Thursday, June 30, 2016

Southwest Trip: Zion Part One

We were headed to Zion National Park. I wanted to do a short list of things on this trip, and they were:

1. Devil's Garden at Arches
2. The bat flight at Carlsbad Caverns
3. The Narrows hike at Zion

Everything else we do is based on what kids seem interested in, with a little push from me because otherwise they would only play on screens in the camper. Well, not Brooklyn—she would listen to Rick Riordan books and go to ranger talks. We are making kids at least try to complete junior ranger books at each park. And other than that, I'm trying to make things flexible because I know I am extra. I know I can push. I know I can be loud and have my opinion win. So I'm trying to ease back on this trip. Because I want my kids to keep liking me when I'm old.

So anyway, we did the Devil's Garden hike at Arches. I stood in Partition Arch. I saw Landscape Arch with my eyes. And so forth. Carlsbad is still in front of us. But Zion is now.

We took our time getting to the campground, knowing that tomorrow would be Zion, not today. We stopped at a state park and learned more about the Fremont People, the people who lived here from about 600-1300. Great petroglyphs. Lots of information. A museum. Brooklyn was happy. London bought a bunny, a stuffed animal I mean, and so she was happy too.

We got to the campground, another nice place with WIFI and a pool, you know, the important things, and looked at the sky. Checked the forecast. We drove to the outfitter I had been talking with back in January when I planned this trip.

We walked in and talked to a gal my sister's age about the Narrows hike.

“We have decided, all of us here at the company, not to rent out gear tonight for that.” She went on to tell us about the danger of flash floods and lightning. I stopped her.

“Thank you for being frank,” I said. “Thank you for not having it be my decision.”

“Thank you for not pushing the issue and saying you were going to take the risk. All I can do is give you advice and rent you gear. All the park service does is protect the environment. You have to watch out for you.” She looked down at Niles and London sitting on a bench. “It isn't worth it.

She gave me a brochure about what to do in Zion on a rainy day, which was actually good information. We went on the bus to the park, which felt a lot like going to the zoo when we got there. Everyone walks in due to the fact that no cars are allowed in the canyon anymore (this is more strict than Yosemite and Bryce, for instance, that have buses and cars). Standing in line to get the junior ranger booklets and continue to plan for tomorrow, I listened to the NOAA warning sound go off in the visitor center. They announced that a flash flood warning was in effect.

They closed the Narrows and all slot canyon trails.

I looked at Bixby.

“Better part of valor.”

I focused in on the couple in front of me, young, blond, probably Californian based on their t-shirts, with a 4 or 5 year old girl between us. I'm going to name them Cindi and Tom. Their conversation went like this:

Cindi: Flash flood warning...
Tom: Not a problem.
Cindi: But they just announced it, they made it so clear.
Tom: They have to do that. It's not a thing. You can see those things coming, you just get out of the way.
Cindi: You think it's bullshit?
Tom: You didn't have to put it that way, but yes.

I looked at the little girl in braids between them. I realized what reckless meant and realized that no, I'm not reckless after all. I do stupid things sometimes, and I don't care much about my own safety, but I have these little people who are counting on my wisdom and discretion to essentially keep them alive.

And I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep. 

I'm not going to do the Narrows hike. 

I will never do the Narrows hike, most likely, since I can't see myself coming back this way again. 

And that is all right.

Southwest Trip: Bryce Canyon

Bryce Canyon

In the morning, we got up and headed south to Bryce Canyon. It was a long desolate trip down to Bryce, but when we got to the inevitable “right outside a national park tourist town”, there were plenty of people and a shuttle bus to go into the park. I love public transportation when it works well, and I knew the National Park Service had it handled. We went to the packed visitor's center and got junior ranger books and went down to Sunset Point.

Bryce Canyon is bizarre, but it is simply geologically bizarre. We took a trail down into the canyon, but on the way down, thunder clouds emerged from behind us and we saw lightning. I really want to make it home from this trip, and I know the Southwest is not like the Midwest in how its storms move, so we did not linger at the bottom. And we hoofed it back up the side of the canyon, which was hardest on Bixby and myself.

Brooklyn hated Bryce Canyon: 1. too many people. 2. no human history. 3. canyons activate fear of heights.

We took the bus to their general store. Spread out the snacks we'd brought and found a bright spot of cell coverage. Kids worked on the junior ranger books (the hardest set of junior ranger books since Yosemite, I would wager). Realized that Brooklyn's carbon footprint makes her more akin to a German or Dutch citizen than an American. A long discussion followed about urban living actually being quite green.

After that, we attended the best ranger program since the one at Yellowstone that ended with a version of the serenity prayer and telling us that we might all die in a mega caldera, or we might die some other way, but we should definitely hold onto those we love in the meantime.

But this one was about rocks. And “Geologist Joel” is wasted as a geologist. He should preach or teach. I guess he does—about rocks. It was an awesome talk that involved him moving around and reenacting geologic movement and ending with a story about learning to take his time that frankly left me misty-eyed. It was that good.

We got the kids sworn in as junior rangers and took the bus back to the truck. I could tell looking at kids' faces that they were done for the day, so we headed out. We got to a was telling me to go straight, but the sign was telling me to turn right. I glanced at the map. It would add 20 minutes to the trip to turn right...and we turned right.

It added an hour and a half. We listened to a lot of The House of Hades by Rick Riordan, but most of it I spent in an adrenaline burnout, Bixby driving and me apologizing for impulsively taking this route. It was not my finest moment.

We got home as the rain started, and decided burgers fries and shakes were the best plan. They were. The rain ended, we got back to the campsite, everyone got showers in, and we listened to more of the book until I couldn't stay awake any longer.

But I kept waking up scared and worried. This place, again, is messing with my mind. I won't miss it when I go. I'm glad I came here and saw what I did. But it made me uneasy.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Southwest Trip: Capitol Reef National Park

Capitol Reef

After the ordeal with the trailer (which wasn't even an ordeal, I mean, really, it was stunning and miraculous in its non-ordeal-ness), we made our way to Capitol Reef National Park. This was a maintenance day—we were getting information about the park, but not actually visiting. I needed to get to the private campground in the next town over, get everyone showered, do all the laundry, finally be clean. Kids swam in the clean pool, everyone got showers in at the clean bathroom, and I washed all the sheets and dirty clothes in the clean laundry room. It was a perfect day. Everyone was chill. I have to remember that 7 year olds don't care much about giant rock formations or even petroglyphs or ranger talks. But a nicely maintained pool or a train trip up a mountain (Pikes Peak, on our first day, which was a lot of fun), and a 7 year old boy and 11 year old girl are quite happy.

So after a very windy night during which I could recall all my dreams (because I kept waking up kind of afraid—there was this trip to a state park several years ago that involved a traumatic thunderstorm), we got up, ate yogurt and fruit and granola, and headed into the park.

And then headed back out because we forgot to buy ice. But then we headed into the park and stopped at some turnoffs to take pretty pictures. All good. There was a scenic drive we'd learned about the day before, and we headed out. Did the turn off into a wash area, a well maintained dirt road, and stopped at the first turn off.

At a uranium mine.

Let me pause here and tell you what Capitol Reef is all about. It has amazing scary large-scale cliffs in several colors. Huge monument looking things. It is dry, red and yellow rocks, but there is a river that runs through it, and it was home to the Fremont Culture for seven hundred years or so. But they disappeared one way or another and it stood empty until Mormon settlers made a home along the river, planting orchards and carving out a simple life. They left in the 30s and 40s, and then it became national land. The orchards are still there along the river, and we stopped and ate apricots right off the tree. It's all very garden of Eden feeling, except.

An abandoned uranium mine. Actually four of them, caged off with the spooky radiation warning signs. Don't stay in the area longer than a day and don't drink the water.

We drove on, down the wash road, and stopped again at Cassidy Arch. Cassidy, you might know, is my favorite Grateful Dead song. It is also Niles' middle name. I could look up at the cliff and see the arch, obscured slightly but still visible.

And I was charmed by it, standing there in this dry dusty rocky wash, looking up at an arch that shares my son's name. I wanted to go there. We read the sign. Only 1.7 miles up, and then return. I have done harder hikes. So much harder.

The kids were not interested, and I found myself thinking, “I could do it alone. I practically did the Mt. Cammerer hike in the Smokies alone, I mean, I was the only adult.”

We headed back to the scenic drive, past the uranium mine, and down the way, past huge cliffs and crumbling sand at their bases. And something hit me. It was just a creepy place all of a sudden.

But on the way back, in the little historic village, there was pie. With ice cream. And we ate pie together (the girls split a cinnamon roll, not pie fans). And I wanted to take that Cassidy Arch hike. And I wanted to get the hell out of this place. I kept debating. We headed to the visitor center and I asked a ranger, a woman half my age, about that hike.

“It's strenuous,” she warned. I told her I'd done strenuous, but I was worried about the weather. The whole area had warning about sudden floods and how we were responsible for our own safety. She pointed me to the forecast posted on the wall. And then turned to another ranger for his opinion.

“You get up there, and a thunderstorm happens?” he started. “You're on pure slickrock. No place to hide.”

I thought about the Appalachian trail and how many scores of places to hide there were.

“But tomorrow morning, you could take the chance,” he shrugged.

Then the first ranger pointed to the map. Showed me a short trail that followed the river to another arch. But this one wasn't named Cassidy. I wanted to take that trip. Up to that cliff in that toxic dry land.

We went to a ranger talk about the Fremont People. People who lived here and then disappeared. How we don't even know what they called themselves, just what they ate and how they lived and the art they drew on the walls of the canyon. And I felt haunted.

We went to the old school for the orchard workers' children, and I burst into tears. The interpretative signage had a recording of the voice of a teacher who worked there in 1934-1935. And how she couldn't do more than a year, it was too hard, but she cried when she left. I looked through the windows at the tiny building. I read the sign about the family that had pushed for the school. I looked at the pictures of the last few years' students. And I kept crying.

I told Bixby that I was tired and needed to head back to the campground. The skies were threatening storms and I wanted to get dinner done before dark. And I felt so lonely and homesick and strange in this place, I just needed to get out again.

“I can't do that hike,” I told him as we left. “Let's go to Bryce Canyon tomorrow and if we want to, we'll come back and do that one along the river. If we want to, before we head to Zion.”

“I think that's the wisest choice,” he agreed.

“I don't want to be reckless,” I said, my voice a whisper. Why was this place making me feel this way?

We headed back to the campground, which was windy but no rain. Got a fire started for dinner. Our campsite is at the back of the campground, with a stunning view of more of those huge red cliffs with the rubble at the bottom. I sat on the picnic table and stared at them. So magnificent, so out of proportion to anything in my everyday life. But so broken, like palaces built and abandoned. Arches National Park, you can feel the oldness, you can see the weathering and age. Smokies, too. The Smokies, in fact, has such a good feel to it, so relaxed and broken in.

This place felt broken down—no, it felt SHATTERED. So dry and sharp and harsh, but while it is beautiful, it evokes a hollow fear in my heart.

“I can't look at them anymore,” I told Bixby. I tried to explain it.

“Well, if you were my ex-girlfriend, I'd say you were bothered by ghosts,” he answered.

Maybe it's ghosts. But it feels more like an empty oppressive presence, a vastness, an absence of peace. Malevolence. There are apricot trees and fruit pies and chill friendly helpful rangers, and a stark beauty like nothing I've ever seen—and I'm glad I've seen it—but it's not right in my heart.

I'm not sad we went. It was not a mistake. I am so glad we went. Because I need to be reminded of those feelings and those places as well. But I'm glad when my heart said, “that hike will harm you”, that I listened. I think it would have been a mistake. And I'm not sad that I didn't take that path.

Southwest Trip: Luckiest Unlucky

We stayed two nights at Arches National Park. Took great pictures. Got off the trail before it got hot. Niles got his Junior Ranger badge.

It was hot.

We saw petroglyphs off a highway outside the park, Intestine Man and TV Sheep. I am in love with TV Sheep now.

Waking up early, we headed out of Arches, towards Capitol Reef. We took I-70 west a bit, and got off the highway at one of those “no services” exits. One side was a dirt road, and the other was a state highway headed south. As we got established onto the highway, a few miles in, with no other cars anywhere, I thought to myself how terrible it would be to break down on this road. I watched as my cell phone service dropped and then disappeared. But the truck had been doing fine, all the gauges were happy, and we headed 40 miles south to Hanskville.

Suddenly, Bixby cursed, looking in the rearview mirror.

“What is it?” I asked.

“I think we just lost a wheel,” he said. Trailer. I looked in front of us, at some huge fields of dark green, obvious signs of civilization.

“Can we make it there?” I asked. I knew it was probably close to 90 degrees already, almost noon, and I was worried about pulling over on the side of this highway.

We drove slowly. I pointed out a gravel parking lot to the right, with an old fashioned fire engine parked in front. It wasn't a gas station, with no pumps, but there were a few cars pulled up so maybe they could make a land line call to a tow truck. Tow truck? How do we do this with a trailer?

Bixby drove slowly and carefully, about the half mile to the parking lot. We pulled in and I read the sign painted on the fire truck.

“Kitely Boat Trailer Repair.” I registered the words as I read them aloud.

I had this flashback to ten years ago, a trip out to Yosemite, our brakes failing on the way out of the mountains, directions to a garage in Oakhurst, finding the place closed, and a man, Eddie Gilmore (I still remember his name), who worked for a car parts supply house, pulling in behind us and guiding us to a reputable mechanic in town. How I'm not certain Eddie Gilmore was a flesh and blood person or just an angel sent to save us. Some sort of spirit that protects travelers.

And here we were again.

A woman in western wear, with a purse crossed over her denim shirt, walked out of the garage end and shook our hands. I told her what had happened and she looked at the pop-up trailer.

“Well, let's look and see if we have them in stock.” She walked around the sides of the trailer and looked at the tires. “Sure do, my husband can take care of you, I'm on the way out for an appointment but I'll get you started.” She told Bixby where to pull around, and then showed me where to take the kids, to sit in the shade. She brought us bottled water. And I had to stop her before she left.

“We broke down with a trailer a half mile from your place. And you repair boat trailers in the middle of the Utah desert.”

She laughed. “There's Powell Lake, just an hour south of us. Lots of boats will go by, you'll see, watch while you wait. And,” she tilted her head and smiled. “A lot of people who come in here say that. They break down up the road or down the road and there we are!”

For a moment I wondered if somehow they'd seeded the road with razors and nails or something, but when her husband came out later and said we were lucky we'd made it that far, that the tires were 12 years old, I knew it was just some sort of crazy luck that it happened where it did and not twenty miles down the road.

Twenty minutes and two new tires later, we got back on our way. It has hardly settled into my brain, and yet I know it fits right in with our motto, “The luckiest unlucky people.” It's just how it goes for us. We are unlucky in the luckiest way possible. God watches over drunks and fools. And I'm pretty sure we're either or both.

Southwest Trip: Arches

Arches National Park

It's a popular park. North of Moab, Utah, and just like visiting Mars. With all the tourists who go to Mars.

We stayed in the campground. I like national park campgrounds for the most part—no electricity or water hook ups so it tends to be chill, not wall to wall RVs. I like the Smokies, Glacier, Yellowstone, Yosemite—all good campgrounds. The view I had of Rocky Mountains' campground looked like a good place too.

Arches was similar in that there was no electric and no showers—there were flush toilets and water available—but it was not the same, because the place was teeming with loud people. It was strange. We didn't get to sleep the first night right away—it had been a long day in the car and there was dinner to make and stuff to set up. So I didn't notice the people so much. It was the next night, when we were exhausted from hiking, that I realized that, whoa, you people are obnoxious. There was a youth group staying nearby, sharing the bathroom, and they were grungy youth who obviously had never had to clean their own bathrooms...

But before you think it was a terrible experience, it wasn't! We woke up in the park, cold in the desert, to a tiny coyote sniffing around the campsites. I was glad to be sleeping off the ground in the camper (we borrow my parents' pop up trailer for these trips now). We got an early start on a long hike in the desert—I wanted to be done by lunch time. We were done by 10:30.

We saw arches I had never seen before, out in the Devil's Garden area of the park. And we were mostly alone. My favorite. They were beautiful and I couldn't get enough of them. I will post pictures in a post when I get home—I have terrible wifi at the campgrounds this trip. Navajo Arch was private and shady; Partition Arch felt like we were on top of the world.

We went to lunch in Moab. Had shakes. It was good. Came back and realized that the tourists had arrived on Mars and we were caught in the mob of giant buses and Germans on Harleys and the whole bit. But that was ok, too. We saw a few more things and then decided to go out of the park and look at petroglyphs.

We found TV Sheep and Intestine Man a few miles outside of the park, following vague directions I had found online. I am now in love with TV Sheep (they look like old fashioned TV sets, big boxy things). Brooklyn is now in love with petroglyphs. “I like archeology far more than geology.”

We went back to the hot, hot park and got dinner together. Bixby and I took one more hike, a scramble out to Broken Arch as the sun set. It was empty again, all the tourists heading on to other parks and sights to see.

I lay awake a long time in the camper listening to the people nearby be loud. But I had the bed to myself because Bixby figured out a way to rig up the hammocks, and he and Brooklyn each took one so everyone could spread out. Which was good because we ALL STANK SO BAD. Because no showers. And dirty bathrooms. And I couldn't even stand being near myself, much less near anyone else.

In the morning, Niles got his junior ranger badge and we headed out, onward to Capitol Reef. I was glad we'd gone to Arches, a place I had visited for the first time 10 years ago. But I was done. Onward.

Monday, June 20, 2016


I'm in an army green parka, standing there in the ice storm plucking long wide blades of grass, each one coated perfectly in a sheath of clear crystal. I am young, my brother is an infant and we live in an apartment in south St. Louis County, not yet the nomads we would prove to be.

Or maybe the parka is navy. Some of them were. They all were lined in blaze orange.

But I think there are pictures.

Later on, standing in the army surplus store in Galveston, buying an army green parka, made in Bundesrepublik Deutschland, talking with the owner who bore a remarkable resemblance to Jerry Garcia about winters in St. Louis, winters in Pittsburgh. "This coat got my daughter through her first winter in college." I am uncertain if he means this type of coat or this very coat. It is ambiguous at a resale army store.

Don't give up

I'm not a sprinter. I'm just not fast enough to get across that finish line in a hurry. In 8th grade I was assigned to the middle distance running, and I took to it fair enough. I was reasonably ok at the 1/2 mile and even went to district finals, where I came in 5th and I was pretty proud of that. I pushed myself hard on that last straight away, I remember, passing two girls at the very end. My coach gave me the title of athlete of the week that week, which for the most part was 100% undeserved. But I think about that race sometimes, because I was up against my toughest competition and I didn't give up. I didn't. And I think that's what that coach saw.

Brooklyn was born after a rough labor and delivery. We were both sick, very sick, on multiple antibiotics that resulted in systemic thrush. You don't want systemic thrush, just know that. I really wanted to breastfeed that baby and I really didn't want to be one of those women who said, well, I tried, but....I really really wanted to make it.

So I started setting goals for myself. I would breastfeed today. I would nurse her one more time. I would nurse her tonight, this baby who would not sleep and would not be put down on her own. I would do it. I made it through 6 weeks this way, one nursing session at a time with my nipples on fire, I mean, when I say "on fire" I mean it felt like someone had lit a match and held it to my skin. I did not give up, even though everyone around me told me I could. I nursed that baby until she was old enough to negotiate her own weaning. Seriously. And I nursed two more.

Breastfeeding gave me the gift of perseverance.  I was a typical gifted child--if it wasn't easy, it wasn't worth doing because, frankly, lots of things were very easy. Might as well do one of those instead. Here I finally was, with something I really wanted to accomplish, with the odds against me, and I did it. I fucking did it. When I think back to those early weeks of motherhood and what I survived and accomplished, I just want to shake my fist in the air at everyone who thought I wouldn't, who thought I would give up.

I am often wrong. I am often blundering and do cockamamie things. I laugh too loud and am soft-hearted to those with no defenses, be them children, stray cats, or young semi-homeless acquaintances. I can be strident, I can be boring, I can let my tongue get me in plenty of trouble. But if you need a cut man in your corner, if you need someone to fight your cause, if you need a cheerleader on your sidelines, if you need someone to walk a hard path with you, I will. Because I don't give up.

I don't give up so hard I had a man with a needle and ink inscribe it on my skin. It's the hobo sign for don't give up.

Don't. I won't either.


My family has a lot of orange boxes. They're the best boxes for moving. Any citrus, really, lemons and grapefruit work as well. You can overstuff them slightly and close the top down on top and it all fits after all. They are double thick because they are essentially two boxes put together. Like banana boxes, but without the big hole in the bottom of them like banana boxes. Apples are a close second, of course. A little bigger, though, and they get heavier when you stuff them full.

I know a lot about boxes you steal from supermarket dumpsters.

It kind of sucks that I do.

But it's kind of cool on the other hand.

Liquor boxes are great for ornaments. Take out the innards and they're perfect for books.

Banana boxes work for kids' clothes.

Orange boxes are good for almost anything.

I have a plastic box I purchased at Target that I keep my ornaments in. So do my parents--they eventually stopped needing liquor boxes for storage, having finally settled into one place. But orange boxes, they're good for what ails you.

I inherited the fabric to make the last few Triple Irish Chain quilts that I have grown fond of making for the people I love. Inherited it along with a box marked with my uncle's (and godfather's) name. I was nearly as excited by the box as I was by the fabric. Wrapped carefully inside in industrial plastic, and then wrapped in newspaper from 1973 (guess what: Peabody Coal was fussing back then about labor relations, and airport security had just tightened and made people mad, oh, and there was a white sale at Styx Baer and Fuller). Sunkist.

Sun kissed.

The only thing that would have made it better would have been the cargo tape from Ozark Airlines.

I walk through Soulard Market with Brooklyn, buying fruit and tomatoes. I point to a lemon box on the ground under a stall. “That's a good box,” I say.

“Mom.” She says it without impatience. Just enough inflection to remind me that I don't have to know about boxes like that anymore.

Honor Your Feelings

As I became an adult, there were key moments when I didn't honor my feelings, and those were moments that taught me hard lessons. I should have refused to be induced for Brooklyn's birth. I should have switched pediatricians earlier. I should have--actually, there was a lot of failure to honor my feelings during the first few months of BRooklyn's life, now that I think on it. And Brooklyn's birth disaster and the year and a half that followed made me listen to my feelings very closely.


The other day a friend, Tony, who vacillates in his belief in God and the whole Church "thing", and in fact has good reason and lots of therapy under his belt in regards to all of that, told me about running into an old friend on the street, and in the process of catching up, the friend said to him, "Can we just pray together right here about what's going on in your life?"

"Surely you told him no, that it would kind of make you uncomfortable, right?" I asked. I'm kind of a blurter and I was laughing at the absurdity of the moment.

"No, I did it. I held his hands and we prayed," Tony sighed.

"That's like," I am suddenly brought back to high school, to a moment in Junior Hall after school and George Bourgeois stalking me and the moment when I finally just gave in and let him feel me up and push his tongue into my mouth and I so did not honor any of my feelings that day or any of the days afterward while he made lewd gestures towards me, up until the day he was kicked out of school for sexually assaulting a freshman and then I came forward and that damned principal blamed me and the other girls for not telling him, and he cried, that fat old priest cried in front of us and something clicked inside my head that never again I would just stay silent and meek.

"That's like," I start again, "having an abusive boyfriend ask you for just one more kiss and giving in."

"Yeah," he agreed. "But it was just easier."

And I realized that while I don't have a lot of boundaries about my time and my heart, while I love and let people be and forgive again and again, all of that, I realized that fuck that. I listen to my heart and I do say no. I do.

When that voice in my head says run, I run.

Summer Round Here

I've been writing since 2006. This week the writing prompt I got in my inbox said "describe summer where you live". Today's the first day of summer, and I thought perhaps I could look back and see what summer is like here.

2006, the power outage: We started to worry about looting—it was nearing the end of civil society (3 days). We passed out whistles and started to make a plan for the upcoming darkness. Sometimes, in an emergency situation when people come together to help, there’s this feeling of let down when it’s over. When your friend is released from the ER with the cast on his leg. When the firefighters leave the minor kitchen fire. When the sandbags are all full and the river starts to recede. Not that you want your friend to still be in pain, or your house to burn, or the neighborhood to flood, but there’s a camaraderie that ends when that sort of situation is allayed. I did not have that feeling when I heard from the neighbors that our electricity was back on.

2007, mah jongg. Nothing special about it, but it happens: We played over 10 games--I know I dealt at least twice. I didn't win a single hand. Ah well. I got to drink bourbon slush and play. 

2008: Girls on the block start growing up: I went up to check on them a few hours later, and they were cleaning the attic. CLEANING THE ATTIC. One of them, an older sister perennially in charge, was directing traffic. The other, a middle child, was bribing London with stickers to help them. Brooklyn was probably doing the least, although she was creating elaborate rules for the stickers, essentially turning them into Eagle Stamps ("once London collects 10, she can turn them in for a prize! Or save them for a bigger prize!").

2009: The AC fails and I wonder about myself:  Something about this sort of thing brings out my hoosier roots. Like, the AC failed because of something I did or didn't do and I spend a lot of time reminding myself that it isn't because I'm poor white trash, it's because my AC unit was really old (29 years old, actually). I never think this about other people when things like this happen. I just have a hard time convincing myself that these are things that just happen in life.

2010: Camping with neighbors goes well:  The rest of the trip was great. I spent most of the time saying "this is so much better than last year," and remember, it was 90+ degrees each day. It wasn't perfect. It was just really great.

2011: More camping with the neighbors: We all got very very wet and one morning went out for breakfast because the idea of fire was officially hopeless. Jack London kind of hopeless. And kids played and got along and had fun. Which is why I do this.

2012: It was hot:  You know it's hot when there's a day it only gets to 99 and it feels refreshing. We are going nowhere and doing nothing. I don't care that the kids are playing video games. I might play some later. We are grilling and using the crock pot. Turning on the oven sounds ridiculous. I bring clothes in off the line and they smell like hot. If hot had a smell all its own, it would be my clean laundry.

2013: It was complicated:  Home again, I talked with neighbors about how things are good, in general. In the morning I went to church and got fed at the table. Went to the bakery owned by Bixby's brother and his wife and got fed again, literally. Made plans. Came home and read the rest of the book I picked up a few days back to distract myself.

2014: Moving Colleen: We left my mom's house at 4:10. I kid you not. Drove BACK to Columbia in the beginnings of rush hour traffic. Got to U-Haul at 6:40. "You went far today!" the kid checking us in told me. "Yep. Big sister little sister miscommunication," I summed up. We went to her apartment, gathered up the bits and pieces like her CATS and their litter boxes and the plants and the weird lamps, stashed that stuff in my truck. And drove home to St. Louis again. As we packed up she said, "Can we take a rain check on the bike ride?" and all I could do was laugh. Because it's either a good time or a good story.

2015: Figuring it out: It's like...for the first time in years, since probably my diagnosis with Hashimoto's in 2006, life doesn't feel like it's drowning me. Life. Isn't. Drowning. Me. I'm starting to learn how to swim again.

2016: hmm. What will be important come August?

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Ten Irish Ancestors

Reprinted from my old South City blog. My brother Ian sent me a youtube video by the Dropkick Murphys that got me thinking about my Irish again this week.

1. James Donnelly and his four sisters: Mary, Bridget, Honora, and Margaret. Born 1825 in County Tyrone, married Sarah Cody in 1850 in Rome, New York. Bridget, his sister, married a Blake. Just to keep us all on our toes--this is on the other side of my family.

2. Edward D. Blake, not to be confused with his father Edward Blake or his son Edward R. Blake or his grandson Edward J. Blake. Edward, known as Ned when he was a child, was born in Kansas City. Raised there at first by his parents (Edward and Bridget) and then by his Aunt Ellen and Uncle Pat, along with his brother Richard. After his father dies, he moves to St. Louis--perhaps to be closer to his mother? I wish I knew. There he starts working as a bricklayer, and gets in good with the union leaders, especially Charles and Henry Daniel Dawes. He meets their sister, Jennie, who is a widow, and the two of them run off to Chicago to get married. Then they settle down into Kerry Patch in north St. Louis, have a baby (Edward R) and then our Edward D. is dead in 4 years of emphysema. Aged 37. His mother outlived him. Who knows--brick dust and smoke and underlying TB? All I know is there's a series of men in my family with weak lungs. So I don't smoke.

3. Edward Blake. He is born in Galway in 1828. Escapes Ireland and marries Bridget Kidney in 1856, one of the first couples married by the itinerant priest who started the diocese in Kansas City. They have three children. They move to East St. Louis in 1865 and are listed with 4 children. I think the 4th is a niece, Mollie (below). Things seem solid in East St. Louis, a railroad and industry town, and Edward runs a saloon. Then in 1886, he gets into an argument with William Vanderough, a patron in the bar, a man who works for the railroad, and he shoots him. Vanderough dies at the scene. After the murder, the case starts to look as though maybe Edward wasn't shooting in self defense. So, while he is under investigation, he and a friend meet at the bar. He pours the friend a drink, and himself. Then he adds Rough On Rats, a popular rat poison, to his own. A slow death, he dies in a St. Louis hospital with time to confess his sins to a priest, thereby allowing a burial in a Catholic cemetery.

4. Mollie Toohey, child of Mathew Toohey and some woman who died in a cholera epidemic with him. The Tooheys, from Galway like the Blakes (which makes me scratch my head about the whole mess), may or may not be related to Bridget Kidney--she claims Mathew's mother as her mother, but she also claims Mary Dwyne as her mother. Mollie, either way, escaped cholera and came to live with her aunt and uncle, Bridget and Edward. I can only hope it was ok for her as time went on. She married a non-Catholic and lived in Granite City after marriage. Had a son. Her aunt/mother/whoever, Bridget (below) lived with her until she died. Mollie was first generation American. All that death right behind her.

5. Bridget Kidney the Liar. Born in County Cork, fled Ireland and settled in Kansas City with her two sisters, Catherine and Ellen. Possibly the daughter of Mary Dwyne, below. Or...not? Dwyne and Kidney are bastardizations of each other. Mother of three children: Mary, Richard, Edward. The Catholic diocese has records of Mary's birth but not her death; Richard and Edward live with Ellen and her husband Pat Cronin until adulthood while Bridget leaves for East St. Louis with her husband, Edward Blake (above). Later claims to be the daughter of Eleanora Houlihan Toohey. Takes in her niece Mollie Toohey and later changes her name to Blake and poses as her mother in church records.  All I can assume is that life was hard. Brutal and hard. And you grabbed on to anyone you could and held on tight.

6. John Aiken, born 1808 in Balleymena, County Antrim. Emigrated to Pennsylvania, married an American named Sarah Gibson. Had a mess o' kids. Moved in with his son John in St. Louis before he died, but they buried him in Pennsylvania. His ancestors are buried in a cemetery from which you can nearly see Scotland, it's so far north.

7. Sarah Cody, born 1835, most likely in County Kilkenny. She married James, above, when she was just about 15 years old. Keep in mind, though, that all my Irish are liars. She and James had a bunch of little Donnellys, one of whom, William, moved to DeSoto, Missouri. He would have been there during the big railroad strike that brought Fr. O'Leary to the forefront of the Catholic labor movement. I need to learn more.

8. Richard Blake. The other son of Bridget and Edward. Older than Ned, his brother who goes on to marry Jennie Dawes and become a bricklayer in St. Louis, he's listed as a teamster living in that settlement of houses with his aunts and uncles in Kansas City. And then...he disappears. No death record. No further mention after that. Still searching. My aunt mentioned something about our Kansas City relatives, how one of them was a horse thief. I said, still searching.

9. Mary Dwyne. Or Mary Dwyer. Or Mary Duane. Or Mary O'Dwyre. Who knows. She lives with the Cronins on Pacific and Troost, in Kansas City, this enclave of Cronins and Blakes and all of them, I can only imagine, exhausted and poor. In 1860 she's with Bridget and Edward, listed as "living with her daughter" but then later she's living with Ellen and Pat Cronin, along with their kids and Bridget and Edward's two sons. I wonder if she was a good grandmother. Somehow I doubt it. And no one could read.

10."Mrs. Blake's Mother". The anonymous woman who dies of cholera in East St. Louis in 1873. The only record I have of her death is that quote. It's a church record, written by the priest who records it all, day after day during that epidemic. At the top of the page is the word "cholera" and then a line drawn down a column. She doesn't get a first name. Or a last name, which would have been useful. Just Mrs. Blake's Mother. How exhausted he must have been.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Birds: Cooper's Hawk

Feathers. Feathers were everywhere. The ash tree across the street was dropping feathers. But that isn't something that ash trees commonly do, so it made London look up, just in time for the ash tree to drop something...bloodier.

It was a pigeon, or perhaps a mourning dove, in the process of being consumed by one damned happy raptor.

We stared.

It wasn't a red tailed hawk. I knew that immediately. It was dark blue-gray on its back and its face just wasn't quite right.
 For a moment I wondered if we were looking at a falcon. I ran inside and got my camera, since it seemed like it would be feasting for a while. I took many photos of it while it dined, and then sat down to identify whatever this bird might be.

Cooper's Hawk, I decided. Its head wasn't right for a sharp-shinned hawk (a bird I saw for the first time just this month). The depictions of the face and size and coloring seemed definitive. Cooper's Hawk. I could like that bird.

It wasn't until a few days later that it struck me.

Cooper is an old English profession-surname. It means barrel maker. So does Troy's last name, the young man who had lived with us the summer before seeing this hawk, and who, at that point, had not been in contact with us for over a month after his girlfriend had made that impossible.

I thought about that Cooper's Hawk sitting in that tree on our street devouring some poor slow bird, happily enjoying itself before it flew on.

I hoped Troy was in a similar place. Not that I felt he had devoured us. I felt that he had taken what he needed from our place, and had flown.

In the end, wild creatures do what they need to in order to survive.

Birds: Steller's Jay

We like national parks. It's one of the things we do--we go out to national parks and camp and hike and touch beautiful places.

We learned what bears you can thwart by locking the tonneau on the truck (black bears in the Smokies) and which ones we should be completely terrified of and never eat or smell like anything again (this lesson was learned in Yosemite, where we had to watch a video of bears breaking into cars before we were allowed to stay in a cabin).

We have seen bison in Yellowstone and wolves there, too. We've run into sadly tame deer all over the west, and seen those elusive black bears in the Smokies. I don't go to national parks just to see wildlife, but when I do, I'm always happy (well, except the time I was on a trail at the beginning of dusk with my inlaws in the Smokies and I spotted a couple of those black bears on an intersecting path...).

This bird is one we met out west. We met it in California and in mountain states. Georg Wilhelm Steller is their namesake. One of those few birds who get proper names (Bachman's Warbler, Cooper's Hawk, Cory's Shearwater, etc).

Looks a bit like a blue jay, if a blue jay put on a dark hoodie and robbed you.

They are smart birds. They love picnics. They are out to get you. They will mug you for your sandwich and leave you shocked and horrified at their brilliance and speed.

They work together. They triangulate. I swear if they had thumbs, we'd be in trouble. They are smart and they fly. And they are unhappy that our snacks are in our hands and not in their beaks.

I like them intensely, of course.

Birds: Blue Jay

As a child I remember looking out the sliding glass door into my grandparents' pristine backyard, with perfect green grass and well-tended rose bushes and lilacs and snowballs. An adult points out a noisy bossy bird. Blue Jay. Hurts other birds. Not a good bird. Don't want that sort of bird in your yard.

As a teenager, I moved all over the country and later settled back here. As an adult, I became a birder. I started a list of the birds I'd seen. When I'd seen them. Where. I started loving birds, their inexhaustible hope and courage.

One day, one summer day about two or three years ago, I glanced out my kitchen window and saw a large beautiful blue bird with a crest like a cardinal. I wasn't sure what it was, and I opened my field guide.

My God, I thought, that's a blue jay.
I hadn't seen one, since that afternoon looking out that other window in another life. Not in decades.

West Nile, friends informed me. The virus that scared all of us with really no good reason, should have scared jays and crows. Those blue jays I never saw, the whole time I was starting to notice birds, had started to return. It is hard to be a bird. Not only do neighborhood cats and fast moving cars and bad weather kill you, but now a virus? And yet, they returned. Maybe they are immune now. Maybe West Nile has ceased to be such a problem? I don't know.

It made me wonder what brings something back, what makes a species, or a person, turn a corner and try again. What makes us get back up against all odds and live again and love again? Even if we are nasty noisy bossy birds no one wants in their yards?

Again with the inexhaustible hope and courage.

Birds: Redwinged Blackbird

They have that impatient sounding call. Unmistakable. Not a pretty voice. But it's kind of a pretty bird, the red-winged blackbird. The boys, anyway.

Traveling across Illinois, counting the red-winged blackbirds on alternate fenceposts. Hearing their calls. Seeing the flash of red and bits of yellow as they fly.

But today's story is about a feeder.

My friend Maggie is new to this birding thing. She got a feeder and put it up on her deck and waited for birds. None came, and then she learned she had a rat snake living under her deck eating baby birds. Her boys took care of that problem and then the birds decided her feeder looked less like a lure and more like a meal.

She lives close to a small river, backs up on woods, so she has far more diversity at her feeder than I do. Remember city: sparrow, robin, cardinal. I do get a few others: nuthatches and titmice (titmouses?), a couple varieties of finches, the winter juncos, and so forth.

She got a red-winged blackbird.

Who got very angry the day he showed up and she hadn't filled the feeder yet.

He walked back and forth on the deck in front of the door, calling at her. He attacked the window screens. She sent me a video of this menacing stalker who obviously knew who she was, where the food came from, and was expressing his anger and disappointment in the most violent and obvious ways he could.

She had one of her sons fill the feeder, but that red-winged blackbird was still mad at her.

I visited last week and I saw the evidence of his tantrum, the holes pecked in a window screen. And while we sat at her kitchen table, I heard his call. I turned and there he was. I had learned recently that red-winged blackbirds, when they are young, hide their red patches so they aren't seen as too aggressive to older, more dominant red-winged blackbirds.

This bird had no problem flashing his bright wing patches at me. Looked at us sitting inside and called right at us.

Ate from the feeder and flew off to a cottonwood tree some distance away.

I glanced over at her and she gave me a "see what I mean!" look.

"He's one scary bird," I agreed with her.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Birds: Dark-Eyed Junco

So I wrote about the Eastern Towhee, the Shearwater, the Mockingbird, White-Throated Sparrow. Today I'm going to write about where it all started. One of my turning points.

I live in the city. The standard birds are robin, cardinal, and sparrow. House sparrow for the most part. Oh, and starlings, but once you've been down to my inlaws and see what damage starlings can do, you can't even count them as being a part of life here.

When London was getting to be an older toddler, I started to think about what school was going to look like for us. I was tempted to homeschool, and did for two years. I was heavily influenced by Charlotte Mason, John Holt (the educational reformer, not the reggae singer), Waldorf and Montessori methods. A major thing I realized I was missing was an awareness of the world around me. I knew a lot about a lot of things, but I had only a rudimentary ability to identify what was here and now and breathing the air with me.

I got myself a field guide to birds. If I was going to impart wisdom, joy, and curiosity, I should develop that in myself.

Robin, cardinal, sparrow. Robin, cardinal, sparrow.

I stand at the sink, washing up dishes. I look out the window, dirty on the outside from decades of spiderwebs, at the magnificent magnolia tree that emerges from the fence line like a hand reaching up to the sky. It is winter and the bones of this tree are crinkly old branches, beautiful and stark.

A tiny little bird sits on one of those branches. Sparrow, I think to myself.

But then I look again and see it.

It isn't a sparrow. Its head is dark gray-brown. Like as if a sparrow put on a nice smooth hood for winter to keep warm. It's a prettier shape, too, than the house sparrows all over the sidewalks of the business district south of my house.

What the hell is that bird? I think to myself, turning off the water in the sink. I sit down in the dining room with the Petersons Guide to Birds. I flip through it, thinking about the little bird's smooth lines and solid color. I find it easily.

Dark-eyed Junco.

I've never even heard of a junco. What's a junco? It doesn't even
sound like a real thing. I started watching them eating seeds and visiting my new feeder and being happy little birds in my favorite tree. I noticed, come April, that they were gone. And then I marked the day they returned in the depths of autumn.

I keep time with them, little hopeful creatures returning to my magnolia tree just when I most need a little bit of a change of scenery. We have slate-colored juncos here. But on a trip out west I got to see the Oregon version. I hear there are other color varieties as well.

They're no big thing.

But I see them.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Once, when I was a geek.

I was a geek in college.

In some ways, I still am. I'm a middle school math teacher and that doesn't just happen by accident. There is geekiness involved in the path that led me to where I am now. But just like back when I was a geek in college, sometimes I look around my classroom and think, "oh holy crap what happened that I wound up here?"

I lived on 4th floor Marguerite Hall. It was kind of slummy back then, and the people were my sorts of people. Next door was Bixby and his incredibly socially awkward roommate. Across the hall was a boy (not a man) who went by the nickname Sugardaddy and liked to read tarot cards. I think he gave drunk people backrubs. I don't remember. My friend Mal lived in Marguerite. That's not his real name. But he looked like Malachi from Children of the Corn. So it stuck.

Geeks and freaks and weird, weird folk.

We played roleplaying games. In the basement. Every Saturday night. With Chinese food and other geeks we signed in at the front desk. Adults, sometimes, not even college students

Sometimes my freshman year we went to an apartment that had a name. Bedlam. The apartment was called Bedlam. It had many denizens. Mal, for one. Bixby almost spent a summer there but thought better of it. It had a lot of roaches. A lot of roaches. His ex-girlfriend had lived there at one time. Mal's ex-girlfriend too. Not the same girl. There were a lot of roaches and a dog named Solo. But he was really called "SOLO NO BARKING."

I was a geek in college. Not only did I play roleplaying games and watch Star Trek, but I even ran a roleplaying game that continued after college and into adulthood. An Amber game, based on the Roger Zelazny series. Most of my friends were geek boys and the occasional girlfriend who never stuck around because it would finally dawn on her, "all these boys are weird." I had roommates in college, but they sort of just understood that I was super weird and was going to hang out with those super weird boys at the end of the hall.

I didn't drink in college. That was later, once I was teaching. I never once went to a party. I did wake up in one guy's bed, one time, but I am pretty sure I just wound up sleeping there.

I came to college with a high school boyfriend back home. I broke up with him and there was Bixby, recently off his relationship with the girl from Bedlam. We were geeks. It was a good idea.

I went to my education courses. I watched Batman: The Animated Series, I watched Dr. Who when I was forced to (back then it wasn't cool like it is now), I watched a lot of Star Trek.

I went to one bar. To listen to Bixby's ex-girlfriend play guitar. No, I lie. I went to a couple of bars. Once for her, and the other times to listen to Joe & Blake (no relation).  This is the season of our happiness.

I was a geek in college. It worked for me. I shed it, gradually, taking up other hobbies and interests as time went on. But two years ago, I had my 8th grade class run through a roleplaying game I invented about Christian missionaries to the New World. This year, I had kids build weird things out of popsicle sticks and hot glue. I still channel my geek side into a job I get sort of paid for.

It was a good time.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Mt. Cammerer Hike.

 This week, my girl scout coleaders and I took five of our scouts to the Smoky Mountains. We stayed at Cosby Campground, just like we had 4 years ago when we made our first trip. And just like 4 years ago, we planned on a long day hike to Mt. Cammerer, which has a defunct fire tower, just off the Appalachian trail. This time, though, instead of doing an "up and back" hike, we had the two other adults drive me and the 5 girls to Davenport Gap and then we through-hiked back to the campsite. A total of just under 12 miles. Above is our morning picture. It is chilly down at the low point, my two coleaders snapping pictures and driving away. No way out but through.
 London tired more quickly than the other girls, being younger and having some asthma. I tired more quickly than the other girls, too, so we walked together more slowly. She wanted to turn back here, but we were only about a mile in and there was, again, no way out but through. She perked up later, folks, don't worry. The thing is, Davenport Gap up to Mt. Cammerer is a pretty steep climb. So we took a lot of breaks. The Appalachian Trail, too, is pretty solitary. It is both refreshing and terrifying that way. I love it like you love something wild.
 Here was our first official destination: one of the lean-to shelters for through-hikers, also named Davenport Gap. It was a few yards off the trail and gave us a chance to have a snack and a rest stop.

 It is called the "Sheraton of the Smokies." The girls had a hard time imagining locking themselves in a cage for the night all alone in the world. I did too, but did not say.

 We stopped at the Chesnut Branch Trail intersection next. Note that's it's only been about 2 miles so far but it was essentially a two mile staircase.
 Between that break and the intersection of the Mt. Cammerer trail (the top), London and I fell behind the older girls. London was having a hard time and I will readily admit I was starting to as well. We started setting easy goals for ourselves: we would walk 100 steps and then stop, or we would walk to that place up ahead where the trail bends and then stop a second. This worked for a long time and then we met up with the girls one more time before the Mt. Cammerer Trail and they thought we had about a half mile to go. I thought it couldn't be that short, but they had fitbits and really thought it was true. London was heartened by this and although we all walked independently of each other, not in a mob, she was closer to them than to me. It got to the point that I no longer saw or heard them when I got to a bend in the trail.
 And then I got to the fourth round of this, below, and I sat down on a rock to switch out water and eat something. My brain was tired and started telling me lies (my brain tells me lies all the time, like "You can have just one Manhattan" or "It's fine to stay up another hour and then get some sleep"). The lies it was telling me were akin to the ones it told me when I was in labor with Brooklyn. How I could just rest here awhile and the next time a hiker came through I could send the girls a message and so on. I sat on that rock for about ten minutes listening to lies in my head.
 And then I heard thunder and saw past the glamour the forest creatures were placing upon me. My girls were going to get struck by lightning on the top of the mountain not knowing where I was and this couldn't happen. I walked up the remaining bit of staircase--I was only about a tenth of a mile away at that point!--and we hiked on to the mountaintop.
 I was actually in better shape than I was the last time I did this trail. I'm smiling, for one thing, and my hair isn't stuck to my head with sweat. So that's something.

See the family there to the left? They departed a few minutes ahead of us, heading to the campground as well, and gave the message to the adults at the bottom that we were on the way.

I love this fire tower. I love all fire towers. They are one of my favorite things. No raindrops on roses. I like fire towers and good stories told well and pushing myself beyond my limits and handmade things and hugs and mountain views and signatures with flourishes and Vince Guaraldi music and the sound an arrow makes when it hits a target. This day was filled with things I love. And I felt so successful and the friends I was writing to  (I had cell service until the last mile of the day) were supportive and loving and awesome.
 I love this place. All these secret places that are hard to get to. I cherish them. But there was more thunder and the family that was up there with us left ahead of us and we were full up on pictures and it was time to head out. I knew what was in front of me: .6 miles of up and down rolling hills, then one steep incline of about a tenth of a mile, and lastly a downhill slide all the way down to the campground. Like a five mile slide. We headed out to Low Gap, where we would leave this foot trail behind, this tiny artery of connectedness, down into our own capillary headed home.
 This section of the trail is not brutal. It is not rocky. There are few steps designed for NBA players. It is easy up and down. And we were headed down, which was even better.
 We got to Low Gap and look at my face. I'm pretty tired. Frankly, I don't look like myself. I'm down to about a quart of water but London has run out. So I give it to her, knowing I have an apple in my bag and it's downhill. It doesn't get my heartrate going. But I drink a lot of water when I exercise at all times, and at this point, I've drunk almost a gallon without having to stop and pee once. Same as last time.
 We got down that last 2.9, and our companions met us at a bridge at the very end. One of them, Aileen, took my bag off a bench where I'd set it down (they wanted to take an "after" picture, in which I look so wasted I'm not even posting it here). I told her not to touch it, that it was coated in sweat, but she just said she was taking me back to the campsite. The other leader was going to hang out with the girls at the creek for a minute. She brought me back to the campsite, alone, gave me gatorade and water, asked me questions about who I was and who she was and what day it was, and I was so obliterated I sat and cried and started to feel better. I had pushed myself and done it and made it down and everyone was happy and no one died.
The first sharp corner on that mountain is Mt. Cammerer, where the tower is. We started on the left hand side, walked up that incline, across the top along three of those smaller peaks, and then down to Low Gap, which is hard to see in this photo. I showed this view the next day to one of the girls and she said, "WE ARE CRAZY!"

We probably are. But I'm glad I did it. Aileen had asked a ranger about what to do if we didn't come back, like what the protocol was, giving her the details on where they'd dropped us off and so forth. "Oh," the ranger replied. "I did that with my husband a few weeks ago and it took us a good 11 hours. You need to give them at least until dark."

We did it in 8 1/2 hours.  I guess we could have stayed at the tower longer, but the thunder? I don't know. It didn't feel like a forced march. But that look on my face at Low Gap feels like one.
Here we are at a look out point the next day on the Foothills Parkway, after our rafting trip and everyone's had a nice shower. Cammerer is in the distance, a different angle, and we are happy.

The only way out is through.