Of working moms. And dads.

Dear friends,

It’s been a short work week. And it’s been a long work week if you know what I mean. On this Thursday from the archive, I’m offering a reflection on the work-a-day world that reminds us it’s tough all over.

With gratitude {for Thursday, which is one step away from TGIF},

Joan, who stayed up until 2:00 am last night working on budget then, oy, dreamed about numbers all night long

Of Working Moms. And Dads.

First published June 24, 2009

I’ve said more than  few times I don’t talk about work in this space.

But I’m going to talk about it a little today because 1) it’s all I’m doing these days, and 2) I realized last night everybody’s work is pretty much the same.

I mentioned a few posts ago that I’m working on a special assignment that is requiring additional focus and time . . . time that is keeping me away from this space.  Without going into too much detail, let’s just say I transferred to a different division in my company.  So in addition to a new assignment, I’m learning a new product line.

Last night at dinner, Parker asked me how the new assignment is going.  I said “Fine.”  (For the record, I despise talking about work at home.)

Unsatisfied, he pressed for more detail and I demurred.  Finally, I realized what was really on his mind.

Perks.

I don’t work in an auto dealership, but if I did, Parker asked me the equivalent of “So, in your spare time, do you get to drive the cars?”

This teenage notion of the work-a-day world made me laugh out loud and all I could say in response is “I don’t have any spare time.”

“But what do you do all day?” he pleaded.

“Talk. Talk. Talk,” I said.  Then for good measure I added “Persuade. Persuade. Persuade.  It’s pretty simple, really.”

Mr. Mom chuckled this time.  “Sounds exactly like my job,” he noted.

The joke was lost on Parker.  All he could say is “Whadya mean?”

“Think about it,” Mr. Mom explained.  “Parker, time to get up.  Parker, have you fed the animals?  Parker, make your bed.  Parker, why don’t you put your laundry away?  Parker, mow the lawn or you won’t get your allowance. Talk and persuade.  All day long.”

And suddenly, I was glad I have my job and Mr. Mom has his.

I can talk a blue streak.  But I’m not nearly persuasive enough to threaten Mr. Mom’s job security.

What I did on my summer vacation.

Dear friends,

Since Mr. Mom once accused me of writing posts that sound like “summer vacation” essays, I thought I’d tell you what I actually did on my summer vacation, where summer vacation equals Memorial Day.

I sat in my favorite chair for a long time.

This chair in my master bedroom gets good light and is my favorite place to write. I worked on my next installment of The Mountain. It was the hardest one yet to write. I wasn’t feeling it. That’s the trouble with blogs. Like everything else in life, sometimes you enjoy them and sometimes they’re drudgery.

Then I laid on the sofa and watched television for most of the day. When I got bored by what was on television, I napped. Or looked out the window at the view.

Both were acceptable diversions on a lazy holiday.

I also helped Mr. Mom make a kickin’ pot of beef stew. And I ate two cupcakes, which means my cleanse took a hit. I’ll do better tomorrow.

I promise.

I also filed my nails and prepared a document for an early Tuesday morning meeting. There’s always chores. Even on holidays.

I got up at 6 am, so I kind of expected more from myself. But you know, the previous several days were a tad busy, what with all the graduating and celebrating and river canoeing we did. By the way, here’s a shot from our trek down the river on Saturday.

That’s Parker, one second after I should have snapped the photo at the apex of his rope swing. iPhone cameras weren’t made for action shots, I learned. Or for rivers, for that matter. I promptly put it back in a Ziploc bag and called it good.

So now you know how I spent my summer vacation. How did you spend yours? Please tell because, well . . . I’m curious.

With gratitude {for a long weekend with plenty of activity and the right amount of non-activity},

Joan, who is part over-achiever and part sloth depending on what day it is and what’s on television

The Mountain. {Part 7}

Author’s note: This story, at its essence, is about a mountain and the people who loved it. It is inspired by our experiences with the legal system, which are a matter of public record. However, I have fictionalized the details of this story  and the characters (except for my family), both for narrative convenience and for privacy reasons.  Also, I am not an attorney. If you are, and if you read this story and note that I have used the words “district court” when I should have said “appellate court,” well — perhaps, you should read a John Grisham novel instead. My point in telling this fictionalized account is not to discuss the finer points of the law, but to relate some of the life lessons learned by two ordinary people who were trying to achieve a modest dream and found themselves at the mercy of our nation’s legal system.

To read the previous installments, click here:

As the summer of 2006 drew to a close and we eased into fall, our family life resumed its regular rhythms and Jack continued to improve the road in his spare time and with the help of his friends Bob and Tom as they were available. Jack rented an excavator and managed to cut a road all the way through his property to the very top, which meant he and Mr. Mom could now travel back and forth between their properties.

Meanwhile, the Unfriendlys went haywire. We heard from Jack that Mrs. Unfriendly had told her housekeeper about our efforts to improve the road. She said “I know they’re going to get their road, but I’m going to make it cost as much as possible.” (Mrs. Unfriendly didn’t realize her housekeeper had a connection to Jack and word travels fast in a small town.)

In December of that year, we received a letter from Mrs. Unfriendly’s attorney which claimed, among other things, that we widened the historical road to 60 feet (not true), that we left debris by the side of the road that had become a haven for vermin (Jack had previously explained to Mrs. Unfriendly we planned to remove all debris, but that clean-up is the last step in road building), and the road was an “ecological disaster.” Our attorney responded by refuting their width and disaster claims, assuring them we would clean-up debris upon completion of the road, and asserting our legal right to access our easement and improve the road.

We made another family camping trip to our mountain in the summer of 2007, but compared to the previous year, it was non-eventful except that shortly before we left home, we received another letter from Mrs. Unfriendly’s attorney. This one reiterated her previous claims but said the road had been widened to 80 feet (again, not true).  Our attorney again responded by refuting their claims and asserting our rights. We never ran into the Unfriendlys that summer, but we noticed they had installed a motion-detection camera near their gate. We smiled for the camera every time it snapped our photo driving up the road to our property.

In the mean time, Mr. Mom had a hunch about a detail that – if he could pull it off –  might get the Unfriendlys to back off. As part of closely examining all the deeds after the Unfriendly’s first letter, Mr. Mom and Jack noticed that the Unfriendlys purchased their property without purchasing all of their mineral rights. After a little sleuthing, they figured out that fifty percent of the Unfriendly’s mineral rights were still held by a distant corporation that used to own land in the area. Mr. Mom did some research and tracked down the executive who managed the company’s mineral rights. After a few weeks time and for an investment of only a few thousand dollars, Mr. Mom and Jack formed a limited liability mining corporation and purchased the remaining half of the mineral rights to all of the Unfriendly’s property. We figured those mineral rights were a big negotiating stick that we could use to our advantage at a later date if Mrs. Unfriendly decided to make good on her threats.

Our Christmas present that year was a “cease and desist” letter from a new attorney the Unfriendlys had hired. Since it was winter, there was no work happening anyway. Our attorney told us we “absolutely had a right” to our easement and to improving the road, and responded similarly to the Unfriendly’s new attorney.

Throughout the spring, our attorney continued to talk with the Unfriendly’s attorney. The Unfriendly’s attorney admitted to ours that our easement was valid but continued to relay false claims from the Unfriendlys about the scope and use of the road.

Later that year, the Unfriendly’s attorney suggested mediation. As we understood their offer, the results would not have been legally binding and the Unfriendlys would be allowed to select the mediator. Because it would have cost us several thousand dollars to go through the process, and because we would not have been able to hold the Unfriendlys to any agreement reached, we declined. (After all, Junior had already agreed once to our road improvement plan then reneged.) But, we volunteered to sit down with the Unfriendlys and work out a solution. We suggested that we would be willing to talk about the ownership of their mineral rights as part of the solution. They declined our offer.

In the summer of 2008, as we planned our annual trek to the mountain, Jack offered us accommodations in his sister’s cabin. As the kids grew older, they had gotten increasingly bored with campfires as entertainment. Plus, I had arranged to be off work for two weeks and Mr. Mom planned to spend his days driving Jack’s dump truck and helping Jack and Bob on the road. Staying in the cabin would give the kids and me easy access to both the swimming hole and the highway (thus, Pueblo) if we got bored.

Despite the lure of shopping and dining opportunities in Pueblo, I spent a couple of days on the mountain watching Mr. Mom and Jack and Bob work. Jack drove a loader and Mr. Mom drove a dump truck and Bob drove a bulldozer. Together, they moved and spread some 800 tons of decomposed limestone (dirt to us laymen) to improve the road. Jack used his loader to dig the limestone from the side of our mountain and drop it in the dump truck. After Mr. Mom dropped a load of dirt, Bob moved in with the bulldozer to smooth things out. It was a fascinating process to watch, especially for girl who never once considered how roads got made. Because the road was too narrow for the dump truck to turn around, Mr. Mom spent most of the week looking over his shoulder and backing down the road with his loads of dirt. I rode with him once and found the whole thing harrowing, given much of the road has sheer cliffs on one side.

Step 1: Digging the dirt.

Step 2: Dropping the dirt in the dump truck.

Step 3: Backing down the mountain. Note the width of the road compared to the truck, which is 8 feet. The Unfriendlys claimed we widened the road to 60 feet, then 80 feet.

Step 4: Dumping the dirt.

Step 5: Smoothing the dirt.

A smooth dirt road.

Earlier, during a long hike in our canyon, we had discovered a giant mound of decomposed granite (gravel to us laymen), which would provide a ready top layer for the final improvements to our road. Mr. Mom and Jack would have to cut in a new road on our property to access nature’s stash, but it seemed like a good tradeoff for free gravel. So far, except for time and labor – which on Jack’s end was extensive but free – our mountain provided its own resources to improve the road. We shared the gas expense with Jack, which for heavy equipment is not inconsequential, and attorney’s fees, which at this point were still modest.

Now that Jack had a rough road to the top of his property, he set up a small camper and he and his wife, Mindy, spent weekends there while Jack worked on the road. Better yet, Jack had built an outhouse – a very nice outhouse by outdoor privy standards – and he invited us to use it whenever we needed. It was a five-minute drive up the road from our favorite meadow and I found myself spoiled by the convenience. I bugged Mr. Mom to build us one and to make sure it was as free of spiders and odors as Jack’s.

During our trip to the mountain that year, conversations between the Unfriendly’s attorney and ours continued.  Their attorney repeatedly relayed claims we knew were false, so our attorney decided to drive the road for himself. (The road had been improved enough at this point that his two-wheel drive vehicle handled the road just fine.) Afterwards, our attorney told us he was “outraged” by the Unfriendly’s false claims. He told the Unfriendly’s attorney what he had seen with his own eyes and advised him to restrain his clients from harassing us.

Jack told Mr. Mom he had bought a sawmill and was thinking of setting it up on his mountain property. The two of them talked about how they could use it to build their cabins.  We seemed to be getting closer and closer to our dream. Mr. Mom thought he might be able to start building the very next summer.  As our 2008 summer vacation on the mountain came to a close, Mr. Mom and I reflected on what a blessing Jack’s friendship had been and how – though it had been slow going over the previous four years – we never could have managed to restore the road without him.

Even though we avoided seeing Mrs. Unfriendly on our vacation that year, Jack continued to have the occasional encounter with her and she was nasty every time. One day while he was working, she told him she planned to put a stop to the road improvements. Jack reminded her we were just proceeding according to our agreement with Junior. “Those verbal agreements don’t mean anything in a court of law,” she retorted. Jack was stunned, and more than a little fed up. “Oh, I see,” he said, “so you intend to lie about it?” She stated again that verbal agreements were meaningless, then added “These Pueblo attorneys won’t do anything, so by God I’m going to Denver to get me an attorney who’ll do something about it!”

To be continued . . .

The graduate.

Dear friends,

Mr. Mom and I spent Friday and Saturday wrapped up in the pomp and circumstance that goes along with having a graduate in the house.

We cleaned. We decorated. We cooked. We celebrated. We hugged. And, with Mr. Mom as my witness, nobody cried. We were all proud of me for that one.

Even though I held it together, Kate and Parker were feeling a little sentimental. They asked for this photo of the two them together after I spent a good bit of time on portraits of Kate.

I decided a distraction would do me some good so I spent most of Friday and Saturday on party prep. Nothing keeps a mother on top of her game like a milestone party.

I made cupcakes and cupcake toppers:

And I got all crafty on the party table, making a tablecloth, a pennant banner, and a sign.

By the time it was all over, I think Kate felt special.  And — since she won a flat-screen television at a lock-in party after graduation– she felt pretty lucky, too.

So do Mr. Mom and I.

We couldn’t be prouder of this girl of ours.

With gratitude {for a daughter who makes parenting a snap},

Joan, who, along with Mr. Mom, is taking a dozen or so teenagers floating on the Meramec River today and can’t think of a better way to celebrate Memorial Day than in the company of a crew of pretty cool kids

Love is a verb.

Dear friends,

The view from my friend’s back porch in Oklahoma.

I got home late last night from my trip home.  It made my heart ache and it made my heart full.

As I was standing outside St. Catherine’s Church a few minutes before the funeral, the father of my friend Janet passed me on the sidewalk. He’s been divorced from Janet’s mother for many years now, but he looked as heartbroken as anyone. He gave me a big hug and said “How are you doing, Joan-Marie?”

Without thinking, I said the first thing that popped into my head: “I’m happy to be back in the place where people call me Joan-Marie.”

And so it was that in less than 24 hours, I hugged half my hometown, cried a few tears, tried to follow along with a Catholic rosary service and funeral, whispered and giggled under my breath with the Js on a church pew as if we were 17 again, caught up with former neighbors and friends and teachers, told  Janet’s children how proud their mother was of them, snapped photos at the burial as if it was a class reunion, gave thanks during the Lord’s prayer for all the souls around me that I’ve loved for so many years, pigged out on the first decent Mexican food I’ve had in a year, and stood on the back porch of my friend’s house and breathed in the Oklahoma prairie that calms me.

It was a whirlwind trip, made better by the fact that Kate went with me and did all the driving. She also chose the playlist and John Mayer’s “Love is a verb” seemed an apropos anthem for our pilgrimage. All that driving and talking and hugging and crying and laughing and whispering and praising and photographing and eating and the breathing, too — that was our love in action.

I’m tired today from all the loving. But I’ve got a lot more to do because Kate graduates tonight.

So I’m off — to love us all right through it.

With gratitude {for these days the Lord hath made},

Joan-Marie, who knows you can always go home

Never been to heaven.

Dear friends,

Since I’m back in my hometown today (unfortunately, to attend a funeral), I’m offering an encore presentation of an essay about living in my favorite little town.

I’m feeling nostalgic. And teary, as you might imagine. I think this will perk me up.

With gratitude {for happy memories},

Joan, who’s glad to be home, even for a day

Never been to heaven.

First published May 10, 2009.

I get a strange feeling sometimes that I can’t quite explain.

In an instant, time rolls back 30 years and I’m transported. Wait, that’s not exactly right because 30 years ago I was precisely where I am now. It’s more like time doesn’t exist, the years and miles never intervened, and I am transfixed in a place where I’ve always been.

It’s not quite deja vu, because instead of feeling a compelling sense of familiarity or repeated experience, I feel an odd sense of time standing still. It’s not that I’ve experienced the moment in the past, but more like the moment never passed.

In December 1978, I turned 16. A few months later, my mother and father pooled their savings to buy me a 1968 Mustang with a price tag of $900. With a 289 engine and a three-speed on the floor, my little pea-green, notchback pony was a fast ride. The only problem was it took me months to figure out the clutch. During most of the summer of 1979, I could be seen killing my car on hills, railroad tracks and at stop signs all over Mayberry. My neighbor Steve, who I mention often in this space, was at that time my friend Steve. And after a few weeks of seeing me repeatedly pop the clutch, he nicknamed my car “the Frog.” I didn’t get it at first but then he explained: it’s green and it hops around town.

Like most 16-year-olds with wheels of their own, I spent every spare moment in the Frog, often accompanied by the Js. When gas shot up to 50 cents a gallon, my mother tried to put a moratorium on my excessive driving, but I somehow found a way to drag Main more often than not. And somewhere along the way, I developed a dangerously leaden foot.

One of my friends dated a boy who lived just a few doors north from the home I live in now on Pecan Street. And one evening while cruising in the Frog with the Js, we decided to drive by his house after a Sonic run. For reasons I don’t now recall, I cruised down Pecan at 80 miles an hour. A slight crest in the road just south of the boy’s home sent us airborne. Back then, nobody wore seat-belts, so a split second after our fannies landed back in our seats, our drinks landed on our heads after having splashed off the Frog’s headliner.

Some days when I sit on my porch and watch the lazy traffic roll past Magpie Manor, I try to imagine what I would do if a car full of young girls drove down my street at three times the legal speed. At those moments, I feel alarmingly old.

But sometimes, when I’m driving my current low-slung coupe with its quick clutch and six-speed manual transmission, the strange feeling of time standing still envelops me.

Once it happened on a snowy night while driving home from work. At a stop sign two blocks south of my house, the heel of my sling-back pump caught on the floor mat and I accidentally popped the clutch. With my left hand on the steering wheel and my right hand on the stick-shift, I was suspended in a moment of silence after killing my engine. There was no one else on the street. It was just me, lulled in the moonlit hush of a town taking refuge indoors on a winter night, watching the faint sweep of snowflakes on my windshield. And in that hypnotic moment when I didn’t even breathe, I was not 46 years old with a husband and two kids awaiting my arrival at home. I was 16, and stopped at the intersection between my mother’s home and the 30 years that would carry me to big white house on Pecan Street.

Last week it happened on the long stretch of blacktop that runs north from Tulsa to Mayberry. I was driving home after Fleetwood Mac and it was nearly midnight. I rarely listen to music in the car, but in my post-concert exuberance, I turned on the radio and found it was already tuned to a ‘70s station. The music brought back memories of the many days and nights I burned up that same highway in the Frog, including one late night when curiosity got the best of me and I pressed the accelerator all the way to the floor until my speedometer was pegged.

As that memory flooded my mind, it crowded out my better sense. And inexplicably, an old favorite song — Never been to heaven — came on the radio. I rolled down my window, turned up Three Dog Night, shifted into sixth gear, and pressed the accelerator all the way down to the floor until my speedometer was pegged.

I’ve never been to heaven. But I am living — deliriously and dreamily — in a place called Oklahoma.

RIP, Carolyn B.

Dear friends,

I learned Monday night that one of my dearest friends just lost her mother.

You might have guessed by now that I’m not fully recovered from losing my own mother, so my heart goes out to my friend Janet. (Honestly, I think you never “fully recover” from losing your mother. The loss is too great and I know I will feel it until the end of my days.)

Janet is one of the Js — four women I’ve been friends with since grade school. In many ways, my friends’ mothers were like surrogate mothers to me. Each of them, in their unique ways, served as important role models and taught me valuable lessons.

I always adored Carolyn, but I grew in my appreciation for her as I matured. In my youth, I appreciated her because her home was always open and Joan-Marie was always welcome.  As an adult, I grew to appreciate her opinions and sensibilities as a mother, grandmother and woman of the world.

Carolyn was well-read and her opinions about world affairs were informed. She had a dry sense of humor and, politically, we were often of the same mind and always of the same party. (We loved to sneak away from everybody else and talk Democratic politics.) Carolyn divorced late in life and — after decades of being a stay-at-home mother — she dusted herself off and entered the workforce. I admired her tenacity and resilience to not only endure, but to thrive in the midst of a difficult transition.

Long before I started blogging, I authored an annual Christmas newsletter that lampooned the content typical to most family newsletters. Carolyn was my biggest fan and a loyal reader, going so far as to write the only fan letter I ever received.  I always had the sense Carolyn was rooting for me from afar.

I’ll be heading home this evening so I can attend Carolyn’s funeral tomorrow. When my mother died, the Js rallied around me and were a much-needed and treasured source of support. I wouldn’t think of not doing the same for my friend Janet.

No one teaches us how to lose our mother, and yet it is one of life’s most difficult and sorrowful lessons. For me, just hearing that somebody else thought my mother was special meant the world to me. Carolyn was special to the Js and we’ll all be there to make sure Janet knows.

With gratitude {for the women who shaped me — the Js — and the mothers who shaped us — Carolyn, Pat, Betty, Sue and Colleen},

Joan, who thinks the best initial of all is J

Carolyn B. loved to sew matching outfits for the Js’ daughters. Kate is the little munchkin on the left, circa 1993.

The epidemic.

Dear friends,

One of the most fascinating things about writing a blog is discovering the search terms that cause people to stumble upon my site.

I had no idea when I wrote two posts early on mentioning Tina Fey that nearly every day someone would visit Debt of Gratitude as a result. “Tina Fey” is the number one search term on my site. “Tina Fey wallpaper” is number two. (I can’t explain why anybody is searching for Tina Fey wallpaper. I can, however, explain my interest in both the actress and the wallcovering.)

Lately, though, some odd search terms have popped up. Saturday it was “the epidemic of Mr. Moms.”  Really? There’s an epidemic? Not where we live. Not where we’ve ever lived. In fact, in all our married life, we’ve only known one other couple with a stay-at-home dad. And don’t get me started on my reaction to comparing a parenting choice to a disease.

Then yesterday, a search for “places to make pottery in Massachusetts” led a reader to me. I’ve written about places. And pottery. And Massachusetts. But not all three in the same post. I bet the reader was really disappointed in what I had to offer.

However, somebody else also stumbled across my site yesterday as a result of a search for “freckles.” I mentioned Kate’s freckles recently in a post about her prom photos and, who knows, maybe that reader got just what he/she was looking for.

You know what NOBODY searches for? Gratitude. Appreciation. Gratefulness. Thankfulness.

If there’s an epidemic happening out there, I’d say it’s a dearth of gratitude — which, as you know by now, is EXACTLY why I started this site and what I attempt to focus on — no matter how weakly or obliquely — every day.

So, yeah, it’s ironic that the very thing nobody searches for is exactly what I have to offer.

I’m going to keep beating my drum anyway. You never know when gratitude is going to trend.

And then, baby, I’m the number one Google search result. I can feel it.

With gratitude {for mysterious algorithms that bring readers searching for “highschool black shoes for girls” to my humble site},

Joan, who appreciates every single reader, every single day

The Mountain. {Part 6}

Author’s note: This story, at its essence, is about a mountain and the people who loved it. It is inspired by our experiences with the legal system, which are a matter of public record. However, I have fictionalized the details of this story  and the characters (except for my family), both for narrative convenience and for privacy reasons.  Also, I am not an attorney. If you are, and if you read this story and note that I have used the words “district court” when I should have said “appellate court,” well — perhaps, you should read a John Grisham novel instead. My point in telling this fictionalized account is not to discuss the finer points of the law, but to relate some of the life lessons learned by two ordinary people who were trying to achieve a modest dream and found themselves at the mercy of our nation’s legal system.

To read the previous installments, click here:

The swimming hole.

If you’ve never hiked a mile up a steep mountain road that has turned to slime in the pouring rain while wearing a bathing suit and flip-flops – well, I can tell you unreservedly that you haven’t lived an adventurous life.

And, unfortunately, that’s exactly what I found myself doing near the end of our two-family vacation on the mountain. Walking uphill on rocky mountainous terrain in flip-flops is difficult on a dry day. In pouring rain when the dirt has turned to mud, it’s darn near impossible. You’ve seen the jungle scene in “Romancing the Stone,” right? Well I was about as prepared for my trek through the wild as Joan Wilder (Kathleen Turner) was. And on that day, Mr. Mom wasn’t looking nearly as cute as Michael Douglas.

Sandy and her family had been smart enough to wear water shoes with rubber treads, so they weren’t doing too bad. Lloyd had on leather Oxfords. They had slick bottoms and they would soon be ruined, but at least his shoes stayed on his feet. Mr. Mom and Parker had on athletic shoes so they managed to keep a strong pace. Only Kate and I were struggling. Kate, because she wasn’t used to the terrain and me, because I was so darn out of shape. We both slipped and fell and moaned and cursed our way up the first half of the mountain until she finally caught a groove and started outpacing me. (I kept having to stop and grab my knees because both my legs and lungs were burning from the altitude and the incline.)

And just when I thought I had it the worst, Sandy and Jeff’s youngest son had a total emotional breakdown. He threw a doozy of a fit, just like I wanted to do. He cried and screamed and flopped in the mud and refused to take another step. Jeff picked up his screaming son and hoisted him on his shoulders, picked up his melting bag of ice, and continued to hike up the mountain, albeit much more slowly, while his child screamed in his ears and held a death-grip on his forehead. “My god,” I thought to myself, “if that were me, I’d run screaming into the woods and leave Mr. Mom to care for our children for the rest of their lives.”

Despite Jeff’s extra load, he managed to out-pace me and I soon found myself alone on the road. Everybody had left me behind and I couldn’t even hear voices anymore. I had made it to White Rock Hill and the stupid mud and limestone was so slippery I was sliding out of my sandals as my sandals simultaneously slid off the rocks. I put my flip-flops back on my muddy feet, turned sideways, and tried to walk uphill the way an Alpine skier does using exaggerated, knee-high side steps.

The sun was setting and even though I was tired and hurting, I knew I had to keep pushing or I’d be just as wet and miserable – with the added bonus of being alone in the dark. I felt really sorry for myself. I wondered if anyone would care if I cried. I once again bent over to grab my knees and catch my breath when I heard a noise behind me. I turned to look over my hip and caught a glimpse of a stunning sunset. I stood up, turned around, and gave myself over to the stillness of the pouring rain while a blazing red sun dipped between two blue-grey mountains framed by the tall green pines that lined our mountain road.

It sounds crazy – but I had an epiphany at that moment. I was tired and I was hungry and I was scared and I was angry — and yet I was in one of the world’s most beautiful places watching an amazing sunset. It occurred to me that if I was at home, listening to rain and watching a gorgeous sunset out my picture window, I’d be saying how gloriously lucky I was. Did a roof really make that much difference in my life? Why was I afraid? Why was I angry?

Suddenly, I wasn’t any more. I was alone in the rain, standing tall and letting it pour over me. I took off my muddy flip-flops and rinsed them in the rain. I alternated standing on one foot while rinsing the other foot in the rain. I held my head back and closed my eyes and let the rain wash my hair off my face. I put my sandals back on and continued up the mountain in peace.

By the time I made it to our campsite, it was almost completely dark and I could see the light of a lantern inside each tent. The voices inside sounded calm. I took off my sandals, unzipped the door of our tent, and stepped inside. My whole family and Lloyd, who had come back to a soaked tent, were waiting inside for me. They had changed into dry clothes and had retrieved leftover cold pizza out of the cooler for dinner. Mr. Mom held up a blanket and I changed clothes, then sat down to eat the slice of pizza they saved for me. I was so hungry it tasted even better than it did the night before.

The thunder grew louder and what had been a steady rain turned into a gully washer. But we were dry and safe inside our tent. Kate pulled out a pack of Uno and the five of us played cards by the light of our lantern. The thunder and rain on our tent was so loud we had to yell to hear each other, but we shouted, then laughed at our shouting, and spent the rest of the evening enjoying our game as if being huddled together in a tent during a thunderstorm in the wilderness was something we did regularly.

Boys were made for mountains.

The next day turned out dry. As did the next. By the afternoon of the second dry day, Mr. Mom walked down the mountain to check on the state of the road and his truck, which we had abandoned just beyond the Unfriendly’s gate. The road was drying up nicely and Mr. Mom figured he could drive back up. As he got closer to his pickup, Mr. Mom realized he had company. Mrs. Unfriendly and Junior and an older man were standing nearby.

“Do you have any idea how long it takes to grow a tree?” Mrs. Unfriendly snapped at Mr. Mom as he walked up. She pointed to a small tree with about a two-inch diameter trunk that had been pushed over when Jack scraped the road. Mr. Mom had heard from Jack that she was unhappy about the road improvements so he wasn’t surprised. “You want a tree? Mr. Mom responded. “I’ll give you tree.”  He meant it sincerely, as an offer to replace whatever perceived loss was upsetting her, but she considered him a smart aleck and got even angrier. She pointed to the man Mr. Mom didn’t know and introduced him as her new husband. “He’s a California real-estate developer and he says you can’t just do this!”

Junior stepped in and tried to calm his mother. He took Mr. Mom aside to talk privately. He pulled out some maps and suggested his mother would calm down if Mr. Mom would agree to re-route the road away from their gate and around the back of another neighbor’s cabin. Mr. Mom pointed out that he didn’t have an easement through the other neighbor’s property so that idea wasn’t feasible. He pointed out that road work had begun and Jack had stuck to the historic road except for the deviations around Mrs. Unfriendly’s meadow at their request. As Junior and Mr. Mom talked, Mrs. Unfriendly got angrier and louder in her conversation with her husband. She finally shouted at Mr. Mom “I’ll tell you what – you might go up that mountain, but Jack never will!”

Mr. Mom excused himself and drove up the mountain. It was our last day and we had a lot of packing to do. Plus, Jack had promised to drop by and say goodbye. He ended up bringing his friend Tom and another friend Bob, both of whom had helped him work on the road. We had some thawed catfish still in our cooler and Mr. Mom fried it in a cast iron skillet over the campfire for our lunch. We sat around the campsite enjoying our fish, talking about our adventurous week (and record rainfall), and commiserating over Mr. Mom’s encounter with Mrs. Unfriendly. Mr. Mom and Jack talked about her at length and finally concluded that she had been unused to travel on the road for so long (and happy to have absentee neighbors), that nothing about our presence and the restoration of the road would make her happy.

As the afternoon wound down, the sky started turning dark again and Jack suggested we’d better get down the mountain before it started raining. We broke camp, loaded up, and headed to Pueblo for a dinner out and a night in a hotel.

We had no sooner driven into Pueblo when a fierce storm hit. We ran inside our hotel and checked in, but shortly after we arrived in our room, the power went out for several hours. It seemed a fitting end to our wild week on the mountain.

To be continued . . .

Houston, we have a success!

Dear friends,

I’ve been in Houston on business since Thursday. I’m leaving this morning for a whirlwind trip to Austin before I fly home early Sunday morning.

I have so much I’d like to tell you but I’m light on sleep on long on scurrying, so I’m going to share three quick things before I hit the road.

  1. I wouldn’t live here for any amount of money. The traffic is even more insane than I remembered. When a highway is 10 lanes wide and traffic is still stopped, that’s a sign, people. It’s a a sign there’s no room for you, and you should stay away. Honestly, there’s no job on earth that would convince me to sign up for this flavor of crazy on a permanent basis.
  2. Those shoes I bought to be comfortable? Turns out they weren’t. At all.  And since they were ugly to boot, I was two ways of uncomfortable all day. It’s a tragedy when your feet hurt and it’s not even in the name of style. I’ll never make that mistake again. Next time my feet hurt, I’ll at least look good.
  3. NASA is four-million kinds of cool. You won’t even believe what I got to do! I got to have lunch in the NASA test kitchen, where I ate real space mission food and had the opportunity to ask their scientists and astronauts every crazy food preparation question that popped into my head (and there were plenty, trust me, because my dream job is to work in a test kitchen). I got to sit in the cockpit of the space shuttle simulator and flip switches and do other stuff I can’t name because it’s all so complicated who knows what I was even doing. I got to spend a half hour in the mission control room for Apollo 13 — the REAL mission control room (not a mock up), which also served as the set for the movie of the same name. I got to hear all kinds of insider stories about Apollo 13 flight director Gene Krantz (who, interestingly, looks a whole lot like Ed Harris, who played him in the movie).  I got to walk around the current mission control room for the International Space Station and watch the mission in real time. I got to go places where only people like Tom Cruise and Steven Tyler and Bono are allowed to go on their “behind the scenes” tours. (I know this because my guide mentioned the names of other visitors she had accompanied.)

My view from the Space Shuttle cockpit.

So, despite the traffic, despite the humidity which I haven’t even ranted about, despite the ugly and uncomfortable shoes, Houston was a major success and a big reason why it doesn’t suck to be me. All things considered, there are way worse ways to earn a living. Take it from this working mother.

With gratitude {for the amazingly smart people at NASA who make me proud to be an American},

Joan, who wanted so badly to sneak a piece of the NASA china in her bag but didn’t because, you know, how rude is that? But, oh my, it was tempting!