May 31, 2012


Prickly pear cactus

As we hiked through the desert landscape of bare ground, sheer rock cliffs, and relentless heat, I couldn't help but take out my camera every time I saw a blossom.

"You're afraid of heights but now you're risking your life to take a photo of a FLOWER?" my husband asked in disbelief every time I crept out on an outcropping to take a picture of a blossom in an unexpected place.

I especially loved the prickly pear cactus, whose buds were tightly shut when we arrived on the trail at dawn, but whose petals opened as the day went on.

May 30, 2012

Looking down at Angels Landing

When we hiked in Zion back in 2008, it was March, and the trails were still packed with snow and ice, which made hiking fairly terrifying. We hiked one trail in particular, Angels Landing, that had steep drop-offs on BOTH SIDES and I can remember thinking that if I slipped on the ice, I would fall to my death. Actually, it wasn’t me I was worried about so much as my husband, who usually hikes in sneakers that have no traction whatsoever. I have this fear of watching someone fall to his death. I just know it wouldn’t be an experience I would enjoy.

In late May, the challenge was heat, not ice. Temperatures rose to 100 degrees our first afternoon in the park. I can overcome my fear of heights — in fact, I enjoy the extra adrenaline that surges through my veins when I hike along cliffs with breath-taking views — but I can’t change the way my body responds to heat, which is to wither and collapse. The only solution was to get up at dawn and hike in the cool of the morning, choosing trails that would be in the shade while we were climbing upwards. 

The trail to Observation Point rises more than 2,000 feet in four miles, with a series of switchbacks that seem endless. Luckily, we climbed it while most of the trail was still in the shade. Although less famous than Angels’ Landing, I thought it was more spectacular, with sheer drop-offs that gave us unobstructed views across the canyon. The trail took us through several microclimates, first a hidden canyon of smooth, curving rock and then a high-elevation meadow tucked in amongst the peaks.

The only other people on the trail at that early hour were a young couple who asked me to take their photo at the summit, an outcropping of red rock that is the highest point in the park, more than 6,000 feet above the canyon. “We’re finally out of the canyon, so I can put this on the internet,” the young man said to me, grinning, as he flourished his smartphone.

“Shouldn’t you wait until you make it down safely?” I asked. I’m superstitious about that kind of thing. It’s like bragging about winning before the game is over.

I stepped out as far as I dared and then sat down on the red rock to look over the canyon. Below me, I could see Angels Landing – that narrow ledge of rock we’d climbed four years ago. I felt surprised. That steep trail seemed terrifying when we hiked it, but without the snow and ice, and from this lofty distance, it seemed like just another trail.

Looking down on Angels Landing


With temperatures reaching almost 100 degrees in the park, we didn't see much wildlife. Just mule deer, lying in the shade or grazing in the meadows. And little lizards that kept scurrying across the trails.

May 29, 2012

Circles above the canyon

Canyon evening

It was late afternoon when my husband and I arrived at our destination — Zion National Park. Since we still had several hours of sunlight left, we decided to take a short hike to a cliff where we’d be able to watch the sun setting over the canyon.

After hours of being in the rental car, it felt great to stretch my legs. Luckily, the trail was mostly in shade as we wound our way up through the rock formations. We’d taken this trail once before, back in 2008, and on that occasion, we were the only people at the summit. This time, when I rounded the corner to come to the end of the trail, I saw at least a dozen other people.

They stood in a cluster, in sunlight that shimmered on the reddish rock. They had cameras, tripods, knapsacks of equipment and coolers full of food, as if they were gathered for some kind of event. They were talking excitedly. I looked questioningly at the young man standing nearest to me, who was gesturing the way my students do when they are excited about a tree or animal or some kind of nature phenomenon. I figured if he was anything like my students, he’d suck me into whatever was happening. 

“You’re just in time,” he said to me. He handed me a pair of glasses. “Want to see?” Oh, right. The eclipse. I think Smiley Girl and Shaggy Hair Boy had mentioned in a text message that they were watching the eclipse tonight.

I put on the glasses and peered at the sun that hovered above the canyon. It was pretty incredible. I could see the dark silhouette of the moon, with the bright edges of the sun shining all around the edges. I didn’t stare too long — I had this vague memory of an excited nun in elementary school talking about an eclipse and saying we shouldn’t stare directly into the sun — but I won’t ever forget that image. It was way cooler than looking at a shadow on cardboard, which is what I remembered from that elementary school eclipse.

“Look at our shadows!” the young man said. I turned away from the sun. Against the rock, our shadows were blurry and indistinct, but filled with circles. The line of people, from the old man who had driven hours to get to this site to the ten-year-old girl who’d hiked up with her parents, all of us, began moving arms and legs to try to make the circles dance.

Eclipse shadows

Orange rock and blue sky

Orange rock and blue sky

May 19, 2012

Gone hiking

Months ago, my husband and I planned a May vacation that included five days hiking in the Southwest. Over the last few weeks, as his mother has grown more feeble, we've debated whether or not to cancel the vacation. But our friends have mostly encouraged us to go anyhow, to get some much-needed relaxation and rest, which will help us prepare for what comes next. I think they're right.

It helps to have all the kids home — and it helps hugely that they are responsible young adults. We've sent up a schedule so that my mother-in-law will get a visit from a grandchild every day that we're gone. My daughter and Boy-in-Black will send us text messages with updates.

And so, we're off. After spending so much time in a nursing home these last few weeks, it's going to feel great to be striding along trails in the bright sunshine of a rocky landscape. If you're the praying type, please keep my mother-in-law in your prayers this next week.

May 16, 2012

Pickin' up on that feline beat

Boy and cat Boy-in-Black with Gretel, the cat he shares the couch with.

Filled to the brim

Squeezing all my kids (plus some extras) into the house for the summer has been like a game of musical chairs. We carry stuff from room to room, trying to fit everyone in. When we first moved into this house, it seemed huge: three little boys fit nicely into the big bedroom, and my daughter was happy to get the small bedroom because it meant a room to herself. But now that we have so many adults in the house, including extras like Smiley Girl and Sailor Boy when they’re here, the house seems to have shrunk. What complicates matters is that most of us work at home so each person needs a place to set up a laptop: a place to sleep is secondary.

We’re almost done. Shaggy Hair Boy dismantled the old couch that’s been in the boys’ bedroom for years, and we’ve taken three carloads over to the Rescue Mission. One of the cars in the driveway is still filled with Smiley Girl’s stuff, my husband’s car is still filled with Drama Niece’s stuff, but at least everyone has moved out of their college dorms or off-campus apartments.

Shaggy Hair Boy took over the small bedroom, my daughter took the big bedroom, and Boy-in-Black ended up with the downstairs coat closet. I moved out all the coats, and he stacked everything he owns in there. “Want to see my room?” he’ll ask friends, and then open the door. He doesn’t sleep in there, of course — he’d have to sleep standing up, like the robot in Futurama. He sleeps on the couch. Or sometimes on the living room floor, if With-a-Why is on the couch. Because With-a-Why technically doesn’t have a room either, although he has closet space in my daughter’s room, and he sleeps in there when Sailor Boy isn’t here.

“I need a place to do work,” my daughter says when everyone asks how she ended up with the big bedroom. She’s got two bookshelves of papers, case studies, and reports. And a little table that serves as a desk. But she also has a queen-sized bed, and usually when she’s at her computer, her brothers are lounging on the bed, talking and joking around. Her bedroom has become another place to hang out. 

Boy-in-Black’s workspace is a table by the couch, right in the middle of the house, so he’s always surrounded by people eating, playing the piano, or talking. But he’s nocturnal so he does his research at night, when we’re all sleeping. It’s all good.

May 13, 2012

Scrubbed clean


It’s a familiar ritual by now. Every May and August, my daughter and I pile cleaning supplies and garbage bags into the car, and we go clean the apartment that she’s moving into or the apartment she’s moving out of. We’ve done it so many times that we don’t even have to talk about which tasks we’re going to do. I start with the bathroom while she gathers any garbage and carries it to the curb.

The flat she’s been sharing with Boy-in-Black and First Extra is the bottom of an old house that was probably beautiful in its day, but is now dilapidated. When my daughter moved in, she made yellow curtains for the kitchen and we painted the cupboards blue, which improved the room considerably. The one good thing about all the rental properties in the university area is that any small effort you make is a huge improvement.

The afternoon sun was shining on the front porch when I stepped out to sweep off dead leaves and peeling paint. Through the branches of a sprawling crabapple tree, I could see a bunch of college guys carrying broken furniture to the curb. A car pulled into the house next door, and a girl in a dress stepped out, with an older couple who were likely her parents. “The graduation ceremony must be over,” my daughter said. Farther up the street, under the branches of an old maple, I could see a few more seniors, young men in dress shirts and ties.

My daughter has said that this will be the last summer she lives at home. Sailor Boy will be moving back to the area this fall, and she’ll be living with him. So I felt nostalgic as I swept the stained, scarred hardwood floors of the old house. “This might be the last time we clean an apartment together,” I said to her.

She looked at me. “Somehow, I doubt it.”

May 11, 2012


Patch of sun

Today I submitted grades for all my classes, which means spring semester is officially over. Tomorrow morning, I am going to lie in a patch of sun and do nothing at all.

May 09, 2012

Bedtime stories

There’s always background noise in a nursing home, even at night. The medicine nurse rolls her cart along the linoleum. An IV machine makes a gentle beeping noise. Some of the residents yell out in their sleep, or wake up to ask for help. Two aides chat as they walk down the hall with their arms full of fresh laundry. My mother-in-law’s roommate plays classical music on a little CD player: the lilting notes of a symphony come through the cream-colored curtain.

The sounds are familiar to me. I spent many evenings in this same nursing home twelve years ago, during the months before Aunt Seashell died. It’s the nursing home closest to my house, and we moved my mother-in-law there this week.

Time stands still in a nursing home. The routines here haven’t changed, and I fall back into them quickly. At 8:30 pm, an aide comes to bathe my mother-in-law and dress her for bed. I move to the opposite side of the bed so that I can help. Wash, roll, wash, roll. I remember the rhythm, the movements. 

My mother-in-law is having trouble speaking tonight, so I do most of the talking. I give her updates on family members and tell her any trivial incident I can manage to make funny. Today is her daughter’s 25th wedding anniversary, so I play the game of trying to see which of us can remember more details about the wedding. Neither of us can remember the name of the restaurant where the reception was held so I send my sister-in-law a text message. She comes up with the name immediately.

“That doesn’t mean she has a better memory than either of us,” I say defensively. “I mean, it was HER wedding. OF COURSE she knew it.”

I know many people don’t like nursing homes, but I feel at home. These beige walls hold stories. When my Aunt Seashell was here, she told me story after story about her childhood, summer days spent on the Jersey shore. Earlier tonight, my mother-in-law’s roommate told me she used to play oboe with the Snowstorm University Symphony. The young aide with the curly hair told me how she rode her bike into a brick wall when she was a kid and shattered her kneecap.

In a place where the bodies are slowing down, falling apart, it seems that stories are what is left. I tell my mother-in-law stories about my own kids. She never gets tired of hearing about them, and I don’t have to hold back at all. She would never accuse me of bragging about her amazing grandchildren. I talk quietly until she drifts off to sleep, then I let go of her hand and set it down on the white cotton blanket.

May 07, 2012

The nail clipper con

For some reason, no one in the hospital is allowed to cut my mother-in-law’s fingernails. This doesn’t really make sense to me. They did surgery on her hip, cut into her stomach to insert a feeding tube, stuck a catheter tube inside her, and poked her with needles so many times that she has the arms of a heroin addict. But apparently, cutting her fingernails might be crossing some kind of line.

Even though the rest of her body is getting weaker, my mother-in-law’s fingernails seem, ironically, to be growing faster and stronger than ever. I knew that if they grew much longer, she was going to look like that comic book superhero with the adamantine claws. She kept moving her fingers against her face, because her dry skin was itchy, and I was afraid she was going to scratch herself.

“I’ll bring a nail clipper and cut your nails tomorrow,” I assured her. She smiled and looked relieved. It wasn’t until I was leaving the hospital that I began to wonder about my promise. The hospital has the kind of high security that I normally associate with airports, including a metal detector and a receptionist who won’t let you through unless you give them your driver’s license to make into a name badge. It’s possible that they wouldn’t let nail clippers through.

But last winter, With-a-Why and I watched multiple episodes of White Collar, a show about a con man who works as an FBI consultant. With-a-Why liked the show because the writing was smart, and I liked it because I’d always wanted to learn how to be a con artist. I’d seen enough episodes to know that smuggling nail clippers into a hospital was definitely do-able.

So the next day, when I walked through the hospital doors with nail clippers in my pocket, I didn’t walk straight through the security area like I usually do. Instead, I veered over to the coffee-and-muffin stand, muttering, “Oh, coffee” as if I were an addict in need of a fix. For the record, I don’t even drink coffee, but I’ve seen the way my conference friends act when they finally come upon a coffee shop in a strange city so I was able to do a convincing impression. It was a fine bit of acting.

I bought a muffin, which came in a little paper bag, and an orange juice. I knew a true con artist would buy some coffee to stay in character, and I considered that, but I was afraid I would gag if I had to actually drink the stuff. Then – and here’s the part where I imagined television cameras zooming in for a close-up – I sat down on a nearby bench, slipped the nail clippers into the muffin bag, drank my orange juice, and then walked away, leaving the muffin bag on the bench. Dramatic music was playing the whole time. But only in my head, of course.

I went back to the entrance, walked through the metal detectors, and then handed my driver’s license to the bored receptionist, who ran it through the machine and gave me the label to stick on my shirt. That’s when I looked down at the orange juice in my hand and muttered, “Hey, where’s my muffin?” in a distracted sort of way. Another fine bit of acting that was mostly missed by the receptionist, who had already turned back to her computer.

I slapped the label on my shirt, walked back to the bench to pick up the muffin bag that held the illicit nail clippers, and then went straight to the elevators, walking right past the security guard. As crimes go, it was almost too easy.

Once I was in my mother-in-law’s room, I whispered, “Don’t tell anyone,” and pulled out the nail clippers. “What are you going to do with the clippings?” she whispered. I shrugged. That’s a detail that I hadn’t considered but I figured I’d improvise.

I’d just finished with her right hand when I heard the footsteps of an approaching nurse. This looked bad. One hand with long nails – and the other newly cut. If I didn’t move quickly, I was going to be caught in the act. Thinking fast, I slid the nail clipper under the blanket and put my hands over my mother-in-law’s right hand, cleverly covering up her fingernails. I shifted our hands to cover the little pile of clippings. “It’s going to be okay,” I murmured sympathetically, as if I were comforting her. I hoped my mother-in-law would pick up on the cue and look properly distraught, but instead she looked amused.

The nurse ignored me. Her attention was focused on the little machine that makes beeping noises so often that we’ve learned to ignore it. She replaced the IV bag, pushed some buttons to make the machine stop beeping, said something cheerful, and left. Quickly, I finished cutting my mother-in-law’s fingernails, and then swept the clippings off the sheet and onto the floor, where they disappeared from sight in the speckled linoleum.

Mission accomplished.

May 06, 2012

The frayed edges of spring

Frayed edges
For the last couple of months, the weather has been shifting unpredictably. We had hot, sunny days in mid-March, and then snow in late April. Farmers are worried about what this might do to the fruit crop, since the orchards were sent into bloom early, then subjected to frigid temperatures. No one seems able to predict what summer will bring.

May 04, 2012

All of us under its spell

Soon Boy-in-Black and Beautiful Smart Wonderful Daughter will be moving back home for the summer. The house will be full. Smiley Girl will be here live here part of the time, Sailor Boy will come for a few visits, Film Guy will be in town, and other extras will drift in, home from college. By this time next week, we'll have laptop computers on every table, cups on every window sill, and Ultimate jerseys hanging from the curtain rods to dry.

But tonight, it’s just With-a-Why and me. I drove him to a statewide music competition this afternoon — he sang a solo — and now he’s relaxing on the couch, doing something on his laptop. Shaggy Hair Boy has gone off on a camping expedition with Smiley Girl and some friends. My husband is texting me from the hospital, where he is spending time with his mother. She’s got a broken hip, advanced Parkinson’s, and a host of other problems. He’s been working on arrangements to transfer her to a nursing home near us, and he updates me with the details via cell phone.

A crystal hanging in the window makes rainbows on the ceiling. I’m sitting at the piano, working on the song I’m learning. I stop playing to read the latest texts about my mother-in-law and then sit staring at my cell phone for a few minutes before sending a reply.

In the silence, With-a-Why looks up from his computer. Without hesitation, he begins singing the song that I’ve been trying to play on the piano. He knows the words: it’s a song he likes, although he favors the Peter Cincotti version over the Kermit the Frog version.

Why are there so many songs about rainbows 
And what's on the other side? 
Rainbows are visions, but only illusions 
And rainbows have nothing to hide 
So we've been told and some choose to believe it 
I know they're wrong, wait and see 
Someday we'll find it, the rainbow connection 
The lovers, the dreamers and me 

 What's so amazing that keeps us star gazing 
And what do we think we might see? 
Someday we'll find it, the rainbow connection 
The lovers, the dreamers and me 

 I sit on the piano bench, listening, while his strong, seventeen-year-old voice continues.

 All of us under its spell. We know that it's probably magic 

 Have you been half asleep and have you heard voices? 
I've heard them calling my name 
Is this the sweet sound that called the young sailors 
The voice might be one and the same 
I've heard it too many times to ignore it 
It's something that I'm supposed to be 
Someday we'll find it, the rainbow connection 
The lovers, the dreamers and me.

When he finishes, we smile at each other. He looks back down at his computer. And I turn back to the piano.

May 03, 2012


Huge parking garages confuse me. And make me slightly panicky. It’s a logical fear. Think about it. Close your eyes and imagine a person walking through a parking garage. She might be a beautiful woman distracted by a love triangle, her hair uplifted by the wind of passing cars. Or perhaps he is a smart and charming con man about to escape a sticky situation. We all know what will happen next. Someone with a gun shows up, there’s a bit of clever dialogue, and then a chase scene ensues. Parking garages are filled with mobsters holding guns, just waiting for the chance to utter some pithy aside before giving chase. I know it’s true because I’ve seen it happen every time a character in a movie walks into a parking garage.

I’ve been thinking about this while visiting my mother-in-law in the hospital this week. The parking garage is huge, and I’ve gotten lost every single time I’ve been in it. I’ve manage to quell my fears about Hollywood mobsters, but I still get that panicky feeling when I walk away from my car. That’s because I know, deep down, it will take me forever to find it again.

It’s not that I don’t try. When I leave my car, I dutifully stop and look around for identifying features that will help me find my way back. But since every level of the parking garage looks EXACTLY the same, this method doesn’t really work. Once when I went with my daughter and her friends – all in ninth grade at the time – to the state fair, I solved the problem by taking fluorescent orange surveyor tape out of my glove compartment and tying it to the nearest electric pole. This not only worked, but apparently made quite an impression on my daughter’s friends. They’d bring it up years later as if I’d done something weird.

What makes parking garages so confusing, I think, is that you can’t just retrace your steps. I’ve tried that. The first time I paid careful attention as I drove in, looping around and around past handicapped spots and places reserved for medical staff, and parking eventually on what was the seventh level. (Or maybe the eighth). Then I tried walking down through the parking garage the way I had come. But that seemed dangerous since cars coming were headed directly at me as they swerved around blind corners. And it took forever.

The next time, I tried to look for EXIT signs. But the exit signs seemed directed toward cars rather than pedestrians, since they were mostly up high right in the middle of the garage. So I just took the nearest staircase. I stood at the top of the stairs, looked over to where my car was, and memorized the spot. Then I counted carefully as I walked down the stairs: six flights. As I walked out the door, I felt triumphant. On the way back, I’d just go in the door, up six flights, and find my car.

As the door closed behind me, I noticed that there wasn’t a handle on the outside. “Weird,” I thought. The sign read, “Emergency exit. No re-entrance.” There I was, out on the street, staring at a restaurant instead of the hospital. I knew if I just walked around the block, I could manage to find the hospital. It’s a pretty big building. But finding my car again? Impossible.

I’ve given up. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I’m going to keep getting lost in the parking garage. I know that every hospital visit will end with me wandering through the parking labyrinth, pressing the panic button on my car key chain in hopes that a vehicle will suddenly blink its lights at me. I try to think of it as a walking meditation, giving me a chance to clear my mind of all the swirling anxious thoughts that accompany stressful hospital visits. Besides, I tell myself, it could be worse. At least I haven’t yet been attacked by mobsters with guns.

May 01, 2012

Hospital blogging

There are some things about hospitals you can depend on. The elevators will take forever. The food in the cafeteria will be terrible. The machine that holds the IV will make weird beeping noises whenever the nurse leaves the room. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in hospitals – as a visitor, not a patient – and I know what to expect.

It’s my 85-year-old mother-in-law who is in the hospital right now, after falling and breaking a hip. Unfortunately, the injury seems to have stirred up a host of medical issues, and she’s in pretty bad shape. It’s been tough for her to keep up her spirits, since every piece of news she gets about her health seems to be bad news.

But brings me to the other thing that you can depend on in hospitals: cheerful, energetic hospital nurses. Seriously, I don’t know how these nurses do it. The young woman who was taking care of my mother-in-law yesterday was working a sixteen-hour shift and yet, she remained upbeat and smiling the whole time I was there. This afternoon, the nurse on duty bounced into the room as if she was coming to a party, smiling and chattering with my mother-in-law as she checked her vital signs. That’s been my experience with nurses: in addition to doing their jobs, they bring such positive energy into the room. I am so grateful for their presence.