone number memorized in your phone but, you think, you sure don’t want to resort to putting him on speed dial.

The next day at the enormous dealership under the even more enormous American flag, he agrees: “You don’t want to get to know my children’s birthdays,” he says. He’s right. You love that this young man has children and you’re even glad to ask just now about their ages and genders—when he reports that his little girl is six months and his son just turned two, you understand completely why you need to refresh his memory about who you are even though you were just in the week before.

You leave the car and catch a ride with the chatty courtesy shuttle driver back home where you retrieve your unreliable car and proceed to the grocery store. There’s a whole other little family of people there who keep tabs on you, who know that if you’re not there at 8am on Tuesday as you weren’t this morning because you were dropping off the car there’s something wrong, who will listen, shake their heads, and even make a gift to you of the reusable grocery bags you’re purchasing. You thank them for listening and head off for the rest of your day.

Before the sleep-deprived service advisor calls with a report that—and here’s a surprise—your radio isn’t functioning, your son arrives home from school ill for the second time in two weeks. You have to run out to teach again, so you leave your daughter to care for him and she covers him through his chills and a hard sleep while she does her homework and doesn’t practice because she doesn’t want to wake him up. A quick supper for her and it’s out the door to ballet again while her brother sleeps on. When you get home and go to check on him, he’s burning up. His temperature climbs up to 103.5.

Now you find a substitute for your class in the morning with the knowledge that no matter what happens next it’s going to be a wakeful night. You breathe a sigh of relief as the fever drops to around 100.5—no emergency room, you’ll call the doctor in the morning—and you leave to go get your dancer a little before her class is over so she won’t be waiting for you in the dark. You crawl into bed still fully dressed, not caring really. It’s been a long day.

 

At the end of the week your car is back in your garage, even though the radio has yet to be replaced and your son is on the mend, even though he’s missed three full days of school. Your to-do list for the week has been entirely derailed, you missed some of your regular activities, and you’ve woken up feeling like you haven’t slept at all. You know this has been a week of missteps and small concerns, but you think when health and basic transportation are at issue, it’s something more than petty and it all feels a little too enormous, so it’s a week from which you require some healing. You start by reflecting on kindnesses, little and big, because these are the things that go right and the gestures that keep you going: the friend who brought you two kinds of Wheat Thins; the grocery store employee who gifted you free reusable bags; the teacher who leapt in to teach for you; the yogi who texted “Happy Friday” just because; the woman you barely know who offered to loan you her car; the friend who wrote that you’re a “super Mom;” the opportunity to write it down and send it out there under the new moon. You breathe in, you breathe out, you move on.

Namaste & big love, Rxo

My dancer, dressed in her Nutcracker costume ... a rat to love

My dancer, dressed in her Nutcracker costume … a rat to love

Phone Tag

Phone Tag

Can you sub for me today?

The request arrives via text message at 6:22 a.m. I’m in my morning flurry: packing my children’s lunches for school; getting my mother her meds and tea; making hibiscus tea for the peeps’ breakfast; calling for Twelve to hurry downstairs to eat; managing the cats and their various needs for food, water, and a turn in their pen; and shaking off sleep. My initial reaction is to stop everything, pick up my cell phone and punch in a hurried reply—hang on, let me check. I’ll let you know—something of that ilk. I put my cell phone down and ponder how technology has changed the hours during which we communicate. Take a breath, I remind myself. Just because the message arrived right at that moment, I can wait to compose my day and thus a coherent answer.

When I was growing up, my mother taught me not to place phone calls before nine in the morning, and I was prohibited from being on the phone after nine at night. Family might call late, especially after the long distance rates went down at eleven, but otherwise a phone call late at night or early in the morning was an intrusion at best, more likely an emergency or very bad news.

About the time I got interested in talking to my friends during every waking minute, we had two phones in the house. One was on my mother’s desk and the other, a rotary-dial black box with a heavy handset, hung on the wall in the between the kitchen and the bathroom. There was a phone across the road in the barn, too, that for a while had a horn that blasted so my father could hear it ring in his garden. I spent a lot of afternoons and evenings during junior high coiled in the extra-long phone cord attached to the kitchen phone and secreted into our one bathroom for privacy. Later, when I was in high school, my parents added a line and I had a slimline avocado green touchtone phone in my bedroom. I still wasn’t supposed to talk to my friends past nine, but I’m sure I did sometimes. Okay, more than sometimes.

No answering machine in college meant my roommates and I took messages for one another. I’m sure I sound like a nostalgic Luddite when I remember message taking fondly—a quality message includes the caller’s name, number, message, and a good time to return the call. One of my housemates even brought us “while you were out” message pads purloined from her father’s office. Technology and personal communication devices have sent the fine art of taking a message the way of a passenger leaning across the inside of a car to unlock the driver’s door after being let in by the driver. Who had to use a key. Inserted into the lock. Of the passenger’s door.

We exchange such niceties for the convenience of handheld devices that go everywhere with us and keys so smart they can roll down the windows to air out a car as the driver approaches. My phone actually links right up to my car when it starts, so the whole thing is like a brilliant orange rolling phone booth. (Just think—when was the last time you saw an actual payphone?) The car announces incoming calls, mispronouncing most names naturally, and I push a single button on my steering wheel to answer.

I actually resisted having my own cell phone for a long time because somehow between junior high and now, I learned to dislike the phone. I feel like phone calls are at best an interruption, and I hate calling people to ask for things. I will go to great lengths to avoid calling a store or someone in a professional capacity, preferring to show up on person, search via google or send an email or even a snail mail letter. Nonetheless, none of my electronics are ever very far away from me, even though I do make an effort to turn them off.

In contrast, this very week I noticed a box I could click when printing from Preview that told my printer to automatically print two-sided documents, saving me from having to print one side, flip the paper and then print the other. On the very same day I saw for the first time the outline of an arrow on my online banking site that lets me rearrange the entries in all manner of ways, making data reconciliation much simpler. And my phone, the same one that can shatter my morning with an early text, woke me gently this morning so that I could view the full lunar eclipse from the beginning. Watching the luminous moon turn ashy and then gray and then red, looking up with awe as the stars twinkled brightly, and then checking the moon frequently as another lively morning started in my house, I had to remind myself that as so often the case, it’s all about balance. So I may struggle sometimes with connectivity, but I confess: I like the fact that I can walk outside, watch the eclipse, and then remark publicly via my phone on Facebook and my computer right here on my blog upon the wonder and magic of the night sky.

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Oh what a moon!

Did I sub that class? You betcha. And the day that briefly unraveled as a result of an early morning contact rolled back into a manageable bundle, events rearranged under the sparkling sun and a gorgeous moon rise.

The full October moon rising and perching playfully atop a traffic light as Fifteen drove his sister to ballet and me to our Tuesday evening writing date.

The full October moon rising and perching playfully atop a traffic light as Fifteen drove his sister to ballet and me to our Tuesday evening writing date.

Happy full moon; happy lunar eclipse day. Oh, and watch those electronics—Mercury is in retrograde until the end of the month. With love & gratitude, Rxo

Unca Paul

For this blog there is no question; there are memories …

“It’s hot in here,” Eleven–Twelve-in-Four-Days mentions as we get into the car after an errand on one of the first really warm days in May.

“Yes,” I reply, waiting to turn the key and feeling the heat soak deep into my joints, “isn’t it wonderful?”

“Naoooow,” she draws out and shifts the vowel sounds, “let’s go, Mama, start the car!”

I welcome the heat, but we are off and running as usual, so I rev the engine and turn up the A/C.

I love getting into a sun-baked car, I always have, but never more than after my Uncle Paul stopped by for a visit on his way from a consulting gig in Florida. Uncle Paul, my father’s younger brother, was a doctor and a research scientist specializing in the heating and cooling of our bodies. He literally wrote the book on human calorimeters, the machine by which we can measure how the human body heats and cools and burns energy. He invented a space suit that doesn’t require pressurization and is still undergoing development and applied the technology to cool people living with MS. He conducted research in sleep studies, changing the understanding of how we sleep and why.

The army put Uncle Paul through med school, and after he finished his tour of duty and associated research stints, he and his bride settled in Yellow Springs, OH, where they raised their family and Paul opened his lab, Webb Associates, in 1959. They welcomed me to their home there, putting me up on my many long drives between Iowa and the East Coast, their house just about the half-way point.

In the mid-eighties Uncle Paul closed his lab to travel and work and teach worldwide, and my mother fearlessly picked up the table and chairs from the lab and drove our ancient pickup to my college apartment in Virginia. The chairs didn’t match each other, but they were designed for a work group to sit together for some time, and I hosted many wonderful dinner parties where people gathered around my table and lingered in those chairs.

The warm car information arrived with him after one of his consulting trips. I collected Uncle Paul from the airport, a DC stop-over on his way to the next gig. His tall frame folded neatly into the passenger seat, he told me about the work he had been doing.

An hour north of Tampa, FL, there’s a state park where natural springs feed a pool so deep no one has ever been to the bottom. In the forties, an enterprising mayor submerged a theater six feet below the surface so that dry viewers could watch a live mermaid show. The mermaids would swim through the water reaching out for oxygen hoses, performing their stories for captivated audiences. When my Uncle Paul was called in to consult, this unusual roadside attraction was having a terrible time keeping its mermaids healthy. Four or five shows a day left them bitterly chilled and since performances need performers, the management hoped my uncle could offer them a solution.

He told me about interviewing one of the mermaids who said that the best moment of her day came after her shift when she got to her car that had been parked all day in the hot Florida sun. She would open the door as quickly as she could, hop in, and then slam the door to trap the heat. In the warmth of her car she would begin to reverse the deep-seated chill of working for hours under water.

Paul’s solution for the management was to build the mermaids a between-show hot tub such that the performers could bring their body temperatures back to normal. When I asked him if they would take his advice he shrugged, “I hope so.”

If there is anything I associate with my Uncle Paul, it’s warmth. He was the Uncle who came and took my college self to dinner at the fanciest French restaurant in Maryland, La MIche, complimenting me for dipping my bread in my wine. He was the Uncle who came to Spain during my father’s sabbatical there, and together we celebrated his fiftieth birthday. He was the Uncle who found me in the very back row of the chapel at my grandmother’s funeral and brought me to the front with the rest of the family I had never met. He was the Uncle who could belt out a patter song from Gilbert and Sullivan in a beautiful voice he honed all the way to the end of his life.

When I was very little, before I understood even a bit of the radical, intellectual mind of my Uncle, whom I called Unca, I used to sit on his lap and examine the moles and skin tags he had on his forehead. He never admonished me or even gently lifted me down; instead, he issued a kind of low chuckle that made his whole body shake. Sometime later he would have those blemishes removed, and while it might truly have improved his appearance not to mention eased a health risk for a man who spent several hours outdoors gardening and playing tennis each summer day, I missed them immensely.

Unca Paul Now, under the full June moon, I miss
Uncle Paul. I don’t know if he ever aspired
to go to the moon himself, but he certainly
intended for his space suit to make
traveling the universe easier. Each time I
saw him on earth, his warmth and big spirit
made my life easier, better. I am grateful to
have had him in this world.

 In loving memory, Rxo

Vertical Hold

What are you reading these days?

[[Author’s note: This is probably more essay than blog post. Posting here anyhow … with thanks to my writing circle who challenged me to write into this more. We’ll see, for now here’s Part II, or thoughts to follow “The Door to Everywhere.”]]

When I was little we had an enormous color television set that stood on the floor. You had to cross the floor to change the channel, adjust the color, or turn the volume up. There were four channels and occasionally reception through an enormous antenna on the roof caused a snowy picture or rapid scrolling, black lines crossing the screen, necessitating adjustment of the vertical hold.

My mother gave my brother and me a television account, seven hours a week each. We had to read the TV Guide and select what we would watch ahead of time. I liked Captain Kangaroo in the mornings and when I snuck a peek in the evening, I thought perhaps he was also Walter Cronkite, no longer dressed in his signature red coat, back to deliver the evening news my parents consumed along with their cocktails every night.

Saturday mornings we must have somehow combined our hours, because I remember settling in with cereal bowls to watch cartoons. I liked the antics of Bugs Bunny the best, but it is the misadventures of Wile E Coyote I remember—how he would freeze in midair, eyes enormous before dropping legions down a canyon or look with sudden awareness at the item he was holding, something explosive, then look at the camera with full knowledge of what was about to happen. His ears might droop a little, but powerless to do anything about it, we’d wait for the inevitable, boom. It always made sense to my trusting mind that in the next frame, or maybe the one after that, he would return unscathed.

There are moments in life that feel just like that. Once I was navigating the overcrowded evening streets of Taipei, a metropolis that truly never sleeps, with a friend who had been living in Asia after college. We started across a street just as a car started barreling toward us. Maybe she was across faster than I was, but I jumped in the air, alarm on my face, my feet peddling while I hovered without moving forward—just like the Coyote right before he would be smacked by an oncoming Mack truck. Somehow I started to move (cue a whoosh sound with a little puff of cartoon smoke behind me) and made it safely to the other side of the busy street. When I got there, breathlessly, I said, “I felt like a character in a cartoon just then.” My friend laughed, “You looked just like one.”

More recently an ice storm coated the streets, sidewalks and trees of our community. I was on my way home from a late meeting, one of the only cars on the road. I got to my street, a one-block suburban circle that leads up the hill to my house, turned, and fifteen feet up the hill stopped, sliding sideways. Backing down and making a run for it netted me a whole twenty feet, and I determined that I wasn’t going to make it up the hill until the city had treated my street.

I slid back onto the more mainly road where traction was somewhat possible and saw a treatment truck go by. I thought to go and see if other circles in the neighborhood were being treated, figuring I could wait until they did mine, and found the truck two streets over. I pulled over to the curb to watch him start up the street and stop, wheels spinning. As soon as the driver took his foot off the gas the truck paused, totally still, and then started to slide at an angle right back down the hill. I watched him try and try again, getting no further than I had in his enormous six-wheeled truck with flashing lights and a bed full of ice melt.

It was no more successful when he turned around and tried backing up the hill, spreading his treatment mixture ahead of his own back tires. I couldn’t see the driver’s face, but the whole truck, each time momentum stopped and before it started to slide, had that Coyote-like expression, in the dark, the icy rain still falling and freezing all around us.

That night I ended up parking my car a solid half-mile from my house and navigating the icy pavements by walking on yoga blankets I had in my trunk. I’d put one down, walk across it, spread the second one as best I could, step onto it, turn around pick up the last one, and inch forward. I could walk safely on the grassy surfaces, but my trek crossed a parking lot, a slew of driveways, and one major street. By the time I reached the bottom of my circle, I had ice coated on my glasses and in my hair and I was exhausted. I thought, if I’m going to fall, it’s going to happen up this hill close to home. I tried to redouble my care.

Years of yoga and I fall well. That night one tiny misstep, my foot half on the blanket half on the icy pavement, and I went down fast—no time to look helplessly at the camera—curling into myself and landing on my right hip and shoulder. Normally I would stay down after a fall, allowing the adrenaline to subside, but heart pumping I got up knowing it was too cold to stay on the ground. I was two driveways away from my own safe house.

The next day’s weather wasn’t much better. Eleven and Fourteen had delayed openings at school, the people I was supposed to meet with opted to stay home, and I inched my way downtown to see my chiropractor who brought mobility to my stiffening shoulder. That evening, on the sofa enjoying a fire and the surety of having everyone at home, I thought it might be nice to read a book.

I don’t remember learning to read, but I remember reading just about every book in my junior high’s library, some of them many times. I consumed books, like my children do, opting to read over just about any other activity, even sometimes those seven hours of television. My appetite continued through college, when I would use reading to relax, especially during finals week. Then in graduate school I spent three years not finishing books because there was always more to read. But I regained my reading pace as a professor, surrounded in various English departments by colleagues who always were reading and recommending something new.

Novels, memoirs, and academic treatises gave way to Moo, Baa, La La La and Goodnight Gorilla when Fourteen was born. I read to him constantly and it wasn’t long before he would toddle his way to me, a book offered with a beseeching look. We would stop everything and read, one book over and over or a stack that seemed to appear as he crawled into my lap. My own reading pace slowed considerably, not to a dead stop but to an agonizingly slow pace, maybe a book every month or two. Television and Internet screen time took over as my drugs of choice.

Today I read a lot—editing materials and email messages and business-related items—and I don’t read much at all. I still have the habit of buying books—I’m rarely able to finish a library book in the three weeks allotted for me—and starting them. They tend to lie around with a torn scrap of paper marking the first chapter or, worse, open, their spines creasing to keep my place. Momentum lost, I’ll clean them up two or three or eight weeks after I’ve started reading them and put them on the shelf next to all of the other “must reads.”

The hankering to read that started on the sofa the day I was resting has turned into a full-blown impetus. As a part of this year’s visualization process, I kept coming up against this image of books not just organized and waiting to be read, although that’s a part of it, but actually reading books, consuming them like I used to, like I watch my children do every day after school, without a thought.

At the same time, I kept seeing explosions and fireworks, alarm and beauty, cartoon character style. Cartoon characters have a plan, often foolhardy, but they set about it with resolve. I drew a picture—order written in the cursive fuse of a rocket, a stick-person rendering of me hanging onto the rocket called chaos, the ascent, explosion, and subsequent fireworks lighting up the sky. Such events can be beautiful, breathtaking, and damaging; there’s a chance of getting scalded by falling embers or dirtied by ashes as they tumble, not to mention the perilous fall back to earth. When I looked at my drawing, what I could see was an image of me coping through the ups and downs. It’s a start but not ultimately a good visualization because it doesn’t promote the life that I want.

What I crave right now is ordered space, a concept that in my mind means I’ll be able to pick up those waiting books and read, put them down to attend to the next thing—or hold on as the inevitable chaos explodes, like I did just this week when the hydraulic system in my car’s transmission failed—but come back to the books sooner and read some more. Ordered space means that although life is chaotic and sometimes explosive, there will be a firmament that’s truly firm for me to stand on, manage the chaos, shelter through the explosions, and settle back without too much lingering ash or danger from falling embers. Ordered space is my visualization for this new year, represented by a line-drawing box, the inside a place to find order, the outside chaos held mostly at bay. Ordered space equals organized time and organized time includes time in my account to indulge in activities that give me joy, like reading on the sofa with my peeps.visualization

Makes sense, doesn’t it, that I’m reading Everything That Remains, a memoir by Minimalists Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus. Happy New Moon, Happy Wood Horse Year (Eleven’s year), Happy Groundhog Day, a day that marks my eighth anniversary as a yoga teacher. Wishing you warmth and the solid belief that spring will spring wherever you may be. With love, as always, Rxo

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