First Snow

First snow today.  Or so I am told.  Facebook friends told me, either by way of whining post or exalting post.  The mobile Weather Channel told me, with a background like cotton balls falling behind a pane of glass.  It still looked like sleet to me, but we ran out just in case.

Ruby wasn’t sure why I had pulled her into the cold and wet; she turned in circles upon the grass before stopping to cock her head at me.

I looked to the arms of my jacket, now spotted with dark beads.  Each one shone and hung heavily for a moment before disappearing against the fabric, as if I were stuck all over with melting candy buttons.

The grass and the trees were merely dripping; no dusting of white betrayed snow.  Even the roof, surely cold enough to hold flakes, was merely a soggy brown.

We went inside, Ruby running ahead so that she could turn in the living room to look back at me wryly.  Is all the fuss over, then?  She asked, before moving to make sure her stuffed skunk was just where she had left it.

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Lap Swim Musings

Thoughts I have while swimming laps:

1. Remember when I used to be afraid that there was a Great White shark in the pool and that one day it would emerge from the shadowy corner where it’s been lurking for the past two decades and get me?

2. But that can’t happen.  Right?  Right?

3. “Hey Ho” is playing.  I will now hold the kickboard so I can keep my head above water and listen.

4. How many times has my mom lapped me now?  Five?  Does the lifeguard know she’s a triathlete?  Maybe I should tell him so he won’t judge me so harshly for my comparative slowness.

5. I should probably get a serious swimsuit.  The red with blue polka dots was funny the first day, but now I think people half expect me to head for the kiddie pool instead of the deep end.

6. My word I’m tired.  My word I’m going to grip the side and rest while pretending to watch the clock as if I’m taking a scheduled rest.  But really I’m going to rest until I stop panting like a winded rhino.

7. My word I thought I was in shape.  Why is this so hard?

8. I think I’ll have some chocolate when I get home.

9. A small piece of dark, though, because that’s Dr. Oz approved.

10. When did Dr. Oz start running my life?  Oh, when he said that the lotion I was already using was the best kind of lotion.  That was when I decided we must be on the same wavelength.

11.  Maybe two pieces of dark chocolate.

12. I wish I could do a flip turn.  The polka dots must be holding me back.

How I imagine I look while swimming

How I imagine I look while swimming.

How I actually look.

How I actually look.

Ruby

Ruby

is my family’s dog.

She is a long-haired German Shepherd.

My mom and sister brought her home after dad distinctly said: do not bring home a long-haired.

I was a freshman in college at the time, and came home for Spring Break to a new puppy in the kitchen.

We stayed up late deciding on a name.

I came up with Ruby because it’s the name of one of Laura’s grown-up aunts in Little House in the Big Woods. 

I didn’t tell my family about that particular origin.

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Ruby didn’t actually bark until she was three years old.  Before then, she whined.

It was effective enough, I suppose.

Ruby will lick your hand, your face, your toes until they’re dripping with slobber.

If you’re napping on the couch and forget to turn your face toward the shelter of the pillow, she will come upon you as you sleep and swipe her tongue from your forehead to your chin.

If you choose to nap on the couch at our house, do not sleep with your mouth open.

Ruby is the only dog I’ve ever known who snorkels for rocks in the lake.

She will stick her entire face in the water, clamp her jaws around a particularly fine specimen, and tug until with a suction-like sound, she frees it from the sand.

She prefers to make as much noise as she can while she does this, in case you hadn’t already noticed what she was doing.

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Ruby likes to tear up divots of grass and earth in the front yard.

It is not uncommon to spot a clover or two drooping down from her molars.

Ruby wags her tail with delight when I hide behind a door to scare her.

Sometimes she also pees a little from fright.

Hence, we now take our hide and seek outside.

Ruby will not go into the basement.

I once carried all forty pounds of her terrified puppy girth downstairs during a tornado warning, and she hasn’t gone near the stairs since.

If you try to beckon her downstairs, she will pee a little from fright.

And hide under the kitchen table.

Ruby perks her ears during animal programs on TV.

She will catch pieces of popcorn on the fly should you toss some her way.

She has quietly and swiftly dismembered every toy we have given her thus far.

Ruby hasn’t the courage of Lassie, the brute strength of Beethoven, nor the sensitivity of Hachiko.

She doesn’t seem to mind, though, so neither do we.

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Airheads

I associate indoor swimming pools with candy.  This I can trace back to my years of swimming lessons at the local high school pool.  After lessons, hair in clumps, skin smelling of salty chlorine, we kids would crowd around the small counter in the lobby.  Lining the wall behind the counter were boxes and boxes of candy.

I remember only fruity, sour candy: Push-Pops, War Heads, Ring-pops, Skittles, and best of all, Airheads.  Every flavor of Airhead, foil-wrapped and glorious.  I preferred the white “mystery” flavor.  Both the packaging and the candy itself was milky white, and so there was no way to know which flavor you had gotten until you bit into it.  Strangely, it always tasted the same to me.  Not quite like cherry, blue raspberry, or grape.  The white had its own chalky, delicious taste.

The candy, eaten while our feet were still dripping into footprints on the floor, seemed to make up for the general trauma of the swimming lessons themselves.  The bobs, particularly, made me feel at the end of each lesson as if I had drowned several times within the forty-five minute window.

Have you ever been exposed to bobs?  They seem extraordinarily cruel to me, even now.  We stood in water up to our chests, and at the instructor’s whistle had to bend our knees so that our entire heads submerged, and then pop back up for a quick breath. This was repeated as many times as possible before the instructor blew his whistle again.  The catch was that we weren’t allowed to use our fingers to pinch our noses.  My poor nostrils exposed, I seemed to inhale a gallon with each dunk.

But when I stopped, when I paused and gripped the tiled pool ledge for even the briefest moment, the instructor–a golden high school boy–gave me a look of utmost disappointment until I felt that perhaps he wouldn’t ask my ten-year-old self to the prom after all.  Then he blew the whistle and the other bobbers sputtered and splashed to a halt.  Some more triumphantly than others, we all climbed the ladder to locker room sanctuary and, if our parents were generous with their quarters, Airheads.

Out East Road Trip Day 3: Charlottesville, VA to Washington D.C.

Yesterday was the day we attempted to tackle both Jefferson’s Monticello and Washington’s Mount Vernon.  Our house tour reservation for Monticello was at 9:00 a.m., and our house tour (or “Mansion Tour” as the brochure so elegantly dubbed it) for Mount Vernon was at 3:30 p.m.  The estates are about 2 hours apart by car.  And we needed a lunch/gas stop in between.

We felt a little rushed, a little like we should be humming the Mission Impossible theme as we sped through the Virginia countryside, but for those of you who also want to see both estates in one day, let me tell you that it is entirely doable.  That’s with a Jimmy John’s lunch, Exxon stop, and end-of-weekend traffic included.

Before I get to the Tom Cruise-esque madness, however, I need to talk a little more about Charlottesville.  Or Cville, as the cool cats say.

There were a few pilgrimages to make in Cville.  First, to Thomas Jefferson’s adored University of Virginia.  What a lovely university.  Before driving through the UVA campus, I had been able to keep my post-grad pangs at bay for the most part, but as soon as I saw the clusters of brick buildings, the shaded sidewalks, the Dinkytown, it suddenly felt so wrong not to be buying textbooks and color coding notebooks and folders (not that I’ve ever done that).  While I swallowed the lump in my throat, Mom attempted to locate the famed UVA Rotunda.  We knew basically what it looked like.  Brick.  Pillars. Dome. But even when we spotted this:

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we weren’t convinced that it was the Rotunda.  So we drove around some more, rapidly punching buttons on Bea The Misguided GPS, until we ended up back where we started.  At the Rotunda.

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And Jefferson was all

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I bought a $20.00 mug at the Monticello museum shop to make it up to him.

The next pilgrimage is slightly more creeper-ish.  Kath’s blog is one of my favorites.  I actually squealed loudly in the UMM library upon seeing the announcement of her son’s birth last September, which drew a few glares from those in deeper study mode than I.  I never imagined that I would actually make it to Charlottesville, but since I did, I thought I should swing by the Great Harvest owned by Kath and her husband, Matt.  Alas, they are closed on Sundays.  I settled for a photo of the infamous building (the creeper part).  Wish I could have met you, Kath!  And eaten some bread!

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Here are my thoughts on Monticello:

1. Our house tour time was 9:00 a.m., which was the first tour of the day, and so the grounds were nearly empty.  This meant that we didn’t have to wait in line to peer into various rooms and to read the signs attached to various sites.  As someone who likes to take the time to read everything while touring, I rather liked being there early, and would recommend it for future visitors.

2.  Monticello didn’t feel like a tourist destination. It didn’t feel like a sight that had been paved over with excess pathways or altered for the sake of the public.  It felt like Jefferson’s house, and it was easy to picture the man himself walking around and living at Monticello.  This I appreciated above all else.  Tour guides and signs were candid about what had been restored and/or supplemented, but when they had needed to, say, repaint a room, they were careful to match the color exactly to the original.  Hooray for history buffs who take the time to read through journals and records just to find evidence of a specific paint color.  You make the world a better place.

3. The house tour was phenomenal.  If I ever return, I’d like to do the nooks and crannies tour, which covers the upstairs of the house, but I was plenty content with the standard tour.  The standard tour covered the exterior, entrance hall, sitting room, library, Jefferson’s bedroom/study suite, dining/tea room, formal parlor, Madison Room, and terrace.  Our guide explained what was special about each room and included interesting tidbits that humanized Jefferson as much as praised his character.  I gained a good deal of new perspective about Jefferson that only came from visiting his property.

4. Next we tried the garden tour.  I say tried because we are bona fide tour ditchers.  We are the tourists other tourists look down on.  But we also didn’t care to listen to the guide explain each tree and flower on the property.  I say that respectfully, because the guide was doing a wonderful, thorough job of it.  We just weren’t interested.  So we hung back and then made our getaway and were perfectly content to wander the gardens on our own.  Everything is nicely labeled at Monticello; I never spent any time guessing what the significance of something was, even sans guide.

Here are some Monticello photos:

Monticello means "little mountain."  Naturally, then, views were involved.  This was taken from the practical garden, which grows the same fruits, vegetables, and herbs today as would have been growing there in the 18th century.

Monticello means “little mountain.” Naturally, then, views were involved. This was taken from the practical garden, which grows the same fruits, vegetables, and herbs today as would have been growing there in the 18th century.

The house.

The house (back view).

The house (front view).  I really try to take straight pictures.  I really do try.

The house (front view). I really try to take straight pictures. I really do try.

Part of the storage/workrooms that lay under the terrace.  Jefferson apparently liked to keep those bits hidden.

Part of the storage/workrooms that lay under the terrace. Jefferson apparently liked to keep those bits hidden.  (Sorry about the out-of-focus.  I try to get that right as well.)

The kitchen.  All set up and reading for someone to start mixing up hoecakes.

The kitchen. All set up and waiting for someone to start mixing up hoecakes.  A sign on the wall that I found funny mentioned that Jefferson “never visited the kitchen except to wind up the clock.”

Jefferson's grave, with what he considered to be his three greatest achievements inscribed upon it.

Jefferson’s grave, with what he considered to be his three greatest achievements inscribed upon it.

Thoughts on Mount Vernon:

1. We did successfully make our tour time, but unfortunately, it fell during the hottest part of the day.  The time of day when I am prone to both grumpiness and sleepiness.  It was also a time of day when the estate was crowded and the lines are long.  Hot+grumpy+sleepy+crowds don’t a happy camper make.  So there were parts of Mount Vernon which I perhaps didn’t appreciate as much as I might have had conditions been ideal.  It’s not Mount Vernon’s fault.  Visit early, friends.  Don’t let George see you cry.

2.  Mount Vernon felt a lot like Versailles to me (the only comparison I can think of.  I apologize for whipping out my “this one time, when I was in Europe” line) in that the estate was huge, mostly self-guided, and more often than I would like, I wasn’t sure of the significance of what I was looking at, or whether it was original.  Because of my garden tour ditch, you know that I don’t always jive with guided tours.  But I do like information-laden signs.  And there weren’t enough such signs, in my opinion.

3. The best part about Mount Vernon was the fact that there were various buildings to explore.  Most of them were located in a semi-circle on either side of the “mansion.”  So, for a selection, we peeked into the overseer’s house (and read a brief description), the salt house, the stables, and the kitchen.  Washington’s estate was self-contained, and it was interesting to see its various operations.

4. Most of the Mount Vernon guides were as grumpy as I was!  Perhaps they were merely responding to my chi, but my goodness, people were being barked at left and right instead of being helpfully directed.  I didn’t feel as welcomed as I had at Monticello, which lessened the experience for me.

5. The mansion tour was not the typical small-groups-led-through-by-one-guide tour.  Instead, a continuous line wound through the entire house.  In each room was a stationary guide who repeated a memorized spiel over and over again.  They answered questions, too, but as we were kept moving, there wasn’t much time to ask.  Some of the guides were animated and entertaining, but some recited their pieces in a monotone which again, dampened the quality of the tour.  I didn’t feel Washington come alive at Mount Vernon.  I had trouble convincing myself that we were really in his home, on his lands.  I wish I didn’t have to speak so negatively about an important historical site, but I want to be honest.

6.  Lest you think I hated the experience, here are a few big positives: first, the original blacksmith’s forge is still being used.  The blacksmith was pounding away as visitors watched, and often paused to hand onlookers examples of his work to examine, and to explain the various steps involved in making axe heads or hooks or hoes.  Further (and this is the really cool part), the blacksmith–who again, does his work where it would have been done in Washington’s time–makes all of the pieces necessary for restoration projects on the estate.  The second positive is an honoring ceremony that takes place at Washington’s gravesite twice a day.  The guide pulled two veterans from the crowd to place a wreath on the grave, asked two girl scouts to lead the audience in the Pledge of Allegiance, and asked another audience member to read from a passage about Washington.  I thought it was wonderful that visitors to Mount Vernon are allowed to participate in the honoring of Washington and his contributions. Third, there are animals at Mount Vernon.  Sheep and pigs and cows and horses.  And they smell and lay in the shade and chow down and otherwise behave as naturally as could be.  They lent some authentic ambiance to the place without even trying.

Mount Vernon photos:

The "mansion."  Okay, it really is a mansion.  I'll stop with the quotes.  But why is Monticello a house and Mount Vernon a mansion?  I'll never know.

The “mansion.” Okay, it really is a mansion. I’ll stop with the quotes. But why is Monticello a house and Mount Vernon a mansion? I’ll never know.

Because he had an abundance of timber on his estate, Washington chose to use it for the mansion and surrounding buildings.  But, since stone was considered the classier siding choice at the time, Washington had the wood siding made to look like stone.  This simultaneously baffled and delighted me.

Because he had an abundance of timber on his estate, Washington chose to use it for the mansion and surrounding buildings. But, since stone was considered the classier siding choice at the time, Washington had the wood siding made to look like stone. This simultaneously baffled and delighted me.

The Potomac!  I won't say how much I squealed when I saw it.  It's rawthur a famous river, you know.  I'm partial to the Mississippi, but I have to say that this view from Mount Vernon's backyard was quite grand.

The Potomac! I won’t say how much I squealed when I saw it. It’s rawthur a famous river, you know. I’m partial to the Mississippi, but I have to say that this view from Mount Vernon’s backyard was quite grand.

The stables still smelled like horses!  Amazing!

The stables still smelled like horses!

No offense TJ, but GW's gardens were better than yours.

No offense TJ, but GW’s gardens were better than yours.

The overseer's house.

The overseer’s house.

The blacksmith's shop, where we spent a good deal of time gaping.

The blacksmith’s shop, where we spent a good deal of time gaping.

My sheep friends.  Notice the ones dozing against the cool stone wall.

My sheep friends. Notice the ones dozing against the cool stone wall.

An Interview With a Real, Live Tough Mudder

Yesterday my sister and three of her friends from elementary school did the Tough Mudder Minnesota (located in Somerset, Wisconsin, funnily enough).  In an exclusive, no-holds-barred interview, I managed to get the inside scoop on what it’s like to anticipate a Mudder, to participate in a Mudder, and to look back on it a day later.

Here’s the blurb from the Tough Mudder website, in case you’re not sure what it is:

“Tough Mudder events are hardcore 10-12 mile obstacle courses designed by British Special Forces to test your all around strength, stamina, mental grit, and camaraderie. With the most innovative courses, 1,000,000 inspiring participants worldwide to date, and more than $5 million raised for the Wounded Warrior Project, Tough Mudder is the premier adventure challenge series in the world.”

It’s also called “the toughest event on the planet.”

Here’s what Amy had to say about it:

In your own words, what is a Tough Mudder?

It is a ten-mile run with really hard obstacles, a lot of mud, and a lot of teamwork and camaraderie.  It’s so fun, but it’s really a challenge.  It challenges you, your friendships, your partnerships.

 Why did you decide to do a Tough Mudder?

I don’t know. I knew someone who did it, and I thought it would be cool to say I did it.  I thought it would be an interesting challenge.

 What worried you about it?

I knew it was going to be really, really hard, and I knew I wasn’t prepared: because of work, I ran out of time to train, and I came up with excuses, like oh, I have plenty of time before the end of July.  So I didn’t end up training at all.

 Were there any obstacles you were worried about in particular?

I didn’t look up the obstacles ahead of time.  I didn’t want to see what they were.  I wanted to be surprised so I didn’t overthink it.

I give you the Arctic Enema obstacle.  A dumpster filled with ice water that runners must jump into and swim across.  Plus, a board across the middle means that runners have to GO UNDER WATER to avoid it.  Understandably, there was a lot of profanity.

I give you the Arctic Enema obstacle. A dumpster filled with ice water that runners must jump into and swim across. Plus, a board across the middle means that runners have to GO UNDER WATER to avoid it. Understandably, there was a lot of profanity involved.

 How you did you feel on the morning of the Mudder?

I was tired.  I was excited, too

 What did you eat before the Mudder?

I had pasta with chicken the night before, and then ice cream for dessert.  In the morning I had Rice Chex with blueberries and milk.  Overall the food was fine.  The one thing I was lacking was energy, so it was nice that they had stations set up with shotblocks and bananas and water.

Actual photograph of Amy's actual pre-Mudder bowl of ice cream.

Actual photograph of Amy’s actual pre-Mudder bowl of ice cream.

 Next year, would you eat something different?

It didn’t make me feel good about myself that I ate ice cream for the Tough Mudder.  I don’t know if I actually felt physical effects, but I felt less confident and worried that it would affect me negatively during the run.

 Were you worried when you saw the other participants? Interviewer’s note: most of them appeared to be tall, burly men between the ages of 20 and 30.

When I saw who was in my wave, I was really intimidated.  But online I had seen lots of photos of different-sized people, and even people in wheelchairs doing the run.  I knew I was in the first wave, so I couldn’t come in last.  So that was good.

 What was your favorite obstacle and why?

My favorites were the Mud Mile and the Boa Constrictor.  The Mud Mile was this wide running path with mounds of hard mud that you had to climb over, and mud pits filled with water you had to jump into.  You never knew how deep the pits were, because they changed it up.  The Boa Constrictor was made of big black sewer pipes with water in them.  You had to crawl through, and every so often the pipe opened up into a mud pit with barbed wire to crawl under.

[Below: The Electric Eel, your interviewer’s personal favorite obstacle.  Mudders had to crawl through the water (it was a lot deeper for the MN Mudder: maybe five inches or so) amidst hundreds of hanging, fully charged, electric wires.  Whenever someone brushed a wire, they would be shocked.  In some ways, it was hard to watch because it looked like it really, really hurt.  In other ways, it was hilarious to see grown men and women screaming like children and swearing up a storm as they went through.]

 How did you and your friends motivate each other during the run?

When running, we would sometimes all slow down to a walk and chat to take our minds off things.  Having to boost each other over walls and cheer each other on was great.

 What were some moments you witnessed of strangers helping each other?

That was the entire thing.  If  you were on one side waiting to climb up a wall [and all your teammates had already climbed over], another group would come and boost you over.  When we couldn’t get Cady [one of Amy’s teammates] up the ramp, a guy came over and hauled her up.  Lots of cheering and high fives.  It wasn’t a competition; no one took it too seriously.

How did you feel crossing the finish line?

I was tired.  I was pooped.  But it was a big feeling of accomplishment.  And relief that there were no more hills to run up.

Across the finish line.

Across the finish line.

Would you do the Mudder again, and why?

Yes.  We plan on doing it again next year as a kind of friend reunion.  We want to see how well we do time-wise and skill-wise if we all actually train.

Do you plan on training harder next year?  What kind of training do you think would have been useful?

Yes.  Yes.  Yes.  Running hills.  Finding the steepest hills and running up and down like a hundred times.  Because the running part [of the Mudder] was all about running up and down hills that were muddy and slippery.  Pull ups would also be helpful for getting yourself up over walls.

 What did you wear to the Mudder this year?  Would you wear something different next year?

This year I wore running compression shorts, an UnderArmour t-shirt, old tennis shoes, and socks.  Next time I would wear shoes with more support.  I think I would want to train in a pair of shoes and then wear the same pair on the run.  We want to wear costumes, too: to make it more fun.

 How do you feel today (the day after the Mudder)?

I’m pretty sore.  Very sore.  Definitely taking Advil.  You feel a sense of accomplishment, though, and it’s a cool thing to tell people.

 Any advice you would give those planning to do a Mudder themselves?

Pick your teammates wisely.  We should have had a guy, because sometimes you need that extra strength to help you over the walls.  I did it with friends I had a close relationship with.  We kept each other motivated, and if someone wanted to stop and walk, we were all okay with that.  We were all constantly checking up on the others.  If I did it with people I didn’t know as well, I might feel like I couldn’t walk.

The Sleep of Reason Produces Bears

It is 9:18 a.m. and I am awake.

This is practically a record, for the summer at least: summer nights are for staying up into the wee hours, and summer days are for sleeping until noon and then deciding upon awakening whether to eat breakfast or lunch.

What happened was that I fell asleep at midnight, and then woke up at 9:18 from a nightmare about a grizzly bear massacring people first in a city, and then a team of scientists in a high school gym.  Just as I was running from it, trying to get to the roof of the school, because somehow that was the only safe place, I woke up.  Or rather, I became aware that I was dreaming, and that if I wanted to wake up, I could.  And believe it or not, I considered staying in the nightmare.  Because I wanted to see how the story ended.

Do you ever feel like that about nightmares?  That while they’re terrifying and often torturous, they’re also fascinating?  It’s amazing what our brains can come up with as we sleep.

The other point I want to make is that I dream about bloodthirsty bears an awful lot.  Or rather, I don’t have nightmares an awful lot, but when I do, they’re often about bloodthirsty bears.  Even when I was little.  For whatever deeply buried, subconscious reason, bears are my bogeyman.

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The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, by Francisco Goya

When I woke up from this lapse of reason, my nightstand lamp was on.  I distinctly remember turning if off before I fell asleep, so I like to think that when things got particularly grim in the nightmare, I half woke up and turned it on.  Just for the comfort that a bit of light provides.  Either that, or some passing ghost took pity on me.