Monday, October 27, 2008

No Regrets

Fifteen years ago, I remember driving down the road in Jackson, Michigan. I can still picture the expanse of concrete parking lot that led to the back of the brick newsbuilding. We stopped there. Looking straight ahead, I told my husband, "I don't think I can do this again."
My belly was swollen with our second baby. The first one, not two years old, sat in the backseat.
"I don't think I can do this again." I swept my hand toward my stomach.
"Okay," he shrugged. "This'll be our last one."
"No, I can't do this one. I can't finish. I can't give birth - again. It's just too hard."
I realize now, 15 years later, that put my husband in a no-win situation. I was weeks from meeting my son -- a bald then blond energetic fire plug who has grown into a stretched out rubber band. Every move he makes around the house could result in broken glass or bloody knees, all arms and legs with size 12 feet and the slightest shadow of a mustache.
Born two weeks before his due date, he was my smallest baby, although the birth didn't seem that much easier. Everyone he met was his friend. Everything he encountered an opportunity to explore.
He taught me that boys and girls can be given the same toys, the same movies and come away with totally different viewpoints. To my daughter, Pocahantas was a love movie. To my son, it was a movie about war.
He has imitated the dance moves of Michael Flatley, played chess against masters, fiddled the violin with ease at many recitals, broken an ankle while playing football before going back into the game, and hunched down in the car in embarrassment when I have been driving.
Sometimes he's my easiest, most loving child. Other's he's the one most likely to make me weep.
For 15 years now, he has made my life better. Happy Birthday, Spence.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Fun on the Trail

This is an addendum to my previous post for anyone who might have thought that, because we abandoned the Appalachian Trail early, we didn't have a blast. Is there any possible way to travel with three girlfriends and not have fun? I don't think so. First, there is the leaving behind of children and spouses. You could just sit in the car for three days and have more fun than you would at home.
Okay, but we didn't do that. We did sit in the car for eight hours as we sped south to North Carolina. And we talked constantly, except for Najah who kept falling asleep in the middle of the conversation because she hadn't slept the night before.
So, why is it hilarious when the two car-sick people ride in the front seat and don't notice that we are almost out of gas in the Tennessee mountains. Or because I look down to program a number into my phone we miss our turn and drive miles out of the way. Hey, am I the only one paying attention here?
We laughed when Najah decided that our trail call "Hooty Hoo!" should be replaced by "Hey Laaadies!" in a Jerry Lewis voice. We found that call didn't carry quite as far. And no one went for my suggestions that we yell a hearty, "My friends!" in honor of the election season.
My husband claimed that a ball of, basically, kite string, was strong enough to hoist our bear bags over a branch. We ended up splitting our food into two separate bags and pulling it over a branch. The string was so skinny it cut into our palms so we had to work together to pull it. The branch was the right size and location, out away from the trunk of the tree so a bear couldn't get it, but it did happen to be right next to another tree trunk where a bear could have shimmied up and grabbed our food, like convenient take out. It wasn't until we left that trail that we saw the sign warning about bear activity on the trail and a bear that had been stealing packs. Ooops. Noreen had been so proud that she kept her pack in the vestibule of her tent so it was handy the next morning and didn't get soaked by the rain overnight. That bear warning deflated her pride a little.
After our night in the tent, we all swore we hadn't slept. Yet, I thought Pam didn't move all night while I turned over every 15 minutes. She said the same. And Naj claimed to have called our names all night long.
The next day had its miserable moments, I must admit. But we were so proud of filtering our own water and filling those empty bottles. Noreen sang "This is the trail that never ends" as we walked along. And when I became too tired to go on, I simply sat down. Najah was on a positive swing and was in the middle of a motivational speech about how we could accomplish our goals, we could go the distance, we could... She turned around and saw me at the bottom of the trail, staring into the multi-colored leaves that covered the trees. "Hey!"
And I decided that was it for me. My hiking days were over.
In the end, we're typical Americans. Although the hike wasn't what we imagined, we were already plotting a way to make it better the next time. Boots and a pack that fit. Naj claimed she would only carry five granola bars and a water bottle. I thought sherpas might solve the problem.
When I walked out of work on Monday, and the air had that sweet tinge of fall while the sun made me blink, I texted Naj: "I'm ready to go again."
"Me too!" she replied.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Bailing on the Trail

Maybe we can blame it all on Mapquest. Maybe if Mapquest hadn't sent us on US 129 through the Smoky Mountains things would have turned out differently. Of course, my friend Naj hadn't told us she gets car sick until we began winding up and down the mountains. We met only motorcycles zooming around those hairpin curves and pulled over three times for police cars or ambulances. When we finally sped into the parking lot to meet our shuttle to the trail, Naj jumped out and puked beside the river.
Hmmm. Not a great start. We pulled our packs from Noreen's van and piled them in the trunk of the shuttle. Maybe if we hadn't been in such a hurry, I wouldn't have left my water bottle in the van.
Maybe if the driver, Mark, had not been one of those people who drives with a foot on the brake and another on the gas, accelerating and braking over the mountains, then he wouldn't have vomit on the interior of his Lincoln Town Car. And maybe if we hadn't stopped several times for Naj to throw up, we would have gotten to the Appalachian Trail earlier than 4 p.m.
Maybe if we hadn't started at Winding Stair Gap in North Carolina and planned to hike nearly 4 miles to the campsite, we would have gotten there in time to eat dinner in the light, rather than in the pitch black night. Adjusting packs, stopping for photos, admiring the changing leaves -- those were all part of our plan. But as the light began to fade, we hurried on, worried that our first night would arrive without a campsite.
Maybe if it hadn't started to rain the minute we set up our tents and continued to rain through the night and all the next day. If we hadn't cooked in the dark and hung our bear bag from a tree limb in the dark. If we'd broken down camp faster in the morning and hadn't needed to hike down a side path to filter water.
Maybe if the rain hadn't made the leaves on the path slippery and the misty fog hadn't made the view from Siler Bald disappear.
Mostly though, if our packs hadn't weighed too much and fit poorly and if the trail hadn't been straight up then maybe we would not have left the trail earlier than we planned.
Noreen and Pam hiked ahead with their longer legs while Naj and I lagged behind. The second day was pure misery. The rain fell. A blister swelled on my heel. And a thick fatigue settled on my shoulders. I felt like I couldn't go another mile. So when I pulled myself up to a gravel logging road and found Noreen and Pam there, I was so relieved when Noreen said, "I know what you're thinking because I was thinking the same thing."
Thank, God! She knows we need to leave the trail, I thought.
But then she continued, "I thought after all that climbing the trail would level off."
Behind her, wooden stairs were built into the mountain to continue the trail toward Wayah Bald.
"Wait! That's not what we were thinking! We were thinking we need to get off the fucking trail!" I said.
I rarely use the F-word, but I thought it was appropriate at this juncture.
The problem was that we needed to hike 27 miles in four days. Something we'd imagined was manageable. We had all run marathons in the past, going nearly 27 miles in less than five hours. How could we fail to go the distance in four days?
But, at 2 p.m., we had to face the fact that a day of constant walking had gotten us only four miles. We were eight miles from the beginning of our hike and we had nineteen miles to go.
"Let's get to Wayah Bald and set up camp for the night."
That would put us at 10 miles from the beginning. We couldn't imagine we could go farther. Too exhausted.
"But we're wet and cold. We can't sit still for 15 hours," Noreen protested.
So we located a road where someone could pick us up. My husband, disappointed in our choice to leave the trail, called around and found us a ride. We hiked two miles in an hour and met the car. We were going home.
When my 12-year-old called out in the middle of the night and I comforted him before climbing into my bed and snuggling against my husband's back, I thought, I'm so glad I'm home in my warm bed and not out on the cold, wet trail, changing positions on the hard ground.
Does that mean I won't go backpacking again? Well, not anytime soon. And not with my boots that are too small or a backpack that doesn't fit right. But I do have a date with the woods later this month when we go ziplining through the Hocking Hills.

Monday, October 13, 2008

What were we thinking?

Sure, it's all fun and games when you're setting up a tent in the backyard, but really who wants to go traipsing along the Applachian Trail in late October? Well, apparently my marathoner friends do and I got sucked in with them.
So, we leave on Thursday. We'll drive 8 hours then walk 27 miles over the next three days before we drive back home.
I am not someone you can picture camping. I'm not a wimp, but you don't really think of me as an outdoorsman or woman. I like early morning runs, but I've never been one who enjoys watching worms wriggle in the dirt or dissecting scat found in the woods. Now I'll be the one with my bright orange shovel, digging a hole and leaving my own deposits.
I feel guilty about going. I've been trying to finish grading papers because I'll be away from my needy online students for four days. I've found subs for my "live" classes. As for my three children, Grace has a concert Thursday night and they are all off school on Friday. My husband, of course, must work Saturday too this week. That leaves my children home alone on Friday and Saturday. So, I'm torn. Should I skip the hike to oversee the children? Should I skip the hike and avoid using a shovel in the woods?
As I pondered my ambivalence, I received a call to fetch my basketball-weary son from practice. I walked out to the car and an ivory-colored butterfly flew along beside me. I opened the door to the convertible and there, in the middle of the driver's seat, was a yellow oak leaf. Nature beckons and tries to reassure me. I guess I'll go and watch the full moon wane.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Follow through

I know follow through is always important in tennis, but I had no idea how much it meant in parenting. Until now, just now when my youngest, the 12-year-old, said "I don't care!" That was in response to my decision that he was banned from screen time tonight. Screen time is, of course, anything that involves a screen -- the computer, the television, the Wii.
Once upon a time, when we were homeschoolers, and I kept track of these things, each child was allowed one hour of screen time everyday. Now that the kids are in school and I work too many hours, along with cooking, cleaning and computing the other hours, the kids are really free to overindulge all they want. Complicating things, the boys have a bedroom in the basement, right next to the family room which contains, you guessed it, a computer, a television and the Wii. The laundry room is down there too, but I rarely catch them surreptitiously washing clothes.
So the most recent fight with the 12-year-old came because of the way he was speaking to me. The tone -- isn't it always about the tone -- came when I asked him whether the math teacher considered 2 a perfect square. He's memorizing perfect square numbers.
"I don't know!" he said, in that tone.
"Well, how are you going to find out?"
"I don't know!" he said again. Same tone.
"That's it. I'm requesting a meeting with her."
"Wait! Why?" he asked, his voice rising.
"Because you don't know the answer and you don't know how to find out the answer."
He pulled out a piece of paper.
"It's on here. No, 2 doesn't count so you can stop YELLING at me!"
But now, it's not about what he knows or doesn't know, it's all about that TONE.
So, I parried with, "Until you can learn to speak nicely to me, no screen time."
That's when he slipped in the classic, "I don't care."
And, I do know why he doesn't care. It's because he knows I have no follow through. He has a paper to type, so I'll let him type it. Then he'll pull out his guitar and start looking up songs on YouTube, learning which chords go with "Nowhere Man." And I'll think, "Well, that's kind of educational." So I won't stop him. I won't call down to the basement. "Hey, no screen time for you."
I know this is a slippery slope. But he's my third. The other two have turned out very well. Two out of three, ain't bad, as the song goes.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

It's all French to me

"In Paris they just simply opened their eyes and stared when we spoke to them in French! We never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language." Mark Twain- The Innocents Abroad
One of my kids has a harder time with school than the others. His grades are all A's and B's, but he works at it. We study for tests and do homework at the kitchen table. The other children rarely carry books home, finishing everything at school.
His biggest challenge is organization so I try to stay on top of tests. Just last night I quizzed him about tests. Just finished math. Ask about a retake in science. Forgot about the one in geography on Monday, still waiting for that grade.
"What about French?" I asked.
"Lemme call Joe."
"Joe? When's our next French test? Next week? Okay. Bye."
So he told me. "Not 'til next week." He began to put away his books. This is his second year of French and the teacher keeps me informed when he needs to work on things.
"You know, Mr. Hedge puts information about the tests on the board," I said. "You should write it down."
He stopped and looked at me for a minute.
"But, Mom. I can't read it. It's all in French."
I guess we have some more work to do.

Cockadoodle Doo or Cocorico?

 We stood in the middle of the road, having walked together 13 miles that day and Claudine grasped my forearm. "Mais non! It doesn'...