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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

Lemonade from Lemons

Lemonade from Lemons

How does an outing to look at flowers and Lego sculptures turn into a life lesson?

On an overcast, remarkably cool Friday morning after a litany of hot and humid summer days, Fourteen, Seventeen, Ninety-One and I set out for Reiman Gardens in Ames. The goal was an outing for my children with their grandmother, pursuing joy during our last summer before Seventeen leaves for college. The butterflies were magical, the Lego sculptures delighted us, and throughout the gardens we enjoyed summer blooms. My mother watched her grandchildren play even as they took their responsibility for pushing her borrowed wheelchair seriously.

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At Reiman Gardens

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The bee & pansy Lego sculpture

The day was warming and Seventeen had a little over two hours before he needed to be at work. I went to fetch the car, climbed in and turned the key. It wouldn’t start. A light came on with the message, “service transmission.” I tried the key again. Nothing. I took the key all the way out of the ignition, turned it over in my palm, took a deep breath and reinserted it in the ignition. Nothing.

On the walk back to the entrance I did my best to hold back my frustration. When I arrived at the stones where my mother and children were seated, I pressed my hand up high overhead and said, “Okay, everybody put your arms in the air like this.” They did! “Okay, now say: ‘Plot Twist!’” Of the three, Mom’s call of “plot twist” was the most enthusiastic. Fourteen gave me her best teenaged girl why are we doing this look. Seventeen knew already something was wrong.

A volley of phone calls later, Chrysler roadside assistance had been summoned, the courtesy shuttle from the nearest Dodge-Chrysler dealer had whisked my family off to the air-conditioned waiting room, and Seventeen had both notified work of his predicament and ordered lunch to be delivered.

The next three hours tested my legendary patience. The tow truck was late, the service advisor moved at a crawl, and the car didn’t even get a bay for at least an hour. I took to walking circuits around the dealership where no one was making any deals. When the service advisor finally allowed as they hadn’t found anything wrong with the transmission but the computer spit out twelve pages of protocols they had yet to run, I said simply, “Can you get us out of here?” Suddenly, he seemed to want nothing more. With barely a glance at my driver’s license, he handed me the keys to a 7-passenger van and we were on the road to home.

It occurred to me, on the drive, that a van would make moving some furniture that I needed to move somewhat easier. Should I have the van for the weekend, I decided, I’d put it to work.

Instead, midday Saturday I got a call to come pick up my car. “There’s nothing wrong with it.” What? How could it have gone from not starting with engine lights glowing to just fine? With reservations and not a little grumbling, I drove to Ames and swapped the van for my car.

For ten days it worked fine. My grumble eased a little and I started to think, shrug. With the summer days drifting along, I knew I needed an oil change before the car left with Seventeen for the fall. I thought I’d check with my regular mechanic, with whom I had consulted from Ames, but otherwise trust that somehow we’d had a glitch not a true malfunction.

And then the call came. My son was stuck in a parking lot. The same

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Round Two …

message was flashing, the same symptoms … and once again a torrent of phone calls followed. This time the tow truck was early, fifteen minutes ahead of the estimate. Sitting in the cab of the truck I marveled at how it rocked when the bed lowered to hoist my car into place. We were at the dealership in just a few minutes and my apologetic service advisor, who privately opined that the people in Ames may have done precisely nothing, had me on the road in a brand new 2016 Dodge RAM 1500 extended crew-cab 4-wheel-drive pickup in next to no time.

A truck? You bet I can drive a truck. I grew up driving a variety of heavy-duty farm trucks, construction trucks one summer for the county road crew, and buses for four years in Washington, DC. This truck had a spin dial gear shift, a back-up camera, icy cold A/C, and could seat six. Not waiting, we hauled two loads of furniture home from the yoga studio and seven boxes of documents for shredding over to my accounting firm’s annual event.

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Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear!

But the best was taking it for a spin on another outing—a nearly sunset Sunday drive up to the High Trestle Trail, one of the loveliest sites in our area. Converted from an old railroad bridge, the trail invites bikers and walkers to look out over the Des Moines River from 130 feet up. As the sun goes down the lights come up, and the architectural wonder is nothing short of magical. The peeps and I walked from one end to the other and back, and on the way home in the dark we stopped for ice cream. “Don’t eat yet,” I said, as we climbed back into our truck. A mile or so down the country highway, I found a place to pull off, backing the tailgate up to a cornfield. We climbed in the back to eat our ice cream and look at the stars.

Opportunity has a weird way of knocking … sometimes I think it sends a precursor, an experience that gets us ready to answer when the knock comes. And tonight, under the full August moon that rose glowing apricot over our last night home as a family, I’m thinking there are so many, many more opportunities ahead if we are open to them. As ever, thanks for taking the journey with me, 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

Aquarius Calling

What is your favorite song?

Google “music and memory research” and there are one hundred sixty-four million hits. But there is perhaps no more immediate proof that certain musical pieces from the past deliver a memory wallop than that moment when a song you’re not expecting starts playing on the radio. The most recent song to stir my memory banks made me smile: “Kiss You All Over,” by Exile. A number one hit in 1978, the synth-pop success never struck me as a particularly good song then. This week when I heard it while driving through the early spring sunshine, the convertible top down and the wind ruffling my hair, my reaction was: “Oh, I love this song.” And I turned up the volume.

In 1978 I had an avocado green touch-tone slimline phone with an extra-long cord in my room. Although not a dedicated teenline, it was a second number at the farm (I’ll always remember these digits: 319.683.2656 (of course don’t call them now—they may belong to someone else)), so it felt like mine. I was not allowed to be on it after 9pm and no one in those days called anyone before 9am, unless it was an emergency or a work/school-related matter. But who called whom after school was an important social register, and I looked forward to hearing that phone ring.

My longest-standing friendship is nearly the length of my lifetime, and it began when a girl finally arrived, after four sons, at the farm adjacent to ours to the west. My mother gave her mother my crib, and since we could talk we’ve said we were crib sisters. Because the district line scrolled weirdly right through our property, my friend and her brothers attended the country school system; my brother and I went into town. Nonetheless, we saw each other weekends and spent much of the un-air-conditioned hot, humid Iowa summers cooling off by floating together in inner tubes on our pond.

My friend—I’m going to call her Aquarius—spent many a night at my house. We’d go to my room and listen to music and sometimes we browsed the phone book. Young people who had their very own phone lines were often identified in the phone book under their parents’ listing as “teenline.” That meant if you dialed such a number you were likely ringing the phone of a teenager in his or her room. If anyone was going to answer, it would be the teen. There were no answering machines, no caller ID, no hold button or call waiting, but there would be a busy signal if the person were already on the line. In those days, you dialed the number and you got the person or you didn’t.

I feel a little chagrined to confess that Aquarius and I found a great deal of delight in making crank calls, specifically to teenlines. We took turns, dialing the numbers, waiting with a catch in our breath for the phone on the other end to ring, hoping that someone would answer. We’d say something we were certain was tremendously provocative, listen for the reaction and then hang up and laugh, our hearts racing.

One night Aquarius, who I suspect is still far braver than I, called a teenline and waited. When a male voice answered, she dropped her line on him. I don’t remember what she said, but the response she got was not an angry slam; it was a groggy, “What?” She looked at me with big eyes and then kinda shrugged and said, simply, “Hi.”

She had caught the attention of our call recipient and they begin to talk. His name was Kurt, and he was a college student, living at home for the summer. Just junior high girls, we were thrilled to talk to this older guy who seemed content to while away some time chatting. We handed the phone back and forth, laughing and talking for some time.

It was not the last time we would call Kurt. The next time we were armed with a list of questions. For years I had the canary yellow legal pages on which we wrote his answers in green ink. Even though I can see the pages like a snapshot, other than his first name, the only thing I can remember is that his favorite song, he said, was “Kiss You All Over.”

Was it really? Or was it just what was playing over and over and over and over on top-40 radio? Aquarius and I listened the next time we heard the song—with five older rock-n-roll brothers between us, we couldn’t imagine a guy who would pick such a schmaltzy pop song as his favorite. But we decided we liked it because Kurt did.

So many years later the song ends and I’m pulling into my destination, awash in memories of Aquarius and farm summers and innovations like push-button phone pads that my children wouldn’t even see as technology. I’m not aware of anything even similar to crank calling in their world, although I supposed “friending” or “following” someone you don’t know might give you a similar opportunity for the thrill of touching a stranger. Then again, today such interactions are discouraged because you don’t know who’s on the other end of the connection or where in the world they might be or whether they are who they say they are. And even though neither one of dials into their favorite station on a clock radio in their room, as I did endlessly during my teenaged years, I am certain, that the music they listen to today will be the music that evokes the Oh yeah, I remember when that happened memories they will cherish a few miles down the road.

Happy new April moon—it’s time to sow seeds, metaphorical and actual. What seeds are you planting? With much love, Rxo

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The seeds we are sowing this spring will arrive in surprising and mysterious and colorful ways, sometimes when we least expect them. Yes—this farm girl knows tulips come from fall bulbs not spring seeds, but these tulips were a gift from a friend I met at the most ill-imagined, uncomfortable party ever. The party was thirteen years ago; the friendship is as strong as ever. 

A Twenty-Minute Town

A Twenty-Minute Town

What are you thankful for?

Dear Des Moines,

In a few weeks’ time, the calendar will mark eleven years since my family and I arrived here—we were five people, two cats, two dogs (one of them dying) on a icy sixteen-degree day complete with a wind chill that was way below zero. Halfway up the stairs of our new suburban box, a house the square footage of which quite possibly exceeds the cumulative footage of every other house I’d lived in before, I sank to the mini-landing and thought, “We’ve made a terrible mistake, moving here.”

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The Iowa Capitol, beautiful outside and worth a visit to see the twenty-nine types of marble inside!

Last week, I drove Sixteen to orientation for his winter/spring position as a Senate Page. As he struggled to tie an acceptable full Windsor knot in a new tie, a gift from his grandmother Ninety-One, on the drive downtown, I suggested he remember this moment. In twenty or thirty years, I told him he’d be effortlessly tying his tie in the back of his limo on his way to work. Or maybe he’d be so rich he wouldn’t have to wear a tie. “Or so poor, I can’t afford one,” he smiled, something neither of us believes will happen, but it completed my thought in the cheerful way that we riff off of each other. Oh Des Moines, even as I was marking the moment with him, cruising along I-235 toward the capitol building, I was remembering a much earlier foray on the same highway from the first year we lived here.

We knew hardly anyone, arriving halfway through the school year, and Sixteen, then Five, was put into the afternoon Kindergarten class. Our schedule revolved around his bus to and from the abbreviated school day, interwoven with his sister’s nap. Every Friday morning we drove downtown to the indoor Farmers’ Market. There we purchased milk from Picket Fences dairy, tasty bites for lunch, eggs from a farmer called Brent, and occasional crafts and other delights from the merchants we came to consider our first friends in the area. When he realized his sixth birthday would fall on a Market Friday, Very Nearly Six hatched a plan: we baked mini-muffins together and bearing this basket of treats went to the market as usual. Six made his way through the market, sharing the muffins with his merchant friends. They were truly charmed.

The following fall our schedule shifted and by-then Three was enrolled in morning preschool, her brother at his elementary all day. Still our hearts broke when the indoor market closed, even as the building was repurposed into the wildly successful Gateway Market and some of the merchants went on either to open retail establishments of their own—Café di Scalia, Zumi—or to become a gold standard in local produce: Picket Fences milk, cream and ice cream are now for sale all over the area.

Last week, after I dropped Sixteen, at midmorning on a Friday, I pulled easily into a meter right in front of the county office building. In fifteen minutes I had turned in license plates, netting a refund check, and completed the paperwork, photo and all, to renew my passport. I topped off my meter and walked through the skywalk system to the indoor holiday Farmers’ Market. Hosted in a skywalk nexus for two days in November and two more in December, this is the place to purchase the last tastes of the Iowa summer—jams, jellies, honey, late produce. I scored heritage carrots, watermelon radishes, a tiny tray of baklava for Ninety-One, Dutch Letters for Sixteen and Thirteen, and a hostess gift for a fall party.

I still hadn’t used up as much time in Des Moines as Sixteen, Thirteen and I spent purchasing train tickets in Madrid. Or, I remembered with a smile, my three-hour trip to the Maryland DMV when Thirteen was Three Months and the tip-top of her downy head appeared in my driver’s license photo. So I found a seat in a coffee shop and thought, as I often do, what a pleasant and easy place this is to live.

In fifty years, I’ve lived in six states and two foreign countries. I have dreams of living abroad again and living near the sea again, so someday, Des Moines, it may well be time to leave you again. In fact, I don’t think that I truly believed when we moved here that this would be the place from which my peeps would graduate, but I did know that I wanted them to have a sense of stability, a launching pad into their own lives. You have helped me create this foundation for them, Des Moines, and for this, too, I am grateful.

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Looking west from the Capitol—home is less than twenty minutes thataway!

In the years we’ve made a home here, Des Moines, you have proven yourself to be a town of opportunity, a town of reliable medical care, a town where my bankers know me by name, and a town where I can live on the west side and drive downtown in under twenty minutes without speeding. You’ve come to be a town where without exception no matter where I might be, I will run into at least one person I know. You’re the town where my children are thriving, with opportunities like Sixteen’s Senate page position and Thirteen’s upcoming performance as a Flower in Ballet Des Moines’ professional production of The Nutcracker. You’re a town, Des Moines, that has given me all of these gifts alongside the gift of an amazing community of people with whom I work and play.

As we celebrate Thanksgiving this week, Des Moines, I am thankful that my pilgrimage landed me here. I am grateful you are the pleasant mid-western city that you are.

Wishing you and yours a happy full beaver moon, a glorious Thanksgiving, and a brilliant thank you for riding along on my journey. Namaste, Rxo

My Ten Cents

My Ten Cents

Why is it a lucky dime?

Palindrome week, Tuesday (51215).

I’m sitting in Starbucks—not my usual Starbucks, but one three minutes farther away from Twelve’s dance studio that stays open later—trying to settle in after a day of making arrangements. Twelve hours earlier my surgeon confirmed my worst suspicions: the only way my frozen knuckle was going to get better was surgery. I’ve spent the day making lists, shooting out email messages, lining up teachers to sub my classes, taking a hiatus from my corporate gig … I’m having trouble settling in partly because I feel the tick-tock pressure cooker of more to do than I can in the five days before surgery and partly because I never saw any surgery as part of my personal story. Yet here I am, prepping for surgery number two.

I’ve left my phone in the car and that doesn’t seem like a good idea as it’s been op center all day, so I hustle out to my car, find it under the pile of mail I dumped on it earlier, and hustle back. I check Facebook and email again because, well, who doesn’t. They’re lovely distractions. Then I stare out the window, trying to riddle through a pivotal plot point in my revisionist fairy tale, as yet untitled.

It’s not twilight, but the sun is low enough in the sky to evidence the coming night. I see a shiny object on the patio. I decide it’s a penny and I should leave it alone. I look away. I look at my screen. I stare across the café at the shuffling baristas. I look back out the window. Penny. Shiny.

An hour ago I might have contemplated sitting outside, but it’s not quite warm enough now, so even though the music is a little louder than I’d like and I’m sitting with my back to the door, something I never prefer, I’ve settled in and I’m not going to move. I tell myself: It’s time to write. I see the penny again. Aww, crap. I’ve always taught my children not to disregard small change. It adds up. I unfold from my chair and go outside, leaving my table, computer, wallet for the second time, to pick up the penny. When I get there, I’m rewarded—it’s a 2015 dime. Back inside I place it next to me on my table and write steadily for an hour. On my drive to collect Twelve, the dime goes in the center console of my car—a talisman for the week.

Palindrome week, Thursday (51415).

Wednesday was a busy teaching day, as Wednesdays always are, and already this morning I started with a meeting, subbed two classes, and taught a private at my studio, but a few other things have moved around and my lists are keeping me organized. I’m inside Home Depot to purchase light bulbs when I get the phone call every parent dreads: This is the nurse at the junior high school … I have Twelve here. She fell in PE and she has a pretty good goose egg on her head. I’m reluctant to put her on the bus.

“I’m close. I’ll be right there.”

I walk into the nurse’s office, and there is my daughter holding an ice pack to her forehead. The goose egg on her head is enormous, such that I catch my breath. She’s also got two skinned knees, a fat lip, and pain in her right elbow and wrist. She’s been crying.

“I think we’re going to the emergency room.”

“Really?” Twelve eyes fill up, “but I have dress rehearsal this afternoon.”

“Oh Sweetie. We have to get you checked out first. We’ll worry about dress rehearsal in a little while.” The nurse looks relieved.

It was more than a spill, as she will explain first to me and then to each of the medical people we see. The game was sharks and minnows, a variation of tag in which the sharks tag the minnows and they become seaweed, sitting on the floor. Running and swerving to avoid both a shark and seaweed, she tripped on a seated student and crashed right into the wall. We leave the ER two hours later with the diagnosed broken elbow in a sling, the hematoma still under ice, and a referral to an orthopedist. The tears have dried now; she’s hungry and quite stoic, talking about attending school the next day and how she might support her dance friends when they take the stage without her on Sunday. Plus, she’s oddly jazzed about breaking a bone, another first for either of my children. My mind is trying to add this to the story of the week. And I’m wondering how do I go forward with my surgery while taking care of my injured child?

Palindrome week, Friday (51515).

On the drive to school, it’s foggy. I love fog, always have. Twelve agrees that it’s magical, and we marvel that up ahead we see the edge of the fog, but when we arrive at that place, it’s clear. The fog moves with us. Twelve decides it’s like we’re driving in a bubble.

After I leave Twelve to school, walking her in and making certain that she’ll have a study hall instead of PE, I get it. Her school is her world and they take care of one another there. The counselor and the nurse made much of her when we arrived, the principal stopped to offer kind words, students rallied around and asked her what happened. The counselor arranged for a student to be her book buddy, leaving class a few minutes early and helping Twelve from one classroom to another. It’ll be healing for her to be at school. Saturday can be a day on the sofa.

When you're close enough to the target, whatever it is, it'll be clear.

When you’re close enough to the target, whatever it is, it’ll be clear.

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Twelve and her sling stopping by pre-recital to deliver her famous brownies and best wishes to her ballerina friends.

On the way home I continue to enjoy the fog. Fog always makes me feel like it’s okay to focus in close. I watch the Target sign emerge out of the fog and smile at the symbolism as I drive past. Like a palindrome, in the fog it’s hard to tell whether you’re coming or going. But, this, too, all of it, shall pass. It’s going to be a bumpy few weeks, but no more impossible than anything else. The fog gives me permission to keep my focus on the close-in targets, the things I can see, and to do just what needs to be done to facilitate my healing and Twelve’s. The larger picture that I’m forever questioning but rarely feel like I can see—it will become clear soon enough. We can only ever really know the parts of our personal stories that have played out. And when we know them clearly, we will all have, in fact, moved forward.

Palindrome week, Monday (51815). It’s a new moon and I’m ready to get my hand repaired. I don’t know how soon I’ll be typing steadily again so the next overneathitall might be a while … still, the lessons in this one precious life keep arriving and I feel richer for them, and for the dime I paused to pick up, and for the dear ones who make the fabric of this world more opulent. Thank you for taking this journey with me, love, Rxo

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