Science Schmience

Thanks to my dad’s career in the Army, I attended four grade schools and three high schools. My parents were both pretty strict Catholics—my father actually spent a year in the seminary and my mom spent a year in a convent. Lucky for me, they didn’t make it—my dad got kicked out and my mom realized she just didn’t want to be a nun. So it made sense that each time we parked our car in front of our new house on post, my parents would find a local Catholic school at which my mother would teach and my sister and I would attend.

First, we’d get the right uniform. Because all of these Catholic schools required a uniform. Sacred Heart, right outside of West Point, New York, had a predominantly red and black plaid pattern and shirts of a pale urine color. I know there was a jumper/dress option; was there also a skirt option? Our Lady of Sorrows in the middle of Oahu had blue and black plaid uniforms, and there was only a skirt option for girls. Thank God—and Sister Davilyn, the stricter-than-strict principal—those had white shirts. We showed our individuality in limited ways: hairstyles or shows, shorts under our skirts so the boys wouldn’t see anything when they flipped our skirts. (That wasn’t sexual harassment back then.) This school also required “OLS” patches on our shirts. Most girls’ patches were attached by careful, neat thread and needle; my mother stapled ours on. This is also how a fallen hem was fixed in our household. Why sew when you’ve got a good stapler around?

Another similarity of these Catholic schools was a lack of science. I mean, I am pretty sure we sometimes had science—at one point or another, there must have been a worksheet requiring labels of some sort, right? But in middle school, at the school with my stapled-on patch, the only science I can remember was when we drew a paramecium, with a label or two of…something a paramecium has in it. I don’t really remember.

Please know that I don’t begrudge my teachers. Or…teacher. Because I had the same teacher for all three years at OLS. She followed our class, which was actually a combined 5th-6th, and then a combined 7th-8th. My memories of these years are hazy. My kids will ask me when I learned something, and I have to rack my brain to recall on which side of the room I was sitting. I usually give up and answer “either 5th or 6th!” And they know why. Anyway, my teacher, like all the other teachers, including my mom, was doing her best. They were mostly Army wives who followed their husbands’ Army careers and wanted to earn money and do some good. Most of these women lacked formal teaching credentials; experience sufficed. These women showed me, in many ways, how to make it work, how to get the job done, and how to do that without complaining.

But let me return for a minute to this lack of a science. The hole in my own education astounds me as I watch my three kids in their independent school where science has its own acronym (STEM) and is a major selling point in the school’s curriculum. Sometimes I’m embarrassed by my ignorance. I pretend to know things and then Google the information later and teach myself what everyone else seems to know.

Other times this lack of science is a sort of opportunity. Last year I chaperoned my daughter’s sixth grade camping trip to a YMCA Camp Seymour in Gig Harbor. Of course the class wasn’t just playing outside in canoes and with bows and arrows the whole time—no, they had science sprinkled in to their four days away from school. It was alongside a very squeamish classmate of hers, a new student named Dillon who was approximately 17 million light years away from his comfort zone, that I dissected something for the first time. It was a squid, and it was cool. Dillon watched as I cut into the squid’s side, peeled back its skin, and looked for the ink sack.

Recently, I asked my seventh grade daughter who is wonderfully obsessed with astronomy if I remembered something correctly about my childhood. “When I was in seventh grade, I remember my mom pulling the car over and us getting out to look at the Milky Way. There was a swirl of stars, intricate and compressed and brighter than anything I ever saw before and have ever seen since. Do I remember right—can you see the Milky Way from Earth?” I was thrilled that she said yes, that it’s possible, that I did see it. Whew! I’m going to count that side-of-the-road lesson as a little more science that I got. (Thanks, Mom!)

This past summer one of my closest friends from that blue/black plaid chapter of my life flew up to the Seattle area for work, and we figured out a way to have lunch together—Heather, me, and my three children. Before meeting her for lunch, I dug through what my husband calls “Katie’s Archives” in our very messy basement storage room to find my photo album from those years of my life. The saints I once prayed to were smiling down on me, because I found it. On the way to the box of scrapbooks was my box of old school things, including a bunch of essays that I’d written. I saved them because they were So Good. Turns out that my three children did not agree. They laughed at them. They laughed at my old school work that I was so proud of! It stung a little, but then I looked at it…and it was, well, laughable. It was the fact that this was work from my middle school years, not third or fourth grade—they were surprised at and amused by my utter lack of sophistication. Compared to the standards of today, my old essays were…cute.

Not shockingly, the conversation about the quality of our education came up at lunch. “You should have seen Mom’s writing! It was about reindeer striking in the North Pole!” They laughed and laughed. But Heather’s reply was exactly what I would have wished for: “You can’t blame her! That was what we got in Hawaii in the 1980s. We had no science for three years!” And then we all laughed at the shared joke that was our middle school education.

Getting back to the question of science, though, I think this lack of basic knowledge is also also freeing, in a way. I am relieved to not have the burden of knowing that I learned everything that I’m supposed to know as a child. My ignorance is turned into curiosity, and I’m glad to be able to stand in front of my three children and show them that it’s okay to be a little clueless, to admit you don’t know something, to ask questions even when other people might give the answer with a “duh” undertone. 

Forget those know-it-alls, I say. They are probably the ones whose patches were neatly sewn on, too.

Am I Brave Enough?

I received my last paycheck sometime in April 2007. I received my first child (thanks for catching her, Dr Nguyen) a few weeks later. Rather than researching tribes in Iran and the culture of Taiwan or writing up the history of the Air Force Reserve and meeting with clients as a defense analyst, I was breastfeeding and cooking, burping and cleaning, attending Music Together classes and baby & me swing classes. Add two healthy, energetic boys whose aptitude for filth upped my laundry quite a bit. Their inclination for sports had the odometer in my Suburban moving at an exponential pace.

It’s been a busy 12 and a half years.

Lately, I’ve noticed that my children don’t need me in the same ways as they used to. Rather than requiring my steady gaze and firm boundaries, they need rides and money. They will always need me–I know that, most minutes of the day–and I hope I will always be there for them. But they need to continue to grow their independence.

At the same time, I realize that I need to regain some independence. I need to nurture myself in deeper ways than lunching with friends, going for runs, walking my dogs, and being the CEO of a busy house. I have a BA and MA dusty from underuse, and energy and chutzpah to put to use.

Some months ago a little idea popped into my head after visiting a handful of high schools with my daughter. All these middle and high schools had cool global studies programs that made me think of my Peace Corps days, and of the great joy it’d be to travel with students to other countries. I realized that I wanted the job of the adviser for the eighth grade trip my daughter will go on next year to Peru. I see my daughter and her classmates bonding with teachers, learning information from them but also big life lessons.

And I thought: why not me?

So I’m thinking about it. I’m considering it. I’m imagining what my family’s life would look like if I worked full time. I’m beginning to figure out what I need to do to become a teacher, which is probably what I should have done a long time ago. I’m 43, feeling like I have many years ahead of me to teach and learn, grow and give, work hard and get a few rewards, too.

I’m just whispering this idea right now, testing it out, saying it out loud as I proofread this little slice of life which is really not tiny at all: I want to be a teacher.

Apple, Tree.

My daughter is in seventh grade. Twelve and a half. We’ve got what I think is a solid relationship. We have open, honest conversations about silly things (such as the latest scrunchy fad as well as complicated stuff, like how my Catholic upbringing causes a delay in getting “they, them” pronouns right, but I’m trying. We chat at length about my parents’ divorce and the ripple effects it still has on my life today. She confides in her friends’ struggles and I’m (age-appropriately) honest when I’m feeling sad or frustrated. Add to that the sweet joy that we share a lot of the same hobbies: reading, running, riding horses, and writing.

About that writing hobby.

I’ve not read a single word she’s written in two years, save for family cards where we all write a few kind, quick words and sign our names. Gone are the days when her teacher hands me her work at the parent-teacher conference during which she is home with a sitter. Gone are the days she proudly lets me read a book report or “seed story” over her shoulder; nowadays she does all of her work on her school computer, for which I do not have the password.

Each assignment has a different excuse. You didn’t read the book, Mom, you wouldn’t get it. This is a personal letter to the teacher, it’s private. Mom, you’ll read what I wrote and make suggestions to change it. There’s a part about our horse, Mom, and I don’t want you to cry. Sigh.

Last week after another rebuff, I confronted her. She sighed. I guess I just want my privacy, Mom. My deepest feelings are in these things I write. And you don’t want to share those deepest feelings with me? From the back seat, I heard a very small no.

It stung. Tears threatened, but I fought them and won. It’s normal for this age, I told myself. Give her the space. Respect the distance she wants. Keep the hope that she comes back around. Ok, I said to her. Ok.

But that apple doesn’t fall far from this tree. I’m writing this on a blog that my husband doesn’t know about. I guess sometimes we all want a little distance from the ones we wish would hold us the closest.

On Losing Baltaine

I started riding horses when I was in second grade because my big sister wanted to learn how, and I wanted to do everything she wanted to do. It turns out I loved it, and it turns out I was pretty good at it. For the next ten years, I rode any horse I could. I might have dreamed of expensive horses and the Olympics, but I knew my Army family could never afford one of those beautiful warmbloods that leapt over the highest fences with ease and grace. I listened to my teacher/nun as she told me not to covet what couldn’t be mine. And, mostly, I did.

But I dreamed about and doodled my own horse. It’d be a big gray horse, with a gorgeous, long forelock and a tail that fell like a waterfall. He’d have a sweet face and a big heart and rocking canter. And he’d be mine all mine.

I did 4-H and Pony Club and competed in any show I could during middle school and my first two years in high school. But when we moved to Washington, D.C., for my final two years in high school, there weren’t any affordable barns around. I stopped riding, went to college, lived abroad for some years. Then I came back to the U.S., went to graduate school, met my future husband, and got married.

I got pregnant the same month we started trying and when it came time for the gender-revealing ultrasound, I held my breath. “It’s a girl!” my doctor said. My first thought? I’m going to ride again!

Lorelei was in second grade when she had her first horseback riding lesson, and I waited a full year until I started riding again. I took lessons on the barn’s horses while my kids were in school. When I got on a horse, my adult self stayed on the ground. In some swirl of magic, I became the little girl version of myself, enthralled with cantering and jumping on the back of a horse and full of dreams of having her own horse.

After four years of riding and countless promises to my husband that we’d never own a horse, a big gray horse came into our barn. Baltaine. He was big and beautiful and dappled gray and for sale. My rational adult self was nowhere to be found. Giddy with want, I asked the head trainer if I could ride him. She obliged, crossing her fingers that my husband would bless the deal she knew I wanted. I floated around the ring on Baltaine, feeling like the child whose notebook margins were full of horses. I cried to my husband, “This is the horse I always dreamed about!” My daughter rode him a few weeks later and was equally in love.

And then, he surprised me. My husband said yes! Yes! I had a horse! Baltaine was mine! Oh, happy day! Oh, happy me!

I pretended he was Lorelei’s horse, but a 12 year old does not own a warmblood–he was mine on the papers and mine when the announcer called his name out in the shows. We shared him with another rider at the barn to help pay the bills for the first year we owned him, and I bided my time. I rode him on Tuesdays, and the other girls got him the other days. But the girl to whom we leased him would be going to college in two years, and then I’d have him half the time. And I secretly thought Lorelei would stop riding in high school and then (enter devious cackle here) he’d be mine, all mine.

I started sharing him with just Lorelei after about a year. I became more serious about riding and showed him on the first day of the show, because Lorelei didn’t like to miss school. I became that little girl, joy-filled and thrilled to be in the ring and under the watchful eye of a judge. I loved it all. I took my time on all the jumping courses, trying to squeeze out a few more seconds on the back of my sweet Baltaine. Some rounds were prettier than others, but they were all fantastic to the little girl inside my 40-ish year old body.

Partway through the summer, I decided that I was going to gift myself the joy of showing him without sharing him. I was going to put myself first and prioritize my sporting activities over Lorelei’s and my two soccer- and baseball-playing boys. For three days, it would be me and Baltaine.

But on Thursday, while making lunch at home, I got a phone call. It was the head trainer who had played match maker 18 months prior, calling me instead of sending her usual text.

“Kate? It’s Heidi,” she said. “I’m calling because…Baltaine stepped wrong. It doesn’t look good.”

“Oh. Do I need to come out?” I asked.

“Yes. Right now. Can you?” she asked.

“I’m on my way,” I said.

On the way out to the barn, the gravity of the situation fell on me, one layer at a time. I was not going to show my horse this weekend. I was going to say good-bye to my horse right now. I was not going to smile for the camera or memorize courses. I was going to see my horse drugged up so that he didn’t feel the pain from his leg. I wasn’t going to be hanging up blue ribbons. I was going to sit home and cry.

When I got there, my big, beautiful gray dream horse was standing, leaning up against a barn post. His front left leg was bandaged up–his hoof was covered and wrapped all the way up to his knee. They told me what had happened: The barn manager had been lunging him, and Baltaine was feeling frisky. He bucked big, and landed wrong. Just this once. Just all wrong. All the small bones between his foot and his ankle broke and he couldn’t support his own weight. I stood, holding his lead rope and rubbing his neck, playing with his long, white forelock, unsure what to do or what to think or how to react to this tragic change of plans. The vet showed me the x-ray and told me I had no choice: euthanizing Baltaine was the only option. Our trainer and the barn manager said how sorry they were. My husband stood on the side, unsure of what to do or say.

And so, I said good-bye to Baltaine. I thanked him for his patience, especially with Lorelei as she had made mistakes and he had covered them up. I thanked him for the lessons he taught us. I thanked him for being my very first horse, one that I thought I’d ride for the next ten years and one that I wished I’d ridden more.

And then I walked away.

At first, it seemed like I walked away empty-handed. With nothing but a broken, heavy heart. On the way to my car I had to stop and put my hands on my knees, gasping for breath through the sobs as Grief took over.

My rational adult self already realizes how lucky I was to own a horse for any amount of time–I get that I’m in the fortunate minority. I owned a big, gorgeous warmblood; for almost two years he was mine all mine. That rational adult self is proud of my daughter for not missing a week’s worth of riding–Lorelei jumped back into lessons on two different horses that are a good fit for her size and level.

But the little girl inside me is so very sad. If she stopped avoiding the barn, she’d just go to Baltaine’s empty stall and slide down into a heap of tears and cry her broken heart out. She just misses knowing he’d be there for her, a big gray horse with a long white forelock looking for her when she walked into the barn.

I just miss my sweet Baltaine.

My (Temporary) VW Camper

This summer was our second summer that was overflowing with activities. It’s a miracle we got the right boy to the right field at the right time with the right uniform, and the girl to the show with all the parts to the hoity-toity English show stuff. Our calender was filled to the brim with weekend-long baseball and soccer tournaments and horse shows. Some of these events required a night or two away; all of them involved a lot of waiting and hanging out in between classes or games. It left my husband and I wondering: should we get a camper?

Some friends of ours have one. A little blue vanagon. We’d grow a little green when they’d call out, “We’re going to go hang out in our camper!” while we baked in the sun in Port Townsend between games this past August. Their VW had that classic pop-up sleeping area perfect for napping. I heard there were a couple of adult beverages in the kitchenette. That thing was so stinking cute, and it seemed so stinking practical.

So, recently, we thought we’d give it a try. We rented one from a local and very cool company, Peace Vans Rental.

I picked our chosen camper up about a week ago and got the 30 minute run down of how it worked–how the key was required to open the gas cap, how the awning pulled out to basically make a front porch, how the front passenger seat swiveled around in the coolest way. I learned how to pull the table out, make the bench seat a bed and how to pop up the top to take a nap. Luckily the camper came with its own guidebook in case I forgot anything. The Peace Van lady dropped the key in my hand and, with a smile, said, “Have fun!”

We had no grand plans. There was no spot reserved at Deception Pass, nor did we plan on road tripping to Mount Rainier. A normal packed schedule of soccer games, horseback riding lessons, after school activities, and playdates lay before us. These usually-fine things were just a little more fun with our camper rental.

It turns out that my favorite things about the 1988 full Westfalia we got–named the Chilliwack–were the little things.

I loved the retro touches: The fact that the windows had to be cranked open and shut with more muscle than it takes to press the button on our regular, automatic windows. The kids howled when they tried this, grinning with delight! “It’s so hard!” “How funny!” they said to each other, taking turns in the front passenger seat when they first hopped in.

I had no idea how to work the radio, and I didn’t try very hard. Instead, I usually listened to nothing. Nothing! My boys decided they’d make their own songs up–some were funny, some were a little frightening, and some weren’t so bad at all!

I loved the archaic heating/cooling system. There were no dials, just a bunch of levers that you push to the left for cool and the right for heat. It was so far from the exact temperature of our modern SUVs. Instead, we were living in an “ISH” state–we aimed for warm-ish or cool-ish. Nothing spot-on, just ballpark temperatures which required patience, trial-and-error, and a little humor.

But my favorite part about it was what the Peace Vans Rental lady warned me about with a knowing smile: the Chilliwack doesn’t go very fast. It could get up to 55 or 60 mph on the highway, but if there were hills, well, all bets were off. As I putt-putted back north on I-5 that first day, and on highways to and from my children’s sporting events in later days, I felt relief. I was surprised to feel relieved that I couldn’t go very fast, that it was best if I just stayed with the slow folks on the right and went my own pace, not paying attention to the speed of anyone else. I felt an undeniable spark of joy in just doing my own thing, going my own speed, in my borrowed camper.

I returned the Chilliwack this morning. I traded the VW keys back for my modern SUV keys with its safer seatbelts and captain’s chairs that separate my boys a little more than a bench seat can. But as I dropped the key back in the Peace Vans Rental lady’s hand, I made a little promise to myself to remember what it felt like to putt-putt along, listening only to the motor, that a little muscle can make things happen, sometimes “enoughISH” is enough, and that going my own speed is what I should be doing from now on.

A Different Sort of Morning

It’s 7:31 AM on Sunday morning. There is not much normal about this morning.

Usually, my watch’s alarm beeps two or three times at 5:30 AM, and I roll out of bed, pull on sweat pants and a sweatshirt, then shoes and a jacket, reflector vest and flashlight, and I take my dog for a walk. I get up regardless of a child waking in the night, too few hours of sleep, or if it’s rainy and cold. This is how I always start my day.

But last night, I turned off my alarm: How long I would sleep, I wondered? The answer? 6:30! I still took the dog (and myself) out for our normal walk; I still needed the reflector vest because the mornings are pitch black out here, just north of Seattle. I still put in ear buds and listened to my audiobook.

When I got back from the walk, there were no bare-chested boys wrapped up in blankets waiting for me to return and waiting for the clock to turn to 7 AM, the time when they’re allowed to start watching TV on weekend mornings. There was no argument about whose turn it was to go first: was it Ben, who likes to watch sports highlights? Or Kiefer, who likes to watch Dude Perfect and Studio C? There was no boxer-and-sweatshirt wearing husband shuffling out of the bedroom, looking underslept and groggy. And there was no tween daughter to wake at 8 for her turn with the remote.

My family (well, all the humans) is all gone! I gave my blessing for my baseball-crazy boys to fly to the East Coast to see their favorite Nationals try to clinch the World Series. They left Saturday and return home tomorrow. My daughter is at a friend’s house.

And so, this morning is mine. I know I should say that I miss them, and if the morning lasted longer than a few hours or more than a single day, I might. But right now, I am savoring the silence. With the TV off, I can hear seagulls screech and the house creek and my keyboard slick softly with each letter I type. I can hear myself think.

How nice to hear myself think.

On Productivity…and Lunch

I just finished putting my youngest son’s room back together. Two painters were in there over the past few days, prepping then painting the walls. The carpet caught all of the extra tape and shavings and gunk from the painter’s shoes (and God knows what else my son dropped), so I gave it a good vacuum and swept along the edges where there is no rug.

The painter coated his walls with white–actually, “Marshmallow”–and then, to make his room less boring, stripes on three of the walls. But I saved the good stuff for myself: today I began the mural I promised him on the wall. I’m certainly not the most artistic person west of the Mississippi but I can hold my own. I’m simply copying the MLB logo over his bed. It’ll be painted in the colors of the stripes that run on the other three walls, so I’m thinking it’ll look pretty good as long as I can get the brim of the hat and the batter’s nose to stop looking like a duck’s bill.

Lest I be too productive, I just broke for lunch. While I cleaned and blue-taped the rectangle for the logo and sketched right onto his newly painted walls, my cauliflower roasted. I had a whole head in there, chopped up with olive oil, salt and pepper. Every twenty minutes or so, I broke to stir it up, so that the edges would be brown and crispy by the time I put them on my plate. I chopped the parsley, a wedge of lemon, and got out red pepper flakes.

And I might not get back to this mural until tomorrow. Luckily I left his bed sitting in the middle of the room, like a thrown for the little king he wishes he was.

Meanwhile, lunch for me. A pause between morning and afternoon, not that there seems to be much difference in the two chunks of time. They each have healthy parts (brisk walks, good meals) but they also have five or six errands or tasks that fall downhill to me. I’m the doer in the family, though in this pause I’m allowing myself a brief moment to think of the possibility where my life is not filled with random bits of tasks. Maybe, just maybe, there’s a chance that productivity could mean a whole lot more than cooking, cleaning, laundry, and a random mural here and there.