Chugach, Bears and a Suburban Mom

Bears
These were bears we saw from a bus, several hundred yards away. When you know you’re protected, they’re a lot cuter. Awww.

The first Saturday morning of our family vacation found the four of us at the Albert Loop trailhead near the Eagle River Nature Center of Chugach State Park, Alaska. This was supposed to be an easy, well-kept, three mile loop that would take us past crystal clear streams to a spectacular view of a mountain valley. We assured our nine and seven-year-old that they would be able to handle the hike by showing them through phone apps how far we had hiked other days: one and a quarter miles around University Lake next to our hotel, one and a half miles on the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail in Anchorage. Just wandering around the fourth of July fair was probably a couple of miles when it was all said and done. We all felt pretty confident.

We showed up about an hour before the nature center actually opened and read the notices pinned to the door to get oriented. There were bears nearby, and what we needed to do was to stay together and stay loud. You never want to surprise a bear, but he will steer clear of you if you are noisy and generally annoying. If a bear approaches you, you should stand your ground, and never ever run as they may begin a chase. Another chart explained all the reasons why standing your ground is helpful. A guidebook I had assured us that only polar bears stalk humans, and we were thousands of miles from polar bear habitat. As a last resort you could use your bear spray if the bear charged. We didn’t have bear spray (before researching this trip I wondered if bear spray was for spraying on ourselves to repel bears or if it was for spraying at the bears-for the record it’s something you spray in a bear’s face).

I

Got

Nervous.

We live in the suburbs of Chicago. When I camped as a little girl the most you had to worry about was a raccoon in your tent. A goose coming at you aggressively. A squirrel getting a little too familiar with humans and peeing all over your gear. No bears. No moose. Nothing really… deadly.

And here I was about to march my kids through bear territory for a vacation memory. Without a guide. Without other people on the path. Without bear spray (God help me, if I ever had to use it I’d probably spray myself in the face instead and just be putting a peppery garnish on the bear’s next meal).

But, I do tend to get anxious when there is nothing really to be afraid of. My husband looked like he was still game, so I swallowed it down and we started off. He didn’t look nervous until we were hemmed into a narrow pathway with very high grasses on all sides of us.

Up until that moment we had been talking casually, searching the trees and shrubs around us for less intimidating wildlife. Once we got to the grasses the need to keep noisy became something we both felt strongly about. The boys were confused as to why we needed to keep chatting about nothing, so my genius husband got them talking about the app “My Singing Monsters”. I swear to you that they did not stop talking over the next hour and a half. About two minutes into the boys talking, I realized that they would keep us constantly conversating, but they weren’t particularly loud. I added in claps, loud cheerleading claps with an ever-changing rhythm. We trudged on, past the grasses and through thickets of trees and mosquitos, scaring away every animal within earshot. Except a Great Horned owl. He did, however, seem annoyed.

About three quarters of a mile in we came across a path sign saying that the normal trail had been washed away by recent rainstorms. We could retreat or follow a bypass route. Hoping that the bypass wouldn’t take us back into low-visibility grass, we stomped forward. The trail became a mass of tangled roots that we couldn’t ignore, so our attention became divided between watching the forest and watching our feet. I clapped even louder and faster, exhorting the boys to be careful as we still had a long ways to go and we could not carry them if they got a twisted ankle. My husband was leading the way, and the boys followed him and I brought up the rear, listening to chatter about how to get new monsters on an app and clapping furiously “We will, we will, rock you.” This was definitely not the serene, life-affirming communion with nature we had been promised. At one point I know I was singing Macklemore’s “Ceiling Can’t Hold Us” at the top of my lungs.

Then off to my left I heard something. It sounded like the loud exhale of a very large creature at about the height of my shoulder and ten feet away. I tried to explain to my husband that I heard something. He looked around, decided he hadn’t seen anything and kept going. Between the mosquitos and the large mammal I was sure was right next to me, I wasn’t about to stop and get super quiet to find out what it really was. (Later my husband would confess that he looked in the trees far away, not the shrubs near me, and excitedly said, “Aw man, I wish you had explained where to look, I bet something was there, that would have been awesome!” to which I replied, “Are you insane?!?”)

We advanced on a bridge and were able to relax for a moment, me shaking out my hands, my husband asking the boys to pause on the “My Singing Monsters” talk for a second. There were crystal clear streams, and interesting birds, and most importantly less trees so we could tell that at least here there were no bears within a hundred-yard radius. We took pictures and trudged on.

Finally we finished, unscathed if a little jumpy. The nature center was finally open and we overheard a worker explain that lots of people saw black bears on the path just in the last day or so. Later on I would tell my husband, “And no one will see any today, you’re welcome other hikers. I did the heavy lifting of scaring them away for you.” He guessed that they were probably the sort of people who were hoping to see a bear in his natural habitat. To that I shrugged and gave a look as if to say, “Sucks to be them, I’m all about the self-preservation.” And I’ll be damned if some hikers think that them seeing a bear is more important than me not seeing my baby boys being eaten by black bears on a family vacation.

We ate granola bars and went to the bathroom and set back out for the half-mile hike that EVERYBODY takes. A lady in a skirt and flip-flops preceded us, holding her iPad up to take pictures on this fifteen minute, totally cleared path. A bunch of other tourists like us walked up and down the trails, totally sure that they would not be part of a bear attack that day. And we were finally able to get quiet for a second and actually enjoy the view.

Chugach.JPG

And as much as I was eventually teased for looking like a crazy lady, clapping and yelling through a state park, the kids and my husband and I all decided that that was enough adventure for us for one day. Possibly for the whole summer.

In a Land of Twelve Kinds of Cupcakes…

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For my younger son’s seventh birthday we had an experimental bake-off as one of his presents.  He is always coming up with flavor combinations he wants to try, be it a lemon peanut butter cup (which was actually amazing) to an apple orange soymilk smoothie (a lot less amazing). He has wanted to experiment with cupcake flavors forever, so when he got home from school we had a whole table of ingredients and sprinkles and frosting ready to mess around with. We whipped up basic vanilla and chocolate batter and set out all of our extracts (vanilla, almond, peppermint, orange, lemon, coconut and anise) all of the fruit in the house, nuts and candies and toffee bits and chocolate chips and marshmallows and food coloring and Teddy Grahams.

He was beside himself. The four of us, him, me, my husband and my older son would make three different experimental flavors each, and we started plotting and planning and dicing and mixing. In no particular order we ended up with…

  • Peanut butter-banana-chocolate with chocolate frosting
  • Lemon-banana-vanilla with yellow lemon-vanilla frosting
  • Maple-pecan-vanilla with cream cheese frosting
  • Chocolate-marshmallow with chocolate frosting and Teddy Grahams
  • Peppermint-chocolate-sprinkles with chocolate frosting and holiday sprinkles
  • Vanilla-strawberry with vanilla frosting and red sprinkles
  • Chocolate-Rice Krispies with purple-tinted vanilla frosting
  • Orange-chocolate-chocolate chip with orange-tinted vanilla frosting
  • Vanilla-almond-cherry jelly bean with pink-tinted vanilla frosting and a red jelly bean
  • Lemon zest-chocolate chip-vanilla with orange-tinted vanilla frosting
  • Vanilla-orange-pine nut-freeze dried strawberry with orange marmalade vanilla frosting
  • Classic chocolate with teal-tinted peppermint vanilla frosting and pastel sprinkles

The cupcake production was going full tilt…until it came grinding to a halt. In the midst of us all being excited about trying our cupcakes out for dessert that night, my husband casually mentioned that we could have friends and family test them out the next day at the huge family birthday in our little guy’s honor. That stopped him dead in his tracks. He suddenly refused to do any more – even though he had only come up with two of his three designs. Even though he had been so bouncy before. Even though the only reason we had to come up with this idea was that we knew it would make him extravagantly happy. He stopped.

We should have known. Our seven-year-old is terrified of other people’s reactions to his creative work. He has been known to throw Lego creations when they don’t work out, or to literally not move once he feels he is being watched too closely. He dances joyfully at home and messes around with a guitar, but the thought of taking lessons for either paralyzes his fun.

He sat angry on the couch as first I tried to coax out of him what was wrong, then his father took a turn. Eventually my husband was able to get him to admit that he was worried other people might hate his cupcakes. We first reassured him that people would love them, and if they didn’t it would be okay. When that was met with a skeptic scowl, we then reassured him that only our little family of four would ever taste them if that would make him happiest. My husband got him to design his last cupcake-the classic chocolate one with the elaborate topping.

 

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He is my child, for sure.

I am the one who procrastinated on writing papers until the last moment because if they turned out badly I could blame it on the time crunch. I am the one who was given an opportunity to write the introduction to an online curriculum series in college and turned it down because it made me too nervous. I am the one who decided I would rather be “well-rounded” than put all my energy into ballet. I am the one who got solos, but would then show up to voice lessons and even competitions woefully underprepared. I am the one who refused to let anyone coach me on my monologue audition I would perform just once for over twenty colleges’ theater departments.

Sometimes my fears honed my actual work into a fine point – my almost late papers taught me how to get an “A” even with limited time by using my (not-often-used) laser focus, my monologue got me admission into ten different theater departments. But then I kept shooting myself in the foot. I didn’t go into theater for fear of a lifetime of rejections. I don’t dance or sing anymore except in my own kitchen. I still write though, and I am trying for my youngest to show him that putting your creative work out there in the world is incredibly difficult, especially for him and for me, but that it really is the only way to be happy. It is the only way to be true to yourself, to be honest with who you are and what you bring to the world – putting your work out there for other people to see.

The beauty of living in a land with twelve kinds of cupcake is that you haven’t put all your hopes and dreams into just one cupcake. When you make just one, you are scared of your aunt who doesn’t care for chocolate, worried about the cousin who is allergic to nuts, terrified that another cousin will think it is too boring or that your grandpa with think it too crazy or that your grandma will say she likes it even if she really doesn’t.  When you have twelve different kinds of cupcakes, twelve experiments of flavor and texture and color it is okay that the jelly beans fell out of the bottom of one but left a delicate delicious flavor. It is okay that the peanut butter banana was too dense, it’s a great surprise that lemon and banana together is light and airy. It is more than okay to make a classic chocolate cupcake perfectly simple and beautiful decorated.

I am trying to take my own lesson from this. Right now I am grateful I am letting myself send so many cupcakes into the world, because I am less worried about each one being perfect.

I have, out there in submission-land and in no particular order…

  • A very short piece about school shooting fears
  • A very long piece about a hurricane evacuation while I taught high school
  • A medium piece about being mistreated as a patient with chronic illness
  • A rewrite of a blog piece about speech delays, open heart surgery and one-syllable words
  • A rejected piece about science fairs and art that turned into a blog post

And

  • An accepted piece about baby food, insecurity and watermelon

 

Eventually, in the sixth hour of his family party, our youngest let other people try out his cupcakes, once the big cake had been served, once the numbers of guests dwindled and he felt happy and content and comfortable with sharing his creativity. I think it went well, and I hope both he and I remember that while sharing can be scary, there are tricks to make it less so. And, ultimately, even if you are temporarily paralyzed with fear, moving forward anyways is worth it.

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S.T.E.A.M Punk

Science Fair

 

Our public elementary school calls itself a “Math and Science Academy”. It is a great petri dish for the sons and daughters of all sorts of engineers, a starter culture for future scientists and mathematicians. There is a heavy emphasis on STEM here. STEM is an effort to add more Science, Technology, Engineering and Math into the curriculum. Our school has integrated engineering lessons into each grade level, and prides itself on its science fair. Pardon me, its STEM fair. Oh wait, I stand corrected. As I look at our application packet I found out that its name has changed again. This time it will be a STEAM fair.

What does the “A” stand for, you may be wondering. Arithmetic? Archeology? Astrophysics? Nope. It stands for Art. We are trying to cram all of Art, the entirety of anything that could be called artistry into one little letter.

My husband is an engineer, and my two sons are scientifically inclined. But, they are also my sons and I have been, and still am, a singing, dancing, writing, literature-loving, theater-going, right-brained kind of girl. Believe me, I don’t want them to go through school so focused on data and numbers that they don’t see the beauty of the world around them. To be fair, their school has dedicated art and music teachers, and my six-year-old asked me the other day if I knew who Piet Mondrian was. I asked back incredulously, “Do you?” While I appreciate the idea of adding more art to my kids’ lives, Art shouldn’t be a token subject, shoe-horned into a science fair.

While Science, Technology and Engineering are considered distinct subjects in their own rights, Art (as just one letter of STEAM) is jammed together as if it only encompassed one discipline. Right away I could break “Art” into, at the very least, visual and performance art. On the visual side of things, I can think of the distinct crafts of sculpting, painting, drawing, makeup and hair design, animation, cinematography, photography, interior design, fashion design, floral arrangement, graphic design, lighting design, illustration, weaving and ceramics. On the performing side of things, I can think of the distinct crafts of acting, dancing, singing, improvisation, playing an instrument, directing, stand-up comedy, puppetry and motivational speaking. This doesn’t even include the artistic endeavors of creative writers that don’t fit neatly into the above categories: poetry and memoir and novels and graphic novels and screenplays and plays. What a disservice to shove all of that into the single “A” that is allowed.

But my main criticism of trying to create a STEAM fair is that pesky requirement of all science fairs – that students learn and apply the scientific method. Each project must propose a hypothesis, set up an experiment with multiple controls and just one variable to see if the hypothesis is correct, record the findings and report your conclusions. It is a rigorous and disciplined METHOD for examining the world, and if it is not as rigorous, disciplined and objective as possible, the experiment is at best a waste of time and resources. I have great respect for the scientific method as a critical tool for examining and bettering the world.

And I had a great time mocking the scientific method as I tried to figure out what an “Arts” based project would look like.

For my STEAM Fair project, my hypothesis is that my impression of Hillary Clinton is funnier than my impression of Bernie Sanders.

In controlling the variables of my experiment, I have already decided to pick two candidates of the same political party and level of fame.

I will perform impressions thirty seconds in duration, for the exact same audience members on two separate days.

I will have three assistants record notes, one will record the number of people who laughed at each impression, the second will record the duration of laughter from the first guffaw to the last sigh with a stopwatch and the third will have a decibel meter to record how loud the laughter gets.

I will be only varying my voice, facial expressions and mannerisms to reflect each character – the words spoken in each impression will be identical.

Update: My results were inconclusive as no one laughed. For future experiments I would perhaps vary the words spoken by each candidate to reflect a satirized version of what they might normally say.

Now, let me be clear – All great artists, in every field of artistry, experiment. None use the scientific method.

There are far too many variables to account for. When an improv troupe skewers Clinton and Sanders they use different actors, different mannerisms, and different lines for different audiences as they experiment. Every variable changes and shifts, and more often than not they still get a laugh. They get to the same desired outcome with a million different formulas. The opposite is generally true of a baking soda papier-mache volcano, where only one formula will give you the desired outcome – a giant mess on the elementary school gym floor.

It is very rare that an artist would want to, or be able to, test one variable at a time. When Picasso painted “The Old Guitarist” he did not present us with an expressionist version in a full spectrum of color alongside his blue-toned melancholy piece to see what effect color had on the guitarist’s emotional impact. His blue period might be the closest we come to seeing an artist experimenting with one variable at a time, but his subject matter over those years was far from a scientifically sound control. He didn’t tint photographs of fuzzy ducklings blue to see if simply “the color blue” was enough to alter our perception of the duckling. He still experimented with subject matter and perspective and materials and negative space, while he experimented with the color blue.

And what is the measurement you can use to see if your hypothesis for a work of art was correct? Public reaction? Favorable critiques? Popularity? Unpopularity? Anger, sadness, longevity, laughter? Art is, above all, subjective, not objective. There is no objective experiment, nor any objective measurement for a work of art. But, in spite of its subjectivity, data can still be taken, the results can still be analyzed, and new experiments performed, new ground broken and new power discovered. I would LOVE to see an art fair like that, one full of experimentation, of breaking new ground and new forms, and exploring new talent.

Art doesn’t deserve to be shoved in next to scientific experiments, just because we haven’t made the room for it. The value of the scientific method, or teaching children to critically explore the world around them for concrete and actionable solutions, shouldn’t be diluted because we didn’t give Art any room to breathe. And you are just making it awkward for everyone if I have to explain my Clinton/Sanders experiment again, especially next to the second-grader who just won first place with his wonderfully thorough presentation of which liquid cleans a penny best. (Coca-Cola, his hypothesis was proven out by his experiment, it’s Coca-Cola).

 

An Article on The Mighty

me, boys, flowers

(They ask you to include a picture for The Mighty, and I had no clue what would work with this piece. So, here’s a cute picture of the boys. PS my husband says I’m trying to fool people into thinking I’m younger than I am as this picture is at least 4 or 5 years old.  I told him that strangers have no idea how old the boys and I really are-I’m using it!)

 

Hello Everybody!

I had an odd writing day yesterday. I had come up with a topic I really wanted to write about: my reaction to hearing often that people with illnesses, disabilities or special needs don’t want unsolicited advice (I have felt that way before) and why we may be missing out by keeping quiet (or insisting that other people keep their thoughts to themselves).

I composed it in a couple of morning hours, did cursory editing and knew immediately that I wanted to get it to The Mighty.  I follow The Mighty on Facebook and love the stories they share about people with all sorts of lives that need a little extra care.  Invisible illness, visible illness, mental illness, disability, special needs.  I felt this was the right placement for this piece and sent it off by 10:30.

By 1:30 I had an e-mail saying it was accepted and by 8:00 at night it was published online.  They move fast!!!

So here it is Why I Want People to Share Stories About Treatment Options.  Hope you are able to check it out.

Thanks!

Kristin

Valentine Gifts

Valentine gifts

It is time for gifts again, smaller gifts than at Christmas, but it’s time to show our loved ones how much we appreciate having them around.

My younger son is squirreled away in the playroom and has commanded us several times, “Do not come in here.” I know this is his order when he is working on a present for someone and doesn’t want to ruin the surprise. With Valentine’s Day coming up, it is very possible that he has three presents he is working on in there- one for his brother, one for his father and one for me. We get a little nervous when he emerges an hour later and there is smudged ink all over his arms, and a stamp like a tattoo on his right wrist. My husband asks him, “I won’t invade your privacy, but if you look like that, is the room pretty messy, too?”

He nods, “A little.”

He tells us he will clean it up, and my older son offers to help, as long as he’s allowed in the room. He is, and the two of them go back and forth with wet paper towels, and assure us that everything is cleaned up. It could be a sketch, or a 3-D paper sculpture of a caterpillar, a comic strip, or a handprint. Last Christmas he made a series of diagrams: instructions, to go with a handful of Legos. He had created a Lego set he and his brother could build together. I was so impressed!

And I am so curious about my gift.

I’m the sort of person who wants to know what a movie is about before I see it. I’ll watch trailers, read think-pieces about how the director felt or what the actors endured, listen to gossip about backstage antics. My husband does not. He wants very much to be surprised. He even gets annoyed when the opening credits to a reality show give away almost everything that is going to happen, yelling, “We’re already watching it! You don’t have to sell us on it! Mute it, and tell me when the opening’s over.”

Sometimes I’m glad he is so strict in his I want to be surprised point of view. A few years ago my oldest son wanted to buy me a Christmas present, and he was confident he had thought up something perfect. My husband was the one to take him shopping, so of course he knew what I had gotten. I pestered my husband a bit, trying to get him to reveal what was bought, because my curiosity had gotten the better of me. This was the first time either of the boys had wanted to buy me something, and that my guy had something specific in mind. I wondered what he thought of me, how well he knew me, what he got me!

My husband put me in my place quickly saying, “I am not going to let you ruin his surprise. He really came up with something perfect, and I want him to get your full reaction as you open it.” That Christmas I opened up two brand-new cardboard-sided notebooks, with blue and white patterns on the front. Exactly the sort of notebook I used for writing in, the same kind I often stockpile since I go through them so quickly. Just the right decoration, and in my favorite color, too. I could not believe how perfect his three dollar present was, and how thoughtful he had been to come up with the idea in the first place. And as an added bonus, my husband got an extra present of me admitting that he had been right.

My husband also got the chance to surprise me with a gift, one I didn’t see coming at all. He was going to be out of town when some important blood test results of mine were going to be coming in. It was going to be emotionally rough, no matter which way they went. If they were positive, I would finally know what was wrong but have to deal with curing a disease – a tumor, or kidney disease, or adrenal failure. If they were negative there would be no big disease to handle, but also no answers as to why I felt horrible. A pair of soft flannel pajamas came in the mail, the perfect way to comfort someone when you can’t physically be there to hold them. A gift that would be appropriate to use in a hospital bed after surgery or to cuddle on the couch researching alternative medicine. It was such a lovely surprise.

So, I won’t peek to see what present is being made in the playroom. All three presents, and the surprise of getting them, make me feel so very loved. And that, I’m pretty sure, is supposed to be the point of gift-giving, and Valentine’s Day, in the first place.

Pause

pause

Back in August, I had set myself a schedule for writing, that I would complete a 1,500 word essay for the first Wednesday of every month as part of an on-going column. I am going to put that on hold for a little while.

The premise of the column Pain and Joy was that I had learned a lot about all sorts of pain that I’d wanted to share, and that I am learning about joy and want to report on that as well. This month was originally going to be a “pain” installment, specifically “The Pain of Existential Dread”. My original thought was to go into the worry and fear I felt when I was suffering from an unknown illness and detailing how that fear seemed to infect my oldest who was then four. So, five years after this originally happened, I felt like things were under control and I had the distance I needed to tackle this subject. However, five years later I am again in the thick of an unknown illness. I am worried, again, about how severe this new illness might be, about how much my quality of life will be diminished, about how drastic the “cure” will be. I am back in the swamp of not knowing, of waiting ages to see a specialist, and of trying to maintain some psychological buoyancy during the process.

My children (and I bet yours, too) are emotional sponges, and when something is off-kilter they sense it quickly and it colors their world almost immediately. Writing this piece right now feels like the wrong move to make. If I weren’t a parent, delving into my dark fears thoroughly and completely could be cathartic. It would be messy and ugly for a good long while, but it would be over and dealt with. Presenting a polished, articulated version of that fear to the world could open up conversations that I would be able then to discuss and I would not feel as alone. If I weren’t a parent.

I am a parent. There is the reality that if I dig deep into the dark places in my mind that it might be hard to climb back out-certainly not quickly enough to be present, completely present, for my children when they need me. What I learned the first time out with an unknown illness and the prospect of a scary diagnosis is that tears and anger are frightening to my kids, but that emotional distance is even scarier. I cannot be so absorbed in writing this right now, and risk that distance.

Also, immersing myself in this story means that for a while no other stories are being told-not the one about how the squirrels always try to eat the face off our pumpkins, not the one about my youngest child’s very first goal, not the one about how we spent all weekend as a family playing Risk, not the one about how our Christmas lists are coming along. The dominant story of “What will happen to me?” would be the one I would get trapped in, and if I’m trapped there, all of us eventually are trapped there. That isn’t really fair.

So, I have decided to pause the column, for now. I may write the next “Joy” installment. I may not. I might write short frothy pieces for a bit, or short cranky pieces. I may just journal. This illness is making life less predictable than I imagined, so I am going to give myself the grace and wiggle room to ignore self-imposed deadlines and goalposts. I am giving myself the luxury to write what and when and where and how I see fit for a while. That, I think, is something healthy I can do for myself and my family now that my health is suddenly, again, up for grabs.

Mothers Always Write

MAW

Hi everyone!

I have an essay published on Mothers Always Write today called “Muffled”.  It is about my younger son and his struggles with speech delays and with not being able to hear well when he was three.  I would absolutely love for you to visit their website at

http://mothersalwayswrite.com/muffled/

They have many wonderful essays and poems through all the years of being a mom.

Thanks!

Kristin