Tuesday, December 27, 2016

A Door County Vacation with Kids

I won't condemn the entire year; there was much joy and progress and good work and a delicious week with my grand-niece Caroline in Philadelphia and a blissful hiking trip to Bryce Canyon. But the election and its awful aftermath have kicked my ass so I will leave you this year with my happy memories of a few days of pleasure and play with my dear girls in Door County, Wisconsin.


The beginning of August. We only had a few empty days between the end of the girls' camps and the beginning of my school year. Pennsylvania and D.C. were calling but you can't get there from here in five days. Randy would take off work the next week to drive the girls to Mammoth Cave and other Kentucky sights while I went back to work. So I pulled Door County, Wisconsin off the To Do list, did a little research, a little online booking and the girls and I were off!

Martha Stewart told me about Milwaukee's Kopp's, the perfect pit stop for an amazing assortment of rotating ice cream flavors concoctions and a grilled cheese sandwich with something called hot celery. The crunchy chunks of celery bathed in hot sauce may not have enhanced the taste of the cheese but they were super interesting. An elevated row of cow statues were lined up on a wall behind the restaurant with a little sign imploring parents to keep their children from falling to their deaths.

Hamilton was on the soundtrack as we hit the road again on a long stretch all the way to Sturgeon. At the Visitor's Center we stocked up on brochures and maps and made some new friends when I said "Hi, Honey" to a person that seemed like tall Mia out of the corner of my eye. It turned out to be another mom and she laughed and said "Hi!" back and "That's the nicest thing anyone's said to me all day" with a rolled eye toward her husband. We laughed together, waved to them in parking lot and hit the road again.

Cave Point County Park

We turned off the main road through the peninsula that goes on to Egg Harbor on the west coast and took 57 to the "quiet side" of Door County to the east. Pulled off at the Cave Point County Park and found a magical spot. We stepped out of the trees to find ten foot rocky cliffs and outcroppings protecting little coves by the lake. Brave teenagers were jumping off the cliffs into the water to our cheers. We climbed down the rock walls to the water's edge where plateaus of pitted stone made for treacherous walking. The water was cool, not cold, and the girls waded out a little, holding hands as the waves tried to push them over on the slick shallows. Further to the north we found a beach of stone cairn piles by the hundreds, an astounding sight.
Mia making an Instagram pose on Cave Point beach

Nora begged to swim but I was tired after the drive and we'd left our bathing suits in the car. I promised we would come back on another day.

We drove the last stretch through beautiful woods dotted with cottages small and large. Curtis Sittenfeld uses Door County as the stand-in for Kennebunkport, Maine in her novel American Wife, a fictional depiction of the courting and marriage of Laura and George Bush.  She portrays the "Bush" family estate as an expansive yet dilapidated compound where the family dresses up for dinner but share a single shabby bathroom with an unlockable door. I loved peering at secluded mansions through the trees and seeing the images I'd imagined come to life.

We drove through charming Bailey's Harbor, then finally reached Gordon Lodge in the late afternoon. An utterly charming restored resort beautifully situated at the mouth of North Bay. We stayed in a sweet room in the main lodge, a textbook example of how to modernize a mid-century one-story motor lodge with style. The screened back door of our room opened up to a view of the bay over an expanse of lawn and native flowers. The pool was steps away and beyond that, a picturesque pier protected a serene inner harbor.

Silly Nora and happy Mia in our cute Gordon Lodge room

Dinner was at the Top Deck Restaurant in their renovated boat house. A local cheese plate, tomato soup, and key lime pie with mocktails, pasta and steak for the girls.

The evening was balmy and the girls couldn't wait to get out on the water. We changed, then tore down to the beach to play with the paddleboards and kayaks waiting for us on the sand. The water was as clear and smooth as it was cool and the girls squealed at the schools of tiny fishes darting through the green pondweeds and grasses. We splashed and laughed on the paddleboards, then Nora's squeals tuned up to a higher key and the excitement on her face morphed into something frantic. Her life vest, a size too big, was buoyed up by her shoulders and her head was turned up toward the sky as she paddled as fast as fast as she could to the ladder on the pier. Mia and I were on a laughing binge but I tried to be sympathetic as Nora freaked out.

"What is it?"

She could only reply with weird high eeks. Mia translated: it was the eerie clarity of the water; we could see the forest of plants below us and feel them brushing our legs and imagine all sorts of creatures rising from the shadows.

We traded the lake for the pool, made some new Minneapolis friends, then more friends at the s'mores campfire and headed for bed.

Gordon Lodge sunset


I ate the rest of my key lime pie for first breakfast and grazed the resort buffet for seconds. We swam and kayaked again in the beautiful morning light. I wondered how far up the bay our rental cabin was and whether we could paddle all the way. (Gordon Lodge only had availability for one night and the  rental I found online was coincidentally just up the road.)

Showers and packing up, then heading back south to the Cana Island Lighthouse. A working lighthouse on its own tiny island accessible only by a wet gravel causeway that disappeared under the waves as we watched, waiting for the tractor and wagon to come and take us across. The rooms below were a treasure trove of the simple lifestyle of the lighthouse workers, with some original furniture, black and white photos and old stories of breathless rescues and tragic disasters. We climbed to the top of the spiral stair, peeking out the circular windows as we went, to find a work of the art, the giant lens that so magnifies a small bulb, it can be seen for twenty miles.

Cana Island Lighthouse lens

Cana Island Lighthouse spiral staircase

View from the Cana Island Lighthouse balcony

We were hungry and grumpy with all this activity before lunch, but Yum Yum in Bailey's Harbor cheered us up with their sandwiches, soup and candy sold by the piece. My nostalgic reaction to the liverwurst sandwich on the deli menu was a common one, the woman behind the counter told me. I had loved it on Wonder Bread with mayo. "Mothers gave it to their babies," she said. "Because it was so soft," I chimed in, like so many before me, I'm sure.

Mia spent long happy moments making her candy choices; I bought some challenging German licorice and cringed when the boy behind the counter touched each of the fudge types as he described them. "Finger fudge" we called it later and I loved the perfection of the match of the my all-time favorite candy: caramel-chocolate-pecan turtles met with the all-time dirtiest fingers in the world: those of an adolescent boy. When you're on a fabulous vacation, everything is new and novel and a reason to celebrate.

Gummy cherries from Yum Yum candy store in Bailey's Harbor

Small town post offices are always fun for meeting people and after mailing some postcards, we stopped at the Bailey's Harbor Historical Society next door for a bathroom break, a smaller scaled map and some great advice from a friendly local. "Try the Corsica bread," the guy told me when I asked about the Door County Bakery which I had found circuitously from the owners' adorable Airbnb rental that was a bit too small for our needs.

We would check out the bakery later but now we were off to our cabin, a tiny jewel of a family heirloom tucked into the trees with an old shuffleboard court and a gorgeous view of the bay. We explored all the sweet corners of the little house, from the cozy bunk beds to the elephant-themed bathroom to the shelves of well-loved books and toys and games. Across the quiet street to the stair to the rickety pier hung with sparkle lights to the water. We waded out over the smooth stones and beyond the reeds and the water never got much deeper than my waist. Laughing and splashing and loving the sensations.

Cappy Cottage, we called it "Crappy" out of love

North Bay

Dinner was a fifteen minute drive to the west side of the peninsula where the cute tourist towns of Ephraim and Fish Creek waited with their shoppy shops and busy restaurants. I came to Door County with two objectives: experience a fish boil of legend and see the famous goats on a roof. I don't remember how I found Pelletier's in Fish Creek and it was only later that dear friend Kristen told me she had worked at the same place summers in high school (small world moment!) but Pelletier's DELIVERED. The Palmer girl luck prevailed (as it so often does in claw machines and Cubs lotteries) and we arrived at the head of a line that formed behind us. The kids options satisfied the girls and the every-half-hour schedule reassured this hungry momma that Pelletier's knew what they were doing. Sure enough, the capable men in the backyard tending the giant pot of fish, potatoes, and onions were sufficiently burly, nimble and entertaining to please the crowd, manage a raging fireball at the climax of the boil and make us a damn good meal. Heaping plates of the perfectly cooked whitefish, sweet onions and tender potatoes, all bathed in butter, with black bread, coleslaw and shut up! Cherry pie for dessert made me very happy. Adventurous Mia nibbled a little and claimed it good and Nora was content with her mac and cheese.

Pelletier's Fish Boil

After dinner we did some Mommy-daughter shoppy shoppy to kill time before sunset, then noticed a strange brilliant light coming through the trees to the west. "The sunset! Hurry!" We made it to the beach in time, along with dozens of our tourist friends and ooed and ahed at the pretty.

Finally, a real smile from my cut up

Lovely Mia

The feature at the Skyway Drive-In Theater was The Secret Life of Pets,  a perfectly fluffy (oh god, sorry, not just for the groany pun but for yet another -ly adverb + adjective construction) diversion for the night when the venue was really the star, with the spectacular night sky overhead and a great view of the movie from the back hatch with the seats folded down to make a picnic/lounging area. The adorable snack bar had local cherry juice, yum! and popcorn with real butter! and Momma had remembered to pack the vitally needed (oh good god adverb + adjective!) mosquito repellent so a great time was had by all. We drove home in pitch dark and for once the Highlander's mapping system (on a CD! how 20th century) did not let us down.


We slept late, ahh, then drove in our jammies along North Bay, past adorable little vacation houses, a charming roadside treehouse the girls had to climb into, past the cutest two-story child-sized lighthouse, to the heralded Door County Bakery for breakfast. The sweet log cabin bakery lived up to our expectations and blew them away when Mommy got a bite of the famous Corsica Loaf, topped with sesame seeds and baked in oil, a soft and crunchy, crispy and oily experience that is crave-inducing once you've tried it. I swear, I dream about this bread.

The girls were happy with donuts and croissants and playing on the tractors out front and we spent a lazy morning at the cabin, swimming in the shallow, cool water of the bay and sunning ourselves like mermaids on the rocks.

View of North Bay across the street from our cabin

Around noon, we drove a few miles north to Sister's Bay on the west coast (really, everything is so close on this peninsula, getting everywhere is a breeze) and finally caught a glimpse of the Goats On The Grassy Roof of Johnson's Swedish restaurant, a sight so surreal in real life I had to doubt it for a moment. "Girls, is that a real goat? He's not moving. I think it's a statue. Wait. Did his ear move? Is it plaster with felt ears?"

Actual goat on Johnson's roof in Sister's Bay

Johnson's traditional Swedish menu didn't thrill the girls despite their heritage and an appeal to tell Grandpa Bob about the experience so we found the satisfying Wild Tomato down the street instead for pizza and salad, then hit the beach.

Can I just say how wondrously easy all this travel has been in high summer season? We park on the main drag, steps away from the water, and changed our clothes in the bathroom of a park district building. There are crowds at the beach, but just enough to make a party mood rather than a bother. Kids are doing flips off a pier into the crystal water; my girls are drawn to the fun but stick to running jumps, feet-first, holding hands to Mommy's delight. We rent a standup paddleboard and laugh ourselves breathless, screaming and splashing and squealing in the clear and placid water. There is enough of a breeze to push our paddleboard gently toward the pretty pleasure boats harbored on the other side of the diving pier, but that only adds to our challenge and our fun.

We head back to the car, discover a towel is missing, trek back to the bandshell where the girls played. Mommy gives the girls a mini-lecture about self-care and HALT, that is, while doing childcare, stop what you're doing to take care of yourself when you feel hungry, angry, lonely or tired. A well-intentioned motto I recited when I had my first baby and less than easy to do in the trenches, as any mother knows. Yay, we find the towel!

We drive south and catch a tantalizing glimpse of Fred and Fuzzy's lakeside restaurant through the trees but there's no parking and Tired Momma (see HALT above) needs someplace super easy so we put that lovely spot on the To Do Next Time list and head down the coast to Wilson's in Ephraim for dinner. Higher Standards Daddy would not have approved of this humble spot for a quick dinner but its ye-olde-red-and-white-striped-awning-patio-across-from-the-water charms work their way into our swim-sapped systems and we are revived with sandwiches and clown-shaped ice cream treats.

Wilson's in Ephraim, a tiny ice cream clown with cone hat

High on carbs, we visit the Anderson dockside warehouse up the street, a nondescript structure made famous by its colorful and copious graffiti. It's a picturesque spot and we are feeling great (See: an army marches on its stomach) so Mia poses for pics while Nora runs and dances around, wild and gay, all of us laughing our heads off. The day peaks here as my planned drive through Peninsula State Park turns out to be a little anticlimactic, despite pretty views of historic Horseshoe Island and a squat lighthouse that is closed for the night. The girls are deep in their phone games and videos, done for the day, so we hit Piggly Wiggly for breakfast supplies, scoring an epic Piggly Wiggly t-shirt souvenir for Dad and head home.

Anderson Dockside Warehouse graffiti


A gorgeous morning, sun on the bay. Cereal and fresh peaches for breakfast and we hit the road before nine to catch the ferry to Washington Island! The drive to northern tip of the peninsula is lovely, including a wiggly stretch that adorns postcards. Of course I can't capture it with my phone's limited lens while driving but that was only one bit of wonder at the beginning of a wonderful day. The ferry line is short, thank goodness, and the tight squeezing of the cars on board only adds to the adventure.

Road to Washington Island Ferry

Conversations with our fellow tourists shorten an already quick trip and in less than an hour we are back in the car and heading north across the island to Schoolhouse Beach. But first! a stop for floaties, flipflops and fudge at Mann's Mercantile general store where I leave my wallet and don't notice until lunchtime. But until then, we are thrilling to the glories of Schoolhouse Beach, a very special place and one of the highlights of our trip. Supposedly one of only five limestone pebble beaches in the world, Schoolhouse has a natural stretch of smooth stones instead of sand at water's edge but the magic does not end there. The beach sits within a protected circular inlet lined with lovely trees and you approach the water through a beautiful glade. Pebbles once littered the ground here but so many people have taken home keepsakes that the stones are now protected by law. The water was delicious on our skin (a rarity even in summer, I heard later) and we accepted its invitation, floating and bobbing on the waves and jumping off an orange float over and over again.

Schoolhouse beach

I had a hard time pulling the girls away from the water for chess and lunch from the good people at Bread and Water down the road, but I promised we could come back in the afternoon and the girls know I don't make those kind of promises to break them.

We did a quick touristy tour of the Stavkirk church (twenty years old, looks one thousand, the girls could not have been less reverential, thank goodness we were alone as we explored), scared up a cool snake in the woods, blew through a speedy visit to the lavender fields (one photo of Nora and we were OUTTA THERE! Momma so happy not to be on one of those crowded trams with the guide calling once more through the bullhorn for the last stragglers to PLEASE RETURN TO THE TRAM), climbed the tower at the highest point of the island for a green and blue view (we're exhausted), then finally called it quits with the rushing and the To Do list when we missed the ferry to Rock Island.

Stavkirke Norwegian church replica

Glamour-puss in the lavender fields

Fine. We won't go to the serviceless island for a hike.

 Deep breath. We're at the end of Old Camp Road, at the far northeast point of the island. The girls grabbed sodas and sat in the shade while I took a quick peek in a restored historic fisherman's cottage and a tiny boat museum (the museum was tiny, not the boats). I was thrilled to see one of the same Great Lake tugs that Randy and I had admired on our trip to the other side of Lake Michigan five summers ago docked at the pier. It's the afternoon of our last day and we try one more beach, although the girls are calling for a return to Schoolhouse. But this one has sand dunes! I plead so the girls gamely try it, changing back into damp suits in the car, trekking through the woods with our gear and splashing in the silty water.

A Great Lakes Fishing Tug

Back to Schoolhouse! The afternoon there is even more fun than the morning -- more people have arrived, more cairns have been built and we have the added adventures of ducking under the float, trying to imitate the strong teenagers who jump off the float holding rocks so they can sink all the way down and touch bottom, losing one of our floaties to the wind and thanking the rescuer, and swimming out to touch the white buoy.

The ferry is due to depart. We are exhausted. Goodbye Washington Island, we love you!

A few miles down the road from the ferry we find Gill's Rock and the lovely waterfront Shoreline restaurant, ahh. Wonderful dinner at sunset.

I get enough energy for one more hike after dinner, in the Elison Bay County Park. The girls are done done done so they stay in the car while I poke around on the wooded cliffs, not really sure if I'm following a path or just imagining one.

Elison Bay County Park

There's just enough time and energy left to get ice cream frozen custard at Not Licked Yet in Fish Creek. Mia falls in love with the ducks in the actual Fish Creek! next to the stand and cannot be pulled away from feeding them popcorn. Somehow I extract her, get the girls in the car and we drive home for our last night, singing Hamilton songs all the way.


I think I'm going to work tomorrow but thank god we have a few last diversions. We revisit the jumping coves at Cave Point County Park but they now look ominous, filled with choppy waves under cloudy skies. So we try the adjacent Whitefish Dunes State Park, running into some Wilmette friends on the way, and loving the waves and wind. A super fun last morning. We'll be back.

Friday, November 18, 2016

In Atlanta, November, 2016

At the National Council of Teachers of English conference and feeling the best it's been since the election. Not that it will get better, not unless we make it though to the other side of this catastrophe for democracy, this aberration of American ideals, this national nightmare.

That Wednesday dawn was as quiet and clear as 9/11 and bore the same strangely serene sky. The night before I had sent the girls to bed early. The Titanic steerage mother sees no escape and tucks her children in for a few last minutes of rest and peace before the inevitable icy agony.

I wore funeral black to school for a week; the kind and wise social studies teacher stops me to say, smiling and hopeful, "All things change." I appreciate his solicitous words.

At home, there is sticking to routine, comforting the girls, giving them as much extra attention and gentleness as I can muster. Randy's been away in Mexico and New York for work -- he even missed celebrating the Cubs' win with us. That ecstasy the city enjoyed together feels so far away now. I am nostalgic for that golden age we enjoyed in the faraway innocent world of October.

When the panic rises, I deliberately walk through doorways, hoping for the anesthesia of forgetting, hoping to reset my train of thought. It works sometimes -- (try it!) but it's not so easy in the 3 a.m. dark. I make airline reservations, plans for Georgia, KC, DC. The Women's March is a bright spot on the horizon but I know the reservations are come from a desire for escape that cannot happen. In desperation I even message the Old Boyfriend, begging for a word of solace. He has none.

I try to console Nora, my little actress, with the story from Camelot about Wart asking Merlin what to do when he is sad.  I dig up T.H. White's original words.

“The best thing for being sad," replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, "is to learn something. That's the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn.”

And so I go back to studying coal-rolling, wrestling with these words:

That’s what ethnonationalists mean when they talk about big government — not that government is exceeding some libertarian theorist’s notion of constitutional limits, but that government is on the wrong side, backing the wrong team.
From an ethnonationalist perspective, government overreach is when government tells people like me what to do. The proper role of government is to defend my rights and privileges against people like them.
I review novelist and scriptwriter Attica Locke, whose blunt words saved me on the way to work that Wednesday morning:

"...the incredible optimism I felt on the other side of Obama is dashed, that this really is a sense that this is a backlash to that. That there is a large segment of the population for whom having a black president was such an assault on their identity. That their reaction to it has no reason. It makes no logical sense...In the sense that the president is, like, the - a father of the nation or a man that we're meant to look up to. I think there's a large segment of white folks who could not take that, the idea that this person was above them in some way. I think it was very dislocating in terms of their sense of identity."

For now I see the red cap as a repudiation of our great president's skin. The scales fall from my eyes and I realize a sufficient amount of voters did not see Barack Obama's blackness as a culmination of our greatness and a step toward redeeming our country's original sin. "Great again" is not a slogan about a vague time somewhere between Eisenhower and Reagan; it means "a black man ruined our country." 

Ta-Nehisi Coates will speak at the convention on Saturday. I read Between the World and Me on the plane. Its poetry is an antidote.

Downtown Atlanta is a city of glass pinnacles soaring over shabby smoky streets. From the Olympic park to CNN, the city seems 30 or so years past its heyday. But the bright green convention signs and the balmy morning are nice and so are all the friendly teacher faces, "Good morning," "Good morning!" and the first general session is "Authors as Advocates" although I haven't heard of any of them but it turns out G. Neri wrote Yummy, a graphic novel about poor sad Yummy Sandifer, murderer, murdered at 11 by fellow gang members that several of my students have read and Sharon Draper was Teacher of the Year in 1997 and now we're getting warmed up and I don't know when I started clapping, maybe my chai caffeine kicked in or maybe the few thousand of us in the auditorium needed to commiserate together and these panelists who were telling us that literature changes lives, that books save lives and telling their stories to back that shit up, maybe they weren't going to let us just commiserate, but activate us again, or if not again then for the first time and we're cheering for Jason Reynolds telling us to raise power out of the mundane and love literature that lets children be children and we're cheering Palestinian Ibtisam Barakat telling us over and over how to say her name until we all call it out and vow never to let the pronunciation of a child's name, first or last, be less important than that of our own. And Meg Medina reminds us that 56 million people in the US call themselves Latino and so the story she is writing is the American story. And on and on, to cheers and the teacher crowd yelling approval and Good Morning, Good Morning, welcome back, Hope and Inspiration and Courage.

But that was only the beginning. Chicago public school students performing their original, wrenching, beautiful, staccato hip hop poems. The Folger Library work-shopping fun Shakespeare activities for every kid: how many different ways can you say "O"? Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell, the writer and illustrator of March, Representative John Lewis's three part account of the Civil Rights movement, still giddy over winning the National Book Award for Young People's Literature. Cartoonist Nate Powell was especially moving when speaking of his artistic decisions about where to place the point of view when depicting violence and how the experience re-sensitized him after years of drawing brutality had done the opposite. Smokey Daniels, Kelly Gallager and Peggy Kittle, a teaching superstar trio, blowing us away with truths about speaking and listening skills in a conference where writing and reading take most of the real estate. 

And that session, to an adoring crowd (it really is like teacher-Lollapalooza here) had the greatest moment of the day, one that I'll be thinking about in the hard days to come. Peggy Kittle, whose joyous book Book Love, Developing Depth, Stamina and Passion in Adolescent Readers is full of infectious fun and great teaching ideas and success stories, ended her session with a video of Game of Throne's Jon Snow standing alone with his drawn sword in the face of an mounted attacking horde. Some of Peggy's New Hampshire students were in favor of arming her in the classroom -- the arms we were all given today were no less powerful, some "louder than a bomb," to quote one of the Chicago hip hoppers, but they will require our greatest skill to wield in the face of Ignorance and Want. Over the image of the warrior standing alone and to the driving strains of U2's paean to Dr. Martin Luther King, Peggy implored us to use our voices to empower all, in the name of love.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Happy Halloween 2016!

How magical is a tiny lit candle within the bowl of a carved out squash? Who thought of this strange and beautiful custom? And what a blessed tradition to send your children to your neighbors' houses and strangers' houses and to receive welcome visits from theirs in return.

"Trick or Treat! Happy Halloween! Thank you! Thank you!"

And how breath-taking the colors of the trees are at this moment. We cull old trinkets out of the neglected toy box, pile them in a bowl for the smallest trick-or-treaters and they respond with wonder. A knee-high toddler in a puppy suit can hardly believe the plastic jaguar I hand him with his M&Ms.

My fourteen year old is wearing my clothes now and the younger sister is only a growth spurt away from resembling her. I check Nora's splayed fingers against my own and breathe a temporary sigh -- her fingertips have not yet reached mine and I can still occasionally takes hers in mine as we walk together, like we did last night down Clark Street after the Cubs win, buoyed by the win despite the late hour. Another child had reached for my hand this week at Nora's sixth grade drama class show as the crowd of parents entered the auditorium. I was talking with his mother about the Booker Prize and he lifted his arm without looking to grab the hand of the tall figure he thought was his mom. I clasped his warm palm with gratitude and told his mother that I had done the same thing when I was a child in a grocery store and how strange, how wondrous, the woman had been wearing a red coat, like I thought my mother was and like I was on this day.

Only a few breaths left of this night, of this season of beauty and change, of this childhood that Nora is shedding and Mia is preserving on the one night a year she can join the tiny ones and dress up in play costume and ask for candy, please and thank you.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

To Be a Hamilton Fangirl

Sense something big happening in New York.

Overhear your young coworkers raving from the other side of the partition.

Watch a clip on Facebook of the slight Latino man free-styling with Mr. Obama in the Rose Garden. Momentarily wonder who the talented rapper is, then spend more energy scorning the sniffy comment on the post, "How unpresidential!"

Pick up the original cast recording double album and slip the first CD into your car stereo.

Enjoy the driving hooks of the first couple of songs then find yourself reaching one-handed to untangle the lyric sheet from the plastic case. Realize these are not your typical Broadway-style melody-driven ballads to croon along with, this shit is DENSE.

Get hooked by the fourth verse of the first song. Be swept up and away in the coordinated syllable avalanche, each and every word perfect in its precision of meaning and meter:

Then a hurricane came, and devastation reigned
Our man saw his future drip, dripping down the drain
Put a pencil to his temple, connected it to his brain
And he wrote his first refrain, a testament to his pain

Shiver at the line, "Half dead, sittin' in their own sick." Widen your eyes at the brutal and perfect fragment, "the scent thick," then hear the whisper, "And Alex got better but his mother went quick" and know here you are. This is an orphan story, another fellow traveler and guide on your own journey. Suspect you're going to learn something important here.

Moved in with a cousin, the cousin committed suicide Left him with nothin’ but ruined pride, something new inside
A voice saying

“Alex, you gotta fend for yourself.”
He started retreatin’ and readin’ every treatise on the shelf 

Jump on the train, here we go, the pace quickening, the words coming faster, the propulsive doubling of "cousin, the cousin" sucking you in.

Play, replay. Play, replay. Check lyrics at stoplights, stay in the car once you've parked in front of the house just to search for that one phrase you missed.

Play, replay, all summer long. Enjoy the perfect jingly joy of "Helpless" for only a few moments before you hear that discordant smear of sound that changes the tone of "Satisfied" and confirm a lurking question you suspected at the first iteration of

Hamilton: Schuyler? 
Angelica: My sister.

Feel nostalgic already for your innocent first hearing of Eliza's love song. Never stop loving Philippa Soo's stratospheric squeal "Hoo!" right before she chortles, "That boy is mine, that boy is mine!" Hear her smile as she sings.

Study, play, repeat. Go slowly, song by song and dread coming to the end. Delay the deadly ending you know must come.

Be grateful for "Wait for It," as you are for every note, word and idea in this big-hearted show. Decide you would rather have the impulsive, fall-on-your-face temperament of Alexander than the guarded elegance and patience of Burr. I'm not willing to wait for my reasons -- I will make them myself.

Death doesn’t discriminate
Between the sinners
And the saints

It takes and it takes and it takes
And we keep living anyway
We rise and we fall
And we break

And we make our mistakes
And if there’s a reason I’m still alive
When everyone who loves me has died
I’m willing to wait for it
I’m willing to wait for it

Wait for it

Kiss your husband when he buys the family New Year's Eve tickets to the Chicago show.

Dive into the book that inspired Miranda to write the show, Ron Chernow's Alexander Hamilton. Buy the companion book Hamilton: The Revolution by Miranda and Jeremy McCarter and thrill to the annotations and essays detailing the design and construction of this astounding machine of a show. Underline sections you don't want to forget. Shout with triumph when Miranda confirms that his ditty "You'll Be Back" was inspired by the John Adams miniseries scene you LOVED where Adams, as the first representative of the new nation, reopens diplomatic relations with his former king.

Adjust your listening to match the passages in Miranda and McCarter's book about each song. Finally confront the inevitable and read the double tragedy story behind "It's Quiet Uptown." Listen to it twice, a third time, sob ugly and hard each time. Decide no more until the actual show. It's too hard and real, as is Hamilton's death soliloquy.

Use Hamilton and its writing imagery as the structuring theme of the final presentation for your Tech I summer class, "Using Web 2.0 Tools to Teach the Writing Process." Quote Eliza: "You built me palaces out of paragraphs. You built cathedrals" and extend the metaphor to an architectural plan for student pre-writing, composing, revision, editing and publishing. Remind your teaching colleagues that drafting is "Work! Work!" Roll your eyes at your own dorkiness yet be unable to stop smiling with pleasure.


Bring your girls into the fold. Listen to long passages during an August road trip to Door County. Comply with their request to "Play Hamilton!" every time we get back in the car. Let the girls laugh at your singing only the last words of every line, all that you can remember.

Feel your heart swell when Nora asks about that chaotic moment in "The Room Where It Happens" after Burr sings, "Meanwhile Congress is fighting over where to put the capital," because you can tell her from your research that Miranda told the company members each to yell out a different city name at the same time. Be satisfied when you can answer some of their questions: Hamilton died first, then Angelica and then Eliza, fifty years after her husband.

Laugh as the girls murder Peggy's name in the role call of "The Schuyler Sisters," then laugh again as you realize they have anticipated a silly interwebs meme, then halt your mocking with the news that Peggy died young, after a brief but happy marriage. Realize the poignancy of Eliza and Angelica's reunion in Act II, when they call out each other's names and Alexander sings gently, "the Schuyler sisters," telling us with no more words that this duet is all that is left of the original trio. Remember with a jolt Angelica's "And when you said “Hi,” I forgot my dang name" from "Satisfied" when Alexander in "Take a Break" gives her a breathy "Hi." Think, good god, what a flirt dog.

Go back to work in August and hear the altered lyrics in your head all day: "Why do I feel like I'm running out of time?"

Delight in the news that some of your students sang "My Shot" in eighth grade music. Wish to tell each one she is a diamond in the rough, a shiny piece of coal tryin' to reach her goal.

Freak a little on the 9/11 anniversary at a resurrected photo of the Trinity Church cemetery, where Alexander, Eliza and Angelica rest, covered in the grey dust of the towers. You remember this place as green and serene, as you walked by Hamilton's monument and gave it a moment's attention.

Find out that your old buddy Chris Jones is having "a conversation" with Lin-Manuel Miranda for the Chicago Humanities fest and immediately buy a membership to get the first chance for tickets. Go online at 10:00 a.m. sharp the day of ticket sales and get row FF.

The night of, marvel at the huge screaming crowd. Laugh out loud at your buddy's audaciously bad and brave beat-boxing while Miranda gamely free-styles Chicago themes, bringing down the house. Love his gracious and funny stories. Learn he would love playing Angelica if he could. Be moved by the back story to his composing his Tony acceptance Love is Love is Love is Love is Love is Love is Love is Love sonnet the afternoon after the Orlando shooting.

On your way out, overhear a teenager boy and girl chattering excitedly with their mom (?) about the show. "I can't freestyle as well as he can," says the boy. "No one follows his Twitter feed as closely as me," chimes in the girl. "When he quoted those tweets, I knew exactly which ones he was talking about!" Understand the feeling of being so close to someone you have only met through his art. Love the inspiration and joy he and his co-creators give us. Feel very grateful.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

The Path of Cairns

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Last night, no, it was Friday night after dinner (warm artichoke dip and chips as appreciated appetizers when we arrived back at camp after our hike, then around the long table in the dining tent, hazelnut and kale salad, perfect tiny garlic and rosemary potatoes, grilled salmon with butter, dill and lemon, iced tea and lemonade) there was still evening light everywhere and I couldn't rest, couldn't chill on my tent porch, cute as it was with comfy chair and charming side table and a pretty view of billows of purple wild asters and the south end of the Sinking Ship escarpment.

I left camp, out the dirt road past modern cabins and a couple of house. Scared up a jackrabbit and laughed out loud at the way its long ears stood straight up as it ran.

On the main gravel road across from out unmarked campground entrance was a locked gate bearing a sign AGRICULTURAL WASTE ONLY (what?!) and behind the gate, a steep hill with a washout road.

View east from camp: Asters, rainbow and the Agricultural Waste hill

A mustached man on a moped buzzes toward me, smiles to my smile, his young black lab nimble and fast despite his plastic cone of shame. The dog jumps on me for a pet, then gambols off, his high leaping gait like that of a rising and falling rocking horse.

I do a scramble up the hill, looking for rattlers, half wanting to stir something up.

We've seen ground squirrels, including one on the trail the first day who stood up like a trained circus animal, charming us for treats we did not give him and one on the Calf Creek Falls trail who barked at us from a treetop, making us laugh. Birds too, but not much other wildlife (a mule deer pranced by as I write this in the camp hammock) so rustling up a little snaky thrill would be like that good hot sauce on my cheesy eggs this a.m.

As I rose up the hill, the town of Tropic, Utah comes into view and I'm back there now, in present tense. I'm looking for a point high enough for a view of both massive Powell's Point to the east and the red cliffs of Bryce Canyon to the west.

Moped Man's buzzing echos below and I can hear him yell a greeting to someone. He's turned onto the main gravel road that I crossed to get here and his route is now laid out before me in a triangle. The dog is a happy little dash of movement.

No camera with me to capture the moment, no pack with water or snack, I just crawled up here on my hands and and feet for some heart pounding and gulps of air.

I sit on the gravel slope at the top of my hill facing north towards town, watching the twilight sky and thinking again in those old patterns.

Dad, did you have enough time to get some perspective before you left?

He had four kids, a wife to celebrate ten years with, a successful family business, a Montessori school he had founded with a group of friends, former adventures in the Air Force overseas. And flight. I know he kept flying after his time with the Reserves because he loved it.

Cele says to her husband, “Tell her the story about how Ron would come over to our house at night.  Your dad when he’d go flying?  He had to talk to people.”

Chuck turns to me.  “He’d fly at night a lot.  He always wanted me to go with him.  Our next-door neighbor, Al Crump, was a pilot for United and Al said to me one day he would never get in a small plane.  This guy flies a stretch, to California, Hawaii.  And that stuck in my head, don’t do it.  So I kept telling Ron, I’m not going, I’m not going.  But he’d go and he’d fly around and after he’d fly he was on a big high and he’d come ring our doorbell.  He always wore a raincoat and it’d be flapping behind him as he walks around . . .”

“Yeah, with the belt undone,” remembers Weezie.

Chuck continues, “I’d make him a drink after he was flying, you know, before he’d go home.  And one night Cele and I are in bed, the kids are asleep and we’re talking and ding-dong!  And Cele said, ‘Oh that’s Ron.’  I got up, and I didn’t answer the door, I went in the kitchen and I mixed a drink.  I opened the door, put the drink out, he grabbed it and he’s walking around the house, and he’s telling me how beautiful it is and how he saw the Loop and all this.  He finished the drink and handed me the empty glass and out the door and I close the door and go up to bed.”  

Why did he keep flying? Was it this, this thing I find on mountains, this change from the cramped limitations of sea level, this expanded, God's eye view of the world?

Did you get a chance to put it all together, Dad, on one of your late night flights over the city? Your life and what it meant? Did you have a moment to feel both satisfied and hungry at the same time?

But since they are unanswerable questions, I push my mind away. Not feeling inspired on this hill. The view is great, our hikes were spectacular today but I don't have the connecting third point of the triangle.

Uninspired is okay, though. There are lots of other things I am feeling: protected, loved and liked and well-fed. Content.

I'm ready to slide down on my butt, but (ha ha) I explore the hilltop a little more and just past the mass of red yarn (?!) I find tangled in the roots of a pinyon tree like some kind of art installation, I find a gently curving road down the back side of the hill. Richard Dreyfuss finds the way up Devil's Tower in Close Encounters and tells his companions who painted the mountain in 2-D, "next time, try sculpture."

I come back to the campfire, to new friends and warm brownies and ice cream and laughs into the night.


It took the next night's post-dinner solo sunset trek to find what I was looking for.

Our campsite had two piles of stones at its edge, cairns, and just beyond, a break in the fence that separated our site from the national park.

I followed the gentle path into the low scrubby piney wood, manzanita, creosote, prickly pear cacti, juniper everywhere. Deep breaths of clean air. To the west is a rocky dry wash, an empty river bed. I find the skeleton of a large deer, the bones gone clean but for thin pieces of shin and fetlock above the hoof, still carrying ragged dun skin.

I lost the path and paused, struck. I could wander, follow the riverbed, keep the setting sun to my left, no big whup. But tonight I wanted that path. Last night was my time to make my way without my father, not tonight.

I looked around at the beautiful Mojave desert forest and with a shift and a sigh, I saw the pile of stones and understood. One here and one a few paces beyond, making my way and leading me on. Like Cold Mountain's Inman suddenly seeing the familiar in the landscape as he returns to his home, everything changed.

"(Inman) took a wide stance on the rock and stood and pinched down his eyes to sharpen the view across the vast prospect to one far mountain. It stood apart from the sky only as the stroke of a poorly inked pen, a line thin and quick and gestural. But the shape slowly grew plain and unmistakable. It was to Cold Mountain he looked. He had achieved a vista of what for him was homeland....

"He rocked his head from side to side and it felt balanced anew on his neck stem. He entertained the notion the he stood familiarly plumb to the horizon. For a moment it seemed thinkable that he might not always feel cored out. Surely off in that knotty country there was room for a man to vanish. He could walk and the wind would blow the yellow leaves across his footsteps and he would be hid and safe from the wolfish gaze of the world at large."

The moment I found my way. Sinking Ship in the background. Do you see the pile of stones?

Here is what I need, here before me, left behind by those who did this stone work for me, for us, for all path-seekers, out of love.

I can walk on now, follow the stones, follow the path, search and find what I need. I bolt on, through shade and then warm sun, delighted with the puzzle I follow through the woods, happy to find the clues but happier that they were laid here on purpose to help me.

A pair of nights and let's complete the binary/duality theme and call this my mother's night. Because everything I learn about her confirms her love. They built the school for us, their children. It was built for me, I realize, fifty-one years later, with a simultaneously breaking and rehealing heart. Even greater, it still stands and nurtures children and their children and their teachers.

She taught us to line up our shoes in the closet with a piece of tape on the floor, Aunt Ruth remembers. She holds me in the Super 8 film frame I keep on the bookshelf next to my desk, smiles at me while I wave to the camera. In the home movies she holds toddler Nancy's hand and gently helps her to walk, my mother's face filled with a smile of joy and pride. Swimming with us, dressing us for Easter Mass, picking Nancy up to sit in the off-season ski lift bench between her brothers Christopher and Ron on some hill in Wisconsin.

But greater than the individual acts of love I know of, there is the confirmation as sure as anything I have ever known, as hard as stone and as true as gravity, I am her daughter still. Joy and love, her love, flow in me. I feel them, I know them, they are familiar and right to me, my homeland. Joy and love the only way to look at and live in this hard world.

And I can say it now: Thanks, Dad, you're in there, in me, too. Risk taker, introvert, lover of time alone, tinkerer, lover of fine and pretty things. If he sold jewelry and I would rather eschew possessions, I still appreciate the bling.

They are the ancestors who laid the way for me, and so back I go again to Mary Oliver's poem, "Members of the Tribe." She writes about poets and artists, Yeats and Keats and Van Gogh, who died too young but left her their gifts.

Ahead of me they were lighting their fires in the dark forests of death.

I forgive them their unhappiness, I forgive them for walking out of the world.

I was, of course, all that time coming along behind them, and listening for advice.

I make my way alone and also I make my way with them, dear ancestors.

Thank you

The entire landscape came awake with metaphor and possibility. I hiked on and on, down to the dry river, then back eastward toward Powell's Point. I said good bye and thank you to the cairns, bushwacked on through sweet sagebrush toward a higher point, up toward the light still on the hilltops. Found another opportune break in the fence and it felt like another gift.

Thank you!

Got that mountain madness again. Totally high. Scrambled up another rocky hill and took shots of Powell in the setting sun.

Climbed up that...

...to get a better look at this! Powell's Point

Came down off the mountain to the campfire, sweet dessert, songs and astounding stars when the light finally left us. I'd never seen the Milky Way before.

The next day, huffing and puffing up the steep 900 foot climb of the Peek-a-Boo trail, my trailmate John from St. Louis, a lawyer and expert in ultralight backpacking, says, "Breathe in through your nose. Try breathing out longer breaths. It brings more air into the bottom of your lungs."

I reply, "Say that again," and then after he repeats it, "Easier said than done," because thinking is hard in the very struggle up the hill and then I tried it, pushing out more and more of my air, pushing my core against myself to squish out the old oxygen.

In flows the pine smell, the freshness of monsoon rain season, of soft sun-baked sand trail and tall trees pumping out their oxygen for us.

Thank you, thank you, thank you, my guides, living and dead. Thank you, ancestors.

Sunday, July 31, 2016


"Take my picture."

"Okay, but you have to set up the shot," because I want her to recognize the difference between too much headroom and just enough and the importance of faces rather than bodies but she needs to find her own way, figure out just how much slant to put on the horizon if you can't get it just so and the proportions of figure to background, all that visual literacy that is only partially taught and like all art, rather felt. But I think she has a good eye and an open heart and a willing ear to listen. Sometimes. And even if it is strange to me, all these selfies and silly Vines that make her and her neighbor friend scream with laughter then howl with embarrassment days later and frantically delete, delete the girl she was a few moments ago, I know it is the making of girl-woman-child hybrid that changes daily, the toughest job she's had yet, to figure out who she is at the same time that the "is" can't stop transforming. I'm just along for the ride, to take the picture and keep giving her slightly more challenging tasks and say "Yes," as often as I can and invite her to ride bikes with me and understand or at least try that she needs to pull away even while she still clings to me at bedtime and kisses me goodnight.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Summer Solstice

The longest days of the year and we're near enough to the solstice to feel the light again, to feel the energy that floods me this time of year, wakes me curious and ready at dawn, makes everything easier, spurs me to make plans, returns my equilibrium, has me considering the beautiful name April, May and June for my next three children, ha ha!

I've missed you, Dear Reader. Forgive my absence; it was a long and busy winter. I really wanted to tell you all about working with the freshman and our February Girl Scout troop trip to Wisconsin and my solo trip to Philadelphia to care for my dear little grand-niece Caroline, but there was so so much to read to keep up with the freshmen and their Lit Circles and many many (almost too many) scout leader fires to put out emails to compose and you just know how life gets away from you when you have two jobs and two Scout troops and two girls to raise.

But I must tell you this: When we arrived at Camp Juniper Knoll, the snow was still thick and untouched under the pine trees. Back home in Wilmette we had only a few patches left, but East Troy, Wisconsin gave us plenty of the white stuff to paint with colored water from spray bottles and if some of those spray bottle were held at crotch level and if Nora some girl wanted to laugh like crazy as she sprayed her name in the snow, then we'll just leave it at that. The air was a balmy 30 degrees, all the girls were dressed for the weather and we were off to a fun start.

"You might need to slide down the hill on your butts" said the camp director as she sent us down to the shore of Pleasant Lake.  No "might" about it; the steep path was solid ice and walking upright was impossible. We sat on our snow pants and slid, whee, like a band of inverted penguins on our butts, twelve girls and two leaders, through the woods  and down, down to the rocky lakefront.

The lake was frozen solid. Ice fisherman had built huts and parked trucks off in the distance. The camp managers had set up a propane cooking stove and melted sweetly scented wax in two aluminum pots. We stepped gingerly onto the lake and ooed and ahed at the layers we could see in the ice, 18 inches thick. The camp directors took turns bravely (so bravely!) holding a piece of sharp pointed metal, a railroad spike? as the girls hammered it into the ice with a mallet. No smooshed fingers, amazingly. The girls found sticks on the shore and wrapped thick pieces of string around them with twelve inches of string left hanging which they suspended over the holes as the directors poured the wax. Have you guessed yet? YES, ice candles! We watched in fascination as the steamy popping wax turned quickly opaque, first at the edges, then slowly to the center. Some girls had found tiny shells on the beach or evergreen needles to toss in the hole with the wax and if the results were not so much uniform columns as lumpy shallow cones, we were still thrilled and enchanted to pull them up out of the ice.