Henry David Thoreau-ing It

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, to discover that I had not lived.” ~Henry David Thoreau

Me a bunch of years ago celebrating at Red Rocks (with food I can no longer eat)

Birthdays over age 50 are something else. On the one hand, you have to acknowledge you are definitely over that hill and the time ahead for you is far less than the time behind you. On the other hand, you know people who have already left this world, perhaps classmates that didn’t make it to your advanced age, and you are grateful to be here. It’s a mixed bag. I’m simultaneously glad to be 54 and annoyed to be 54. But time marches on and the only way to stop it is death, and that is not an option I am anxious to explore. My fingers are crossed that my luck continues to hold.

While I did not go into the woods like Henry David Thoreau, this month I have been taking a much needed hiatus from social media. My reasons are a little different than Thoreau’s, but the thought is the same. I wanted to eliminate the bullshit. I wanted to face only the essentials of life, to see what those people around me and the situations we shared in person together could offer me. I wanted to delete the distractions provided by the socials. I wanted to ensure I wasn’t wasting my life gawking at other people’s lives. And I needed to make sure I wasn’t so busy presenting a life to others that I was no longer consciously living one myself. I picked a curious time to do it too, given that this month is filled with experiences one would love to post on social media…birthdays, graduations, parties, reunions, and travel.

Still, I’m not doing it quite right. I admit to playing some games on my iPhone and watching playoff hockey and episodes of Formula 1: Drive to Survive. I’m not checked in 100% of the time, but I am present more than I have been. This is both good and bad, as I’m struggling with accepting that our youngest will graduate one week from today, and in August we will drive both sons to Washington and leave them (along with part of our hearts) there and return to an empty house. So it’s useful to give myself, from time to time, the opportunity not to focus on the huge changes that are afoot. It’s important to feel your feelings, but it’s my birthday and I don’t want to spend it sobbing about my most challenging, most favorite job ever coming to an end.

This weekend, Steve and I will be taking scuba classes. This should keep my mind off my kids and allow me to celebrate myself and my life and what I am able to learn, overcome, and accomplish, even at the advanced age of 54. This weekend I start the next phase of my life even as the last one is wrapping up. It’s time to make new friends. And if everything goes well and my ears clear and I don’t freak out underwater trying things that are way outside my comfort zone, on Sunday I will finish my first two dives at the aquarium among my new fish friends. I’ve done a lot of exploring on land in my life. Time to see what the sea has to offer.

I’ve decided to refer to this social media time out as “Henry David Thoreau-ing it.” I think he would appreciate my wisdom and the shout out.

Walking With Dinosaurs Again

“Let your age get old but not your heart.” ~Unknown

Joe, likely watching dinosaurs something dinosaur related, circa 2005

Our son, Joe, is a college sophomore. He has been interested in dinosaurs since he was about 3. We are not sure what first fueled his intense curiosity about them, but we’ve narrowed it down to Disney’s Dinosaur film (circa 2000), any of the library of Land Before Time films (1988-2007), or the BBC television production called Walking with Dinosaurs (1999). While we don’t know which show originally piqued his interest, we do know that we spent hours upon hours watching those productions with him. I partially credit Joe’s fascination with dinosaurs with our initial discovery of Joe’s learning disabilities. It made zero sense to us that a four year old who could instantly recognize a specific type of dinosaur and share with us its name, its size, and the period in which it lived, along with myriad other facts about it, could not remember that we told him to pick up his shoes and carry them up the stairs a minute earlier. He had an insanely acute long-term memory and a dismal short-term one. But, I digress.

Over the years since then, even as he discovered new interests (geology, flags, geography, history, world religions, travel, and geopolitics), his passion for dinosaurs was always running in background. As new discoveries were made, he would share them with us. At those times, be he 8 or 14 or 18, he would become so excited and animated and awestruck about his new knowledge that we would transported back to the days when four year old Joe was regaling us with dinosaur facts. Dinosaurs, a link to Earth’s past, have been our link to Joe’s past.

Yesterday, a new BBC series premiered on Apple TV+. Joe texted me the links to the first trailer for this show over a month ago, as soon as it was available online. I hadn’t heard Joe this excited about anything in a while. Joe’s ADHD provides him with this marvelous capacity for hyper focus. When he discovers something that captures his imagination, he becomes temporarily obsessed with it. He learns everything he can about it, and he passes his knowledge along to us, whether or not we find the subject as compelling as he does. So, yesterday, I was asked to join him in watching the first episode of five, one being released each day this week. Yesterday’s show was about the coasts and the creatures that inhabited them during the Cretaceous period. Even if you are not a dinosaur aficionado, I suggest you find this show and watch it. It will obliterate what you thought you knew about these creatures. Everything I learned about the dinosaurs while I was growing up has evolved with the discovery of new dinosaur fossils and the use of current technologies to analyze them. Science is amazing. And although I knew some of the changes that have occurred in our knowledge about the magnificent creatures of the Cretaceous thanks to Joe, I am still learning more through the series.

I can’t explain what a treat it is to watch our nearly 21 year old son seeing these episodes for the first time. After years of railing against the inaccuracies of the plastic model dinosaurs he would see and sometimes purchase (it seems Joe knows more about the dinosaurs than the toy companies that produce their likenesses), it was a delight to listen to Joe ooh and ahh over the depiction of the creatures in this series. He paused the show several times to tell me what has changed and how we know what we know now. He also paused the recording a few times to cry out, “That is speculation, but there is science behind it so it is possible.”

Yesterday morning I surreptitiously captured this photo of our deep-thinking, curious son investigating the first few moments of the first episode of Prehistoric Planet up close. I wish I had recorded it on video because there were audible oohs as he watched. I teared up seeing him like that because, although he is much taller and heavier now than he was when he was 3 and first discovered dinosaurs, for the briefest of moments there I could have sworn he was 18 years younger. I will never be able to hold that young boy in my arms again, but it brings me great joy to realize that the evolution of our human understanding about dinosaurs will continue to offer me opportunities to see that sweet child again and revel in his excitement about the world. My heart is full.

There was audible “oohs” when I was taking this photo

The One Where Fun With Flags Pays Off

On Wednesday nights, our neighborhood coffee shop/bar/gathering space hosts DJ Trivia. We have gone a couple times with some of our awesome neighbors. This week, none of our neighbors were available to join the festivities. We thought about skipping out too but, with Joe home from college and Luke without homework before spring break, we decided we had enough of a team with just the four of us. The boys were so not thrilled that we were dragging them along that Luke decided the only appropriate team name was Two Willing Participants since they didn’t want to be there.

We got through the first round with all the possible points, but it’s the easy round. We clinched the bonus question because of my gift with lyrics. Who knew that my brain would pull Def Leppard’s Pour Some Sugar On Me out of its cobwebby recesses? I haven’t willingly listened to that song since, well, ever. Anyhoo, we struggled the second round and ended with 20 out of 40 points and didn’t even dare take a stab at the bonus question. We were sitting in 6th place out of 7 teams, and our confidence was flagging. Somehow, though, we rallied in the third round, scoring 60 out of 80. Luke knew the bonus question about the alloy of copper and tin (it’s bronze), and we were right back in it. Suddenly, we were sitting in third, which meant we were in prize territory.

The final round is fill-in-the-blank questions rather than multiple choice. We got the first two fairly easily, but missed the next two. We were somehow still in third place as we waded into the final bonus round, called the Do Or Die Dare round. We strategized how to play it and decided it was go big or go home. If we got the question right, we would double our entire score and could finish in a higher place, or at least hold on to third and win a prize. And then, as if the gods were on our side, the title of the bonus round question hit the screen. The title was Fun With Flags. We all looked at Joe. This was our Slumdog Millionaire moment. Joe has long been a fan of geography and flags. He’s a regular vexillologist. In his senior year, he had to give a 45-minute presentation on a topic of his choice. The title of the presentation he shared with his classmates? Fun With Flags. I shit you not.

Yeah…I know that flag

Steve pushed himself back from the table with a “this is it” flourish of glee. A flag appeared on the trivia screens. Joe looked at it for a nanosecond, leaned forward, and said quietly with the utmost confidence, “Uzbekistan.” I grabbed the paper and wrote it down. We handed it to the DJ judge in five seconds flat while the rest of the tables sat hemming and hawing and conjecturing. It appeared no one wanted to risk all their points with an answer. Finally, a representative from the Vandalay Industries team stood up and walked to submit their answer. We all knew Joe had provided the right answer. Not because any of us had a clue about the flag of Uzbekistan but because Joe. The DJ did all the tabulating and then announced that only two answers had been submitted for the Do or Die Dare and only one of those was right. The correct answer was Uzbekistan.

Yeah, baby!

The DJ read off the name of the third place winner. We smiled. Second place went to the team that often wins each week, Hot Fuzz. The room was dead silent. Someone had pulled off an upset. The DJ put our team name on the screen, and we high-fived all around while Hot Fuzz looked over at us like we’d just kicked their puppy. Two Willing Participants won largely due to the efforts of its two unwilling team participants, and the coveted $25 brewery gift card and bragging rights for the week were ours. It was positively glorious.

A member of Team Hot Fuzz, still flabbergasted by their unexpected loss, shouted over to Joe to inquire how he knew the answer to the flag question so quickly. To which Joe replied, “I have the flags of the world memorized. It’s a good party trick.” This twenty year old kid just ruined their evening, and I couldn’t have been any prouder. It made all the hours I’ve spent quizzing Joe on flags and listening to him prattle on about the poorly designed ones totally worth it.

Joe with his personal Uzbekistan flag at home after our win

I guess there are a few lessons to be learned from our trivia evening. First, never, ever assume something you are asked to do (like attend a trivia night with your parents) will be a waste of time because you never know what you might learn about yourself or others. Second, if you encourage your child’s obsessions, they might pay off. Third, if you’re going to trivia night, take Joe and Luke with you. Their arcane knowledge about flags or every letter of the Greek alphabet or the names of Roman emperors might be just what you need to humble Hot Fuzz. And finally, if your kid wants to collect flags, let him.

My Momma Heart Is Full

Brothers

Thing One and Thing Two

Are Back Together Again

And They Are Happy

Adjusting to our oldest going off to college has been a journey, but it hasn’t been as horrible as I imagined it would be. Yeah. I was pretty sad for the first month he was gone last year, but then he made friends and my sadness was replaced with comfort that he was not alone. Later, as his grades came in and we realized he was holding his own, I began to feel even better. This year, he started dating a friend he made during his first semester last year, and that too added some peace of mind because I know he is happy. Next year, his brother will be joining him. Although I will be without both of them, they will be together, and I can’t think of anything that makes my momma heart happier than thinking about them starting their own lives separately but still together.

Can I Get A Drum Roll, Please?

Well, it’s a done deal. After flying to three different states, touring five schools, revisiting two of the schools, and receiving four acceptance letters, Luke has chosen his college. It was a tough decision for him. He got a sizable merit scholarship from St. Olaf in Northfield, Minnesota, but ultimately decided he didn’t want to be Minnesota-level cold. He received a similar scholarship from the University of Denver, but decided he couldn’t go to college two miles from his high school because that wasn’t enough of a stretch. That left Reed College in Portland, Oregon, and Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, pulling his attention.

Luke chose Reed College for himself his freshman year. He glommed onto it as a good fit for him right away. It’s a self-described college for eggheads, the kind of place kids go because they love to learn and not because they have a lovely campus, amazing dorms, or good football team. In fact, Reed has no sports and no Greek life. There is nothing to get in the way of learning for learning’s sake. It’s that kind of place. Reed is ranked sixth in the country for producing candidates who go on to doctorate degrees. The campus is amazing. Luke loves their adopted motto: “Communism, Atheism, and Free Love.” It is a funny motto, especially considering the school took it on as a tongue-in-cheek nod to the reputation they had earned as being a little bit more liberal than most places. I was a little nervous about the exceedingly rigorous educational practices at Reed, but once we toured it the second time (which was actually my third time as I also toured it with my oldest) I felt better. It’s impressive, and I definitely could see Luke there.

Luke’s brother chose Whitman College. Joe ended up at Whitman because his savvy mother found it for him and thought he should see it. Whitman, while being somewhat isolated in a small town in rural, southeastern Washington, is a great school with a solid reputation. It’s academically challenging but it values work/life balance, so there’s no busywork for the sake of looking impressive. Whitman aims to create well-rounded adults. There are tons of opportunities to get outdoors and to volunteer in the community, and charming downtown Walla Walla with its boutiques, wineries, and restaurants, is just a five-minute walk away. While Joe was a little apprehensive about going to school in such a small town, Whitman has been everything we expected it to be for him…challenging but fun. He is happy there. Having a brother going to Whitman could be a blessing or a curse for Luke. We wondered if that would enter into his decision.

In the end, Luke had two wonderful finalists and a tough decision. Did he want to push his academic limits at Reed, knowing its reputation for cranking out future post-grads? Did he want to attend the same college his brother chose? When he weighed his life goals against the pluses and minuses of each school, he felt he had a clear choice. He chose:

The two boys will both be at the same college next year, which works because it just does. This is the most Joe and Luke thing since Joe and Luke became brothers. The motto of Whitman College, which I loved so much for Joe, also is apt for Luke. Per ardua surgo roughly translates to “Through adversity, I rise,” which certainly fits both these kids who started their school careers struggling with their learning disabilities and yet worked hard and thus landed at a highly respected liberal arts college anyway.

Here’s hoping their next adventures together won’t involve Lego gunships broken into hundreds of pieces or empty deals made to persuade the other to do something they don’t want to do. If war breaks out between the two of them this time around, they won’t have their mother to appeal to for mediation.

Prisoners of Geography

We are all prisoners of geography — literally

I don’t normally offer book reviews or suggestions. I stopped being in book clubs years ago when I tired of other people ruining books I enjoyed. So I don’t feel like a free reading expert, and I don’t share often about literature. But today, given what is happening now in eastern Europe, I want to recommend Prisoners of Geography, written by Tim Marshall. I bought it years ago for our oldest son who is a geography whiz. When he was younger, he would zoom into a location on Google Earth and then ask me to guess where it was. He would then slowly zoom out, bit by bit, pausing after each change until he thought I should be able to get the answer about its location. He had to zoom out a lot. I rarely guessed correctly. He was often exasperated by my lack of knowledge about the globe. It was a game on his end, but it made me feel like a dolt. Ultimately, Joe took the book to college, and I forgot about it.

Then, a couple weeks ago we were with some neighbors when they mentioned they were reading that book together. I got intrigued. So I downloaded the book on Audible and started listening. It wasn’t long into the book that I realized I needed the maps the hard copy provided to help me visualize what was being discussed. So I picked it up and got back to work. It ended up being a timely reading choice because the day after I bought the hard copy and started learning about why we are prisoners of geography, Putin invaded Ukraine. For the first time, I began to understand Russia’s position in the world. I may not understand Putin (who does?), but at least I can somewhat comprehend now why Ukraine’s land is important to him and why he is so eager to reclaim it. Russia, both because of and despite its size, has geography issues.

The book also covers China, the United States, Western Europe, Africa, the Middle East, India and Pakistan, Korea and Japan, Latin America, and the Arctic. The author, a journalist and leader on foreign affairs, has reported from forty countries and covered conflicts in the former Yugoslav republics, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Israel. His vast geographical and political knowledge, combined with his journalism skills, make the book not only highly informative but also accessible and interesting. I now have a better understanding of China’s treatment of the Muslim Uighur population in Xinjiang province. I understand why the concept of manifest destiny was important to the creation of the United States as we know it today. I also have a far better handle on how and why wars have been fought in Europe and why some countries have fared better than others. (I’m looking at you, Poland.) I’ll have to finish the book to learn more about Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America.

If you are looking for a greater understanding of the politics of countries, their prosperity or lack thereof, or the ways they are constrained, I can’t recommend this book enough. It’s a little outdated because it was published in 2015, but it is still useful. If you’re a big-time history or geography geek, this might be too basic for you; but for the rest of the hoi polloi, it is an education in geography, history, and our current political dilemmas in 277 pages. It isn’t going to make you feel any better about the humanitarian nightmare developing as Putin’s army rolls into and bombs the free and innocent people of Ukraine, but it will help you make a little more sense about why Russia is the way it is. Because of the Internet, we are more a global people now than we have ever been before. If you want a way into understanding that world, this is it.

A Table With An Extra Leaf

Me and Thing One

We dropped Thing One at the airport again this morning for his flight back to Walla Walla. He has been in college a year now and, overall, these comings and goings have become easier for me. Not because I don’t miss him but because he has proven himself more than up to the task and I have seen that life without him after 20 years with him is okay. I am okay. My time as Mom isn’t over but the role has shifted. Joe still needs me often enough, but he’s also on his own a lot more. So we dropped him at the curb with his bags and drove off without incident. No tears. Everything was copacetic.

Everything was fine when we got home too. I was feeling pretty proud of myself. It was the easiest drop off yet. Yay, me! I got to work on life around the house, laundry, vacuuming. Then I got to the kitchen table. I removed the placements, wiped it off, and went to take the fifth chair away. That is when I got sad and teary eyed. I put the fifth chair back at the dining table where it lives and then set about taking the extra leaf out of the kitchen table and returning it to its usual 4-person size. I stood there for a minute overwhelmed over the loss of that extra seat.

A little later after I thought I had moved on again and pulled myself together, I put on a hoodie Joe left behind for me. It smelled like him. I got teary eyed again.

Letting go is a process, one I have to keep reminding myself about over and over. I know I will never stop missing Joe or being sad when he leaves, but it will become part of our new relationship contract. I told him today that I was a little sad about the table. And then I told him that it is all okay because I love him with my whole heart and I am happy that he is off pursuing his own life, but I will always miss him when he leaves. Then I told him that someday he will miss me when I leave and that is life. He told me we’d best not talk about that ever again.

Relationships aren’t easy, but they are worthwhile. And I will always have a table with an extra leaf for those times when the important people pop back into my life. Until then, there’s this little guy who is here for me.

The son I got to replace the son who sent to college. I will have to get another when Thing Two goes to college. And I am really glad I didn’t have more children because I can only handle two dogs.

You’re Never Too Old For A Snow Day

It was an unexpected, although welcome, snow day for our high school senior and his carpool-weary mom today. We knew there would be a late start this morning because of the snow, ice, and subzero windchill this morning, but when I woke up and started getting dressed to go out and shovel the driveway so I could drive Luke to school, hubby casually said, “You know it’s a snow day, right?”

It was the kind of unanticipated gift that can make life better after a slow and difficult re-entry to real life after a beautiful holiday in Hawaii. I determined it would be a catch up day. I felt overwhelmed when we returned home on Monday afternoon and had to turn around and start back into reality at 6 am Tuesday. So I l planned to use this gifted day to catch up on laundry and take down all the holiday decorations that had grown tiresome. The best part was that I now had a full day to do it and two sons at home to help.

After we had returned our home to its pre-holiday state and Joe had worn out the dogs with playtime in the yard, he approached Luke and said he had an idea. Joe has ideas a lot. When he has them, he involves Luke. Luke tries to get out of what ever Joe is scheming, but more often than not he ends up giving in because he knows Joe can be relentless. He will not stop hounding you until you give in. I usually cringe for Luke in these situations because I know, as an introvert, what Luke wants most is to stick with what he is doing and not get dragged into Joe’s plans. Today, though, Joe whispered his idea into Luke’s ear, and I was surprised how easily Luke acquiesced. They found their snow gear, grabbed sleds they’ve had for ten years, and headed out to the open space. When they returned home, I heard Joe remark to Luke how much lighter and easier to handle these sleds are now. It made me smile.

Today our adult children seized the day and took advantage of their snow day as they might have when they were 8 and 10. It made me happy. We tend to give Joe a little grief when he says he has an idea, but the truth is that a lot of the really amazing things we’ve done started with one of Joe’s ideas. Luke is amazing at accomplishing things, but I thank heaven every day for Joe who is amazing at reminding Luke (and the rest of us) to let go and have fun once in a while. Every family should have a Joe to dream up plans and interminably pester everyone until they come to fruition. Don’t we all deserve to have that one person who reminds us not just to live but to practice being alive?

Luke (18) and Joe (20) and their childhood Zipfy sleds

Walking In A (Snowless) Winter Wonderland

It was 24 degrees when we went to the Trail of Lights in a nature preserve near our home. We have gone to this event several times over the years, but it has been a while. It’s a fun thing to do, but the colder it is, the faster we seem to move through it. We moved pretty fast tonight. But a quick winter walk with both our sons was worth it.

Back together again
Not enough layers for this, but we took this photo before our faces froze
This tree is amazing, and the ambiance around it was ethereal
Neon trees
Quiet night along the trail
Brothers

We may have had cold bodies, but we had warm hearts.

Name Your Son After Luke Skywalker And You Just Might Get Someone With Jedi Power

And so it begins. Luke received his first college acceptance. Today, the University of Denver sent him an acceptance letter stating that he is recognized as a Chancellor’s Scholar. So, I’m going to take a moment to shine a light on my son, not because I want to brag (although I kind of do) but because I’ve never met anyone like him.

Luke has always been a hard worker and a helper. Despite having been diagnosed with severe dyslexia in third grade, he has found ways to rise above. He started fourth grade at a first grade reading level. Reading was hard for him, but he worked at it. A lot. Instead of shying away from reading, he made it his job to overcome his dyslexia. He did such a good job that the only way you can tell now that he is dyslexic is his reading speed. He is a slow reader, but he is exceptionally good at it now. At the end of his junior year, when his IQ and skills were last tested, Luke was reading at graduate school level. Luke went from barely being able to read Magic Tree House books with help in third grade to reading The Iliad and The Odyssey the summer before his freshman year. Luke never quits.

He is organized, focused, and structured in his approach to everything. He needs 25 solo volunteer hours to graduate in June. He is already beyond those hours. He has a project due for Western Civ this Thursday. He created 26 slides for it and finished it this afternoon. There is no such thing as minimal effort from him. He does nothing half-assed. In eighth grade, he became an ambassador for his school, giving tours to prospective students and their parents. He became a lead ambassador his sophomore year. He’s the president of his school’s National Honor Society chapter and has served on the Student Senate as an officer as well. He ran both track and cross-country. Luke submitted five college applications. The first three were due November 1st. He had those completed three weeks in advance. He went ahead and submitted the two that weren’t due until January 15th at the same time.

But, Luke’s effort doesn’t simply apply to school. He is like this all the time. When he makes his mind up to do something, he goes for it. He decided a while back that he wanted to be a better singer. So, he took voice lessons for a year. He was struggling with anxiety (pursuant to his work ethic and built-in need to excel) and started therapy to work on it. Despite not being thrilled at first with having to admit he needed some assistance, he grew to appreciate therapy and has been going regularly for years. He has so valued the experience that he is currently considering earning a PsyD (Doctor of Psychology) degree so he provide therapy to others. He contributes at home without complaint. And at the end of his day, he says good night to us and heads to his room to do some free reading, spending upwards of an hour on that each night to unwind.

I have to admit the most fun part of all of this for me is seeing Luke’s hard work pay off. Two years of middle school and four years of high school with honors classes and straight A grades and tonight, for the first time, he seemed satisfied with his efforts.

Luke has taught me so much. He has always been unstoppable. He has self-confidence to spare, but it’s his work ethic that makes him who he is. Luke has taught me there’s no point in underestimating yourself, and the only thing that can hold you back is you. For this reason, Luke is limitless. He will reach his goals, even if he has to use a machete to cut his own path to get there. I have no doubts or concerns about his ability to do anything he sets his mind to.

We had Luke Skywalker in mind when we named our Luke. It was a good way to go. As it turns out, our Luke, like his namesake, wields a lot of power. Unlike Luke Skywalker, though, our Luke didn’t need Yoda to tell him, “Do or do not. There is no try.” “Try” is not a word in this kid’s vocabulary. He’s got Jedi power.

Our little rock star