Sunday, September 25, 2011

Good Clean Fun

If day two of our road trip brought us to the gates of hell, day three brought us a little closer to the pearly gates.

We awoke to a beautiful, sunny, warm autumn day. Cows chewed their cud in the field across the highway in front of the motel we'd stayed in. A freight train screeched past, thrilling and startling Ada. But the best part of the morning was yet to come.

We drove a half mile down the road to our morning's destination: Amish Acres.

Amish Acres is an Amish amusement park. People who work there wear "costumes" - for the Amish workers it's their everyday wear. There are rides (the Carriage Ride of Terror and the Horse and Buggy of Death - not the actual names). They have a theme restaurant (Eat like the Amish without all the back breaking field work and barn raising! -- not the actual slogan.) There are gift shoppes ("fun" old timey amusement park spelling of shops) filled with apple butter, zucchini bread, and Amish action figures. It's sort of like Disneyland ... minus the technology. Needless to say, parking was easy and there was no tram from the lot to the gate.

We began our visit with an early lunch: bean soup, roast chicken, bread, green beans, mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy. Thanksgiving in September. When I asked the waitress explained that some employees are "Amish" and some are "English," which is what the Amish call the rest of us.

"I'm not Amish," she added, in a tone that suggested "There is NO way I am Amish."

We gorged and then bought our ticket for the horse and buggy ride. We waited. It wasn't like a Disneyland, where people shuffle forward in the seemingly interminable line; it was more like it takes time to hook the buggy to the horse and to roust the driver.

The ride was ten minutes around the property and A loved it. Our driver talked about how his family had a horse farm and how hard it was for them to work it for any profit these days and, therefore, to keep it. He had a beard and wore the Amish clothes but it took me a while to sort out if he was Amish (he was) in part because I thought it might be rude to come right out and ask it and in part because I'd never spoken to an Amish person directly so I didn't know if they should have a unique accent and he didn't.

A few days later, outside of Buffalo, I met a friend of a friend who worked alongside some Amish loggers.

"Oh, it's a scam," he said, referring to the Amish lifestyle and how they seemed to be making up the rules of what technology is and is not allowed as they go along.

He also explained that one of his Amish friends, who had been English for a period of his life, said to him, "I don't know how you handle those English women, they're too smart for me." It made me chuffed to know that an Amish man thought so highly of me and my English sisters, but it also made me think that the Amish women are probably too smart to let on how smart they are.

The buggy ride complete, A and I wondered around the gift shops. We bought apple butter and A sat in a child-sized rocking chair, which was sort of like another ride, and eyed up the Amish "action figure" dolls.

We finally went back to the car for the next leg of our journey. On the road out, we saw a lot of Amish on bicycles, which reminded me of Minneapolis only with more bonnets. And probably just about the same number if beards.

Friday, September 23, 2011

I Have Seen the Gates of Hell

When Little A and I started this journey, I claimed it was in part because I wanted to prove people who said I was crazy for hitting the road for two weeks with just a toddler and no one else was crazy. I wanted to know that I could take just about anything as a parent and preserve my sanity.

Sadly, on day two of the trip, I met my nemesis, the enemy of my sanity. Evil, thy name is "the traffic around the city of Chicago when one is trying to get through or around the city with a toddler in the car." It's a long name. For simplicity, we'll just say "evil."

I should have known it was going to be a bad day when we went to the Madison Children's Museum (lovely and creative and spacious and stimulating) and A used the opportunity to shove a few boys. The first boy tried to touch a baby doll that A was playing with, but I was holding. This victim got a swift hand planted on the chest which sent him to the floor. The other boy leaned in for a kiss and got shoved backwards.

I feel a little ambivalent about A's newfound pushing tendencies. On the one hand, I don't want her to go around shoving people out of the blue. And I want her to be empathetic (which she was when she saw how sad the boys were -- she said sorry and gave them each a friendly pat). But I also want her to feel like she doesn't have to kiss another kid if she doesn't want to. I always feel a little awkward when I say something like, "he just wanted to give you a little kiss." I know that when she's a teenager, I'll be singing a very different tune. It will go something like this: "If someone wants to kiss you and you don't want to say 'No.' If the person doesn't listen, then punch them in the face and kick them where it counts."

But I digress. I was on the topic of evil.

I was hoping that A would sleep from Madison through Chicago. I've made this drive between the east coast and the upper Midwest many times and I am no stranger to the trials of getting around Chicago. Everything seemed to time out well. For the beginning of the ride, we listened to some nursery rhymes until she fell asleep. She slept most of the time.

We were just outside of Chicago when she woke up and asked for the "potty." This was OK too. We stopped for gas and coffee and milk (when facing Evil one must be well fueled and nourished) and to stretch our legs (physical preparedness is key as well).

We ventured in, joining the masses of the righteous on four wheels.

The thing about Evil is that it is unpredictable, ever present, and sneaky.

Little A started in just as we were in the thick of things, cars on every side, no spot to stop (not that I would dare pull over in the middle of Evil anyway).

"Potty?" she asked, hopefully

We had just stopped. I knew it was a ploy. Evil had entered my car and was taking control of my daughter.

"Potty?" she said, still sweet and hopeful.

"Potty? Potty." She grew demanding.

"Potty. POTTY!" She screamed and wailed. I fully expected to see her head spinning around and green vomit spewing out of her mouth.

"Just a little longer," I cooed.

"Evil, you will not win," I thought.

I knew she didn't need to go- we'd just stopped. It was a ploy Evil was using to lure me in to stopping.

"How about some music?" I asked cheerily, as if this was the holy water with which we would defend ourselves against this traffic, the waiting, the stop and go, the wailing.

Almost as soon as I turned on the CD, I knew this was a mistake. It was as if Evil itself had reached through the window and forced me to do it.

The nursery rhymes started. They quieted A for a moment.

I hummed along quietly and then, when I felt A growing restless, I became more enthusiastic. I tried one handed motions, dramatic head bobbing, cheery voices. It worked intermittently.

The nursery rhyme CD we checked out from the library is short. It has 23 tracks about a minute each. You do the math. This means we can listen to the whole thing about 1,278,417 times while sitting in Chicago traffic. And we did.

When A and I listen to music, we often just listen to what I want to hear and she's fine with that because she is a child and music is music and she does not realize that some of it was made and recorded for her age demographic. But I also realize that kids music and nursery rhymes can be entertaining for her too. They are short and becoming more familiar to her. They review vocabulary she already has (sheep, star, bird) and topic that she will one day have to know something about (animal husbandry, candle-stick jumping, the temperament of royalty, and, doe future weddings, that songs sometimes have gestures and movements associated with them). She can focus through an entire one minute song. Chopin's ├ętude? Not so much.

But here's the thing about this CD: some tracks have the electronic sound and needlessly complicated arrangement of bad Asian karaoke, some tracks are clearly done by a musical theater major in the tradition of Rachel Barry, and still others, like Humpty Dumpty, seem to be sung by Kenny Loggins (I actually checked the liner notes and the lack of information leads me to believe that it is, indeed, Kenny Loggins).

Evil was winning. I was losing my sanity.

Needless to say, we survived our trip through the gates of hell that day. But on the return trip, I will search for a quoted, gentler route.

Or else bring better holy water.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Epic Road Trip 2011 Day 1

While on the road with Little A, I often wonder how she is going to remember this trip. Perhaps she'll have memories like those depicted by Terrence Mallick in his movie Tree of Life -- warm, summery flashes of sky and grass and familiar streets and yards and voices. I hope that she has memories like that - only with less Brad Pitt and fewer voice overs. On case she does remember moments from this trip (and in case she one day makes a Mallick-style films about such memories, I always make sure that the left side of my hair is well styled and my back left shoulder is neat and stain-free. She's spending a fair amount of time staring at that part of me from the backseat of the car.

But maybe she'll have no memory of this trip. I'll have to implant memories. It will be like Inception but with less Leo Dicaprio and fewer plot twists. I'll take and show her tons and tons of pictures and talk about the trip constantly. "You remember when we drove out east, just the two of us, don't you? Remember the horses and the cows and the dinner we ate in Madison at Himal Chuli?" Until she doesn't know what she remembers for real and what she remembers because I told her to. And then she'll make a movie like Tree of Life ... or Inception.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Phase I: The Plan

Little A and I are planning a two-week (plus) road trip out East and back. On the way, we're going to visit friends and places, like zoos, where she can see animals. We're also going to try to eat reasonably well, meet up with old friends, and attempt to prove people who say, "Woah! You're taking a road trip with a toddler! You're crazy!" wrong.

Some thoughts as we prepare to leave.

We'll be visiting friends who I knew in Thailand, in grad school, in college, in high school, and childhood. We'll be seeing my parents and two of my brothers. So I've sort of been stuck in this haze of thinking about all these past places I've lived and been. The other evening, on a walk with Juno, we saw a glimmer of bright orange fluttering in the dark in front of us. As it crept closer, I realized it was a bicyclist wearing an orange cape. "Ha!" I thought. "Only in Minneapolis." But then I realized, no, it's not only in Minneapolis. The difference between Minneapolis and New York City isn't that one is a place where someone might bike down the street after dark in a cape; the difference is that in Minneapolis, I'd notice someone biking down the street in a cape. In New York City, I might not have.


My mom says that planning for our annual trip to the beach (sorting out linens, kids beds, toys, entertainment, maps, ferry reservations, food) is like planning the Normany Invasion. Planning this road trip, I feel more like a guerilla or a member of a special force: sleek, tactical, quiet, surgical. I'm only trying to move the two of us, after all.


People are nice. Really, really nice.... and hospitable.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Weekend Destruction

Imagine this.

You live in a sort of a cooperative. Let's say it's a three-story building full of others working for the betterment of the community. They're mostly females and you consider them to be sort of like your sisters, which they biologically are.

You work hard everyday, foraging a little out in the larger world, making your own food, storing it for the winter, looking after the young. At night, you huddle up with your sisters for warmth.

All seems well and good in the world.

And then, one day, seemingly out of nowhere, someone or some thing rips the roof off of your cooperative. This thing shakes it all up, moving stores of food hither and thither. Is it stealing your food?

You are on guard duty that day and you watch as some of your sister are enveloped in a cloud of smoke. They fall, fall, fall down the levels of the cooperative to the very bottom. What is that grey haze? It smells sweet and slightly skunky. Is that the smell of death? But no, they are not dying, they are... well, it seems like they are merely high. Woah, Dude.

Around you and them, the chaos continues. They building itself seems to be moving. It seems it is being moved by those two giant, white things.

"Sisters!" you call. "We must attack! We must defend ourselves!" You want to fight off those intruders, but you know that you can't do it alone. Your only defense is a sort of sword-like thing attached, more or less, to your butt. If you use it against these invaders, your butt will be ripped off and your entrails pulled out. You will die. In vain. BUT if only you can rally your sisters to join you. Enough of you together, a critical mass, can probably avert this attack.

"Everyone!" you shout. "Life! Liberty! Fraternity! A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse! Fight with us on St Crispin's Day!"

But around you, your sisters are shuffling their feet.

"Um, well," one of them says. "Let's just see what happens. It doesn't seem too bad. Maybe something good will come of this."

You seethe. "Good? Good?" you demand as the building around you shifts and moves and shakes. You watch, helpless, as a few handfuls of your comrades are crushed under the moving walls. You weep.

And then. It all stops. The walls are, sort of, in place. The roof is intact. Some of your food stores (along with a few larvae) have been tossed outside. And, oddly, it seems that the first and third floors of the cooperative have switched places.

You breathe. Gasp for breath. You stay on your guard, ready for another attack. You gather with the others to clean out the dead bodies and to try to recover the food lost outside.

"So, um," you say to one of your sisters. "What was that all about?"


That was what Eric and I did this weekend. It's sort of hard to explain, but we had to switch the top and bottom boxes of the hive so that the bees would be able to fill them up (and will have enough for the winter).

Afterwards, they were acting a little strange, lining up in rows on the outside of the hives, like they were getting ready for battle, but I think that was because they were trying to recover the honeycomb we had thrown on the lawn in front of the hive. We have to remove the comb because it was in the wrong places and made moving the frames and boxes nearly impossible, but we want them to recover the comb because, well, otherwise it's sort of wasted work.

Here's what they were doing:

In spite of all of the chaos we caused, our bees are very, very docile. Granted, we were both wearing our protective, full-body, white bee suits, but neither of us got stung, not even on our hands, which were bare and right in the thick of all of it. One bee somehow managed to get inside my bee suit (up the leg cuff, I assume) and didn't sting me.

Docile bees. Makes us seem not nearly as tough as we'd like to be.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

First Contact

The other day I got a text:

"We have a 4o cup coffee maker to use. We are gettin a room to. Yea!"

I have no idea what it means either. I mean, what do you do with a 40 cup coffee maker and a room?

Let me explain. Or try to.

I moved to Minneapolis nearly 4 years ago. When I got here, I got a new phone number, one with a 612 area code. Like many things I buy, it was second hand. Unfortunately, unlike a vintage dress, it's old life couldn't be simply washed out of it. For months and months, I'd get phone calls, voice mails, text messages for someone named "Keri" or maybe "Carrie" or "Carey" or "Karrey." Occasionally, I'd try to imagine who this Keri person was who had my phone number before. At first, it seemed like a lot of the people who were calling were old, so I thought that maybe Keri was an old person with a young person's name. But then she got phone calls from people who sounded young too. Maybe she was a young person who had a lot of old friends.

You'd think that such exercises involving imaging this other person who used to have my phone number would or could be mildly amusing. They weren't particularly. Perhaps it was because Keri isn't an interesting person. But, then again, I don't think that anyone listening to voice mails left for me or receiving text messages intended for me would think I was very interesting. They'd probably just think that I'm always apologizing for being late and that my sister leaves extremely long, chatty voice mails. And they'd be right.

So for months and months, I'd explain, with a totally exasperated tone of voice, "This is no longer Keri's phone number." Texts and voice messages, I'd just ignore. Gradually, the wrong numbers (on this phone number anyway) tapered off.

But a few weeks ago, I got one again.

"Keri, i forgot to respond for your shower on sunday. I cant come. I sorry. Its my bday and i had plans. U have fun."

One of Keri's friends still, after four years, had the wrong phone number programmed into his/her phone. Part of me thought about texting them back and explaining that they'd gotten it wrong. But, then again, if this person is such good friends with Keri, they'd sort it out.

Then came another text:

"Hi keri, I will b at your house at 4 tonight."

Surely this person would show up at Keri's house and they'd have this conversation:

Keri: What are you doing here?
Texter: I told you I'd be here at 4.
Keri: No you didn't.
Texter: I sent you a text.
Keri: I didn't get it.
Texter: Right here. [Shows Keri the text.]
Keri: Oh! That's no my phone number anymore! It hasn't been my phone number in four years! Here's my new one! That poor person who has my old phone number! We should send him/ her a box of chocolates for all of her trouble!

... they'd be able to sort out what was going on and I'd receive a box of chocolates.

And then I got the coffee maker text. And finally, on Sunday:

"GREAT NEWS: PET scan shows no sign of spread of cancer to other parts of body! PRAISE GOD!!! Much love, Donna."

Eric and I discussed possible texts to send back, most of them were pretty snarky. But I didn't want to ruin Donna's celebration. And now. Well, now I feel almost too embroiled in Keri's life to just suddenly start texting back, "Hey! Wrong phone number, but congrats on the no cancer spreadage!" And part of me is wondering, if Donna and Keri haven't sorted this out yet, after four years, then maybe they're just not very good friends. Maybe Keri intentionally never gave Donna her new phone number. Maybe I'm doing Keri a favor by not responding.

There's probably some sort of a lesson or a short story or an essay in here. Something in this idea of making random contact with someone, about how much we all have in common, or about how little we all have in common, or about how technology both brings us together and separates us.

Or maybe not.

Maybe it's all just a misunderstanding.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Decision Fatigue

One morning last week, Little A and I went to the Minnesota Children's Museum. We haven't gone this whole summer and even though it was a beautiful summer day, it was pretty easy to decide to spend the morning inside. My sister gave us a membership last year so other than the $4 parking fee, it's "free" to us. There's an outdoor, rooftop art garden area, so we'd be able to be outside at least a little bit and the outdoor area is only open part of the year, so the days when we'd be able to visit that part were waning. Little A is finally old enough and big enough to enjoy areas outside of the toddler room (and I'm confident enough that she won't get plowed down by big kids that I can relax a little).

Not all decisions about how to spend our days are so easy. What am I in the mood for? What is she in the mood for? How much will this cost? Will we bike, drive, walk, or take public transport? What will we do for food? What is the weather going to be like? Is this an event, like the State Fair, that will only be around for a limited time? Will we be able to do this in the winter? Will she be stimulated enough? Will she end up over-stimulated?

By the end of the morning "what are we going to do today" planning session, I've reached near complete exhaustion.

I know: feel free to give a giant eye roll here. Trust me, I've rolled my eyes at myself often enough. It's not as if we're making decisions about curing cancer or brokering peace treaties. These are the small, day-to-day minute decisions of a stay at home mom and her toddler.

So I was kind of relieved when I read this article from the New York Times Magazine about "decision fatigue." This is the thrust of it: making decisions is tiring. We can only make a finite number of good decisions in a day before we run out of decision-making juice and start making bad decisions. Also, one so-called (at least by me) "decision-making juice" is basically sugar. Eat a candy bar, make good decisions again.

I realized that this daily question of "what are we going to do?" was using up a lot of my decision-making juice. On the one hand, being at home with a toddler is great. We have a wide-open schedule. We can do what we like, when we like. We can have picnics when the weather is beautiful. We can go for bike rides. We can take trips to the zoo. We can finger paint. We can wake up when we want to. And both of us have loved not having to be anywhere at any particular time. I noticed that tears and frustration (from both of us) mostly come up when we have to be someplace at a specific time. The running around to pack a lunch and a diaper bag and to get loaded into the car has us both in a bit of a panic. We're used to running on our own schedule. The problem is when just the mere act of deciding what to do is so exhausting that we end up doing not much more than playing around the house (which, granted, is something that Little A does need every so often). The problem is when I use up all of my decision-making juice on just getting us out of the house so that by the time I get to "what are we going to have for dinner?" I'm exhausted. I've been making decisions for two every day. "Throw another brat on the grill!" I've said, too often, perhaps, this summer. I've been too tired to blog or to write because what is writing, really, other than a series of decisions about which word to put on the page next.

I have sometimes scoffed at the idea of having a schedule, of strictly enforcing a routine, but after months and months of us flying by the seat of our pants (and reading that NYT Magazine article), I can see the beauty of a routine and of scheduled activities. I'm looking forward to our regular ECFE class this fall, to Little A's scheduled classes at the Y this winter. I'm looking forward to having some of these daily decisions made for me -- for us. I'm looking forward to more trips to the Children's Museum. I'm looking forward to something other than another brat thrown on the grill at the end of the day. And I'm looking forward to choosing more words to put on the page.