Life’s What You Make It

Joe at the beach
Joe at the beach

Our oldest has had something of a rough re-entry into landlocked life since we returned from our Hawaiian vacation almost a month ago. I’m afraid that on our trip Joe realized that he, in fact, is not a mountain kid but is an ocean kid living in a city over a thousand miles away from an ocean. Since returning home, he’s immersed himself in ocean research, continually forcing us to watch episodes of The Blue Planet all about the seas. He’s been on Google Earth checking out locations for snorkeling vacations. (He’s currently leaning toward the Maldives. We’ll head there right after we win the lottery.) He’s also been driving me crazy by insisting that the incredibly crappy, gravel beach at the small reservoir a mile from our house has to be a regular destination for us this summer. I’ve tried explaining to him that I don’t see myself spending my summer on a bed of gravel next to a big pond that is occasionally closed to swimming because E coli bacteria is proliferating there. He seems not to hear my negatives, simply reminding me that this is the closest he can ever be to a beach and that he’s an ocean kid and not a mountain kid. Don’t we realize we’re torturing him by making him live in Colorado so far away from the ocean? Yes. He’s a bit of a drama queen. And he keeps asking us to move.

Today was the first nice day we’ve had thus far this year. The temps soared into the low 70s and everyone was out in shorts. After nothing but snowfall this spring, today felt like our deliverance. The hope of summer was so close we could almost smell the campfires and see the columbine. We imagined finally putting away our snow gear and justifiably pulling out our flip flops. Although we’re not quite out of the woods yet (looks like we might see snow again next week), we allowed ourselves today the opportunity to imagine the sound of nails being driven into the coffin of a long, cold winter. Joe was beside himself with glee, dreaming perhaps of our warmer days in Hawaii.

Late this afternoon, he asked us if we could go to the beach across the street. All I could think was that it’s starting already…the battle I will face this summer. We told him no. We’d just gotten back from a 30 mile bike ride and we wanted to hang out at home. But Joe persisted. Finally I decided to check the web site for the state park where I discovered that the swim beach was closed until Memorial Day. When I told him the bad news, the poor kid cried. He actually cried. Unable to bear his frustration, we told him we would drive over to check out the situation.

When we pulled into the lot at the beach, we found several families picnicking and having cookouts. The boys were thrilled. There was no going back. We got out of the car and headed onto the beach. Steve and I threw the beach blanket down and settled in for the half an hour of beach time we’d promised. Although they seemed to be a bit shocked by the 45 degree water temperature (not surprising to us given that the lake had ice on it until a month ag0), the boys got their feet wet and walked along the shore. They threw sticks into the water and were giddy every time a noisy speedboat kicked up diminutive, rippling waves. Steve and I watched with wonder as our sons seemed to have nearly as much fun on this beach as they’d had in Hanalei where the strong ocean tides had prohibited them from swimming from that beach. They didn’t care that the lake is so small you can see across it in every single direction. They didn’t care that the water was achingly cold and the beach was not comprised of fine, powdery sand. They enjoyed their moment anyway. After all, they were at the beach.

I am reminded sometimes that my older, wiser, more cynical view of life gets in the way of my appreciating the smaller things. I didn’t want to go to the reservoir. I could not see the point of sitting on a rough, gravel beach with no true waves and freezing cold water. I could not see it until I was there with my boys and I witnessed the incalculable joy this weak substitution offered them. Only then was I reminded that just because a situation isn’t perfect doesn’t mean it can’t be perfectly grand in its own way. Chatfield Reservoir isn’t exactly Poipu Beach on Kauai, but it’s something. Life’s what you make it.

Destination Unknown

My lunch today...tropical smoothie with kale.
My lunch today…tropical smoothie with kale.

Fitness is 20% exercise and 80% nutrition. You can’t outrun your fork.”                         ~Anonymous

A friend asked me the other day how my book writing is coming along. And I was forced to tell her the sad truth. It’s not. I really haven’t done anything substantive toward completing a book since I stopped the daily writing on my blog back in January. It was hard for me to admit that to my friend, but what’s harder still is resisting the urge to make elaborate excuses for my written inactivity. So rather than lying to you about some monumental personal obstacles I’ve encountered that have restricted me from writing, I am simply going to tell you the embarrassing truth. Like a dog that stops everything when it notices a squirrel running across the top of the fence, I got distracted by something. That something is food.

In January, after months of knowing it was the right thing to do and yet ignoring my better judgment, I finally decided it was time to jettison the artificial sweeteners in my diet. No more skinny lattes containing sugar-free syrups and no more diet sodas laden with aspartame. I switched to water. Round about that same time, curious about the Paleo diet some of my friends swear by, I decided to do some more research into what I should be eating. Over the years I would occasionally try a diet to lose a few pounds I had packed on. This time I was looking for a lifestyle change diet, something I could live with and maintain. My Type A personality went into high gear and I began reading, watching documentaries and Ted presentations, and doing my research. Then I officially went off the deep end head first. I tossed out everything in my house that was hiding MSG (and all of its pseudonyms). I cleared the refrigerator of food dyes. I decided against Frankenfood and set about a mass reduction in the amount of GM foods we eat. I tossed out packages of foods whose ingredients read like a foreign language. I bought a freaking juicer. And I decided to get downright personal with our food.

Along the way, we had many family discussions before mutually agreeing we would work toward a whole food, plant-based diet. We cut way back on meat. I reduced the portion of dairy in my diet from approximately 30% to 5%. We cancelled our milk delivery. We started buying more organic produce. We decided that it matters to us what the cows and chickens we include in our diet consume. We stopped eating out as often. We greatly reduced our consumption of sugar, caffeine, and processed foods. We started making fresh juices and vitamin-laden smoothies to get more fruits and vegetables in our diet. We decided to stick to heart-healthy oils and plant-based fats. I began work on my gluten-free baking. Our unbelievably picky eater, Luke, willingly began experimenting with new foods. Our dinners are now comprised of ingredients that we can pronounce. And we feel better. We sleep better. Our skin and nails are healthier. Our immunity seems to have improved. We don’t count calories. We just eat food that makes sense, food that we understand. And we eat as much of it as we want.

I didn’t truly intend to spend much time walking down this path. It began as a curiosity and morphed into something much larger. Each day I take another few steps away from what I thought was important toward what I now believe truly is. The more I’ve learned about the complexity of our food (gained through years of industrialization, scientific research and experimentation, and a lack of appropriate governmental oversight), the more I know that this is where I need to be focusing my energy right now. This is what I am being called to. Who knows? Maybe somewhere along this journey I will find my raison d’être? Maybe in the midst of all of this I will find my book? Maybe not.

I know there is the whole eat-right-and-exercise-and-die-anyway philosophy. I think about that sometimes and wonder if I’m diverting my energy into something that in the end won’t really matter. Then I read another article linking some health issue to our food supply and I remember that I’ve never been the type to sit back and wait to see what happens. My mother taught me that if you aren’t happy with something, you should fix it. So that’s where I’m headed…to improve my health and the health of the ones I love. Perhaps something will stop me in my tracks early and I won’t live to be the vibrant 90 year old I know I’m capable of becoming. I only know one thing. I want to live as many of my days here on this earth free of pain, feeling good in my skin, and knowing that I’m doing the best I can for my family, myself, and this blue planet. So, for now, I have to keep walking this road to see where it leads. I’m pretty sure that it leads somewhere good.

Mr. Roger’s Wisdom

There might just be a silver lining in these clouds.
There might be a silver lining in these clouds.

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” ~Fred Rogers

Explosions in two different states rocked our country this week. In less than 72 hours, bombings in Boston and a deadly chemical explosion in Texas stole the lion’s share of media attention. My Facebook news feed first erupted with posts about the details of the damage and then was quickly overburdened with online prayers and calls for donations. On Monday evening after watching about 20 minutes of reporting on the bombings at the Boston Marathon with my sons, I turned the television off because we’d seen everything we needed to see. The damage was extensive, the loss of life tragic, and the implications disturbing.

On Tuesday, the quote listed above from television’s beloved Mr. Rogers began circulating on Facebook. It was shared thousands of times, a much appreciated reminder to look for the positive when everything seems bleak. And so we did. As a collective community, new posts began emerging about the runners who crossed the finish line at the marathon and kept on running two additional miles to Boston General to donate blood for those injured in the attacks. Restaurants offered free meals to those who couldn’t pay. Ordinary citizens rushed into the fray and used items of their clothing to create tourniquets for the wounded. In West, Texas, emergency responders from up to 100 miles away showed up to offer their services in the wake of that deadly explosion. Those willing to help in times of grave tragedy are often too many to count. And in a way, knowledge of the kindness of strangers somehow removes some of the sting from these horrific incidents. Selfless acts of generosity and compassion bring hope. And it sure does make you feel good about human kind to see the best side of people rather than the side you see most days while stuck in traffic or waiting at the doctor’s office or shopping in a crowded Costco.

I have to wonder what would happen in this country if people treated each other each day with the type of consideration, care, and concern they offer during the worst of times. We all rally together to fix meals for a family when we find out someone is having surgery, but how often do we offer to share a meal just because we can tell someone could use a night off? We volunteer to shovel the driveway for the elderly neighbor when she breaks her hip, but why don’t we offer our services as a matter of routine because we are able-bodied and generous of spirit? We sit and stew in traffic, refusing to let the numbnuts who waited until the last minute to merge into the construction traffic into our lane. We look back and notice someone coming into the store but judge that the ten feet they are away from us doesn’t merit our time to wait and hold the door for them. We moan and groan and whine about having to volunteer for things. We complain every time a request is made of us. We somehow figure that donating $10 through a text or dropping some unwanted clothes off at a local thrift store qualifies us for being a good person while we still commit crimes of indifference toward each other each and every day.

Now I am in no way implying that I am my best self every day. My kids can verify that I provide a steady litany of swear words and derisive comments on the highway. And sometimes when I hold the door for someone out of kindness and they fail to acknowledge me I will pop off with a highly sarcastic You’re Welcome as the person walks away. It’s difficult for me to be selfless. Very difficult. Like many people, I work hard for my family and at the end of the day I feel like I’ve done my fair share and given all I have to offer. I do wonder, though, how much better I would feel about myself and the world if I offered just a bit more of my kindest self to others without a flippant attitude or the hope of acknowledgment. I know we can’t all be Mother Teresa, but I do believe that we’d be a lot happier in this nation if we showed up with our best selves more often. If we tried just a bit harder to be a helper every single day, even in the smallest of ways, I have to believe that this country would be a much happier place to live.

How Do You Like Them Apples?

Joe and Luke playing astronaut at the museum six years ago
Joe and Luke playing astronaut at the museum six years ago at nearly 4 and 6.

I have always loved the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, which was known in my childhood as Denver Museum of Natural History. I remember my school field trips there on creaky, uncomfortable yellow buses back when a trip from the suburbs to downtown felt like a trip to the moon. In college friends and I would trek down from Boulder for a welcome study break and a chance to picnic in City Park. When we had our sons, I could not wait to share it with them. And I did. Most visits consisted of me hurriedly following them as they raced through the exhibits, unable to read and only patient enough to stand still for a moment. On those visits we spent more time commuting to and from the museum than we actually spent in the museum. Still, we’d always have to stop in the space exhibit so they could try on astronaut suits and attempt to dock the Space Shuttle. One time my super speedy, two-year-old Luke beat me up the ramp out of the Mars exhibit and was immediately lost in the crowd. I found him a few minutes later, two floors up, crouched in a weepy ball on the third floor staircase and surrounded by concerned parents who wondered where his negligent mother was. (He’s been more diligent about staying near me ever since.) Most visits ended in the gift shop where often, although not always, they were treated to a small souvenir.

The boys are bigger but they look small next to that mammoth.
The boys are much bigger now but they still look pretty small next to that mammoth.

Today we took the boys as promised back to the museum, our first trip there this year. Joe, ever enthralled by natural history, has been pestering us to take him to the Mammoths and Mastodons exhibit since it opened in February. I carefully plotted to take him closer to the end of the exhibit’s run so we wouldn’t have to share the exhibit with half the city. With a couple visits to this museum every year since the boys were 4 and 2, we now have the rigamarole down to our own science. Today we arrived a few minutes before opening at 9 so we could beat the crowds. We got into the exhibit itself at 9:15, which gave us a full hour to explore before heading down one floor to catch the IMAX movie called Titans of the Ice Age, featuring (you guessed it) more mammoths and mastodons. Afterward, Joe wanted to run through the dinosaur exhibit and the space exhibit before ducking into the gift shop. By that time we were starving but we acquiesced. When Steve and I paused to enjoy the museum’s fantastic view of City Park and the Denver skyline, the boys took off without giving notice. Because they’re older now, there was no panic at their disappearance as there would have been in years past. We simply walked back to the main corridor and looked around. After a minute we spied them on the first floor near the gift shop glancing around nervously. When they saw us approaching, they looked momentarily relieved and then bolted for the gift shop. Some things never change.

Spring in Denver
Spring in Denver

On the way home (without gift shop souvenirs and the subsequent tantrums that used to follow that sad situation) the four of us excitedly discussed what we’d learned. We each had favorite revelations and discoveries. I was interested to learn that elephants are not descendants of either mammoths or mastodons as I had imagined. All three proboscideans are descendants of one common ancestor, which makes them more like cousins. Mammoths lived in colder climes and ate grasses, while mastodons lived in slightly less icy environs and munched on trees and shrubs. The more we listened to our sons talking about their visit, the better we felt about our decision to set our alarm for 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning. More than once Joe interrupted his non-stop recounting of myriad factoids about late Pleistocene mammals to thank us for taking him to the museum. Tickets to mammoth exhibit for a family of four: $26. IMAX 3D tickets for more mammoth fun: $20. Gratitude from my preteen son for an educational experience…priceless.

My kids were never quiet or still enough for story time at the library. (We were kicked out more than once.) They’ve never been great at sitting still at the dinner table or a table in a restaurant. Despite the plethora of professional sporting events we’ve taken them to, they’ve only ever one time made it through an entire game. These things used to bother me. They don’t anymore. So what if they’re not quiet readers or princes of table manners or sports fanatics? They are curious learners who get all geeked out over dinosaurs, early mammals, space, rocks, animals, health, and history and who would rather conduct intellectually fueled Google searches and build elaborate virtual worlds than play soccer or baseball or lacrosse or football. Yep. They’re nerdy just like their parents. As the old saying goes, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Turns out that’s exactly how I wanted my apples to land after all.

sNOW Day

Snowball and dog hang time
Snowball and dog hang time

Saturday, I heard rumblings that we might be expecting snow. This is not unusual for Denver. At our mile-high elevation, we receive April snow showers instead of the April rain showers many other American cities receive. Sunday night, though, I started hearing the word snowstorm bandied about. Although I’m completely okay with the spring snows we get here that tend to be quickly followed by a nice warm up back into our regularly scheduled warm temperatures, I’m a little less than pleased with the thought of a snowstorm on a school day. So far this year, we had not had one snow day and my boys (knock on wood) have hardly missed a day of school. With just a little over a week’s time passing between the end of Spring Break and now, I was not interested in more together time with my boys just yet. After all, we’ll be together all summer break and that starts for us in about six weeks.

On Monday night at 9 p.m. as I was getting ready to leave a friend’s house, an email alert popped up. It was an advance school cancellation by our principal. After reviewing the weather reports, she had decided to call school off because of a predicted 8-12 inches of blowing snow. Ugh. I headed home as heavy, wet snowflakes began to fall, appalled that just that morning I had walked four miles with our dog on a dry hiking trail in nearly 70 degree weather. When I walked in the door, I told our boys the news. They were beyond thrilled. And as the reality of the situation began to sink in, I relaxed a little knowing that at least I would not have to make lunches or trudge out early in the morning. I told the boys not to even think of waking me up before 7:30, and we all went to sleep.

At 5:25 the door slammed behind hubby as he headed to catch the early morning train into the city, and I was up. It was one of those morning alarm situations in which you realize you will not be getting back to sleep. Resigned to my fate, I picked up my iPhone and checked my messages. By 5:50, both boys were up. I looked outside and snow was indeed falling. We had barely three inches on the ground and I wondered if all the school administrators who had cancelled school (every district in the Denver metro area had cancelled school by late Monday night based on the forecast) were drinking their morning coffee at home and kicking themselves thinking about a summer vacation that would now start one day later for no good reason.

Throughout the day as the snow fell off and on, the boys played quietly with their iPads or the Xbox. We worked ahead on school work a little together, enjoyed a laid back lunch, and then we settled into my bed to watch episodes of Arrested Development. We did very little all day. It was quiet. We were restful and mellow. We never got out of our lounge clothes and pajamas. We decompressed. Around 4 p.m. Luke ran over to play in the neighbor’s house, and I sent Joe out into the backyard in his snow clothes to amuse the dog who had refused to step foot outside in the inclement weather all day. As Joe played with Ruby in the yard, I sat on my bedroom floor looking down on him from the upstairs window. I was completely in the moment. And as my now almost 12 year old son played in the falling snow with his border collie, tossing snowballs that she tried to catch, I got teary eyed. In my yard I could still see the three year old who would play in the snow long after his friends had become too cold and gone inside. Where has the time gone? These precious days with my boys, the ones where they actually want to curl up and watch television with me or roll around in the snow with their dog, will likely become fewer and father between as they get older and become more involved with their own lives. So yesterday I stopped and made a conscious choice to soak up the sights, smells, sounds, and peace of the snow day I had not wanted so I will be able to savor it forever in my memory when Joe and Luke have moved on.

Although I had gone into the snow day with a firmly resonating noooooooooo echoing in my head, it turns out that it was exactly what I needed. Three or four years ago, I would have grudgingly made my way through the day, upset that I’d missed my workout and my peace and quiet, counting the minutes until school started the next day. Luckily, I am an older and wiser person now. I’m grateful that I’ve finally gotten to a place in my life where I can soften a bit and appreciate the here and now in full knowledge that in another minute it will be just a memory.

My Silver Linings Playbook

If I ever found the end of the rainbow, I'm pretty sure someone would have gotten there a minute before me and claimed the pot of gold.
If I ever find the end of the rainbow, I just know someone will have arrived there a minute before me and claimed the pot of gold.

“To expect defeat is nine-tenths of defeat itself. ”           ~Henry Louis Mencken

On the flight back from Hawaii, one of the movies offered for my in-flight viewing pleasure was Silver Linings Playbook. I’d seen it in the theaters just before the Academy Awards, but I had liked it so much I told myself I would have to see it again. (Someone must have told United Airlines this, which is why I was able to view it not once but twice on our six hour flight from sunny Honolulu back to snowy Denver.) If you haven’t seen the movie, rest assured I won’t ruin it for you with this tiny summary. The story’s protagonist, Pat, is working to regain control of his life after an ugly downward spiral. He plans to overcome his difficulties by focusing on the positives, the silver linings that life presents to him. Pat’s willingness to remain open and look for the positives touched me because, well, I am not great at that.

For most of my life, I’ve regarded myself as a cynical person. I’m Eeyore. I would like to believe the best and be a Tigger. I really would. But people keep disappointing me. Just when I think I see a glimmer of hope, a light at the end of the proverbial tunnel, I am proven wrong. I hate to be proven wrong. I hate it so vehemently that I am careful about what I say because I want to avoid just that fate. If I don’t know the definitive answer to something asked of me, if I’m not absolutely 100% certain, I will insert a disclaimer. I’m an attorney in my own mind because being this way saves me the future headache of explaining my wrongness. I am many things, but I try earnestly not to be irrevocably wrong. (Yes. I know I have issues. My therapist and I are working on it.)

There is something worse than being proven wrong, though. And that is being proven right on something you truly hoped you were wrong about. This usually means having a negative opinion about a person or a situation and then determining by some word or deed that your original, less-than-positive assessment was entirely correct. Doesn’t that suck? Now you’re right, which is what you prefer to be, but unfortunately you’re right about something you wish you had rather not been right about at all. And that’s just wrong.

When I stretched these thoughts out before myself tonight to investigate them fully, what I uncovered is that I am not cynical at all. I say I am cynical because negativity is easier than positivity. If I expect things not to go well and they don’t…well, I’m no worse for the wear. I expected as much. If I expect, however, for things to be fine and they’re not, I struggle. So, like water, I take the path of least resistance. A tender heart is far better off dealing with an expected disappointment than planning for the best and being forced to deal with the worst, right? But this is where things get sticky. To have been disappointed in the first place, there must have been some sort of room for that, some positivity…no matter how hidden. How sick is it to try to convince yourself that you’re negative when really you’d rather be hopeful? There must be at least 40 sessions on my therapist’s couch for acknowledging that I choose to be negative because it makes facing disappointment a trifle easier.

I know the best way to be is to remain without expectation, but I’ve never been very good at that. I would like to be like the Dalai Lama and be open to the guidance of synchronicity rather than allowing expectations to hinder my path. But, dammit…it’s hard. I’d like to be like more like Pat in Silver Linings Playbook and look for the good without always keeping a wary eye out for the bad. If expectation of defeat is nine-tenths of the defeat itself, maybe I should try a bit harder to think positively and therefore potentially avoid the defeat altogether? Perhaps that’s my next life assignment on the road to Zen?