Sunday, July 24, 2016

Southwest Trip: Carlsbad

I don't know how I didn't post this last bit.

After the ear infection and white sands, which was hot, so very hot, we drove a short way to the town of Carlsbad, New Mexico, which was actually quite a bit north of Carlsbad Caverns but the closest KOA.

It was clean, well-kept, and quiet.

Stepping out of the car, I jacked up my knee and spent the rest of the evening, after stretching in the pool some, lying in bed wishing it felt better and figuring out what the heck to do about it.

So in the morning I strapped that brace back on and we went down to the park. Went on a cave tour that was really magnificent, and I say that as someone who lives in a state full of caves and has been to so many of them, wild caves and tourist caves alike. But I'm a bad cave tourist, always irritated by questions people ask and kids who touch things they shouldn't--the nice thing about national parks, though, is that it is chock full of cops.

I mean rangers.

I'm not the boss of any of it. I don't have to be teacher.

After seeing the cave, we went back to the campsite because there isn't much to do at Carlsbad besides the cave--but I wanted to come back in the evening for the bat flight, so we had scheduled to stay another night. It was good--I chatted on the phone, I did laundry, we almost ate dinner.

And then went to the bat flight.

We sat in a concrete amphitheater that stares down at the entrance of the cave. A ranger bantered about bats and told terrible jokes while we watched cave swallows ("the day shift") eat bugs and flit about. And then, all of a sudden, they appeared. It was a tornado of bats. They came up out of the cave, thousands of them, twisting around in a a cyclone and then heading out to feast on moths across the countryside. It was haunting and awesome. I was so glad we'd come to see it.

Lightning in the distance as darkness fell, and we headed out. We had made it past desert heat and flash flood warnings and losing an 11 year old at the Grand Canyon. I wasn't about to get struck by lightning at our last stop! I slept like a rock that night and woke up in the morning knowing I was headed home.

We had a hotel room in Oklahoma City because that last night, you just want to sleep and shower and zone out to a TV. That's exactly what we did, too, and in the morning drove THE LONGEST DAY EVER ACROSS OKLAHOMA AND MISSOURI IN THE HISTORY OF MY LIFE.

Not really. We got in and unpacked and took the trailer to the car wash and told the stories to neighbors and parents and I fell into my own bed for the first time in a million days.

And then a couple of days later, summer began. I started sleeping in and staying up late and it was hot as hades and my brother visited and the cat ran around and kids got bored and all was right in the world.

Getting back to math

I teach math but really, I teach middle schoolers. Math is my method, it's just the way things happened. I kind of like having a dry subject because I don't get lost in the details like I might with a literature course. Instead, I know when I walk into a 45 minute class whether I have time to be just a math teacher or if there is some wiggle room for some life.

There is almost always a little wiggle room for some life. I don't ramble on, I don't talk about random stuff, I'm not the sort of teacher who gets off track and loses control of the conversation (now, sometimes I lose control of the conversation but it's when I know I can, so I'm still really in control).

My 8th grade class this past year always had a little bit of wiggle room. There were only 13 students in that class and for the most part they didn't struggle too much with the concepts. So there were moments when I got to say something. Or listen to something. In fact, there were a few times when that class was obviously the one moment of the day when they felt safe enough to say something really important. I take that role very seriously--a couple of times I had to say "I'm going to have to say something to the principal about that." Which is hard, believe me, when kids trust you and then you have flag something as important enough to pass up the chain of command. But when it happened, and it was only a few times, I could see the relief on their faces. They wanted someone to know. And it kept me ethical and above-board and obvious. They knew what to expect from me.

One day I mentioned something about friendship, about something hard but not weird or strange that was going on in my life. Just that it was hard to be an adult sometimes.

"You mean things don't get easier after school?" one of the boys, one of my absolute favorite students in that class, asked, not joking around.

"It never gets easier," I shook my head. "You'd think that adulthood, that you'd figure it out, that it would make sense, your brain matures and all that. But it doesn't. The stakes just get higher."

I looked out the window at the soccer field, my everyday view. That and the concession stand bathrooms.

"So when my mom says we should enjoy this time, she means it?" he asked, suspicious.

"Yes, it's like, right now it's a black and white TV, and when you're an adult it's in color. Just more real" I summed up. And my time was up. I needed to get back to math. There would more days.

Math is always easy to get back to.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Mah Jongg Pack Up

I've torn the 110 year old plaster off the brick wall in my living room, exposing the brick and the workmanship (or lack thereof) underneath. I need to finish the wire brushing tonight and then wash it down and seal it. Then Brooklyn and I plan to pain the other walls a new color. Right now it's still this park bench green. Perhaps Ozark Airline green. But I'm ready for something lighter to fade into the background. The dining room went from burgundy to the palest blue. Something along those lines to go with the mostly neutral furniture and the new brick wall.
But see, I didn't tape the plastic up very well to separate the living room from the rest of the world. So things got really really dusty. I spent today sealing it off more expertly and then cleaning the heck out of the front hall, the steps to the second floor, the dining room and kitchen. There will still be construction footprints all over the first floor, but I can control the rest of the dust now.

So the front hall and dining room were a huge mess, essentially. Lots of things stacked around on top of the regular mess. So I took lots of things down to their foundations, wiped everything off with clorox wipes, and then reassembled.

Including my 4 mah jongg sets.

I have 4 mah jongg sets. My first is a basic white set from the 90s. Nothing to sing about, but it was my first, identical to the one I learned on with my former coworker friend Jody. Then I have a black set with wooden trays. I like it, but it's hard to read the tiles in the evenings so I don't use it hardly at all.

I have two bakelite sets. One has darkened to a beautiful butterscotch, but the tile art is nothing too special. It is typical to many of the sets I've seen on ebay and the like. Two other players in my neighborhood have identical sets. And the last set I own is a butter-colored bakelite with just a slightly nicer tile art. It is my favorite set. The tiles feel right. They sound right when they click together. The trays are pretty bakelite in a variety of colors. This set makes me happy.

These are usually stacked on top of each other on a little built in table in my staircase, with a variety of oddments on top, including a cigar box of all the National Mah Jongg League cards I own from all the years I've played.

I haven't played in almost a year. I used to play regularly--more than once a month with the girls on the block.

But one of the players in my group and I broke up back in February. Long story short, we no longer were any good for each other. I know a mah jongg game wouldn't be right without her, for me and especially for everyone else. And the last few times I did play, it felt like an homage to what mah jongg used to be--a place to be myself, to share myself, a time to deepen friendships and laugh and cry. It really hasn't been that for me in a long time, which makes me sad.

I brought the game to the table, literally--I had the first sets, the first cards, I taught three of the women on the block how to play back in early 2005. It was so far outside my comfort zone to do something like that, and it paid me back tenfold in friendships and memories. I've traveled to play mah jongg at lakehouses with these women. I've gone to a tournament, for goodness sake, and lost embarrassingly badly against elderly Jewish women who knew what they were doing. I taught the game to strangers. I taught it to students. I can only hope that the other players from my group still play and have a good time. I miss it, but really? I miss what it represented.

As I wiped down the cases, getting rid of plaster dust, I debated what to do. Perhaps I'll put them away, safe in a closet for a while and take them out to teach someone else someday. Perhaps my kids can inherit them and sell them and be shocked at how much the bakelite is worth.

Maybe I'll take them down one day and pick up the little green dragons and happy lucky kitty jokers and 8 bams (my favorite tiles) and 1 dots and remember and smile. That will be nice.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Right now (a semi-regularly recurring post)

Right now I am consuming Project Runway reruns (I've been calling it Project Rerun) at a rate of three episodes a day.

Right now I am semi-nocturnal, as is my summer pattern.

Right now I am the only one awake.

Right now my brother is in town with his family. Events are planned.

Right now I'm contemplating a new tattoo. A bowline knot.

Right now my scalp is filled with bits of plaster even though I've washed my hair twice since the wall demolition this afternoon.

Right now my left thumb hurts because I hit it with a hammer.

Right now I'm counting the days until I have an appointment with an orthopedic surgeon about my knee, and I'm having a hard time not feeling like I'm cheating on my nice chiropractor. But I can't carry a chiropractor in my pocket. I need to take this to the next level.

Right now I'm fantasizing about recovering from knee surgery. This is when I know I'm doing too much, when I think wistfully of my day at the hospital when I had my appendix out.

Right now I'm hoping for the best.

Right now I'm thinking about quilting. Got some projects to finish and a clean guest room. Maybe post-wall.

Right now I don't care about Pokemon Go.

Right now I keep shutting my eyes and they are so sore from plaster dust.

Right now I just want things to work. And work out. And maybe I should work out. Oh, my knee. Ok.

Just right now, this very second, I stretched my leg and my knee made an audible sound.


Right now I'm going to let life teach me how to live it. A day at a time. Plus knee.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Southwest Trip: Running on Empty, White Sands, Knee

Waking up all alone in a desert is not something I ever want to do again. The whole night long I went through terrifying what-if situations I'm not going to repeat here. The worst part was that none of them felt far fetched. At no point did I say to myself, Sally, get a fucking grip. Never. Everything seemed completely plausible. Thank God for my friend Maggie who sacrificed her own good night's sleep and texted back and forth with me at 3 in the morning. I was in a hard place.

And then I had an 11 year old with an ear infection.

We went to urgent care. I sent everyone else to the grocery store. I sat with London for over an hour waiting to be told that yes, she had an ear infection. The doctor was chatty, an old rancher type who wanted to know all about our trip and where we were from and so forth. I was happy about all that. I walked out with London and there was the rest of my family, holding a giant cup of espresso and whole milk over ice from the starbucks that obviously was inside the grocery store they'd gone to.


We went to the pharmacy and I waited again for the antibiotic and the buckwheat honey he'd recommended. He was a big buckwheat honey fan. We'd read the same study.

I tackled my coffee in short order and we headed into White Sands.

Again, I'd been here at age 12. There are pictures of us on the dunes. Until I planned this trip, I thought we had broken federal law being on those gypsum dunes. But no. It's totally legal. As we were filling up water bottles, a young hipster couple approached us.

“Would you like a sled?”

They'd been given a sled by someone else, and now wanted to pass it on. We totally took the sled. We drove out into the dunes on a hard pack gypsum road. Ate lunch. Sledded down the dunes, which acted more like snow than sand. If snow was a solid at 100 degrees. Isn't that a Kurt Vonnegut story?

It was exhausting and hot but it was fun. We got back in the car and I promptly fell asleep for a couple hours, waking up near our next campground. We were going to set up camp and then head to Carlsbad Caverns (we are also headed there the next day), but it was hot. And there was a pool.

And then...I jacked up my knee.

I've hiked along the rim of the Grand Canyon. Down into Bryce. Through Devil's Garden in Arches. Along the wall of Zion. All over the place the past two weeks, not to mention last month in the Smokies. And I jacked up my knee walking across the campground parking lot.

So we swam. I stretched a little in the water. I took a hot shower. I came back to the camper, turned on the AC, and sat myself down with an ice pack.

At least it's at this point in the trip and not day 2. I don't know if I'll make it into Carlsbad Caverns proper tomorrow...but everyone else will. Either way, I'm going to watch the bat flight tomorrow evening. And it will be all right.

Southwest Trip: Arizona, New Mexico

We left the Grand Canyon and drove to Holbrook, Arizona. It was one of those days of catching up and getting stuff done. We landed in this sketchy little KOA right off the interstate, and after setting up camp, drove on to Petrified Forest.

I had visited Petrified Forest (and many of these other parks) when I was 12. I remember we drove through it for the most part. I don't have a lot of recollection of it.

Neither will my kids.

It was the strangest national park/monument we've ever been to, and we've been to over 25. It felt like it had been constructed in 1965 and then left to its own devices. It felt sort of abandoned. There were some signs that they were trying to revitalize their image, but for the most part, it felt like a prison for rocks. Which it is—it is illegal to gather anything in national parks, period, but this was the first one that had a slip of paper given to us at the entrance so we could spy on other visitors and report illegal activity.

Brooklyn got out at one point, said, “oh look, another raven,” and then looked me square in the eye. “I am so tired of the Colorado Plateau.”

She went back to the car.

It was desolate, but fascinating, the petrified wood just strewn about on the ground. London was highly enamored by the idea, and the next day we went to the gift shop so she could get a pair of petrified wood earrings (collected in other parts of Arizona, the signs all said—I mean, it was a gift shop IN the park after all).

We drove the next day, out of Arizona, through Albuquerque, and down to Alamogordo. It was a long drive and we lost an hour to the time change. We had lunch at a nice little Mexican place (oh so spicy), but sometime between lunch and arriving at our destination, I was overcome by a wave of homesickness.

I used to move, on average, every 2 years. And after about age 10 (before that, who cares?), this wave of homesickness would hit me about two weeks post-move. Usually we were at our next destination, either in a house or, worse, in a corporate apartment waiting on a house to close. Or to find one. And the temporary feeling of life, the leaving behind of what had been permanent-feeling, it was the same feeling I had that afternoon.

I'd been gone too long.

I talked myself down as we got to the campsite, at a state park near White Sands National Monument, a beautiful desert landscape chock full of birds and a sunset waiting to take my breath away.

But we were the only people there.

No joke: no ranger, no campground host, nobody. NO OTHER PEOPLE. THERE WAS NO ONE THERE.

I'm just going to sum it up: it pushed all my buttons. I couldn't sleep. I sat out and looked at the stars, the Milky Way, the satellites, the space station crossing my sky. Then I went to bed, making Bixby go on to sleep. The kids slept. He slept. I stared into the darkness. I texted a friend. I felt myself get sleepy and I felt myself fight it. I was terrified by simply being alone.

I slept between midnight and 2 in the morning, waking to every sound. I was awake then until almost 4. I thought, if I can make it to the twilight before dawn, I will feel ok. Bixby will wake and I can sleep until 8 or so and then we can head to White Sands.

I snoozed off and on until 5:30, when London woke with an earache.

Expletive deleted.

Tylenol administered, I told Bixby I was going to sleep. The urgent care opened at 8.

He let me sleep until 7:50.

Southwest Trip: Grand Canyon

The last morning at Zion, we took a ranger led shuttle tour of the rocks. I mean the park. It was good. Brooklyn is so done with rocks, though. But we chatted with other people on the tour and it came up that we were heading to the Grand Canyon next.

“North Rim, right?” an older couple asked us while nodding at us, like, please say you are going to the north rim.

Later, another participant, with whom I geeked out about birds, told us that we'd better be heading to the north rim.

We were. I had read about the crowds at the South Rim and I wanted something different.

I got it. In the best way.

North Rim was amazing. Chill. We walked out to Bright Angel Point the first early evening. The next day, we took a hike to a place aptly named Cape Final. We had the place to ourselves in comparison to how we experienced Zion.

I was glad to leave Utah behind.

I was very very glad for a national park campground with lows in the 50s.

I was ecstatic over the clean bathrooms with soap.

But we lost London on our first day there—we'd walked to Bright Angel Point, like I said, and as we were walking back, we stopped a moment to let Niles catch his breath. London kept going. We followed...and then never caught up with her.

I sent Brooklyn to the truck. I sent Bix back along the trail. I stayed with Niles for a few minutes at the visitor center, and when Brooklyn came back, I left the two of them on the front porch and I hunted the other end of the trail.

It was a terrifying 15 minutes.

I finally found her wandering in the parking lot, obviously looking for the truck. She was crying. I texted Bixby (thank God there was coverage at the North Rim) and I held onto her. She was embarrassed for getting separated—she'd seen a bird, and got intrigued, followed it along the path past the visitor center. Aww, a bird.

All was well.

All was so very much well.

Our second evening, I walked down to where the campground meets the sky, sat on a downed tree staring out at the magnificence. It was the best part of the whole trip, sitting there in the waning sunlight taking in the view in silence.

All was well.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Southwest Trip: Zion National Park, the Disneyworld of National Parks

I woke up and it was early. It continues to be early when I get up in the mornings. I don't know if it's the birds or the light or the 4 inch mattress or what but I'm up before 7 without medication and that's not normal.

We drove to Springdale and parked along the main street. There's a shuttle to take you to the front entrance of Zion, and then there's a shuttle system to take you through the park. It's weird, like Disneyworld or maybe the Zoo. The park ranger out front asking for those with passes to go to the left might as well have been holding a camera and handing out slips of paper for us to check our photos at the visitor center after 3 pm.

We got right on the shuttle and went to the human history museum. It was not crowded; we watched a movie overview of the park. Then we caught the shuttle and went to the Lodge stop, where we went on a hike to the Emerald Pools.

A note about hiking. Brooklyn and I are hikers. London is becoming one. Bixby is good, too, not as many miles on his boots. And Niles is young. It makes for a hard time deciding what hikes to take. Go too hard and Niles wears out. Go too easy and Brooklyn and I wind up bored at the end of the trail. The rangers the night before said that Zion essentially had easy hikes (paved walkways) and strenuous hikes (5 and a half miles straight up a mountain holding onto a chain). There weren't many in the middle. He suggested the Emerald Pools-the first pool is easy, the other two are strenuous.

Not really. They weren't bad, I mean, for someone who pushed past her limits in the Smokies a month ago.

And the lower pool trail? Holy shit. It was jam packed with tourists in flip flops pushing strollers with crying babies, eating powerbars and telling Grandma to hurry up. If Brooklyn had had the means to make a rudimentary shiv...

The crowd thinned out after the first pool, leaving just tanned blond dads dragging toddlers behind them and their fitness conscious wives complaining that all they'd had to eat so far that day was a powerbar and he was a marine, but she wasn't, etc. One mom had a fight with her 8 year old son about whether he should wear his was one of the most passive aggressive arguments I'd ever witnessed, and remember, I teach middle school. Another mom stomped her foot and started pushing past people to get down and away from her children. It was classic.

The third pool had the fewest hikers, of course, but still far too many tourists (I say this as a tourist of course, but one who came to hike, not one who came for, I don't know why else you would come to National Parks, in general). Lots of people trying to feed a squirrel. My prayers for a vicious bite went unanswered.

On the way down, after the little spur trail to the pool, we noticed the Kayenta Trail broke off to the left. Talk about the road less traveled. We took it high above the canyon, descending quickly at the end to a bridge that crossed the Virgin River and on to the next bus stop—the advantage to having a park bus system is it is possible to thru-hike from one place to the next. That hike? That was perfect.

We went down to the last stop, where the Narrows begin. The hike I didn't take. We got there and I wanted to at least walk down along the river and take a look at the canyon as it started to get tight.

And instead, about a quarter mile in, it started to thunder.

We made the right choice. We turned around and caught a bus back to junior ranger swearing in and the bus back to our truck. On the way back, the bus driver announced that NOAA had declared another flash flood warning and the park service was closing all the slot canyons and the Narrows.

We would have still been on the other side of that closure at 2:30 in the afternoon. On a hike that is only in the water at some points.

The town of Springdale was still partly cloudy when we got back to the truck, which I had strategically parked in front of an ice cream place.

Back at the camper by 4:00 or so, kids swam for 15 minutes before the rain hit. I caught up on the outside world. Bixby started dinner and I started gathering up laundry for later.

Tomorrow I leave Utah behind and head to the Grand Canyon. I've been there before, when I was 12. For about 10 minutes. My father was terrified of it.

Brooklyn is tired of crowds. “Great, the Grand Canyon,” she said sarcastically when we discussed the upcoming few days.

“North Rim, hoping it won't be overpowering,” I reassured her. I really am hoping it won't be so bad. I plan to be...a the Grand Canyon. Where are my flip flops and powerbars?